Recently, I had the great pleasure of meeting Adina Porter at an party in Hollywood. I remember seeing her first as her character "Lettie Mae" in True Blood and since have seen photos online of her, but I was amazed, when I met her, at how she transforms herself from the exquisitely beautiful woman she is into the drunken, self-obsessed and crazy Lettie Mae Thornton on True Blood. After talking together for a while, I asked her if she would be willing to grant an interview with The Vault and she said, "Yes."
When investigating her career in preparation for this interview, I was amazed by the amount of work she has done. Not only is she an experienced actress in Hollywood, but she also won an Obie Award (Off-Broadway Theater Award) in New York for her performance of Venus Hottentot in Suzan Lori Park’s play, "Venus."
We will see her again in Season 5 of True Blood, but her newest project is HBO's "The Newsroom" which looks like it's going to be a really good and interesting show. It premieres in June and there is more about it and a video of the trailer at the end of this interview.
Adina as Lettie Mae and as herself.
She started her acting lessons at an early age and even had Butterfly McQueen as a teacher when she was in grade school. I'm sure most of our readers will remember Butterfly as "Prissy" in Gone With the Wind. Adina told me that she didn’t know her then, she said,
" I had no idea about Gone with the Wind, all I knew was that she was a church member who had a really high squeaky voice. I’m talking about elementary school. It wasn’t really formal, it was more like dance class, acting class and cotillions; just activities. I didn't know who she was until quite later and after church were those classes, that was it."
She is originally from New York, and after a teacher in Junior high school, Mrs. Simmons, suggested she apply to the famous High School of Performing Arts, she got in. I asked her if she was one of those "FAME" People, referring to the film by the same name, and she replied with a very proud, "YES, I'm one of those fame people."
After High School she attended SUNY Purchase and told me how she moved on from there to do acting parts in New York:
I was already in New York and SUNY Purchase like Julliard, like NYU, are called league of professional schools and there are auditions where you audition for different agencies to get an agent. So, I auditioned and Alan Willick & Associates decided to sign me and, while their name has changed many times over the years, I’m still basically with the same agents; lucky, lucky me. They would call you up and tell you to be here at certain times and here’s the material you need to prepare. I can’t even remember how I got the material, but in those days you prepared a monologue, one classical and one contemporary and you auditioned. I would audition for Manhatten Theater Club, Playwrights Horizon and The Public and do stage readings and basically you worked for free, but you were getting known and [receiving] experience, working on your craft and that’s what I did.
I was in NY, Hartford stage in Connecticut, a SAG (Screen Actor's Guild) job in Texas working with Bill Irwin for American Masters. I also got a chance to work with Arthur Miller doing “The Ride Down Mt. Morgan” at Williamstown. And Williamstown is a theater camp and I got to work there with people like Patty Clarkson and Philip Seymour Hoffman. You’re up there in the woods reading plays and doing stage readings at night. You might have gotten a stipend and free food and board, but who cares, you’re working with someone like Arthur Miller and every once in a while he would say something like “Then Marilyn [Monroe] said...” and there was a hush in the room.
Here's my Q&A with Adina:
How did you come to Hollywood?
I was up there doing a piece there and by chance I happened to be in my dorm room when I got a call from my agent who said, we think it’s time for you to go out to LA and start audition for TV and Film.
What year was this?
This was 1996. I think it’s very interesting or it was a sign or something that I happened to be in my dorm room when the call came through. I was married at the time any my husband was in Senegal following his career choice because he was a journalist and I remember emailing him about it asking him what he thought. He said I’m doing good work and I have another year here in Senegal and so you go off to LA and then after a year we’ll be back in Brooklyn. I was supposed to be out here in Los Angeles for a year, but I’m still here.
So it worked out then?
I was bi-coastal for the first four years going back and forth to NY and Senegal and then in 1999, we broke up and I became full time in 2000.
It’s pretty amazing how many roles you’ve done and how many different TV series you’ve been in. Do you enjoy playing character roles, or would you prefer to find a starring role on TV or in film? Most of your work has been done on TV vs. film. Do you prefer TV?
I think TV is easier to get. I like working. I just auditioned yesterday for an independent film that Forrest Whittaker is producing and I did The Social Network with Aaron Sorkin and I think that there can be so many interesting independent films, but I think they are kind of like theater. You need to make your name somewhere else for someone to come out and seek you out or, do the rounds of these little films made up with interesting people and then you can find a gem of an independent film. I have auditioned for major motion pictures.
I know Lettie Mae and when I saw pictures of you not on True Blood I asked “is that the same person?” You seem to become her. What kind of an actor are you. Are you a method actor?
I guess I would definitely say that I’m “method.” If I’m going out on an audition I have to check what shoes I’m wearing because the shoes have to match the character. If you don’t feel grounded in your shoes, it’s going to mess up your performance.
For every job you get how many auditions do you have to do? Is it second nature now, does it upset you if you don’t get them?
Certain roles upset me if I don’t get them, but the ratio has definitely gotten better over the years. I remember auditioning so many times for a show like NYPD Blue or Law & Order and not getting them and then finally booking so, the ratio has gone from 20:1 to 3:1 to get a job. It’s definitely gotten better.
How difficult is it to deal with the rejection? Or, is it all part of the job?
That’s a really good question. I can definitely see personal growth in that I used to tie my “self worth” with having an acting job and that’s a really dangerous thing to tie your “self worth” to when you have no control over it. I've definitely gotten better in that respect and I can definitely go further, but that doesn't make for a very good spouse and mother, but I work hard on keeping that in check. I have grown to a point where I can say; well if I didn't get this job, that’s OK because I’m means I was supposed to be available for another job. Just then, Adina’s husband chimes in that if you don’t get a job, it’s not necessarily about you, but about the project. Adina then said, there’s a great line from Hamlet that says, “The play’s the thing.” However, every once in a while I do an audition where, my manager has this expression, "where your throw up on your shoes." It’s so bad, whoa, where did that come from, I just went back 20 years. [That's when] it’s upsetting because the people in the room put you in a bad place. I just chalk that up to amazing sports athletes, sometimes even Coby Bryant has a bad night. What I like about that is that it means that I’m not a robot, it’s human it happens and sometimes it doesn't and you just let go.
What was your audition for True Blood like? What do you think you did that got you the part of Lettie Mae?
Sure, I remember about that. [LAUGHS] The casting people are Junie Laurie Johnson and Libby Goldstein who I had auditioned for many, many times and now have hired me for GIA, NYPD Blue, so they were fans. So, whenever you audition for people who like your work, even if you don’t get the job, the goal is to just do above the board work for them so that you stay in their good graces.
For independent films, I’ll look up who the director is because I might get a clue on what he might be looking for by seeing what kind of work he’s done, but I didn’t look up Alan Ball. I don’t remember if I knew his name. It being HBO and Junie Laurie Johnson, I knew that I had to prepare to do my best work no matter what. One of the ways I keep the audition process in check is not Googling who you’re going in to see because you can get intimidated by reading for people who win Oscars. So, I didn't know that walking into the room. Personally, I was pregnant at the time. My husband and I wanted very much to start a family and other pregnancies at that time were not very healthy. And, I remember saying to myself in the waiting room that getting bad news about a pregnancy is a big deal, this audition is not a big deal. I remember I was the first one up.
How many other people were there auditioning?
I would say there were 8 women in the room, at that time, but that doesn't mean there weren't more during the rest of the day.
I try not to count how many are in the room, try not to go into the bathroom and fix my makeup. I try not to look at myself before [the audition]. I do my makeup before I leave the house, I don’t change my look in reference to the other people in the room. I might dance in my head or try to move my body and stay in the character or, my stay with my perception of the character.
[For this audition],I went in and the casting ladies were there, Alan Ball was there and one of the directors was there. It was a scene from Season 1 where Lettie Mae goes to speak at the funeral of Sookie’s grandmother. I did it and I remember being “off book.” [This means that] I try to know the words so I don’t have to break character by looking down at them. One thing I try to do is to learn the words, especially if you are auditioning for the screenwriter because you don’t want to be messing up their words that they've slaved over.
Alan gave me the note “could I be more drunk?” Then afterwards, I asked him “did I take the note?” Did I do what you want me to do because if not, let me try to do it again. I’ve learned that because sometimes, it’s a guessing game, and you don’t need to guess if you can get some feedback. He said, "No, that was great." And I remember making the joke, “Good because I play high a lot more often than I play drunk.” I’m constantly playing a crack addict or a heroin addict and I didn’t play alcoholic that much, then. I laughed and left the room.
What was it that made them pick you?
I don’t know what Alan liked about it.
I can’t believe how different you are from Lettie Mae. You have had a lot of really, really intense scenes with Tara; a lot of physicality. What do you do to get into Lettie Mae’s skin?
I try to stay in the character, but only on the set. I might read a novel likel "The Child Called It," I remember reading that. It’s a book about a boy who was abused by his father and his stepfather in this horrendous way. They didn’t refer to him with his name, but referred to him as “it.” Reading things like that help me to stay in the realm of an adult who feels really horrible about themselves and children are such an easy target to take out ones frustrations on a kid.
Is there anyone that you've worked with on True Blood that you've learned from?
Well, of course Rutina (Wesley). She is also an actress who stays in her realm before going out to work. There are some of us who can talk about the baseball when not filming and then when they say rolling, or still talking about it, and then they say action and they say there line.
On the Newsroom, the Aaron Sorkin project I’m working on now, it’s very conversational, quick wit, and we’re playing ourselves, so, it’s easier to be talking about something else and then go right into the words. And, when you’re also dealing with having to be drunk, having a lot of self hatred and all the ugliness, I've learned to try to keep in check. You know we all have our own insecurities and with Lettie Mae I sort of let them run wild. I can’t be chatting about the weather and then go into that. I certainly am functional and polite on set, but I answer questions on the set in my accent and just try to stay quiet and in the realm.
Rutina might have her iPod on and have the music help her that way, I might have a phrase or two that helps me drop into the emotional state for the part, I’ll inhale and exhale a lot and drop it that way. Having Rutina, a series regular, doing that gives me permission to do that, too.
I’ve interviewed quite a few of the cast and I have met most of them and I’ve never heard any of them say anything but positive things about their experience, so I’m not surprised to hear it. The word is “it’s a family.”
Also, the crew and other cast members of True Blood and everyone is so polite, kind, professional, and understanding. I know it sounds like I’m pulling your leg, but everyone, this is not the first job for a lot of people, they know what it’s like to struggle, they know what it’s like to be on a hit show. They know that it is a blessed place to be and they are grateful for it and so they have created this incredibly safe environment where you can get ugly and make big choices, and you might fail, but you feel you are in a safe environment to go for it.
It was fun being with the Reverend getting the daemons out of the house of Arlene and Terry and I so enjoyed working with and watching Dale Raoul in her part as Maxine Fortenberry. I had that scene with her at the grave so, I have been lucky to meet with a few other cast members?
Now that Lettie Mae is married and not drinking, do you think she is happy and can you tell us if she is still with the Reverend?
I’m going to say, I don’t think if Lettie Mae won a lottery, she would be happy. There isn't a lot about Lettie Mae that is said in the novels, but I think that one thing that is mentioned about her is that Tara’s parents should have never been parents, and I think that’s just so incredibly right.
Do you watch the show yourself?
Oh Yes! I follow along and I don’t read scripts that I’m not in so that I can be surprised like everyone else. I don’t tell my husband any information that I pick up so he can enjoy it, too.
It must be hard.
No, because I have a 5 year old and a 19 month old, so as soon as I walk in the door, the conversation changes and my son is telling me what I've missed and my daughter tells me what she needs. With that you’re just exhausted.
What is there about you that you would like the fans to know?
I’m very grateful that they’re watching because I can see how young people can get into and really follow Tara and Jason and their lives, but it blows me away every time a young person says that they really enjoy my work, because I’m surprised that they get it. I don’t know why, I think that you kind of have to have lived a bit to understand the mother/daughter relationship, so I can completely see them siding with the daughter. So I’m completely surprised when people feel for, [Lettie] Tara’s anchor, that is dragging her under.
What do you think of Alan Ball?
I love Alan Ball. I so admire, I mean, I loved American Beauty and I treasure being a part of his well crafted world. I’m on cloud 9 that I've worked for Alan Ball, that I’ve worked for Aaron Sorkin, that I’ve worked with really amazing writers and I know how great that is because you can look at my resume and I've worked for some writers and situations where maybe they weren't putting as much effort in it as Mr. Ball or Mr. Sorkin put in it. And, I remember a couple of times just being happy to be back on True Blood, where in other situations I have to say the words and it’s just like choking when I have to say them and have them sound real as they come out of my mouth. So I am very respectful of Mr. Ball and I’m so happy that I have him as a fan of mine.
What do you think about him leaving the show?
Yes, he’s a workaholic and I’m not surprised that he’s leaving. I’m also a great fan of Six Feet Under; that was one of those shows where I was counting down the days until the next episode. I have been asking myself what True Blood’s going to be like with a new front runner, and I’m not surprised that Mr. Ball’s leaving because you know their shows [HBO] go maybe five, six years and you always want to leave the show with the audience wanting more. You’ve just got to enjoy it while you can and then it’s gone and you have the memories.
I see you were also in American Horror Story as Sally Freeman. What was that character’s problem or why did she come to see the doctor?
Yea, that’s another show that I really enjoyed watching , but I couldn't watch it because I’m such a wimp. I cover my eyes on True Blood even though I see it made. The description of my character, Sally Freeman was that she was the most boring woman in the world. At that audition, I wore this lime green shirt because I didn't like it very much and I only bought it because it was my McDonald’s Mom Shirt and I hated the shirt. I didn't like the way it looked on me and I wore it because it made me feel not very attractive. I remember at the audition another actor looked at me and said, “She’s supposed to be the most boring woman in the world, why are you wearing green?" That other actress was wearing black and all the other actresses that were auditioning for the role were also wearing black, so I might have only gotten the role because I was wearing lime green.
Talk about The Newsroom (which looks great by the way, can’t wait to see it) and your character?
I’m very excited about it. I’m a political junkie so to get paid for being a political junkie is pretty awesome. I play Kendra and I’m the “Booker” on the show and it’s about the working of cable news, like a CNN. What gets on the news, what doesn’t get on the news, and how are things interpreted once they get on the news. I think it’s very entertaining but also very eye opening about news and entertainment. We are dealing with real characters, politicians that we vote for, that we don’t vote for, that we’re thinking about voting for. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also quite a few times when they are talking about a particular news event and they’ll talk about some deeper aspect of it that you would talk about in the bullpen of the newsroom when you are deciding what information gets told and how it’s getting told. I say to myself, wow, I didn't know that, I didn't hear that piece of news and if I had that piece of information I would have had an entirely different take on that particular news story. So, the show is going to be an eye opener to us as citizens about how we get our news and what in the nation is being shared.
So, unlike True Blood which is total fantasy, this is reality and sometimes reality is just too funny; you just can’t make this shit up. It’s like Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me which is a news quiz show on NPR and it’s so funny because it’s about real news stories and you just can’t make up these stories. Yhey are so out there, so outrageous, and the Newsroom is like that. What I like about it as an actor is that I get to play myself and that can sometimes be a lot harder than playing someone who is further away from you.
With Lettie Mae, when I’m crying, I know that OK, I’m acting, I’m doing what I’m supposed to do, but I’m not having a breakdown, I’m not crying, I’m not doing a lot of big acting. I hope it will still be read as entertaining.
Here's the trailer for The Newsroom:
It’s supposed to premiere in June, right?
How has it been balancing motherhood of two small children with your acting?
It’s difficult, but it is working out. Sometimes I think when I was single I could come home; I could eat whatever I want and watch whatever I want.
My husband is self employed; he is a professional dog trainer. He goes to people’s homes and works with their dogs so that they don’t get mix messages from their owner and solves problems that people have with their dogs chewing up shoes, etc. He’s been doing this for about 25 years; about the same amount of time that I've been acting. So, we built our careers first. Our careers and clientele (he doesn't advertise at all; it’s all referral) and for me now, too its people basically know my work and my agents and managers field the auditions that come in so we built everything first so that we have the freedom to be full time parents. When I’m not working I’m home with the kids and when he’s not working, he’s home with the kids. So we both get to be stay at home parents. We also have rental properties, so that we have secondary incomes.
My first acting teacher, Butterfly McQueen died in a fire. Her kerosene heater fell apart and she died in the fire so that’s a horrible way to go so that also meant that money wasn't coming in, that you had to use kerosene to keep warm. I remember doing theater back in New York and going to Actor’s Equity and seeing a bunch of senior citizen actors hanging out and I remember saying to a colleague “that’s so cool that they come here and hangout.” And she said, “Adina, there homeless and come here in the day because they don’t have a place to be. When I saw that, I started my IRA.
I’m very happy, we drive our cars until the wheels fall off, we live within our means. We don’t have nanny’s, we don’t have maids, so we get to spend time with our kids and they have tons of toys and experiences, but we live within our means so that we can afford to live our dreams of pursuing what we both love to do. And by doing that we also are educating our children to follow their dreams and to be entrepreneurs so they can do so.
Photos of Adina and as she is in her part of Lettie Mae Thornton.
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