Before talk turns to the current season of HBO's sexy vampire drama True Blood, and the way co-star Kristin Bauer van Straten has turned sarcastic vampiress Pam into a scene-stealing, three-dimensional picture of need and denial over five seasons, there's a question the actor must answer.
Was she really the "man hands" girl on Seinfeld back in 1996?
"I'm very proud of that," said Bauer van Straten, 46, who played a beautiful woman named Gillian with huge, masculine-looking hands on a date with Jerry Seinfeld in the episode titled "The Bizarro Jerry."
"I see Jerry Seinfeld probably once every five years by total chance; I should just walk up to him and say, 'Hi, I don't know if you remember me, but I'm man hands.' . . . He's very, very sweet."
The actor cuts a completely different figure as Pamela Swynford de Beaufort, a ruthless, fashion-forward vampire she once described as a "stylish serial killer with integrity."
Once so negligible to the story that she was hired on a week-to-week basis, Bauer van Straten has seen her Pam become one of the show's central characters, revealing that her tough attitude conceals a burning love for the bloodsucker who turned her into one of the undead, powerful vampire sheriff Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgard).
She's also working an edgy, profane role that thankfully undoes years spent playing "nice pretty blond girls" on shows such as L.A. Law, Everybody Loves Raymond and Two and a Half Men. According to Bauer van Straten, the opportunity came thanks to a revolution in television, as more adventurous fare and bigger stars have migrated to the small screen.
"When I started in television 18 years ago, there were television actors and there were movie actors; it was exceedingly rare there would be any crossover," said Bauer van Straten, whose early roles included parts in mid-1990s series such as Columbo, Lois and Clark: The Adventures of Superman and Silk Stalkings. "Now, the studios are owned by huge corporations and we're seeing a focus on the huge superhero movie, which pushes powerful producers and stars to at least expand into TV. The names and talent and freedom we have in TV was what you saw in movies when I started."
True Blood remains one of the best examples of Bauer van Straten's words, a story about vampires, werewolves, faeries and humans bouncing off each other in the fictional Louisiana town of Bon Temps, developed from the novels of Charlaine Harris by Alan Ball, an Oscar-winning writer for the 1999 film American Beauty.
Even though it has been among HBO's most popular series for years, True Blood hasn't gotten nearly the recognition of more critically acclaimed HBO series such as The Sopranos and Sex and the City.
In part, that's because the show has been more creatively uneven than those other programs, filled with love triangles, plot twists and clunky allegories (vampires as oppressed minority; anti-vamp zealots similar to homophobic, conservative Christians, to name two).
It also seems True Blood's own appeal can work against it. Filled with loads of explicit sex involving very attractive actors, the series can be disregarded as a parade of bizarre plot twists and stranger sexual situations — particularly by those already inclined to take so-called "genre" shows less seriously in the first place.
"We've got a few things working against us in that department," said Bauer van Straten. "People with their shirts off, sex, beautiful people, blood . . . I look at some of my castmates and see all the great acting they're doing; everything that any actor does that can get nominated for an Emmy."
As the show's sixth season opens tonight, True Blood finds its primary characters in very different places.
Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), the courtly vampire who once dated the show's half-faerie heroine Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), has consumed the blood of a legendary vampire and emerged as something of a blood-sucking superman, immensely powerful but unsure of how to use his new abilities.
There's a sense the show has thrown together its central love triangle of Sookie, Eric and Bill (along with Joe Manganiello's musclebound werewolf, Alcide) so often that any new romantic combination is mostly exhausted — and exhausting.
That leaves the door open for supporting characters such as Bauer van Straten's Pam to shine. Originally a lover and then close partner to Eric for more than 150 years, she and the sheriff co-own the vampire bar Fangtasia.
As this season starts, the pair are at odds after Pam discovers Eric has a sister he never revealed to her and the show's characters face a threat from Bill they are unsure how to negotiate. Eric is dismissive and angry, which only infuriates Pam more — a great range of emotion for a pair who once had been so close nothing came between them.
"There's so much pressure on them, and they're each trying to solve the problem in their own ways," said Bauer van Straten, who is still filming episodes and isn't quite sure where their relationship ends this season. "Eric, from the viewpoint of an old Viking and also being a man, is not the greatest communicator. I love Eric and I'm upset that he's not trusting me. That's a deep feeling we can all relate to."
Throw in an uncertain, same-sex relationship with Sookie's best friend and newly turned vampire Tara, and you have the makings of a volatile, interesting set of relationships, set against the typical apocalyptic supernatural threats that often loom over Bon Temps.
Once upon a time years ago, True Blood heralded the start of the summer TV season. It was a slower time, when the occasionally interesting cable series punctuated a vast wasteland of network TV reruns and sporting events.
These days, summertime is when TV explodes with content, as an increasing number of cable channels and online sites offer unique video content, forcing broadcast networks to become more aggressive to avoid losing audience permanently.
It may be tough news for TV programmers, but it's heaven for experienced actors like Bauer van Straten, who has seen an opportunity to turn a one-note character with no history into a complicated, damaged woman with a past as a turn-of-the-century madam and cynicism born from more than a century walking the earth.
"Up until Season 4, I could throw on whatever I wanted and go to the store. No one cared," said Bauer van Straten, laughing. "After Season 5, I made sure I got a shower and put on something halfway decent. I can really feel that I'm no longer anonymous, which is amazing."