Long before he won the role of lovably dim sheriff Andy Bellefleur on the vampire-themed HBO series True Blood, Chris Bauer was tackling a variety of dramatic roles at Atlantic Theater Company, where he and his wife, costume designer Laura Bauer, are ensemble members. The versatile actor is currently leading the cast of Atlantic's premiere production of What Rhymes With America as a depressed dad headed for a bitter divorce who juggles relationships with three women: his teenage daughter, an aspiring actress he befriends, and a quirky woman with whom he feels a romantic spark. We caught up with Bauer to get the skinny on What Rhymes With America, kissing Tony nominee Da’Vine Joy Randolph (the aspiring actress) and his wild ride on True Blood.
How is it being back on stage and back at the Atlantic Theater?
It feels like I was in a midlife crisis, and now it's over.
So being back onstage re-rooted you?
Oh my god, yes. It’s nothing less than a resurrection. I just feel so grateful. It’s such a privilege to work on a brand new play, one that is so inspired and so emotionally authentic.
What attracted you to this play and to your character?
I felt like the human atmosphere of the play, the emotional landscape, was full of grief and intense desire for connection and people’s best attempts to live the life they feel they deserve. Those themes were so human and so compelling, it was like a pool I had to jump in.
How is it being the only guy in that cast? The ladies treating you well?
They’re treating me so well! I think each of them is uniquely perfect for their role. And all three of them have taught me so much about coming together for a common purpose.
It’s so interesting to see the different way you interact on stage with each of the women.
That’s incredible to hear because that chemistry—that sort of three-layer-cake of those relationships—is unique to each actress, and [director] Daniel Aukin really let us build those scenes out of the innate chemistry we have.
In the play, Da’Vine Joy Randolph talks about what an amazing kisser she is, and you guys share a crazy kiss. Is it great?
When she says, “I am a very great kisser,” she’s telling the absolute truth. I think it’s one of those moments where they [Da’Vine and her character Sheryl] really come together.
What do you love about performing onstage versus TV and film?
The thing I love the most is that everybody’s under one roof—the cast, the creative staff, the ushers, the house managers, the audience—and we’re all having the experience at the same time. It may not be the same experience, but it’s happening at the same time. And that convergence of people is so gratifying; it’s what creates meaning out of those two hours.
Did you meet your wife [costume designer Laura Bauer] during Luck, Pluck and Virtue at Atlantic?
I actually met her a few months before that doing A Clockwork Orange at Steppenwolf, but Luck, Pluck and Virtue was the first time we were like, “Oh, I see you.” You know?
So that holds that special place for you as well?
It’s like its own little narrative, so I feel very emotional when I go work at Atlantic. I was there before I got married, I was there before I had kids, I was there before I was on TV and that building is place I feel the most comfortable onstage. It’s my home in New York.
When you signed on for True Blood, did you think the show would succeed, and that Andy would become a fan favorite?
No, I had no idea where the show or Andy was going to go. Like everybody else, the only material I had was the pilot script. My wife, interestingly enough, was the one who said, “You have to do this show. This show’s going to be a hit.” I make a joke a lot that I do whatever she says, but it’s true—she’s almost always right. That being said, it’s really cool to be heading into the sixth season and looking back seeing a character that really started off one-note, but as we left off in the fifth season, I’m the father of several babies born to a supernatural creature.
What’s the craziest thing they've asked you do?
From my perspective—I’m 46 years old—the craziest thing they asked me to do was take off my clothes. Especially with some of those guys I work with; you almost want to poke your finger in them to see if they’re actually computer generated, because they’re just these genetic specimens. So it was a little crazy. I doubled up on the physical trainer and cut out the carbs.
Is there a limit to what you'll do on camera?
I am the kind of actor who will do just about anything. However, I am really unable to do things that cause any duress in children. [Note: This interview was conducted before the tragic events in Newtown, CT.] There was a scene in True Blood when I was addicted to vampire blood. I pull up to this shack in the cop car, screaming and running around, and there was a five-year-old boy, an extra [on the set], who didn't know that was going to happen. He burst into tears and got so upset. I walked up to him and said, “You know this is all pretend, and this is going to be a really fun day. Watch me: Next time I’m going to scream even louder.” It actually turned into kind of a fun little connection. But I can’t do anything that freaks kids out. They’re too precious. I mean, my kids don’t even watch the show.
Do you think having a lot of theater veterans on True Blood makes a difference?
Beside the fact that they tend to be solid actors, it makes for a very respectful workplace. It’s very professional—no divas allowed, be prepared, hang up your costumes at the end of the day—because we all have a background in theater.
What’s next for you in 2013?
I will be going back to L.A. and jumping right back into season six of True Blood, and I’m on the board of Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, so maybe we can put something together for me to do there next season. But the bottom line is, doing What Rhymes with America has just been a straight-up transfusion, and I’m really excited to see where that impulse to create takes me next.
Don’t miss Chris Bauer off-Broadway in What Rhymes with America, running through December 30 at the Atlantic Theater Company.