It must be pretty good to be Jason Stackhouse. On HBO’s monstrous hit True Blood, Australian actor Ryan Kwanten has the good fortune to play main character Sookie’s (Anna Paquin) bedroom champion of a brother, a well-meaning, yet mostly unlucky, good ol’ boy from Louisiana who gets more action than a Michael Bay flick. Through his endearingly dim wits, one-liners, and Southern charms, True Blood’s sole male without any supernatural powers—yet, at least—has been a fan favorite since the show’s September 2008 premiere, and that’s to Kwanten’s credit. He’s consistently on-point week to week, always cool enough for guys to root for and usually shirtless for ladies to swoon over. Not even pesky, and, admit it, lame, were-panthers can slow his roll.

Since his True Blood character has gained so much popularity, Kwanten has largely become associated solely with Jason, but that’s shortchanging his talents. Below the mainstream radar, the Sydney native’s independent film work is quite impressive; last year, he starred in Red Hill, an unfairly overlooked Aussie action-thriller in which Kwanten played a gun-busting cop with rugged panache.

The underrated actor’s best movie performance to date, however, can be seen starting today, in Griff The Invisible. Opening with a limited theatrical release, Griff The Invisible, written and directed by fellow Aussie Leon Ford, is a superhero-minded love story that’s psychologically twisty and highly imaginative. Kwanten plays a timid and bullied nine-to-fiver whose confidence only comes out whenever he’s fighting crime as the titular hero, who’s a sort of Batman-light; the catch, though, is that Griff’s heroic alter-ego isn’t exactly legit (that’s all we’ll say here), but he’s still able to win the affections of an equally quirky beauty (played by Maeve Dermody). She’s convinced that she can walk through walls, and he swears that lathering his costume with baking soda and lemons renders it invisible; together, they’re at the center of an original, entertaining, and often touching romantic comedy.

Most importantly, Griff has little, if anything, in common with Jason Stackhouse; Kwanten’s performance should be a revelation to those who can’t picture him outside of freaky Bon Temps. Complex caught up with Kwanten to discuss how Griff has much more in common with his real-life self than Mr. Stackhouse and the importance of not using True Blood to rack up soulless paycheck jobs.

Interview by Matt Barone (@mbarone)

Complex: Griff The Invisible handles the traditional “love story” movie type in a really unique and strange way. Was that part of the project’s appeal to you?
Ryan Kwanten: Well, first off, thanks for acknowledging that about the film. Yeah, that was my hope. When you read a script like that, and you feel a certain kind of emotional attachment to it, it’s always a good feeling to hear that worked in the way for others besides yourself. [Laughs.] When I read the script, it really struck me as a strong love story, but, yeah, it worked on so many other levels. It’s quite different from everything else that’s out there.

Your character, Griff, is an oddball, but he’s also well-intentioned. When you were reading the script, was Griff someone you could directly relate to in any way?
Usually, I try to base my characters on at least two to three people that I know, or people that I can research. And then I try to form an amalgamation of those sort of people together and create a character around that; then, I leave about 25% for me to kind of play with. With this one, though, there was an enormous amount of “me” that I worked with; I really couldn’t come up with anyone that was as close to the character as I was.

There was a certain point, and you can perhaps call it “narcissism,” where I thought that Leon [Ford] had written the script specifically for me. That he had somehow been following me around for a couple of decades, and this was my chance to get it out there as a form of therapy. Obviously, that was not the case. [Laughs.] But, yeah, there’s a direct connection there. I’m very much still an introvert, but it was more so in my younger days, and back then I would get it out through my sports and through my studies at school. I very much know the feeling of what it’s like to be picked on, to be bullied, to be an outcast. It’s about the power of the imagination, and that’s really a huge thing for me, too.

Griff is such a unique character when compared to all of the roles you’ve played before, from the films you’ve made to Jason Stackhouse on True Blood. How gratifying was it to read a character that you could project more of yourself into, as opposed to drawing from others?
Yeah, it’s funny, because it was quite a challenge for me to even get this role. I put myself on tape about four times, and, to be honest, I would have done it 400 times, just to convince the filmmakers, producers, and financiers that I’m not Jason Stackhouse. I would like to think that there are so many other roles and characters I can play. I take great pride in breaking people’s perceptions of what I can and cannot do. Even myself, too—my own perceptions.

It seems like your success on True Blood would allow you to pursue bigger Hollywood roles and projects, but, so far, you’ve taken the opposite approach and have made films that are lower in profile, like the underrated Red Hill and the upcoming fantasy/horror flick Knights Of Badassdom.
Yeah, I kind of figure that I’ve spent so long trying to get myself to this position, a position where I can almost pick and choose which kinds of films I want to do and which kinds of stories I want to make, that it’d seem like sacrilege to just sell out at this point now. These stories…I don’t know, I feel like they need to be told. There are so many reduxes and sequels and stories that we’ve all seen a million times that I have no desire to make, let alone watch.

What’s cool about Griff The Invisible is that, in a way, it does allow you to dabble in the superhero genre, even though it’s far from a Marvel Comics-level production. Did the superhero element particularly appeal to you?
It’s interesting because if you actually break down the film, which Leon and I kind of did, it really does adhere to the fundamental superhero structure. You’re sort of chipping away from this ordinary man who thinks he has this extraordinary powers, and then the two worlds of the ordinary and the extraordinary begin colliding, and your character has to pick up the pieces and overcome some sort of opposing force. That, to me, was great.

We adhered to that traditional structure but we did it in our own unique way, where we’re breaking down the very fabric of who this guy is. I think that’s the case in superhero movies when they’re done well, like the modern-day Batman films. You really become more invested in those characters, and it’s more of a visceral experience, because they become fallible. They’re not these invincible beings that you can’t relate to anymore.

The movie does a good job of subtly presenting the superhero aspects in a way that blurs the line between what’s really happening and what’s just inside Griff’s head. The first scene shows Griff snapping one thug’s neck and slamming another against a brick wall, but it slowly reveals that Griff’s imagination is actually stronger than he is himself. Did that subtle psychology attract you to the script, too?

 
I’ve spent so long trying to get myself to this position where I can almost pick and choose which kinds of films I want to do, that it’d seem like sacrilege to just sell out.
 

I love playing tortured souls, characters who have a checkered past or some kind of mysterious history. You can see something going on behind their eyes that they’re trying so hard to keep hidden away; they’re almost trying to perfect their poker face. Yeah, it’s those kinds of psychological breakdowns that are really exciting to me, which, in Griff’s case, relates to the physical breakdown of the character, which is even more exciting.

Did you approach Griff as two different characters in one? When he’s not the superhero, he’s really shy and insecure, but whenever he becomes Griff The Invisible he turns into the ultimate badass.
That’s a very, very good question, actually. There’s that fine line where you can almost become a caricature of yourself and of the character. But it is funny, too, how, when you put on that superhero outfit, your shoulders sort of pin back and there is a weird feeling that you get.

The only thing I can liken it to is when you were a kid and you were out in the backyard or in the park playing, and you just let your imagination run wild. In those sort of moments, you could do anything, and you could be anywhere. It felt like that in a weird kind of way, without getting too actor-y on you. [Laughs.]

Interview by Matt Barone (@mbarone)