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Gregg Daniel – The Gospel According to True Blood’s Reverend Daniels

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

Gregg Daniel at the New York City Public Library.  Photo © 2014 Mark Doyle. All rights reserved.

Gregg Daniel at the New York City Public Library. Photo © 2014 Mark Doyle. All rights reserved.

Gregg Daniel

The Gospel According to True Blood’s Reverend Daniels

by Jay S. Jacobs

Whether he is treading the boards of the Great White Way (or it’s Los Angeles equivalent) or saving souls in the fictional Louisiana town of Bon Temps, Gregg Daniel demands attention.

Not in some harsh and insistent way.  No, Daniel is much more is much more subtle in his approach.  Daniel is a long-time character actor who has split his time between a successful stage career and appearances in such iconic film and TV series as Spider-Man, Star Trek, The West Wing, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Seinfeld and many others.

He’s recently finished arguably his most indelible TV role (so far), playing Reverend Daniels for five seasons on HBO’s acclaimed vampire melodrama True Blood.  The series finale is set to air on August 24, 2014.  It’s the end of a long and winding trail in Daniel’s career, but it is also the star of a new one.

In some ways, Reverend Daniels is like the moral compass of True Blood‘s town of Bon Temps, a flawed-but-basically-good man of faith who is trying to help the town through some very hard times.  Reverend Daniels does not scream or gesticulate to get your attention, but he holds it nonetheless.

“I would like for people to think – my peers and the audiences – that he was an actor’s actor,” Daniel said recently after a brief trip back to his hometown of New York.  “He was somebody who even his peers thought he allowed us to see all the humanity.  That’s really what acting is.  When people see you on stage or on film, it’s because they can spy their humanity in whatever the dilemma is that you’re in.”

Perhaps that is why Daniel feels so comfortable with Reverend Daniels, because the Reverend is certainly a character who embraces humanity.

Gregg Daniel at the New York City Public Library.  Photo © 2014 Mark Doyle. All rights reserved.

Gregg Daniel at the New York City Public Library. Photo © 2014 Mark Doyle. All rights reserved.

“I like him more and more every time I play him,” Daniel said.  “He is a man of faith.  I’m a man of faith.  It doesn’t have to be religious, just being in this industry you have to be ‘of faith.’  His faith is being tested.  When you run into people who are being tested, and somehow they look at you as a moral authority, you have to bolster and administer to them.  A lot of young actors come my way and I end up mentoring them.  It feels, in some ways, what I’m doing with the community of Bon Temps is what I’m doing with these actors, which is to minister to them and give them hope.  In many ways that’s a similarity, this belief that you hang in there, you pay your dues, you have faith in yourself and things are going to turn out well.  Just [have] patience.”

The patience will often be rewarded, but a lack of it almost never will.  Therefore, Daniel plays him as an understanding man who knows that human emotions and needs are never black and white.  There are muted, gray shades which determine everyone’s path in life.  The decisions they make – and the decisions that they don’t make – can determine the people that they become.

Of course, in the tiny town of Bon Temps, it is not just people.  There’s a bit of a vampire problem to deal with as well.

“Reverend Daniels takes the time to really listen,” Daniel continued.  “He’s married to someone who is a substance abuser.  He’s trying to save her and their marriage.  Now that I’ve lived a while in life, I see that sometimes you can love people who are very, very flawed.  It took me time to see that you can love people who are flawed and try your best to help them.  But, ultimately, they have to help themselves.  There are lessons that Reverend Daniels is learning along the way that, of course, I had to learn along the way, too.  I really honor his journey.  I think of him as an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances.”

Not bad for a character that Daniel never thought he would play – despite the fact that his character’s last name is almost a perfect match for his own, only pluralized.  The thing was, though, Daniel was far from home when the offer to audition for True Blood came to his agents.  Though usually Daniel does most of his stage work in Los Angeles – which Daniel has called home for over fifteen years now – he was offered a lead role in a dream play far off of the beaten path.

He had always wanted to perform South African playwright Athol Fugard’s acclaimed play Master Harold… and the Boys.  He was offered the lead role in a production playing in the quaint shore community of Cape May, New Jersey, which is about a two hour drive from Philadelphia, or three hours from New York.

“A beautiful beach and Victorian community,” Daniel says, remembering the trip.  “When I did Master Harold… and the Boys, I would have people afterwards come up and talk about their relationship with their fathers or their families.  I just touched a chord in people that made us connected, even though they were total strangers.”

The problem was, Daniel’s agents contacted him to let him know that the popular HBO series True Blood was looking for an actor to play a new role, Reverend Daniels.

“[My agents] wanted me to put myself on tape and send it in.” Daniel chuckled, remembering.  “First of all, it was really hard to find someone to put me on tape.  It’s not like I was in a major market like New York or Los Angeles.  But I did find someone and we put it on tape.  We sent it in.”

Still, Daniel figured that was that.

“I knew I wouldn’t get it, because I was auditioning on tape from 3,000 miles away,” Daniel explained.  “[I had] the disadvantage of not being in the room with producers: where they can feel you, hear the sound of your voice, interact with you.  I figured there is no way a show like True Blood is going to cast someone based on their tape.”

Gregg Daniel at the New York City Public Library. Photo © 2014 Mark Doyle. All rights reserved.

Gregg Daniel at the New York City Public Library. Photo © 2014 Mark Doyle. All rights reserved.

Surprisingly, he was wrong.

“A week later, I got a call from my agent saying, ‘They cast you as Reverend Daniels,'” Daniel laughed.  “I was really thrilled.  [I] admired them, that they trusted enough the work on the tape to say, ‘Oh yeah, we want this actor to play this role.  We trust that.  We don’t need to see him.  He doesn’t have to be here physically, but we want to cast him.’  I was really appreciative.  I admired the fact that they could make that kind of artistic decision and feel good about it.”

When Daniel joined the show, it had been going for a few seasons already.  The series had become an immediate hit on HBO, where series creator Alan Ball was following up his success on his previous series, Six Feet Under.  The new series was based upon a series of gothic romantic horror novels, The Southern Vampire Mysteries series of novels by Charlaine Harris.  The series had legitimized the adult acting career of child star (and youngest ever Oscar winner) Anna Paquin, but it was also known for its vast cast and tapestry of intriguing characters.

“I was somewhat familiar, because of Alan Ball,” Daniel said.  “Anything Alan Ball puts out, I’m going to watch.  After Six Feet Under and knowing him many, many moons ago as a playwright in New York.  Anything that has Alan Ball’s name, [I’m there].  With people like Aaron Sorkin or Alan Ball, you look at their stuff.  If it’s on television, you look at it.”

Ball was not the show’s only connection to Daniel’s New York theatrical background.

“Adina Porter, the woman I wound up married to on the show, was an actress I had worked with in New York many moons ago,” Daniel continued.  “When I heard that Adina was on a show, I began watching it.  I just thought she was doing magnificent work.  I was very thrilled for her, that this hard-working theater born actress was now doing a terrific role on True Blood.  That’s what got me watching the show.

“Of course, I had no idea that I would [play] her love interest and that we’d eventually wind up being married.  Talk about serendipitous, how that came around to be.  I love working with her.  We have so much trust between each other because of our pre-existing relationship.  When we go into scenes, we just totally let it hang out.  We trust each other.  We know that we’ll be together, we’ll support each other.  Let’s find the truth behind the words.”

When he was hired as Reverend Daniels, it appeared that the role may be more of a one-off type of thing.  The Reverend was married to another woman and did not appear that he could be a foundation in Lettie Mae’s life.  However, Daniel realized quickly that the writers had something different in mind for him.

“They did that episode and they called me back to do another one,” Daniel recalled.  “I was not crazy about this Reverend-as-cad thing.  I was thinking: Are they playing on the fact that he’s a fallen minister?  Are we going to go there?  Are we going to do that?  Because that’s not really what I want.  I wanted to work for True Blood, of course, and Alan Ball.  But I didn’t want to play another defrocked minister.”

The next scripts they sent him quickly caused Daniel’s concern to fade away.

“Once we got married, once they married Lettie Mae, I saw that, ‘Oh, they seem to be going in a different direction.'” Daniel said.  “Then of course this season came around.  I have this really amazing speech in episode three.  There was this speech where you really get to know where the Reverend came from.  The pain in his life.  What drove him to Bon Temps.  I thought how wonderful that they want to flesh out that character.  They care enough about the character to let the public and the audience know: this is where Reverend Daniels is from, this is who he is.

“I was so appreciative I actually sent an e-mail to the writer of that episode,” Daniel chuckled.  “He was a co-executive producer, Brian Buckner.  I said how much I appreciated [it].  Not only the fact that they trusted me to deliver the speech, but they cared enough to write a speech clearing up who this guy is.  The first time we saw him, he was having an affair with Lettie Mae.  What is he supposed to be about?  Since that time, they’ve continued to honor Reverend Daniels and give me a really good, interesting storyline.”

Gregg Daniel outside the New York City Public Library. Photo © 2014 Mark Doyle. All rights reserved.

Gregg Daniel outside the New York City Public Library. Photo © 2014 Mark Doyle. All rights reserved.

This is not the first time that Daniel has played a man of the cloth. What does he think it is that makes casting people see that in him?

“You know, it’s so interesting you say that, because I have played several other ministers before I got this one,” Daniel laughed.  “I think it’s that when I play a minister, I try not to go for that stereotypical southern black minister, who is filled with rhetoric and filled with ‘Say Amen!’  Even on the audition tape, I tried to avoid that.  I just wanted him to be a simple, ordinary person who had faith, but not demonstrating that I was a man of faithA man of the cloth.  Every time I’ve played a minister, I always tried to keep them very centered, not rhetorical, not fire and brimstone.  I really try to appeal to people’s hearts and minds, rather than just their emotions.”

That’s an interesting and somewhat counter-intuitive viewpoint on that type of role, but it is probably why Reverend Daniels feels so normal and approachable in True Blood.

“In a church, when you’re preaching, you want to get that response,” Daniel continued.  “At the same time, I’m trying to heal a community on True Blood, so rather than screaming out and shouting, I’m going to try and keep it conversational.  I’ve always kept my ministers very conversational.  I just happen to be a minister.  I’m listening where your faith is being tested.  I’m trying to find out: What can I do to nurture you?  What can I do to offer you some kind of solace?  That’s maybe the difference when I approach a minister.  The trap is playing him like just this fiery guy.  He always has rhetoric.  He always says, ‘GAWD!’  I don’t believe that.  I think that’s just too easy a choice.”

Of course, the Reverend Daniels does not just have the normal lifestyle problems going down in his parish.  Bon Temps is home to a huge group of vampires and other supernatural creatures that keep his parishioners’ souls in more immediate danger of corruption than in most small towns.

People have always had a fascination with nighttime bloodsuckers, going back to even before Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published.  In modern fantastical literature, vampires are rather ubiquitous.  This popularity and fascination does not surprise Daniel in the least.

“I think that vampires are really a stand-in for people’s sexuality, the darkest parts of our character,” Daniel said.  “I’m not a scientist.  I’m not a social scientist.  This is just the gospel according to Gregg Daniel, pardon the pun.  Vampires, particularly in a Puritan society, allow us to imagine and fantasize about our deepest, darkest passions and desires.  When we see vampires and they are lusting for blood and biting necks and sucking – to me it’s all sexuality.  It’s all a stand-in for things we shy away from.  [Things] we know we have in us, but it’s not permitted.  For me, that’s what the fascination is.  It’s not that they are monsters.  It’s just the opposite.  They represent that side of the id that we want to suppress and not admit.  So, yeah, we’ve got these sexy vampires going around biting people’s necks and sucking blood.  It’s all a stand-in for sex.”

Gregg Daniel at the New York City Public Library. Photo © 2014 Mark Doyle. All rights reserved.

Gregg Daniel at the New York City Public Library. Photo © 2014 Mark Doyle. All rights reserved.

Which makes a certain sense for True Blood as well.  Daniel has long been aware that the show was not the least bit shy about exploring some of the murkier aspects of people and their actions.  Nor has it been coy about getting in the audience’s face with the temptations of life (and un-death) and the potential costs of following your darkest desires.  Now, as the final season is winding down, the writers and the producers of the show have decided that all bets are off.  No one or nothing is safe or s