Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer by Prashant Gupta/HBO Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer by Prashant Gupta/HBO

"I don't usually look like this," Anna Paquin says with a laugh, ushering a visitor into her modest dressing room on the set of True Blood, HBO's eagerly awaited vampire series. She's referring to the giant shiner - an impressive black-and-blue masterpiece courtesy of the makeup department - that covers her left eye. But there's an even more striking change. Paquin, 26, a familiar big-screen face since her Oscar win at age 11 for The Piano, is no longer her well-known, wan brunette self, but a spray-tanned, bleached-blonde bombshell.

Just as the X-Men star doesn't look quite like herself, True Blood, which marks the return to TV for Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball, doesn't resemble a typical blood-sucker saga. On the show, set in the near future, vamps have "come out of the coffin," so to speak, and are even campaigning for a Vampire Rights Amendment. "They've made their presence known to mankind," Ball says. "They're struggling for equal rights and assimilation." A new synthetic beverage, Tru Blood, meets their nutritional needs, and finally allows them to see humans as friends, not walking juice boxes. It comes in a handy four-pack available in refrigerator cases everywhere.

But not everyone in the good ol' USA is as sympathetic to vamps as Paquin's character, Sookie Stackhouse, a waitress at Merlotte's roadhouse in backwater Bon Temps, Louisiana. "She's an average girl next door - except she has abilities to be in other people's minds," Paquin says. This talent for telepathy has left her somewhat ostracized, giving her empathy for all kinds of outsiders. It's also stunted her love life. (What are men really thinking? You don't want to know.)

That is, until tall, dark and technically dead Bill Compton ( Stephen Moyer) walks into Merlotte's. "He's immediately attracted to her 'otherness,'" says the British-born Moyer ( The Starter Wife). "He's spellbound by her, and she by him, because she's not able to hear him." Vamps don't have brain waves, so Bill's thoughts remain private, which Sookie finds soothing.

But the 173-year-old Bill soon finds himself the victim of a scheme by some local skanks who try to drain him for his "v-juice," which is sold on the black market and is as addictive to humans as heroin. Sookie saves his life. "We could question whether he allows that to happen," Moyer hints. The two begin a romance that's frowned upon by most of the townies.

Definitely not digging the match is Sookie's brother, Jason (Ryan Kwanten), a stud who spends most of his time bedding women. "My first day on set, my only wardrobe was a sock," Kwanten says. But Jason soon gets caught up in his own vamp/human conflict, when he's implicated in the murder of a "fang-banger" - someone who likes to do the dirty with vamps - and local law enforcement can't decide whether to pin it on him or a bloodsucker. In reality, Ball reveals, "There's a serial killer on the loose."

Based on a series of modern Gothic novels by Charlaine Harris, True Blood will saturate the airwaves with gore, but bedroom scenes get equal time. "There's a lot of sex in the books - I wouldn't say it's graphic, but it's intense in that romance-novel sort of way," Ball says. "There's a pulpy feel to it. It's a sexy show."

And scary. Yet the most frightening thing about True Blood isn't all the death and violence. "The show is about the terrors of intimacy," Ball says, "about how dangerous it is to open yourself up."

In other words, even in a world full of vampires, falling in love is still the scariest thing that can happen to a person. - Kate Hahn