Arts

‘Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire’: Old Monsters, New Blood

CHALMETTE, La. — The actors Jacob Anderson and Sam Reid had just finished filming a scene last March inside a cavernous studio here in the seat of St. Bernard Parish, about a 20-minute drive from the French Quarter of New Orleans. The evening air was steamy, and they looked exhausted from a shooting schedule that required them to keep vampire hours under hot lights.

As they spoke, they gave off a sparkle, and it wasn’t just because of the hand-painted contact lenses that made them look like tigers — or ravers.

It was also because they were in their sweet spot, having grown up as self-described outsiders with an affinity for the darker side of art — Poe’s literary demons for Reid, Portishead’s spectral soundtracks for Anderson. And here they were, years later, costumed in ragtime-era suiting to play two of popular culture’s most beloved misfits: Lestat and Louis from the Anne Rice novel “Interview With the Vampire,” a new series-length adaptation of which debuts Sunday on AMC.

“I’m a very proud nerd,” said Anderson, 32, who plays the reluctant bloodsucker Louis. “I love fantasy. I’m an emo. I’m a bit of a goth, I guess. This is a dream.” ( “Game of Thrones” fans know the actor, who is British, as Grey Worm, leader of the Unsullied.)

Reid, 35, had grown up with a similar sensibility. As a boy in Australia, he liked dressing up as a vampire for Halloween, and later devoured Rice’s sweeping blood-magic sagas. He said he felt a responsibility in playing the debonair Lestat to do right by the author, who died almost a year ago at 80.

“When you love the source material and you’re a fan yourself, you put the same pressure on yourself that other lovers of the book would do,” he said. “My own pressure is to do justice to something that I love very much.”

Reid and Anderson in a scene from the series, which begins in New Orleans in 1910.Credit…Alfonso Bresciani/AMC

And there is pressure. In an era dominated by endlessly expandable telecinematic universes like Marvel and “Star Wars,” AMC has a lot riding on the show’s success; the network, which acquired the rights to “Interview” and 17 other Rice novels from two of her literary series, plans to spin that catalog into at least five new series over the next decade.

Maybe more important, the series has to try not to alienate a huge existing fan base. “Interview” is the first time Rice’s book has been made into a television series, and it’s the first major Rice adaptation since she died, leaving behind more than 40 genre-defining books and a very devoted — and very protective — readership. Based on episodes provided in advance, the series doesn’t just adapt the novel; it fundamentally alters it, shifting the central timeline forward by over a century, exchanging the book’s suggestive homoeroticism for outright gay sex and changing the racial identity of main characters, among other changes.

Given the pedantic and often racist pushback recently to Amazon’s “Lord of the Rings” prequel, “The Rings of Power,” and HBO’s “Game of Thrones” prequel, “House of the Dragon,” this new version of “Interview” is bound to bring out the trolls, as indeed it already has. The series also has to compete with Neil Jordan’s big-screen adaptation from 1994, which, whatever its faults, was wildly successful and helped cement the popular image of Lestat and Louis as Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt.

Rolin Jones ( “Perry Mason,” “Weeds”), the show’s creator and showrunner, said in a video interview last month that he knew there would be haters. But he also insisted that the series remains “wildly reverential” to the spirit and prose of the book, which he called an “essential piece of American literature.”

What made the novel great “is the interior life,” he argued, but “that makes for poor drama almost all the time.” The trick, then, was to try to find new ways to externalize that drama for a modern TV audience, as he imagined Rice might have wanted. As he and the other writers worked, Jones kept this question in mind: “What would this savage writer in 1976 do if she were in this room right now?”

“There’s something inherent in this story that wants to be revisited every generation,” he added. Doing so, he said, was “a celebration of Anne, not a desecration.”

“I’m a bit of a goth, I guess,” Anderson said, speaking of his excitement over participating in the series. “This is a dream.”Credit…Clement Pascal for The New York Times

PUBLISHED IN 1976, “Interview With the Vampire” is one of the world’s most widely-read vampire stories, and arguably the most influential since Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” from 1897. The story of the French nobleman Lestat de Lioncourt, a debonair seducer-tormenter, and Louis de Pointe du Lac, the younger man he transforms into his undead companion, has sold millions and spurred some dozen sequels, known collectively as The Vampire Chronicles, which have combined to sell tens of millions more.

Rice’s book broke ground by making vampires feel more human, said Stanley Stepanic, an assistant professor of Slavic languages and literature who teaches a class called “Dracula” at the University of Virginia. That’s especially true of Louis, its narrator.

“She told the story from a first-person perspective, through his voice, for the majority of the book,” Stepanic said. “He seems regretful.”

When AMC announced in 2020 that it had acquired the rights to “Interview,” Rice called it “one of the most significant and thrilling deals of my long career.” She wasn’t creatively involved with the series, but what has emerged two years later — its full title is “Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire” — is loyal to her source material in many ways. (Season 1 is based on a portion of the first novel.) There’s still an interview with a vampire, a treacherous eternal romance, an uncontrollable daughter and monstrous bloodsucking. New Orleans, Rice’s hometown, is a pivotal location.

But it’s also more romantic: Where the original book traded more in homoerotic undertones, Louis and Lestat are, unmistakably, a gay couple. The series is darkly comic, bloody, at times brutal and, depending on your tolerance for horror, terrifying. There’s gay and bisexual sex, grisly threesomes, lots of flesh. It’s very sweaty.

In the book, Louis was a Louisiana plantation and slave owner. In the AMC series, he is the Creole owner of a successful New Orleans brothel. Credit…Michele K. Short/AMC

Jones described it as “Cassavetes with a lot of feelings and not a lot of edit buttons,” like “some nasty Fiona Apple album of a vampire story” but with gay vampire dads in “the toxic relationship of 2022.” AMC, he said, “spent a whole boatload of money on a real strange beauty.”

During a leisurely evening walk-through of the set in March, Jones showed off some of the changes. The crew had built a street to look like Storyville, an upscale red-light district in New Orleans — in 1910, not the 18th century, as in the novel. Tall ceilings of a chic penthouse soared in what is was created to look like present-day Dubai, where Louis meets again with the reporter (played by Eric Bogosian) who in the book interviewed him decades earlier, in 1970s San Francisco.

Jones watched from a director’s chair as the actress Bailey Bass, then 18, played Claudia. In the novel, Claudia is a headstrong 5-year-old, whom Lestat turns into his and Louis’s vampire daughter of sorts. In the series, she is 14, left to mature emotionally while stuck in a body at the onset of puberty.

Then there is the characters’ racial makeup. Louis is no longer white, as he is very strongly implied to be in the novel. (He is a Louisiana plantation and slave owner when he meets Lestat in 1791.) In the show, Louis is a Creole brothel owner who travels in white circles, lamenting in the pilot that he can’t be an “openly gay Negro man.”

Lestat remains white, which makes their coupledom interracial. Jones said his changes overall were about what “works for a season and a series,” especially for Louis.

“You think not about the first episode but Season 5,” he said. “I wanted a very complicated and ultimately selfish person, not this nice and sweet innocent.”

From left, Kirsten Dunst, Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise in the 1994 cinematic adaptation of “Interview With the Vampire” by the director Neil Jordan.Credit…Warner Bros., via Getty Images

Pitt played Louis as a reluctant vampire, as he is in the novel, but that wasn’t the main reason some fans, especially queer ones, disliked the film. Curtis Herr, an English professor at Kutztown University and the co-editor of The Journal of Dracula Studies, which publishes articles on vampire literature and history, said the movie had chickened out on telling the gay story “that’s very evident in the book.”

(In a brief phone interview, Jordan said that he had done nothing to intentionally downplay the gayness or anything else in the book. As for the gay content, he said: “If you read the book, it is as gay as the film.”

From what he‌ had surmised of the new series so far, Herr said, “We are going to get the ‘Interview With the Vampire’ that we deserve.”

RICE FANS HAVE BEEN EAGER for two years to discern what AMC’s series has in store, and as multiple trailers and various drips and drops about the production have trickled out, reactions on fan sites have ranged from fervor to fury. Some in one private Facebook group devoted to the Vampire Chronicles became so riled up that the administrator had to warn members that comments had “become too toxic when discussing the upcoming show.” (Neither the administrator nor several of the people who posted negative comments returned requests for comment.)

Others, like Mary Hütter, a video editor from Grand Rapids, Mich., and a Rice reader for most of her 46 years, said she was looking forward to the series. When it comes to the show, fans in the online Anne Rice communities she reads “are for the most part all about it being super gay,” she said. The hope, she added, is that the series is more “ethereal, gothy, with a very seductive, almost love story between Lestat and Louis.”

Jones said he would be apprehensive, too, if someone took a favorite book and made it into a new thing. And if Rice fans watch it and still don’t like “the grand design of what we did?”

“They can beat the crap out of me at the next ComicCon,” he said with a droll smile.

Whatever its tenor, fan chatter is almost certainly an advantage as “Interview” wades into an uncommonly deep pool of new vampire shows this season that, like “Interview,” update and diversify the ancient myth, including Showtime’s “Let the Right One In,” Peacock’s “Vampire Academy” and the Syfy comedy “Reginald the Vampire.” The FX comedy “What We Do in the Shadows” remains popular, having already been renewed for a fifth and sixth season.

With its timeless themes, the vampire myth has obviously proved to be an exceptionally flexible and durable framework, ripe for endless shape-shifting — there can be a vampire story for everyone who feels like an outsider, as Anderson grew up feeling.

“I hope that people see in these characters, who feel so deeply about shame and grief and guilt, that they are not monsters, even though they feel like monsters,” he said in a follow-up video call in August. “I hope people see this is a celebration of searching for acceptance of yourself, and that searching for meaning is not an indulgence.”

“When you love the source material and you’re a fan yourself, you put the same pressure on yourself that other lovers of the book would do,” said Reid, who grew up reading the Anne Rice novels.Credit…Clement Pascal for The New York Times

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button