“Take a Black man in America. Turn him into a vampire. Fuck with that vampire, and see what happens.”
(SPOILER WARNING – though not so much if you’ve read the book or seen the movie)
It’s probably no exaggeration to say that Anne Rice’s 1976 novel Interview with the Vampire is the second most influential book in vampire literature – after Bram Stoker’s Dracula, of course. For the first time, readers were invited to see the story from the monster’s point of view – and like the creature in Shelley’s Frankenstein, empathise with him. Even pity him. Rice’s Louis de Pointe du Lac was a prisoner of his species, once a man, now driven by his very nature to kill others, and hating every minute of it.
It was powerful, revolutionary even. You can see its influence in every vampire story since, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Twilight, and even later movie adaptations of Stoker’s Dracula. But the media landscape is now crowded with nocturnal bloodsuckers, with hundreds, maybe thousands of books, movies and TV shows stalking the night to slake their unholy thirst. Even Interview with the Vampire itself was adapted into a handsomely mounted, visually striking movie by Neil Jordan in 1994. So does this new TV adaptation stand a chance in this overcrowded coffin – and is there even anything new to say to justify one?
As it turns out, yes. For a start, the movie version of Interview, sumptuous though it was, was a curiously bloodless adaptation, for a vampire tale. Nonetheless, it was, at least superficially, faithful to the novel. A simple retelling would seem pointless. But this isn’t that. Showrunner Rolin Jones, with the assistance of Rice herself in her last years, has taken the essentials of the story and melded them into something new, unfamiliar. Something that, we discover, still has things to say.
This show changes much from the novel – and yet still functions to tell the same basic story. It’s faced some criticism for taking the novel’s homoerotic subtext between its vampire protagonists and making it overt; the Guardian’s review chastised it for turning subtext into text.
But that feels like missing the point. Jordan’s 1994 movie, emerging into a mainstream Hollywood still nervous about telling stories with gay main characters, virtually omitted even the subtext. Sure, there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment where it’s clear that Tom Cruise (actually very good as Lestat de Lioncourt) is about to chow down on a pretty French nobleman; but even that is devoid of any sense of sexual attraction.
Making the aspect of the characters’ sexual orientation overt feels like a necessary, and defiant, reaction to that caution. But more than that, it invites the theme to parallel the shame Louis feels at being a vampire with the shame he already felt as a gay Black man in early 20th century New Orleans. Louis spends at least four episodes before he can even use the word ‘vampire’ to describe himself. ‘Homosexual’ takes fewer episodes, but it’s clear for at least the first couple that he can’t even admit his attraction to men to himself. For plenty of us gay men, that’s a familiar tragedy of a wasted youth.
But of course, this version of Louis doesn’t just have to deal with being a vampire and being gay. In a crucial, and powerful, change from the novel, he also has to deal with being a Black man in the American South, at a time when to be such was to be viewed by ‘society’ as less than human; another parallel to his adopted vampire nature.
So yes, plenty of changes from the novel – and yet the story still works. If anything, it’s more powerful as a result. Changing the timeframe of Louis’ origin from the 18th century to the early 20th, if anything, resonates more strongly than the original novel’s Southern Gothic plantation voodoo shenanigans. This Louis is a prosperous, smart businessman operating in New Orleans’ long-razed Storyville red light district – but in effect, he’s little more than a high class pimp, and he knows it. One more source of shame, especially when his powerful (white) card-playing pals patronisingly tell him he’s a “smart boy”, and stymy his every chance for advancement.
So he’s already full of shame and resentment when he inevitably runs into suave French newcomer Lestat – a man seemingly comfortable in his own (white) skin, but crucially, comfortable in his (pan)sexuality. In surrendering to Lestat’s lusts, the frustrated Louis is choosing to give away his shame about his sexuality, and grasp for greater power than any mortal Black man could hope to have. The only trouble is, it comes with a price. A new shame, at being a vampire, and a killer.
From thereon in, the story runs much as we’re familiar with, albeit with the different time setting adding frissons here and there. Louis actually has a family here, a family he already has a strained relationship with due to their status as respectable Creoles and his own as a kingpin of the city’s illicit nightlife. We even see his brother fall victim to what’s clearly a severe case of schizophrenia – another source of shame at a time when mental illness was barely understood.
There’s a lot to take in here; even as a straight drama, devoid of vampires, it would be powerful stuff. Fortunately the show is blessed with an excellent cast. Jacob Anderson, fresh from a good supporting part in Doctor Who, takes on his first lead role with relish as Louis. He’s extraordinarily good, showing the development of his character from the 1910s to the modern day with very distinct performances. As Louis in his early years, he’s hot-tempered, humanitarian and passionate; as the much older vampire of today, he’s alien, aloof and remote. And for an English actor, he has a remarkable talent for the necessary accents of the settings.
Australian Sam Reid, charismatic as Lestat, is perhaps less successful with his mannered French accent than Anderson; but then Lestat is hundreds of years old, and has lived all over the world. It’s forgivable. Besides, Reid perfectly captures Lestat’s magnetism. Despite his arrogance, his selfishness, and his carnivorous nocturnal activities, you can’t take your eyes off him. No wonder Louis was so entranced.
Rounding off the classic trio is, of course, Claudia – the young girl ‘saved’ by Lestat and cursed to live forever, frustrated, in the unchanging body of a child. For Kirsten Dunst, this role in the 1994 movie was pretty much the making of her career. Here, Bailey Bass plays Claudia as a slightly older character, which is interesting in itself. Rather than being a child, this Claudia – the daughter of one of Louis’ prostitutes, who nearly died in a fire – is forever caught in the middle of puberty. For any parent who’s had to deal with a moody teenager, imagine having one for the rest of time.
As an added complexity, this version of Rice’s unusual family unit directly parallels the experiences of gay parents bringing up a child. Though even if they weren’t vampires, I don’t think Lestat’s parenting skills would win him any awards. Episode 6 actually has a pre-credits trigger warning for domestic violence – and it’s all in the vampire family.
So the story is different, but the same. As is the framing story. Just as before, we’re hearing Louis’ unreliable narration of his life to an interested observer – the unnamed ‘boy’ from the novel, here given the same name as in the 1994 movie, Daniel Molloy. But Molloy’s no ‘boy’ anymore. This version posits the idea that the original interview did indeed happen – in 1973, rather than the contemporary early 90s of the film. Now, nearly 50 years later, Louis is more mature. And prepared to admit that much of what he said in the original interview was bullshit.
It’s not made clear whether the more familiar tale – of plantations in the 18th century – was part of that bullshit. But, crucially, it explicitly states that we can’t necessarily believe what we’re told. Like Rashomon, it all depends on your point of view.
And the point of view we get is that of Eric Bogosian, as an older, more cynical Daniel Molloy – who’s struggling to maintain his reputation as 70s gonzo journalist a la Hunter S Thompson, while also dealing with the onset of Parkinson’s disease. Previously, he begged Louis to turn him, to experience eternal life. Now, older and stricken with a life-changing illness, he’s less sure.
I’m an enormous fan of Bogosian, based entirely on his one man band performance in thought-provoking play (and later movie) Talk Radio, which he also wrote. He absolutely owned the screen in 1988 as Barry Champlain, the obnoxious radio shock jock tortured by his own conscience; here, we get virtually a reprise of that performance, with added world-weariness. And still, that amazing, captivating voice. It’s a tribute to how good Jacob Anderson is that you even notice he’s in the same scene.
As of this writing, I’ve just seen ep6 of the season – and it’s the penultimate episode. There’s something to admire in that. American TV is still just getting past the idea of 22-26 episodes a season with plenty of filler; yet still, the new paradigm seems to be that you should have no fewer than 13. This is in no hurry to tell its story – it’s barely halfway through the novel. Again, that’s good. The freedom to tell a story at the pace the writer thinks is right has historically been a luxury denied to American TV. It helps that this is on AMC+, the recent streaming offshoot of basic cable channel AMC. As an added bonus, they can get away with far more profanity, sex and violence than old AMC staples Mad Men and The Walking Dead. And boy, do they take advantage of that.
I’ll admit, I went into this with a lot of scepticism. In a world overflowing with vampires, I didn’t see any point in revisiting even a text as influential as Interview with the Vampire. And I freely admit, I mostly started watching because I’m enormously attracted to Jacob Anderson. But my goodness, it was worth it. I’ve never heard of showrunner Rolin Jones before, but apparently he’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. And it shows. However familiar you are with this story, it’s worth spending your time to revisit it told anew.