If we learned anything from offerings like Marie Laveau on “American Horror Story: Coven” or Elzora in “Eve’s Bayou,” it’s that there are fascinating stories to mine from original Black horror characters, of both the living and undead varieties, rooted in the Creole State.
So it was initially frustrating to learn that “Interview with the Vampire,” Anne Rice’s classic horror novel, was being adapted (again), this time with Black actors in two prominent roles previously established — in both the 1976 book and the terrific 1994 film — as white.
When characters are race-bent, it’s too often the case that it’s reductive and presents a false achievement of diversity — especially when it’s really just Black actors playing very obviously white characters with simplified, colorblind storytelling.
Even Jacob Anderson, the English actor who plays the title character in the series that premiered on AMC Sunday, had early misgivings about the adaptation.
“Like, sometimes you get roles that are set in a certain period and then consideration isn’t made to what the actual context was of that period,” Anderson told HuffPost. “I felt a little concerned about — is this essentially going to be tokenism?”
He went on: “Is this just going to be like, ′Well, we are making this show in 2022, so we just need to make sure we have some color represented in this show’?”
Shockingly, “Interview with the Vampire” never feels that way. For example, the series reimagines Anderson’s character, Louis de Pointe du Lac, as not only Black but gay, and is curious enough to actually explore his interiority as a saloon owner-turned-vampire navigating the confines of race, sexuality, thirst, power and eternal life in 1910s Louisiana.
Creator-showrunner Rolin Jones, who gave us the 2020 HBO adaptation of “Perry Mason,” infuses “Interview with the Vampire” with a level of pathos and complexity that will be familiar to readers of Rice’s original work. For Louis’ character, the show investigates existential questions around fear, ownership and love.
“I was very pleasantly surprised and excited by the idea of exploring what the implications are for Louis and for a person of color being turned into an eternal being at this particular point in history,” Anderson said. “And how the ramifications echo throughout a life.”
And what an interesting life Louis has, even in the beginning of “Interview with the Vampire,” when he is still mortal and filled with complexities and longing as a businessman in the red-light district of New Orleans.
Within his Black community and family, whose narratives are thoughtfully expanded in this iteration, Louis gives off the vibe of an accomplished entrepreneur who rarely steps outside in anything other than an impeccably tailored three-piece suit.
To his mostly white male business counterparts, he’s just another Negro in a costume, living on borrowed time. But Louis, whose self-examination never ceases through the first five episodes made available to press, understands himself as an unfulfilled, repressed man who’s grown weary of trying to live up to everyone else’s expectations.
“You could be a lot of things in New Orleans,” Louis narrates in “Interview with the Vampire.” “But an openly gay Negro man was not one of them.”
There are certainly some things about Louis that Anderson, as a Black man, could relate to, even today. But the actor took as deep a dive as he could to learn more about Black life in New Orleans during the period.
That research included reading Rice’s series, watching the documentary “Spirit of a Culture: Cane River Creoles,” studying photographs, listening to the jazz from the era — “a lot of Jelly Roll Morton,” he says — and getting his hands on any other material he could find.
“I think that was maybe part of what was interesting about it for Rolin and the [costume] designers, was [that] this period in New Orleans and Storyville is this forgotten piece of history, but was very inclusive of Black people in the South at the time,” Anderson said.
“Interview with the Vampire” revitalizes Storyville, which was famously the red-light district of New Orleans from 1897 to 1917, with gorgeous cinematography. But as Anderson noted, its vivacity has been all but lost in history.
“I think because it has this sort of sordid attachment to it and it has implications that are quite uncomfortable,” Anderson said. “I think that history was buried about it, as is most history that people deem uncomfortable and don’t want to talk about.”
That intense desire to gaze at what is considered “uncomfortable” or lurid, and to truly look at the soul of a being, has always been inherent in “Interview with the Vampire.”
That takes on an additional meaning in this iteration. This is, after all, the story of a vampire in the present day divulging his memories from the so-called Progressive Era filled with bloodthirsty conquests and gay sex, and with an emotional capacity recognizable to anyone — alive or undead.
The reason Louis even decides to succumb to becoming a vampire is because he sees in Lestat de Lioncourt (Sam Reid), an alluring white vampire, what he’s unable to see in himself: an uninhibited man who walks with full authority of his body, his sexuality, his mind and his worth. The existence of love between them, albeit a love that becomes increasingly toxic, just makes sense.
“Because of that sense of having to repress who he is, when [Louis] meets Lestat, there’s an unapologetic quality to Lestat where he appears to be free,” Anderson said. “He appears to not really care how he’s perceived by other people.”
In essence, Louis views Lestat as the key to his own freedom. “Louis sees a way out of this self-imposed prison,” Anderson said. “He’s imprisoned himself in his own sense of identity. He’s having to constantly code-switch in all of these different aspects of his life. So when he meets Lestat, it’s infectious.”
You’d think in this context, of a Black man gaining eternal life and powerful attributes — like movement at the speed of light, an insatiable appetite for human blood, predatory instinct and mind control — it would give him power over his white peers when he returns as a vampire. For a while, that’s true.
And it is fascinating to see how that plays out in this version of “Interview with the Vampire.” He uses his new abilities, for instance, to protect his family and exert power over those who previously belittled him. But as in most genre lore, the taste for the supernatural is met with a surprisingly human reality when Louis realizes he can still only go so far.
“I think when he becomes a vampire, he starts to engage with this idea that his power as a vampire doesn’t necessarily buy him power in a human context,” Anderson said. “He finds himself rubbing up against the same things that people of color did in that time.”
Louis becomes more resentful than ever, feasting off human blood ― not just for his own survival but, occasionally, for the temporary thrill of exacting a sense of retaliation ― then feeling immediate guilt. He even tries to refrain from his own carnal thirst.
Anderson considers Louis’ existence as a vampire to be a “violent power.” “He can’t function as a powerful human, but he also can’t function as a powerful vampire, because the power is too great and will hurt his human existence,” he explained. “And I think it kind of drives him to a kind of apathy, and he reaches a bit of a stalemate.”
Louis becomes very emo, a state that fans of the film and of Rice’s book will certainly recognize. He’s basically a mortal trapped in the body of his own worst enemy — for eternity. And his partner, Lestat, the callous and unapologetically violent man with whom he lives, is the one responsible for it.
“He was my murderer, my mentor, my lover and my maker,” Louis recalls in the series.
Louis sits in a depressive state, as Anderson points out. But examining the desires, regret and deep frustrations of a vampire has always been what makes “Interview with the Vampire” such an astounding narrative. It almost startles you with its poignance.
“The whole book is so miserable, but I think actually it’s in [Louis’] misery, he’s sort of unpacking a type of grief that is essential to unpack,” Anderson said. “And that’s what keeps him going. He doesn’t just walk into the sun, and there’s something to be said for that.”
It is this sense of endurance that attracted the actor: “The endurance of a life, and what keeps you going? What makes you not just walk into the sun, in vampire terms?”
Maybe Louis is looking for an answer to this eternal dilemma, kind of like his decision to become a vampire in the first place. And he tries to fill that void with Claudia (Bailey Bass), a 14-year-old Black girl he rescues with barely a breath in her body. At Louis’ request, Lestat begrudgingly turns Claudia into a vampire to gain new life. She then lives with them as their daughter.
It would have been easy for the writers to depart from the trajectory of both the book and the film here, and have Claudia share a kinship with Louis instead of Lestat on account of their race. But this version of “Interview with the Vampire” thankfully doesn’t go in that direction.
The series keeps Claudia as impetuous and complex, and increasingly bitter about her permanent puberty, as in previous versions. But she’s also a ravenous vampire in a Black girl’s body, context that is equally important in this narrative.
This was exactly the kind of nuance Bass was eager to sink her teeth into (so to speak). For the actress, who turned 18 during the production, that often came down to maintaining the authenticity of Claudia’s ethnic hair — just as Bass preserves in her own life.
“Curls are not represented on screen a lot,” she said. “Every actor that I know that has curly hair, along with me, has a curly hair horror story on set. It’s really unfortunate, and I wanted to make sure that curly hair was being represented in the biggest form possible.”
Like Anderson, Bass researched the Black women and girls at the time to help ground Claudia in the history into which she was born.
“There weren’t a lot of pictures, especially of young little girls, which made it hard, because we kind of had to mix what we saw of white women and then the little bit that we saw in Black women and then just reinvent,” she recalled. “Claudia’s in this world — what would she do?”
For Bass, the answer meant giving the character a backstory that wasn’t fully told in the previous narratives, or even in this series so far — not anything like the extensiveness of Louis’ story. But it still comes across through her performance. We know Claudia comes “from suffering,” as Bass puts it. But what else makes her react the way she does when she turns into a vampire?
“In the backstory that I made, she wore almost the same clothes every day,” Bass said.
“She would run around barefoot with the kids in the neighborhood, just being free,” she went on. “That’s what was fun for her, because any parental figure that she had was so abusive and any adult in her life was just mean to her or made her very uncomfortable.”
It’s one reason Claudia just goes with her new reality of Louis and Lestat as her two dads. They treat her well enough and, especially as a vampire, she can more or less run amok. Despite the time period, she doesn’t even question her fathers’ romance.
Bass attributes that to Claudia’s innocence. “It’s because she learns everything from [Louis and Lestat],” the actress said. “Those are her role models. So, if someone’s not telling you that something’s wrong or that you shouldn’t be somewhere or that you’re not enough, you will never come to that conclusion.”
That’s understandable. But one of the first people Claudia kills is a cop, which certainly seems like a power move on the Black girl’s part.
Bass considers that, but views that scene as more of an example of Claudia’s impulsive behavior than anything else.
“She kind of doesn’t have the trauma that racism gave to Louis, because she went from not having anything to having everything and having this power,” Bass said. “So to her, all people are just blood to be sucked to give her strength.”
While it’s easy to believe that all human blood is simply a delicious snack to a young girl, it is just as easy to believe that Claudia internalized certain actions by white adults, and certainly by law enforcement, when she was mortal ― and that it’s given her particular appetites as a vampire.
That specificity is what makes “Interview with the Vampire” such an engrossing and satisfying deep dive. Each episode explores more of the characters’ evolving dynamic ― their uncertainties, longings and deep contradictions that always make their humanity rise closer to the surface, even as they’re devouring someone’s neck.
Through it all, there’s heartache, despair and, yes, rage. And it’s welcome.