Anne Rice’s 1976 novel “Interview with the Vampire” comes with plenty of name recognition and an established fan base, but also considerable baggage from the disastrous 1994 movie starring the twin miscastings of Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. You can’t fault audiences who might be wary of AMC’s eight-episode adaptation, but I’m here to tell you: Let all of that go. The series is vibrantly written, tonally self-assured and unexpectedly funny. Yes, funny. I know!
The show comes from Rolin Jones, whose credits include everything from the drama “Boardwalk Empire” to the musical “Smash” to the comedy “Life in Pieces.” It’s a resume that perhaps speaks to an interest — and facility — with a variety of genres. This works to “Interview’s” benefit and clearly AMC is happy with the results; the show has already been renewed for a second season.
Some key changes have been made in this version. Louis de Pointe du Lac remains the chatty vampire of the title, but instead of a white Louisiana plantation and slave owner in the late 18th century when he gets that fateful bite to the neck, he is now the Black — Creole to be precise — proprietor of several brothels in early 20th century New Orleans.
But first: The story begins in the here and now, in a world where the pandemic exists. Journalist Daniel Molloy is sourly curled up at home, watching a promo for an online course he’s offering that’s basically a MasterClass knockoff: “I’ve been fired from three papers, hired back at two of them, the third got gobbled up by Knight-Ridder — so to be clear here, I’m a goddamn reservoir of do’s and don’ts.” I did not expect to laugh during the opening moments of this show! But it has such a sly and knowing sense of humor.
Daniel is played by Eric Bogosian and it’s an inspired stroke of casting. He’s cranky and sardonic and jaded. He’s seen it all. And only an invitation from Louis — who he once interviewed a half-century earlier; nothing ever came of those tapes because the interview was just too weird — can puncture Daniel’s self-satisfied grouchiness and get him on a plane to Dubai, his curiosity piqued.
Which is where we find Louis, played by Jacob Anderson in a performance that elicits far more interesting things from him than his stoic turn as Grey Worm on “Game of Thrones.”
Ensconced in a fully-staffed modernist penthouse apartment, Louis proposes a do-over. Daniel is skeptical. The conversations on those old tapes they made together so long ago? “It’s not an interview, it’s a fever dream told to an idiot.” Yes, Louis responds. So, let’s begin again. The two may be suspicious of one another, but they are also driven by their own motivations to see this through — whatever this is. Their interplay, a series of parries back and forth, is terrific.
And so Daniel hits “record” once again. We’re transported to 1910 and immersed in the world of Louis. He has a family that adores him — if not his line of work, which supports them all quite nicely. His pious brother says they’re profiting from the damnation of souls. “Let’s not fuss over the particulars,” says their mother. Oh, this show is acerbic about human nature and the way the wealthy are quick to look the other way when it comes to the “particulars” of how their wealth comes to be.
Louis knows he can’t appear weak. Not in his business, not in that part of town. And yet it’s a delicate balance; he’s surrounded by a cadre of insufferable but well-connected racists who can meddle with his money and expect his deference at all times.
Louis is handsome and confident and clear about his place in the world. He has close family bonds. And though he may have a rage roiling just beneath the surface, he’s not ripe for the picking.
That’s exactly what makes him so appealing to Lestat de Lioncourt, the vampire bon vivant recently arrived from France.
Played by Sam Reid, Lestat is smooth and urbane, his voice thick with lust — or sometimes boredom — and he is shamelessly flirting with Louis. Grooming him, really. There’s a languid John Malkovich quality to Reid’s Lestat, and whatever homoerotic subtext there was in the original is now fully text. Lestat is besotted; Louis is entranced. They do not hold back.
Then, tragedy strikes. Louis is overcome by guilt and grief and suddenly he is vulnerable to Lestat’s vampiric sales pitch — in a Catholic church of all places, “blissing out post-priesticide,” as Daniel chimes in, deadpan.
“Interview with the Vampire” is smart in the ways it uses the luxury of time that a TV series allows. It’s doesn’t fall into the noncommittal trap of colorblind casting, but makes the story specific to Louis and specific in its depiction of Black culture in New Orleans. And we get to know our central pair as they are together, in a meaningful way, before they become locked into an arrangement that eventually grows to resemble a bickering marriage. They are never quite equals, but to only view Lestat as an alluring if a predatory figure who doesn’t adapt well to disappointment is to sell their story short. “He had a way about him, those first years, preternaturally charming, occasionally thoughtful,” Louis tells Daniel. “He was my murderer, my mentor, my lover and my maker.” Their primary source of tension: Louis’ distaste for killing (“I was a fumbling despondent killer, a botched vampire”) and Lestat’s full-blown enjoyment of it. There’s real love here. There usually is in relationships like this, which is what makes them so toxic.
And so, to bandage over their discontent, they bring 14-year-old Claudia into their world, played by a sprightly Bailey Bass, whose diary entries provide a droll humor all their own. She’s young and petulant but she’s not tragic exactly — though in another sense, she absolutely is. By making her a vampire, Uncle Les and Daddy Lou have condemned her to a permanent existence in a preteen body, with no one else around, of her “kind” so to speak, with whom she can fall in love.
This is where the series loses some of its footing. Louis is an unreliable narrator, so it follows that his point of view is tainted by resentments. But vampires, we learn, have powers: The ability to stop time or read minds. Speed. It feels like a failure of imagination to give Louis powers that he so rarely uses in a strategic way. Someone who spent all those years swallowing down racism wouldn’t be tempted to level the playing field a little? Really? Because that mind-reading trick is handy and though Lestat may be a hedonist, Louis sees a bigger picture. Anyway, a missed opportunity.
There are other weaknesses to the story. We get a glimpse of Daniel’s notes on his laptop where he ponders the logistics of Louis’ house staff in Dubai, who are completely aware they’re employed by a vampire: “NDA?????? How do these arrangements work? How much $$??” I appreciate that he’s asking these questions! But that doesn’t get around the fact that the show isn’t particularly interested in answering them.
Well, so what. “Interview with the Vampire” is visually rich (New Orleans has never looked so glorious, even its seedier corners) and the writing is just so conspicuously fun in a way that is uncommon on television. “When I first started learning English, I abhorred it,” Lestat says, “every word felt like a doorknob falling out of my mouth.” Or as he teaches Louis to read minds: “Every human thought boils down to three things: I want food. I want sex. I want to go home.” This show has jokes! Or when Lestat struggles to understand why Louis picked a certain victim: “You are a library of confusion,” he says, truly flummoxed.
There is an entire Anne Rice television universe in the works at AMC, and depending on your feelings about Hollywood’s obsession with intellectual property — the IP-ization of every preexisting title imaginable — the words “Anne Rice television universe” will either strike you as intriguing or … something else. I’ll reserve judgment for now, but if forthcoming shows are anything close to the high quality of “Interview,” that’s a helluva lot more intriguing to me than any number of other major genre book adaptations (cough “The House of the Dragon,” cough “The Rings of Power”) at the moment.
Stick around for “Interview’s” end credits because the music from composer Daniel Hart is absolutely gorgeous. But it’s the brief title sequence that packs a punch. It sounds a bit like an orchestra tuning up, which is fitting: What’s to come is a symphony of clashing personalities locked in a dramatic and bloody embrace.
“Interview with a Vampire” — 3.5 stars (out of 4)
Where to watch: 9 p.m. Sundays on AMC (and streaming on AMC+)
Nina Metz is a Tribune critic
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