The bestselling literary horror world of celebrated author Anne Rice gets bigger and more magical on AMC and AMC+ this January with the premiere of Anne Rice’s Mayfair Witches. Adapting Rice’s popular The Lives of the Mayfair Witches novels, the series follows young neurosurgeon Rowan Fielding (Alexandra Daddario), who discovers she is part of a long line of witches as she is drawn to New Orleans. Created by Esta Spalding and Michelle Ashford, the series showcases the history of witchcraft in Rowan’s family as she embraces her spellbinding destiny.
In an exclusive interview with CBR, series creators Esta Spalding and Michelle Ashford, with executive producer Mark Johnson — who also executive produces AMC’s other acclaimed Rice adaptation, Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire — detailed the new supernatural series. The group dished on Mayfair Witches themes, shared behind-the-scenes secrets, and praised the cast and crew for bringing this supernatural horror story to life on screen.
CBR: What was it about The Witching Hour and the rest of Anne Rice’s The Lives of the Mayfair Witches that inspired you to create this television adaptation?
Mark Johnson: I’m in this incredibly important position of looking after all of these Anne Rice books that AMC bought. We’ve obviously done Interview with the Vampire, but The Witching Hour was particularly difficult. I didn’t quite know how to approach it but was fascinated by the character Rowan and reached out to Michelle, who I had known for some time. I just thought she would know what to do with her and is a very responsible writer of women. She brought Esta in, and what you see all their invention, and I’m sort of a little humbled by it.
How was it having Rowan as this point-of-view character into the bayou and the history of this family she never knew?
Esta Spalding: I think it is all that story of someone who is discovering something about themselves. We’re all asking, “Who am I? Where do I come from?” To add to that and enhance that with gaining these powers, but they’re terrifying powers, is part of it for sure. Another thing that gripped Michelle and me from the beginning was just the fact that she’s a doctor, which just seemed like such an interesting take on witchcraft.
As we went back, did the research, and got super engaged, there’s this long history of midwives and healers in the Middle Ages in Europe being accused of witchcraft and a whole genocide of women at that time because they had healing powers. The story of the Mayfairs starts with the first midwife, Suzanne, who is accused of witchcraft. To have that seed and build out 13 generations of healing women to this neurosurgeon in California seemed like an amazing take on witchcraft. We felt we could use that to talk about women’s power now and ways women’s power threatens the patriarchy.
Sex is prevalent in the series — sex as power, sex as an escape — as it is with many of Anne Rice’s novels beyond the Mayfair Witches. How did you want to depict sex and the themes that sensuality can bring to the story?
Michelle Ashford: It is really interesting because Anne’s work, across the board, is just filled with that exploration. Especially for the moment that we’re in, in terms of women and what’s been happening, the notion of sex as an instrument of power — and who has it and who doesn’t — was really fascinating to us and felt relevant, especially because a character like Rowan is surrounded by men. That’s her journey in this, [with] two powerful and very interesting men. We thought that was really cool — how do you take a really strong woman in this modern day, and how does sex play into that seemed great in terms of just relevance with what’s happening.
Johnson: Anne Rice has sex in all of her books, in terms of power, entitlement, and, quite frankly, sheer carnal pleasure — be it men, be it women. She describes it in a very unique way, and it’s threaded into almost all of her stories. One of the things we had to deal with was there are certain aspects of it that are just not appropriate, I think, for us, our viewers, or the time. We had to sort of be careful about how we rendered it, and yet nevertheless — and I’m glad you pointed it out — these books and our show have a very sexual bent to them.
Spalding: I think, as Mark’s saying, so much for Rowan is she is a very sexually liberated person. What’s amazing about Anne is that, at a certain point, you’re not just talking about sex. You’re talking about sex with a demon, with your body being taken over by things you can’t control. It stops being sex and starts being a metaphor for things that are so powerful in this moment, as far as women’s bodily autonomy and control. She was writing way back — I think these books came out in the early ’90s, and those themes are still incredibly relevant and exciting to get to write about.
Johnson: There’s sex for pure pleasure, sex for procreation, and, in some cases, there’s a real confusion of the two.
You really lean into the New Orleans setting with the cinematography, exteriors, and local culture. How was it making New Orleans its own character in the story?
Spalding: Getting to shoot New Orleans for New Orleans is just a wonderful thing. So many shows are shot there, and they’re supposed to be Florida or whatever. To be able to live in New Orleans, we had such a brilliant team. Our production designer was local to New Orleans and knew the world, the mansions, and the First Street House and really brought it to life. Our [Director of Photography] decided we should shoot in a slightly different aspect ratio because it wouldn’t be the right ratio for those French-style mansions in the Garden District, so that changed. The color, the look, the feel, and the kinds of lenses we were using was so about highlighting the beauty of that city.
All along the way, we were trying to find and build out the world with local talent and discoveries. The Skull & Bone Gang, who are a second-line crew, agreed to be in the show and do the music for the show and bring that second-line sequence to life. The city really came into play. The people really love Anne Rice’s books and love these books, and they wanted to be a part of it. It was super exciting to find people to bring on — [like] the musician Quintron and Grandmafun, who is a burlesque dancer who makes an appearance — [were] just really wonderful local talent to meet.
Johnson: Every one of our crew members had a relationship with Anne — not that everyone had met her, though some actually had, but she just informed their knowledge and sense of the city. Every last one of us felt an obligation to get it right. I’m sure people say this all the time, but this was not a job — it was a commitment. I think that everybody… When she passed while we were shooting Interview with the Vampire, it was a profound moment. It was somebody who imbued herself in her work and what we were all doing. It’s fun to have that sort of commitment from everybody on the set.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the cast. How was it assembling the actors to bring these characters to life?
Ashford: When we were first sitting down, we were like, “First of all, who is Rowan because it has to be someone who is both believable as a doctor and someone that you look at and go, ‘Oh, I can see that person is a witch.’” There are not a lot of actresses who can do both, but lovely Alex [Daddario] has this ethereal and otherworldly quality, [and] in addition, she can be seriously kickass as well. We talked about her from the very beginning, and then there’s Lasher, of course.
Spalding: Lasher is very tricky, and you need somebody who can be terrifying and also seductive, who, when he disappears, it doesn’t feel silly like a genie going into a bottle. With Jack Huston, it became profoundly easier to write the character. We hadn’t written all the scripts before we started, and once Jack was cast, he was really helpful in figuring out how to shoot some of those scenes. That was wonderful.
I felt really excited when I saw the audition by Tongayi Chirisa because to have somebody who is this professional Talamascan agent. They have to feel very scholarly — it’s not like a police officer — but also have a real warmth. You know this person has to put on gloves because they have so much empathy. It was one of [those] things where you’re watching so many taped auditions, and you’re like, “I think I write the character better when I go and watch that guy’s take. He’s fantastic!” Michelle, you should talk about Harry [Hamlin].
Ashford: We knew that we needed a man of a certain age, and we just thought we wanted this character to be fun. We wanted, immediately when you see him, to go, “I’m in for a great ride here.” We started talking about Harry, and it just had to be him. First of all, he’s such a gamer, such a lovely, fun guy to begin with.
Spalding: I had a moment where I was called to see if he would read over the script on the phone, and I literally had to put my hand over [the receiver] and go, “I’m talking to Harry Hamlin!” because I’m such a fan. The idea of having Harry in our world… He was so excited to do scenes as a Southerner, which he had never done before.
Ashford: He told us, “I’ve got my accent for this!” [laughs] It was great. He is such a gamer! We came up with a scene where he’s holding a snake, and he was thrilled when he got to hold the snake.
Created by Esta Spalding and Michelle Ashford, Anne Rice’s Mayfair Witches premieres Jan. 8 at 9pm ET/PT on AMC, with episodes also available to stream on AMC+.