Mayfair Witches Q&A — Harry Hamlin on The Enigma That Is Cortland Mayfair
Based on Rice’s bestselling trilogy Lives of the Mayfair Witches, Anne Rice’s Mayfair Witches is a dark drama that follows neurosurgeon Dr. Rowan Fielding (Alexandra Daddario) as she learns about her past and discovers her unlikely ties to a family of witches. In this interview with amc.com we speak with Harry Hamlin, who plays Cortland Mayfair the patriarch of the Mayfair family, about what Cortland really thinks of Lasher, where Cortland’s true allegiances lie, and what it was like working with costume designer Janie Bryant again so many years after Mad Men.
Q: Cortland plays his cards close to the chest more than any other Mayfair family member, but it seems pretty clear that he’s more concerned with power, money and fun than anything else. He’s also often the only man present! What was it like taking on this character and were you a fan of the Mayfair trilogy before becoming involved in this project?
A: Well, I loved the film Interview with the Vampire, but I had never actually read any of Anne Rice's books. I think perhaps it's a generational thing. I think people who are maybe 15 or 20 years younger than I are the people who read her books. So that could be a reason why, but I also don't really believe in witches and vampires and stuff like that so it's not really in my wheelhouse.
That said, the role of Cortland is definitely in my wheelhouse. And the idea of playing the patriarch of a witchy family was very intriguing to me! Also, knowing that Esta [Spalding] was writing this based on the books, but not necessarily exactly as the books were written allowed for a lot of interesting new stories to be written. I did listen to the first 15 hours of the audio book of The Witching Hour — there were 56 hours I think all together! After reading the scripts and realizing that Esta was taking the characters, amalgamating them, creating new stories and new situations, I stopped investing in the original trilogy because I realized that this wouldn’t be the exact same story.
Tongayi [Chirisa] said something similar. He said knowing that Esta was taking the source material but crafting it into something new meant that he didn't want to get “tainted by” or get too committed to the source material.
I think he's not wrong about that! The character of Cortland is in many ways Esta's creation. So even though he's in the books, I'm pretty sure in the books he dies in 1969. Given that the timelines of our stories in the show are kind of all over the place, from the 80's to present day to 1600's Scotland, yeah, I think that it was wise to just stick to the scripts and not get too involved with what was going on in the books.
Q: Although he’s very good at playing the role of a harmless playboy, it becomes clear in Episode 2 when we see his interaction with Lasher that Cortland is doing his bidding. It’s interesting to see him talk so positively about Lasher, especially in Episode 6 when he sits down to tea with Rowan and encourages her to “take him by the reigns.” What does Cortland really think of Lasher, and do you think he actually cares about Rowan’s wellbeing?
A: I think he does really care about Rowan's well-being, but Lasher remains an enigma, even to Cortland. He wants to get a handle on him, and he wants to understand who Lasher is, what Lasher's capable of, but I think that remains somewhat of a mystery to him. Lasher's there and not there at the same time, so there's really no way to get a handle on who he is absolutely. But I do think that Cortland has a great deal of respect for what Lasher's capable of.
Q: Not only is the Mayfair house pictured in the show magical and iconic, but so is Cortland’s home. It’s full of so many textures, patterns and colors. What was it like inhabiting that space and how did it help you get into character?
A: The house actually played a pretty big part in me finding the character. Going through that house and seeing all the knickknacks that Cortland had placed there, or rather that were placed there by the set decorator. I thought that they did a magnificent job creating that space, and from my perspective, it was one of the things that helped me understand the character. The main thing, oddly enough, that helped me understand the character was the pinkie ring that was given to me by Janie Bryant [costume designer] one of the last days of our wardrobe fittings. But yeah, the house itself was a big deal!
I’m glad you brought up Janie! This isn’t the first time you've worked with her because she was also the costume designer for Mad Men, right?
A: Yes, she was. And it was a challenge for her because I had gone vegan during that time in the second season I was on that show, and I kept losing weight and she kept having to pull in the wardrobe, pull in the costumes. Not quite so much of a challenge this time for her! [Laughs]
Q: You’ve talked a little bit about Cortland's outfits, and specifically his outlandish suits!
[Laughs] She did a great job with that, didn't she?
Absolutely! Environment plays a part in character transformation, but obviously costuming plays a big role as well.
Oh yeah, I mean as soon as she put those clothes on me, Cortland began to grow inside of me. I would say that his genesis was in those early wardrobe fittings, for sure.
Q: Rowan also discovers in Episode 6 that Cortland is suffering from ALS, so that gives us a bit more clarity into why Cortland would be doing Lasher’s bidding — to save himself! That said, he doesn’t seem to be into the idea of forcing Rowan to remain the designee and he’s the one who brings up the idea of a transference. Right now, Cortland exists in this grey space between good and evil... but that might change as we learn more about him.
A: Well, for Season 2 we'll see what happens! We're going to get creative!
Q: One thing that keeps coming to mind in relation to Cortland is the idea of legacy. I really wonder how Cortland would describe the Mayfair legacy and what his understanding of that legacy is?
A: So much remains to be seen, and I can’t say much without spilling the beans really! Up until Episode 6, Cortland remains an enigma as well because we don't really know what side he's on, who he's rooting for. Of course, he's on his own side rooting for himself because of the death sentence of ALS, so that totally gives him incentive to work with Lasher and get him to try to help him through that situation. But like I said, I'd be spilling the beans if I say too much!
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Want to hear more from Harry? Listen to the AMC Mayfair Witches Podcast episode “Explissssit Content Warning” on Apple Podcasts.