Mayfair Witches Q&A — Showrunner Esta Spalding On Rowan’s Wild Side

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 we speak with creator, writer, and showrunner Esta Spalding about Rowan’s Episode 1 revelations, the power of filming the show in New Orleans, and how Rowan might contend with Lasher as the season progresses.

Q: It’s exciting to see another addition to Anne Rice’s Immortal Universe come to life. Anne Rice herself wanted the worlds of Interview with the Vampire and Mayfair Witches to be interconnected, so having Mark Johnson executive producing both is just perfect. How did you become part of Mayfair Witches and what elements of the source material drew you in the most?
A: Mark Johnson, who as you've said is producing all the Immortal Universe series, had worked with Michelle Ashford, who’s a wonderful screenwriter, in the past. Most recently she created Masters of Sex and I worked with her on that show. Mark thought Michelle would be interested in the material of Mayfair Witches. It's pretty hard as a feminist to resist writing about all this. Michelle and I were looking for some way to work together because we had had such a great experience working together on Masters. So when Mark approached her, she called me and said, "Hey, do you want to read this book and see if you'd be interested?" She wasn’t inclined to showrun because she's got so many other projects going, whereas I love showrunning! It's what I always want to do. I love throwing myself into one particular show, so that seemed like a great way to divvy up roles as well.
So, I read the material. I hadn't read the Mayfair Witches books. I knew the Vampire books, but I didn't know the Witch books, and I was immediately sucked in. Not only was I totally sucked in by the lead character, by Rowan and her journey through that first book in particular, but I was also so captivated by the fact that Anne Rice had made her witch a doctor. I thought it was incredibly innovative and an interesting choice. I did research on the history of witches and in particular on the genocide of women healers and midwives in Europe in the Middle Ages by the church. These women were accused of witchcraft, and they were slaughtered en masse. Drowned, hung, burned and all kinds of things. As I read more about that history, it seemed like such a brilliant, brilliant choice by Anne Rice to do this because she made Rowan come out of that legacy of midwives and healers. I loved that choice! I loved that history! And it felt really important to embed that in the first season of the show.
Q: When we meet Rowan in Episode 1 she’s an incredibly successful neurosurgeon, but certain things about her imply she’s not as firmly rooted and grounded in her life as she projects. Can you talk about Rowan finding her North Star this season and the journey she’s about to embark on? 
A: Her success as a doctor is such a huge part of her character in the book. When Michelle and I wrote the pilot together, we really worked from that image of Rowan as this absolutely brilliant and accomplished surgeon who seems – as my mother would say – all square corners with everything in her life in the hospital. But she’s absolutely hiding from some part of herself that is much more wild. She's got this boat that she lives on. She loves to be out in the weather and in the elements on her own. She doesn't want to meet men who are other doctors or intellectual in the way that she is. She wants these one-off nights with — in the book it’s mostly firefighters and policemen — that she meets in the bar. We weren't that specific, but we have her at this marina bar. It just feels like she has this other, more turbulent side that she doesn't acknowledge to most of the people in her life.
In the book, you feel it comes out of her not truly knowing who she is or understanding who she is and her always having felt like she's hiding a part of herself. So she's tried to seem like the good girl. She's tried to seem like the straight A student, and the good doctor with success and all that. But really there's this unknown part of her that she's tamping down and that she's hiding. Her journey in the first season is to really understand who she is, not only who she is in the family that she comes from, but also what her powers are. She's not acknowledged or fully realized these powers. She has the power to heal but also the power to do great, destructive damage, and in some ways, she revels in that destructiveness. It's something she doesn't admit for a really long time, but there is this wild side to her that’s out on the water on her own in that first episode.
Q: One of the coolest things I learned when researching the trilogy is that the Mayfair’s First Street house was very much inspired by Anne Rice’s real life antebellum mansion which she bought with the advance she got for The Witching Hour. Can you talk about the role that the house and New Orleans play in Mayfair Witches
A: I walked by that house almost every day. Every single day when I first got there for filming. Later on, as production got crazier, I couldn't go every day, but it was about eight blocks from where I was staying. It’s the most beautiful, inspiring house and it’s surrounded by all of these crazy, gnarled oak trees with crows everywhere around the house. You just felt the magical presence of that place. It was really, really exciting to be writing about that and to imagine her there. In interviews she talked about waking up in the morning, opening the shutters, and sitting down to begin writing and writing all day long into the night at that desk in that house. It was really exciting to think about her writing the book there and then trying to do everything I could to live up to that storytelling.
It was so exciting to get to shoot New Orleans for New Orleans and really open our eyes and our hearts to the city. We hired almost exclusively crew from New Orleans. We had a production designer from New Orleans. We were looking for ways to make New Orleans inhabit the space of the show. Just to give a small example, I was watching a documentary about food in New Orleans and saw this young, Filipina burlesque dancer called Grandmafun who performs in New Orleans. I was like, "I wonder if she could be in the show." I went to our casting guy, our local guy Ryan Glorioso, and said, "Can you find her?" and he did! And she ended up being in the show! We found the Skull and Bones Gang to come and perform their music for our second line parade so it would be really distinctive but very, very local, and original to the city. We were shooting at all of these buildings and locations in New Orleans, and everywhere we went there were people who love Anne Rice's work and love the Mayfair Witches books. We fed off of everybody's inspiration and excitement. Extras on the scenes were so excited to be there because of how much the books meant to them, so it feels like a love letter to Anne's books and to the city that Anne loved and wrote about so beautifully. I hope when viewers watch it they feel that way because it's certainly what we intended.
Q: A major theme in Season 1 that really struck me is ‘trust,’ specifically who should Rowan trust? As she meets her new family, which members of the Mayfair family can she really trust? Can she even trust herself or her newfound abilities? What can you speak to about trust when it comes to Rowan and all these things that are being thrown at her?
A: Oh, I think that's so astute! How can you trust yourself when you don't quite know who you are, when you're surprising yourself? I mean, she kills someone in the first episode, so she never really trusts herself or this power that she feels is kind of taken her over. She looks to Ciprien at the beginning because he offers a version of someone she thinks she can trust because he has some information about her powers. But the whole season is really shaped around: should she trust Ciprien, should she trust Lasher? She's torn between these two versions of what her power can be. You can control it, or you can enhance it and use it in its totality. As Lasher says, "It is you and I am part of you and you have to see this hidden part of yourself that you don't see," so there's a real trust question at the heart of that triangle.
What I loved so much in the book and I hope we've reflected in the show is that she's walking into this massive, sprawling family filled with very warm, loving, jovial people, but everybody has an agenda. I mean, there's power at stake in the form of Lasher, in the form of money, houses, inheritance and all that, and so who can Rowan trust? What I loved when we were writing it was to think about how every character believed they were the one who could help her most. They all really believed their own points of view, how she should navigate this situation, what she should do with who she is and where she's come from. There are some very, very bad characters involved that are doing nefarious things, but everybody believes their own position wholeheartedly. They really think what they're offering is good and true.
Q: Episode 1 ends with Rowan deep in grief at the loss of her mother and her first real sighting of Lasher. Seeing some of Deidre’s backstory in this episode, we already know that Lasher’s ability to seduce and manipulate is unmatched. What can you tease about Lasher and how Rowan will deal with him as the season progresses?
A: I guess I'd just say that at every moment I think we wanted to believe that Lasher was both an angel and a demon. And Lasher says that in the pilot. He says, "I'm a saint and I'm a devil." He offers both things. He’s giving Rowan the possibility of fully inhabiting her power, but he also has reasons of his own for her to want to step into that power. That there's a nefariousness, but that he really is offering her a chance to not shy away from her power, to not try to cover it up or put gloves on it the way Cip does. I hope the audience will be asking, "Is he going to control her, or will she take control of him and master him in the way that she will master her own powers? Which will it be?" I want viewers to be excited by that question and excited to see what direction she goes in.

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