Mayfair Witches Q&A — Tongayi Chirisa On His Lingering Questions About Ciprien’s Past
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 Tongayi Chirisa, who plays Ciprien Grieve the Talamasca agent assigned to Rowan, about shooting Episode 5’s loop scenes, the magic of the Mayfair house, and what he really wants to know about Sip’s backstory.
Q: So many new family members introduced themselves to Rowan in Episode 4 at the funeral, and it’s clear that everyone has their own motivations for connecting with her. That said, Sip feels like the most trustworthy new person in her life right from the get-go. He’s an amalgamation of two fantastic characters from the novels. Were you familiar with the Mayfair trilogy when you became involved with this project or were you all in because of Sip himself?
A: I wasn't familiar with the books, but I was aware of Anne Rice’s work through the movies Interview with the Vampire with Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, and then Queen of the Damned with the late Aaliyah. So that piqued my interest a lot. And then once I read this character, I wasn't sure if he was actually in the books or not, but I loved the fact that he was an agent. He’s tasked with observing supernatural activities, not only with the Mayfair witches but just out in the world, and I was like, "Sign me up!" Fantasy and this genre, that includes horror, is something that I've always wanted to get my feet into. And what a way to jump in!
Q: When we start Ep 5 there's a real moment of surprise when we see Sip and Rowan in bed together—it’s an immediate moment of “is this a dream?” “Is this real?” Once we realize they’re stuck in a loop, we know Lasher has his hands in this. What was it like shooting those loop scenes?
A: You know what was great about it was that we shot that entire episode chronologically. So, we didn't have to just dash off to film something else and come back to it. Everything was on set for five days. It was like we were doing a stage production where you literally go through the beats and the emotions. It allowed us to really go where we needed to go emotionally, physically. Just maintaining that energy for the week that we were filming that particular episode really helped me because I was mentally tired at the end of each day. So, by the time we got to Day 4, I was just dragging my feet onto set! [Laughs] I was like, "Guys, I am just spent!" Because maintaining that sickly energy takes a lot out of you. So being physically tired from the prior day’s work just added to the physicality of my performance.
Working with Alex Daddario in this episode was fantastic, because apart from the work that we needed to do, outside of that we were just cracking jokes. I think our giddy energy and our playfulness offscreen bled into the scenes. Our time together allowed us to be very comfortable with each other. Being in that intimate space for a whole week allowed for the natural flow and the chemistry you see; you'd think that these people have known each other for years. In reality the first time I ever met her was when I got to set! So being able to have that openness with each other really allowed for great scene work.
Q: Sip’s loyalty to the Talamasca seems unwavering. I’m sure fans are dying to know more about Sip’s past and how he even came to be part of that organization. Were you given any backstory for Ciprien, or did you create any backstory for him to help inform your performance?
A: Well, we used a little bit from the book, taking certain themes from the characters of Michael and Aaron. I read the book prior to the time that we were preparing. Then I learned that Esta Spalding would be showrunner. I knew she would be creating this rich world, so that dissuaded me from leaning too much on the original text. I wanted to lean into this world that they were creating instead and be inspired to bring in something new and exciting. I feel like that gave me license to really explore and to tap into places that I thought Ciprien's character would go.
He talks about his mom, and he talks about his upbringing a bit, but you just get snippets of his past. I think that will make it much more interesting to see eventually how far back we’re going to go with this character. What happened? How did he get his powers? Why did he become the man that he is? Why does he behave the way that he does? I know he talks about his gloves and his powers and why he puts his gloves on, but is there more to it? If he's controlling his powers, that's the complete antithesis of who Rowan is. She’s being encouraged to take hold and be in the fullness of her power, and what will it look like if Sip was to actually harness and embrace all that he can truly be? So, these are questions that are out there, certainly for me as an actor delving in. There’s so much mystery behind him and I would love to see why he is the way he is.
Q: What’s so cool about Episode 5 is that it uses a classic horror set up—being trapped in an unusual, powerful house—and really uses it as a way to move the narrative forward. We learn more about Rowan and Sip’s connection, about Lasher, and we even see glimpses of the past. The production design on the show is incredible! You mentioned it took five days to film this episode: what was it like spending hours within its heavily wallpapered walls filming these high-intensity fevered scenes?
A: The house is a character unto itself. It forces you to fall under its alluring atmosphere, its spell, and because of that, suddenly your words and your movement take on a different shape. I don't know how to explain it. But it's beautiful when you see a set design so detailed and intricate. Every which way you would turn, you'd touch a surface and there would be dust on it and you're like, "Oh my gosh!" So suddenly you start to walk with a little bit of reservation and respect for the space, like you would if you walked into an antique house. You suddenly don't want to touch too many things. Even the way I was getting onto the bed, I was like, "Okay, I gotta be careful because this bed is like a hundred years old!" And then I was like, "Wait a minute! Bro, this is probably from Ikea!" But that's how beautiful this environment was. You start to believe that this is all actually real, and it’s always been in that spot. This is somebody's antique property, and I can't mess it up.
Even the dust is where it’s supposed to be.
[Laughs] Yes! The sets are intricate, and so detailed and they just make your acting that much more authentic. As actors, we have the privilege of going to certain locations or using properties that are real and you just have a sense of respect for all of the places that put you in the right frame of mind to execute what you need to execute. I think that's the beauty of sets and locations, they can really transport you.
Q: When it comes down to it, Ciprien is a protector. He takes his job very seriously, but he’s also obviously grown to have feelings for Rowan. By the end of the episode even though his sister begs him not to, he’s going back out to find Rowan and help her. What can you tease out about how their relationship will evolve throughout the rest of the season?
A: Let's just say… it unravels! Make of that what you will. It unravels into something deeper, more beautiful? I don't know! It just unravels. So, I would definitely encourage you all to sit back, relax, and enjoy the show!
Full episodes of Anne Rice's Mayfair Witches are available to stream on amc.com (with a cable provider login), the AMC apps for mobile and devices, and AMC+ subscribers get early access to episodes on Thursdays. AMC+ is available at amcplus.com or through the new AMC+ app available on iPhone, iPad, Android, Fire TV, Apple TV, and Roku. AMC+ can also be accessed through a variety of providers, including AppleTV, Prime Video Channels, DirectTV, Dish, Roku Channel, Sling, and Xfinity. Sign up for AMC+ now.
Want to hear more from Tongayi? Listen to the AMC Mayfair Witches Podcast episode "#TeamRiprien" on Apple Podcasts.