Mark Johnson, Esta Spalding, Michelle Ashford, Alexandra Daddario, Harry Hamlin and Tongayi Chirisa discussing Season 1 of MAYFAIR WITCHES at the TCA's | ©2023 AMC/photo by Sara Kestlinger

Mark Johnson, Esta Spalding, Michelle Ashford, Alexandra Daddario, Harry Hamlin and Tongayi Chirisa discussing Season 1 of MAYFAIR WITCHES at the TCA’s | ©2023 AMC/photo by Sara Kestlinger

ANNE RICE’S MAYFAIR WITCHES, based on the novels by the late Rice, is currently in its first season on Sunday nights on AMC, as well as being available on AMC+. It shares the same universe (and some characters) with another AMC/AMC+ series, INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE, which aired its first season last year and has been renewed for a second.

MAYFAIR WITCHES tells a multigenerational story, but the first season focuses largely on neurosurgeon Rowan Fielding, played by Alexandra Daddario. Rowan discovers to her astonishment that she has powerful supernatural gifts, and that she belongs to the thirteenth generation of Mayfair witches, currently headquartered in New Orleans. Rowan’s bloodline is tied to a mysterious and dangerous spirit known as Lasher, played by Jack Huston.

MAYFAIR WITCHES was developed for television by executive producers Michelle Ashford and Esta Spalding. Ashford previously created the Emmy-winning and much-nominated series MASTERS OF SEX, which Spalding worked on as a writer and co-executive producer.

Ashford has also been a writer/producer on films and series including THE STRANGER IN THE WOODS, CAT PERSON, and THE PACIFIC. Spalding’s other writer/producer credits include the PARTY OF FIVE reboot, ON BECOMING A GOD IN CENTRAL FLORIDA, and BATTLE CREEK.

Together, Ashford and Spalding sit down at Pasadena’s Langham Hotel to discuss making TV magic with MAYFAIR WITCHES.

MAYFAIR WITCHES key art - Season 1 | ©2023 AMC

MAYFAIR WITCHES key art – Season 1 | ©2023 AMC

ASSIGNMENT X: How did you both become involved with this series?

MICHELLE ASHFORD: We worked together on MASTERS, for the last two years of the show, and I worked with [fellow WITCHES executive producer] Mark Johnson many years ago. So, when this was coming up, he called and said, “Oh, would you be interested in MAYFAIR WITCHES?” I thought, “Well, I would really want to do it with Esta,” because I knew Esta was really good with genre and story, so I called and you [Spalding] were like, “Let’s read this sucker and see what happens.”

ESTA SPALDING: It’s hard to say no to witches, and it’s very hard to say no to Michelle –

[Ashford laughs.]

SPALDING: So, the combination drew me in.

AX: Anne Rise is listed as one of the executive producers on MAYFAIR WITCHES, but she passed away in December 2021. Was she able to have any involvement in the project before that?

ASHFORD: She did pass away, but also, she gave her entire estate of her body of work over to AMC, and I think it was just, “Go with God.” So, I don’t know that she would have had any input anyway.

SPALDING: I know her son Christopher has been involved. [to Ashford] But tell about meeting her.

ASHFORD: I did meet her, many, many years ago. I was working at Sony, and they said, “Anne has an idea for a TV show. Will you fly to New Orleans and meet her?” It was some of the most extraordinary eighteen hours I’d ever spent. Our meeting started at the First Street house, where MAYFAIR WITCHES is set. After we met and spoke at her house, she said, “I want to show you around.” We were in this long stretch black limo, and she had a black leather case that her driver carried everywhere, and inside was Tab. Wherever she went, her driver had the little case, so she could always have a Tab. She was showing us all her properties. One of them used to be an orphanage. And we walked in, I was like, “Whoa, what is going on here?” It was filled with her doll collection, and the dolls were all set up, sitting around tables. Amazing day. So, when [MAYFAIR WITCHES] came around, I was like, “Oh, my God, this is meant to be,” because I’d actually been in that house, with Anne.

AX: The Talamasca organization of investigators of supernatural phenomena carries through both the INTERVIEW and MAYFAIR series. Mark Johnson is an executive producer on both, so is he coordinating any crossover aspects?

ASHFORD: Yeah. Mark and everybody who works at [production company] Gran Via are very much overseeing this and all these different shows, and keeping track to keep the worlds consistent. We were the first show in the Anne Rice universe to get to develop the look and feel of the Talamasca, and [Gran Via] were really integral to helping do that, to talking about, what would the Talamasca office space in New Orleans look like? How can we build it out so that it’s something that will be seen in other shows in the Anne Rice universe, and it will still feel consistent? So, there was a lot of thought that went into that. Would they wear uniforms? How would they dress? What is the office? We decided everything should be low-tech and midcentury modern. We talked about how the Talamasca would find buildings that already existed, like old banks and libraries, and build into those, since there was no real visible building that was new that was Talamasca. It was kind of hidden. So, a lot of that is in the way we designed the set and the wardrobe.

AX: Where do you shoot?

ASHFORD: New Orleans.

AX: So, are guys crossing paths with INTERVIEW, sharing crew, or …?

SPALDING: We started our production right on the heels of INTERVIEW. We got so much of their crew, which was wonderful, because there was this bond that people already had to the material. So many people already have a bond to Anne Rice’s books in that city, and were committed to being part of these projects. And we shot on the INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE stages, but we repurposed them. So, the first three house interiors are actually set on the Lestat townhouse interiors for INTERVIEW, with the staircase turned around.

AX: Did you have a lot of discussions about how many different timelines you wanted in Season 1 of MAYFAIR WITCHES?

SPALDING: We did, we did.

ASHFORD: The book starts with Rowan far, far away from New Orleans, and completely oblivious to it. We wanted to have New Orleans in the pilot. We needed New Orleans. Plus, there’s this incredible back story about what had happened to Rowan’s mother, Deirdre [played by Annabeth Gish]. So, yes, we went back and forth about how we were going to do it. We knew that we were pretty clear the pilot was going to have to have the two, so that we could understand.

AX: And then you have sequences in old Scotland …

SPALDING: Yeah. Starting in Episode 2, we have these pieces of the story of the first Mayfair witch, Suzanne [played by Hannah Alline], in Scotland. Those are really just devoted to her experience as she becomes a midwife, and the life in her village. But eventually, in Episode 6, they brew up a really fun, interesting twist and device and a prop, actually. They become part of Rowan’s contemporary story, and two storylines merge. So, the audience has to wait for it, and I’m sure there will be people saying, “What am I watching at the beginning? How does it connect?” We tried to connect it thematically in every episode, but really, you don’t get the payoff of how Suzanne’s story connects with Rowan’s story until later in the season.

ASHFORD: It was a brilliant idea, to have these little one-off teasers about some place far away, and in some totally different time, way in the past, and it’s cool.

SPALDING: I think one of the things that we really resonated with, when we were first figuring out the shape of the story, and the themes of the season, was this history of women healers and midwives who were massacred during the Middle Ages in Europe. They were called “witches,” but essentially, the power that they had, to bring children into the world, and to assist as people died, and all of the healing in between, was threatening to the Church. And so, the Church persecuted them. And that is in Anne Rice’s book, and it’s the reason that Rowan is a doctor later, is this long history of midwifery and healing. So, we really wanted to call on that, and to see this medieval midwife in the show.

AX: All of your Mayfair witches have very striking blue eyes. Did Anne Rice describe the eyes of the witches, or did you just look at Alexandra Daddario’s real eyes and say, “That’s the look, and we’ll put in contact lenses on our other witch actors”?

ASHFORD: She didn’t [describe the witches’ eyes], but isn’t it funny, though? You can see with INTERVIEW as well, there’s something about the eyes. And we did immediately think [to match the eyes of] Alex Daddario, because of that intensity.

AX: Do we find out if Lasher is a one-off being, or if he’s a member of a species?

ASHFORD: It’s something that you don’t find out in the first season, but it’s definitely built into Season 2. The way in which she does it, which is really beautiful, in the second book, which will be the second season, if we’re lucky enough to get one, the way Anne Rice does it is that Lasher himself is trying to understand what he is, as he begins to pursue, “What could be my story?” And that’s a really compelling search for identity in the second book.

AX: Can you talk about casting Jack Huston as Lasher?

ASHFORD: Well, wasn’t that the hardest thing in the world, because we were like, “How do you embody a spirit, essentially, a nonhuman casting issue?” So, we went around and around. We kept talking about, “What is the quality of this character? How would you describe this character?” And we were like, “It’s like a rock star. When Mick Jagger walks in the room.”

SPALDING: David Bowie. We kept thinking like that.

ASHFORD: So, we were like, “Who can embody that feeling of rock star?” And then we met Jack Huston, and it was like, “Oh, he’s got it” [laughs]. He has a big personality. He walks into a room, and he’s a very commanding guy in real life. And lovely. Plus, he’s Hollywood royalty [great-grandson of Walter Huston, grandson of John Huston, son of Tony Huston, nephew of Anjelica Huston and Danny Huston], so he comes with a lot of really interesting qualities.

SPALDING: And he has this lovely British accent, which we love Lasher having. But then, this is a little bit of a spoiler, but when he steps into Suzanne’s world of Scotland, that Scottish brogue comes out, and it’s just extraordinary [laughs]. It just felt like his voice was right for Lasher.

AX: Is there any mention of vampires? I doubt that we’re going to see one in Season 1 of MAYFAIR WITCHES, but is Rowan aware that they exist?

SPALDING: As she moves deeper and deeper and deeper into New Orleans, all of these different aspects of the supernatural, and through the character Ciprien [Tongayi Chirisa], who is with the Talamasca, she becomes aware of this world, but we don’t have a concrete moment in Season 1 where we talk about vampires. I will say that we had a lot of fun creating in the pilot the character of Lemle [played Tobias Jelinek] as a kind of immortalist, and imagining that he would be deeply interested to know in our world that there are vampires in New Orleans [laughs], and there’s an easier way to get immortality than doing stem cell research.

AX: Did you consciously make this more diverse in terms of race and gender than the books are?

SPALDING: Oh, of course. We wanted it to reflect our world. We really felt like we wanted to write a show that had a diverse family as well. The Mayfairs in those wonderful middle chapters in the book go through Haiti and there’s all of this story there, and we felt like there would be diversity in the family as a result of that. We have a very diverse writers’ room and was helping to put together the story of each of those generations, and how that would have worked for Haiti and coming out of the revolution, and then coming into New Orleans. So, the Mayfair family, in our version, is a diverse family, all these different branches.

AX: You also have a trans woman character, Jojo, played by Jen Richards …

SPALDING: Actually, we have a couple of trans characters by the end of the season.

AX: Are they trans in the books?

SPALDING: No, they’re not in the book. But again, that just felt really, really important, that women in the world can see themselves in the Mayfair witches, and that we open ourselves to all ways in which people identify.

AX: In the show, Ciprien, who is Black, puts himself on the line for Rowan, a white woman he barely knows. How much, if at all, do you deal with that political aspect of it, or is it just that he is committed, and this is what the Talamasca does?

SPALDING: Absolutely.

ASHFORD: This is his job. It feels like it takes it out of the realm of any kind of racial politics on that level. It just feels like, this is his job, he’s been with the Talamasca a long time.  He has his own powers. So, it just feels like, yeah, he’s very serious about doing his job and doing it well.

AX: Did making MASTERS OF SEX set you up in any way for your depictions of sex in MAYFAIR WITCHES?

ASHFORD: We were learning on the fly when MASTERS OF SEX started about how to do that, and we learned a couple of times the hard way about how to approach sex scenes. It was actually on MASTERS where we realized, “Oh, you have to have a separate meeting. It has to be like you’re planning an action shot.” And right at the end of that, that’s when intimacy coordinators [professionals whose job it is to make sure everyone knows exactly what will happen and is comfortable with it in sequences where actors touch each other] started to come in. But we did not have that, so it is very different now.

AX: In terms of how you depict sexuality, there’s somewhat different thinking now about how women react to their own sexuality now, as opposed to when Anne Rice was writing the books …

SPALDING: I think one thing that we really felt strongly about, and this started with the producers, but also very much was something we talked about in the writers’ room, was that we felt it was really important, in a show about women’s power, in a show with this female lead, a show about witches, that there be consent in the scenes, and that the women be empowered. And we do have a rape scene – it’s revealed to be that later on – but we were very sparing. We wanted to consider the issues of consent in every single sex scene we wrote, and try to give the women characters in our show power and authorship over their own lives through consenting sex. It was a very different time when those books were written. So, when it was issues of sex, the tone and the way it’s done – I mentioned all the women have consent in these scenes.

ASHFORD: There was some of it we had to change, because it was written in the ‘80s, and we were in a very different world. And [behind the scenes] we learned this on MASTERS, we would have done it anyway, but when women are running shows, if we had an actor or an actress we really wanted, and that person said, “No nudity,” we were like, “Okay, we’ll make it work for you then.” Because there have been shows where it’s like, “This is part of the deal. You either do it, or we have to find somebody else.” We never did that. There was a lot of stuff that changed.

AX: Were there other things you had to change from the book? For instance, differences in technology, where in the ‘80s, you could strand someone in the middle of the road, and now they’d have a cell phone to call for help?

SPALDING: I actually feel like one of the fun things in our version of this is that a very intense supernatural thing is happening in the house, Ciprien is figuring out a really crazy, interesting thing in the Talamasca headquarters, and he and Rowan are texting [laughs]. We’re incorporating contemporary technology in scenes that also have witchcraft and some supernatural feels like one of the fun things of this show, and of doing a contemporary version of a witch show.

AX: Do you think, in terms of empathizing with the characters, “If I had these powers, what would I want to do,” or “What would appeal to me, what would scare me?”

SPALDING: Yeah. The funnest way to write it is to really put yourself inside that.

ASHFORD: Yeah. But it’s also scary. It was like, if this power started, it’s destructive at first. That feeling of fear and vulnerability seemed like it would really be one of the most immediate emotions for Rowan.

SPALDING: Well, one of the things we started with in the script – first, we were trying to break the story. We just said, “So, what’s really happening in the world right now?” And it feels like the patriarchy, it’s grabbing on for dear life, but it’s falling apart really. So, what’s going to replace it? And it seems like some kind of system where it will have women very much at the center of it, in terms of who makes the world run.

ASHFORD: The really interesting thing is, what will women do with more power? Will they just de facto go down the same paths that men went down, or are women inherently different? And that is really ultimately where we’re trying to score here.

AX: What would you most like people to get out of Season 1 of MAYFAIR WITCHES?

ASHFORD: I love the show we’ve made, I love the way that Anne’s book guided us, and what we were able to take from this fantastic story, and I hope people have a really fun time watching it. I want it to be fun, more than anything. I want them to feel the intensity of Rowan’s experience, and that ride, and enjoy it.

SPALDING: And also, I [want] women to watch the show and go, “Oh, what is my superpower that I’ve never really explored before?” Because again, this is a story about a woman who discovered she’s a witch, but every woman has her own sort of magical power, and I just hope people go, “What’s mine?” and start thinking about that. It’s a really cool, fun thing, and I believe everybody has something.

This interview was conducted during AMC’s portion of the Winter 2023 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.

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Article: Exclusive Interview: MAYFAIR WITCHES creators Michelle Ashford & Esta Spalding discuss Season 1 and adapting the Anne Rice novel for AMC

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