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The messy, thrilling queer allegory in Interview with the Vampire

AMC’s new show finally lets Lestat and Louis be gay, do crimes.

Sam Reid (left) as Lestat De Lioncourt and Jacob Anderson (right) as Louis De Pointe Du Lac who are gay vampires (both) in AMC’s Interview with the Vampire.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Not unlike the way I could’ve sworn that “Berenstain Bears” was spelled with a third “e,” I totally believed that previous incarnations of Interview with the Vampire — both Anne Rice’s original 1976 novel and the 1994 movie adaptation — were explicitly about gay vampires.

In part it was that vampires Lestat (played by Tom Cruise in the original movie) and Louis (Brad Pitt, in 1994) were deeply involved with one another and aesthetically classically queer, dressing in puffy shirts, frilly collars, and gorgeous ponytails while being extremely petty. But more than that, they seemed to embody the ethos “be gay, do crime,” a not-always-so-literal exhortation to live a queer life in defiance. In their case, the crimes were in fact literal: sucking people’s blood, setting each other on fire, turning a tiny Kirsten Dunst into a forever child.

But the homoeroticism was all subtext. Not anymore.

AMC’s Interview with the Vampire, an updated, grisly, and often mordantly hilarious retelling of the original story pulls gay subtext into the main text, giving us a fancy vampire looking for a longtime companion. When Lestat de Lioncourt (Sam Reid) tells Louis de Pointe du Lac (Jacob Anderson) that he’s seeking an eternal partner, it’s very clear that he’s not looking for a roommate.

The immortal, bloodsucking, male pair in the show are queer as in they not only identify as LGBTQ, but also have a lot of extremely steamy, sometimes bloody, highly detailed sex with each other, other men, and occasionally some women. They’re also queer in that they are living lives, aside from just the undead bloodlust, in opposition to human norms.

And in telling their story, Interview creates an emboldened commentary about how sexuality, race, identity, power, and oppression are all intertwined, and how these forces have throughout American history left these magnificently queer vampires (and many others) with no choice but to be extremely gay and do so, so many crimes.

In Interview with the Vampire, gay vampires get lonely, too

“Being transformed by Lestat, being desired by him, bedding down with him was an overture of sorts to that side of my nature,” Louis tells his interviewer Daniel Molloy (Eric Bogosian). The “side” of his “nature” he’s referring to is his queerness. “I got into that coffin of my own free will.”

Logically, gay vampires make a ton of sense. Vampires are immortal, able to live for centuries, maybe a millennium and longer if they don’t run out of food and don’t run into a slayer. Theoretically, that would give them ample time to experiment and, if the spirit moved them, be extremely free with their sexuality.

Vampires, as Lestat demonstrates, see themselves as superior to humans. And thus, they don’t abide by the same set of cultural norms that exist for humankind. Vampires don’t partake in racism, sexism, and homophobia because all of humanity is beneath them, let alone humanity’s awful hangups.

Louis, a queer Black man in the 1910s, feels the full force of that bigotry. Thus, a huge part of Lestat’s undead sell to Louis are telepathic complaints about how stupid and ugly racist humans are, and how these dim creatures treat Louis less-than because of the color of his skin. To Lestat, humans are the monsters.

Vampires have lived long enough and in enough places that they can easily spot humanity’s big oopsies. The caveat to vampiric superiority, of course, is that if vampires want an eternal partner, they have to go into the minor leagues and find a human acceptable enough to turn into a vampire. But vampires probably, as Lestat also demonstrates, aren’t going to let racism or homophobia guide their desire.

Interview’s queerness allows for some fun at the expense of historical American “morals.”

Here are some queer vampires in tuxedos. They are fancy and went to the opera.
Interview with the Vampire/AMC

The people living alongside Louis and Lestat can’t quite figure out what they are. A few get the romantic nature of their relationship; others partake in willful ignorance. A lot of the public assumes that they’re brothers, or roommates, or that Louis is Lestat’s valet. It’s hard for some of them to comprehend the idea of two men together — not unlike the way history turns gay and lesbian lovers into “roommates” or “best friends.”

Interview also revels in camp. Lestat is a very fancy, worldly vamp who obsesses over aesthetics and culture. One of his victims is a tenor whose flat voice spoils his night at the opera. If Lestat had a less discerning ear, perhaps that singer could’ve been spared. Come to think of it, Interview is a lot like Frasier, a show that’s also about two insufferable gay men whose fancy tastes annoy and threaten the people around them.

The queer allegory in Interview is supposed to be messy

The strongest part of the new Interview’s approach though is how it uses its queer allegory to create a story about the dynamics of power in American history and American present.

As a human, Louis is queer (closeted) and Black, which makes him a second-class citizen. This is despite living in Storyville, a sordid neighborhood in New Orleans that’s more tolerant than other places in the Jim Crow era. Louis is a successful pimp, but he can only succeed so far before white men in charge turn the tables on him. Those white men are always subtly threatening him, softly reminding him that he only thrives because they allow it. If they found out he was gay, his life would be in danger.

When Lestat shows up, all fancy and charming and gay, his offer of vampiric immortality is much more than an eternal life of queer companionship. It’s also a power fantasy.

Vampires aren’t beholden to the rules of man, and becoming a vampire allows Louis to bypass Storyville’s structural and legislative racism, rules of segregation, and second-class citizenship created by men. Joining Lestat in what I suppose is a certain kind of marriage allows him access to Lestat’s money. With their gifts of immortality and mind control, it’s not a surprise that some vampires are financially secure (it’s also not a surprise that historically vampires have become symbols of the ills of capitalism and gentrification). Louis can now buy his way into power.

“Wouldst thou like to live fergaliciously?” — things I wish Lestat said.

The choice seems incredibly simple!

Louis is born into a world that already considers him a monster and denies him the opportunity to live freely. Lestat offers him the chance to live like a god, if only in a different way — avoiding daylight, sucking on blood to live, killing stuff, etc. — and should humans ever find out his true nature, they’ll probably try to kill him. But if humans are going to hate you either way, and probably kill you either way, I’d probably choose to be hated and powerful rather than hated and oppressed.

Be gay, do crimes!

After taking Lestat up on his offer, Louis buys the Fair Play Saloon, a club which he renames the Azalea. It thrives under his ownership. He explains that as the boss, he paid his employees better and there was no discrimination at the door. Everyone was allowed in. Even as a vampire, Louis rules with more humanity than humans would give to one another. It’s one of the show’s savage commentaries on how Americans have wielded power — primarily to inflict punishment on their fellow men — throughout history.

The vampire-queer connection isn’t all shiny, tidy empowerment allegory though.

Lestat and Louis fight a lot, often about Louis’s reluctance to kill people. Lestat assures him it’s in their nature, the way predators kill prey. Louis wants to be more benevolent, often resorting to shot-gunning tiny animals instead of sucking on human blood. Watching Louis fail to assert his supremacy, instead slurping down rat blood like a college student downing a beer at their first frat party, arouses anger in Lestat. Being a martyr is pathetic when one can be a god, Lestat believes. That anger then often manifests into psychological, verbal, and physical abuse throughout the season.

The pair also have disagreements about the kind of eternal undead life they should be living together. Louis wants a family. Lestat thinks family is an obsolete human custom that vampires should be glad that they don’t partake in. It’s an impasse that’s difficult to navigate thanks to a bit of a generation gap: Lestat is much older while Louis, a brand-new vampire, is just coming to the realization that he’s going to see his entire human family and generations of his descendants grow old and die.

There aren’t any reliable narrators in Interview, but Daniel, Louis’s interviewer and captive audience, challenges the narrative that Louis provides. In his eyes, Louis was taken advantage of by a predator equipped with an assortment of powers, some acutely sharpened to seduce him. To Daniel, Louis was helpless, and foolish to think that his relationship with Lestat is anything but predator and prey, a power imbalance of cosmic proportions.

When Louis tells Daniel that he believes his relationship with Lestat was consensual, if not equal, Daniel responds: “To the shame of queer theorists everywhere.” Daniel believes that conflating power, vampirism, killing, and death with queerness and romance is incongruent if not deeply insulting. “White master, black student, but equal in the quiet dark,” Daniel adds, sarcastically.

Part of me hope Louis, who is a 100-year-old queer vampire, got to hear Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” on a dance floor full of flagrant homosexuals.

Daniel isn’t necessarily wrong, but he also hasn’t lived under the circumstances that Louis did. Daniel isn’t gay. Daniel isn’t a person of color. And though Louis is describing it to him in great detail, Daniel can’t fully comprehend the helplessness or desperation of being a Black, queer man in the Jim Crow South. Watching the show and seeing Louis’s experiences as he felt them, it’s easier to understand his mindset.

Sex and romance are integral to queer identity, but so are the ideas of power and defiance. Queerness is surviving in a world that’s determined to see you disappear or live as someone you’re not. In Interview, stakes are heightened to astronomical proportions and the show stretches that tension to supernatural limits. In doing so, it highlights the damage that this world is capable of, and the resources it takes to exist within it. It turns out that being a gay vampire and doing crime isn’t ideal, but it allows Louis to be closer to who he truly is — much more than the human world would ever allow him to be.

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