Remembering when Tom Cruise defied audience expectations in a campy, sumptuous adaptation of Anne Rice’s vampire soap opera.
Though they’re making a slight comeback in indie horror, as seen in Joe Begos’ Bliss and Emily Harris’ Carmilla, when it comes to mainstream movies vampires are taking a bit of a dirt nap. The Twilight series seemed to stretch past the breaking point audiences’ enjoyment of eternally young and beautiful creatures of the night who survive on the blood of the living, and they’ve yet to return, sadly.
At least we still have the brief but glorious run of big budget vamp flicks of the 90s, which started with 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and ended with 1996’s From Dusk Till Dawn. In between was Neil Jordan’s 1994 adaptation of Interview With the Vampire, the first novel in Anne Rice’s still ongoing camp soap opera saga of the glamorous, ancient undead. Though not quite as deliriously over the top as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or as gruesome as From Dusk Till Dawn, Interview With the Vampire had one thing that the others did not: an unexpectedly balls to the wall, unself-conscious performance by, of all people, Tom Cruise.
Interview With the Vampire had been in the works for nearly twenty years before it was handed over to Jordan to direct, a decision based largely on the success of The Crying Game. Anne Rice voiced a number of choices over the years to play the pivotal role of Lestat de Lioncourt, who sires the titular vampire, including Rutger Hauer, French New Wave heartthrob Alain Delon, and Julian Sands. With an extravagant for the time $70 million budget, Warner Bros. wanted someone big attached to it, however, and they went with Tom Cruise, a decision greeted with a collective “wait, what?” by both pop culture media and fans of the book.
No one gave as full-throated disapproval of Cruise’s casting as Rice herself, who wrote the screenplay and declared Cruise to be “no more my Lestat than Edward G. Robinson is Rhett Butler.” It was a harsh but understandable criticism — Tom Cruise had never played a villain before, let alone a bisexual supernatural villain in a frock coat. He specialized in rock-ribbed, slightly boring leading men, far more of a Jonathan Harker than a Count Dracula. Though Lestat wasn’t the main character, exactly, the movie would live or die according to how he was portrayed, and no one expected much from Cruise.
And then he showed up and played the shit out of him.
When Cruise first appears on screen, ghostly white and wearing a strawberry blonde long-hair wig, he should look ridiculous, completely out of his element. Instead, he’s beautiful, creepy, and surprisingly sexy. A lot of this has to do with his performance, which is grade-A, delicious ham. Cruise chews the scenery like it’s covered in fried chicken skin, all but licking his fingers afterward. He’s just here to have a good time, juicing a rat like an orange into a wine glass, and dancing around with a corpse.
On the flip side is Brad Pitt, cast as Louis de Pointe du Lac, the titular vampire. As compared to his performance in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, where he’s completely at ease with himself and the character he’s playing, Pitt is, it must be said, a bit of a stiff here, uncomfortable in satin and velvet 18th century finery and struggling with his “new aw-lee-ans” accent. To be fair, however, despite playing the main character, his role is less fun, less showier than Cruise’s. Louis, to put it mildly, is a real pill, who willingly chooses to become a vampire, and then spends the whole time bitching and moping about it. Interview With the Vampire introduced the concept of vampirism as an existential crisis, and a protagonist who struggles with Catholic guilt and the last remaining vestiges of human morality. That makes for good reading, but it’s kind of a drag on the screen, and the viewer finds themselves eager for the plot to return to all the raging homoeroticism.
In keeping with just letting go and really enjoying himself in a role, Interview With the Vampire was also as sexual (let alone queer) as Cruise ever allowed himself to get, engaging in the bloodsucking equivalent of a three-way with Pitt, and eyeing every single character like he wants to give them a tongue bath, but none so much as Louis. Despite the undercurrent of hostility in their relationship (one that eventually just becomes a current), Lestat and Louis desperately want to fuck each other, and maybe if the book had been published 25 years later, and then the movie made 20 years after that, they would have (unless you’re a purist who believes male vampires can’t have sex). In later books in the Vampire Chronicles series, Rice retconned it so that Lestat and Louis were lovers, but in the first novel, and in the movie, they don’t ever get to that point, choosing instead to all but vibrate with pent-up sexual tension.
Cruise chews the scenery like it’s covered in fried chicken skin, all but licking his fingers afterward.
Speaking of not just sexual tension, but puzzling casting decisions, Armand, a vampire described in Rice’s books as a red-haired, pasty Russian teenager, is played by 33 year-old Antonio Banderas at perhaps his most smoldering, and with an atrocious Halloween wig dropped on his head. It’s easy to ignore the hair situation, though, because, like Cruise, he too is just giving it his all, looking at Pitt like a cat looks at a plump, juicy bird and sauntering into every scene with all the casual sexiness of your crush sending a “u up?” text. Regrettably, Banderas and Cruise don’t share any scenes, although maybe it’s for the best, as the film stock might not have been able to endure such a toxic level of chemistry.
I haven’t even gotten to Kirsten Dunst, 12 but playing younger, and who mopped the floor with every other actor in the movie, including Tom Cruise. As Claudia, a little girl that Lestat and Louis turn into a vampire and care for as their daughter (albeit more to save their crumbling relationship than anything else, which is always a good idea), Dunst has the most challenging role: that of an adult forever trapped in a child’s body, who takes to killin’ much easier than Louis ever does. Their odd little family dynamic uncomfortably plays as both a parents and child relationship, and a polyamorous triad, but Jordan maintains a steady directing hand over it, and Dunst, a consummate pro even as a preteen, plays the whole thing as tragic rather than tawdry.
If Lestat is a sort of genteel demon, then Claudia is a monster, who wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the selfishness of men. Her performance is reminiscent of Joshua John Miller in Near Dark, playing another child vampire struggling with very adult needs and wants. In less capable hands, it would come off as gross and creepy, but here, and in Kathryn Bigelow’s earlier film, it’s sad, and adds an unexpected level of depth to an extremely played out film genre.
Though it gets a little slow and flabby once Cruise is (temporarily) out of the picture it must be said: Interview With the Vampire is a fun, cheeky movie that takes itself far less seriously than its source material. Like Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, it’s just a pleasure to look at, with sumptuous costumes and set design, extraordinarily attractive actors, and a thick cloud of sexual menace hanging over everything. With an appearance by a young Christian Slater (who, sadly, replaced River Phoenix at the last minute) and a Guns n’ Roses cover of “Sympathy for the Devil” rolling over the end credits, it’s both an enjoyable taste of early 90s nostalgia, and a timeless kitsch classic.
While it received mixed reviews (Roger Ebert liked it, Desson Howe of The Washington Post unequivocally did not), Interview With the Vampire was a box office smash. Though there are, to date, fifteen books in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, four of which were already published by the time the adaptation of Interview was released, it took almost a decade before a sequel was made, 2002’s Queen of the Damned. It was a sequel only in the sense that it gutted and adapted the next two books in the series into one muddled, turgid film, where the best performance was from singer Aaliyah, whose total screen time, despite being the titular character, was less than twenty minutes.
Stuart Townsend was cast as Lestat, with 10% of the charm and 0% of the queerness in Interview. Tom Cruise had reportedly been considered to reprise the role, but whether that idea was dropped or Cruise declined it is unclear. It doesn’t seem likely that he would have taken the role, as by 2002 he was deep in the weeds of Scientology, and far more image conscious than he had been a decade earlier. By that point, and going forward, he was sticking with the bland hero roles that made him famous, while very occasionally stretching himself in movies like Magnolia and Vanilla Sky, and a comic turn (albeit almost unrecognizable under heavy makeup) in Tropic Thunder. There was a level of self-consciousness to those roles, however, like Cruise was thinking “Now they’ll see that I’m a real actor,” and while the performances are solid, there’s something a bit calculating about them.
His most interesting role, second to Lestat, is the chillingly efficient hit man in Michael Mann’s underrated Collateral. For an actor who seems to pointedly avoid such roles, Cruise, as it turns out, plays an excellent villain. It makes sense, because there’s something about his slightly phony grin and jittery energy (as exhibited in his cringy couch jumping over Katie Holmes) that comes off as a little sinister. Nevertheless, he knows what side his Hollywood bread is buttered on, and is diligently sticking with it, with his next film being a sequel to Top Gun that nobody really asked for, but will probably make a billion dollars anyway. Ah well, we’ll always have New Aw-lee-ans.