In ‘Mayfair Witches,’ Alexandra Daddario Takes a Dark Turn

Despite much evidence to the contrary, Alexandra Daddario still does not consider herself a famous person.

But there are moments when she is reminded, as she was on a chilly afternoon in late November, at a small cafe and juice bar in Manhattan’s West Village. For most of an hourlong conversation, she had managed to sip her honey almond matcha latte unnoticed. Then a college-age woman approached the table, as giddy as she was effusive.

“Excuse me,” the young woman said. “I’ve literally seen you in ‘The White Lotus.’ You’re my favorite actress.”

Daddario’s striking sea-blue eyes — you’ll see them plastered all over New York City’s subways and bus stops right now, advertising the new AMC series “Anne Rice’s Mayfair Witches” — widened in genuine surprise. She glanced around, as if to verify that there were, in fact, no other “White Lotus” actresses in the cafe.

But of course not. There was only this woman whom millions watched in her Emmy-nominated performance as Rachel in Season 1 of the hit HBO series “The White Lotus.” This woman who is about to take her first lead in a major TV series, debuting Sunday, in which she plays Dr. Rowan Fielding — an adopted last name, in a departure from the novels — a young neurosurgeon who discovers that she is descended from the family of Mayfair witches.

Daddario smiled, stood up and put her arm around the young woman. In her enormous cheetah-print coat, black turtleneck and strappy black sandals she was, she acknowledged, a little overdressed for the setting, but she had come straight from a photo shoot. She clicked into red-carpet mode as the young woman’s friend clicked a pic on her phone.

“Is that OK?” she asked the friend, giving her the chance to examine the photo and make sure a do-over wasn’t necessary.

It wasn’t necessary.

This was familiar territory for Daddario, 36, who is no stranger to successful self-curation. Her Instagram, with nearly 23 million followers, is full of tasteful photos of herself in Paris with the Eiffel Tower, at home in Los Angeles with her handsome new husband, on vacation with no clothes in the infinity pool, a careful mix of #inspo and sex appeal that marks the expert millennial influencer. Call it cheugy, call it smart; either way, she appears to be doing something right.

From left, Jolene Purdy, Murray Bartlett, Daddario and Jake Lacy in Season 1 of HBO’s “The White Lotus,” which became a pop culture sensation during the pandemic.Credit…Mario Perez/HBO

But after a string of action-adventure roles, often playing heroes — the demigod Annabeth Chase in two “Percy Jackson” movies, the intrepid lifeguard Summer Quinn in “Baywatch” — Daddario’s choice of characters in recent years, and her persuasiveness in inhabiting them, speak of greater depths. Like Rachel, who faces anguish over recent big decisions, Rowan must also reckon with opposing forces inside her. There is darkness to her that belies her comely exterior.

It was that complexity, Daddario said, that drew her to the new AMC series, based on Rice’s popular Lives of the Mayfair Witches horror trilogy from the 1990s. In conversation, one sensed that Rowan’s less savory impulses were a draw, especially.

Inside the World of ‘The White Lotus’

The second season of “The White Lotus,” Mike White’s incisive satire of privilege set in a luxury resort, is available to stream on HBO.

  • End of a Journey: The actress Jennifer Coolidge discussed the ending of the second season and where the series, already renewed for a third season, might go from here.
  • Dressing Gen Z: The costume designer for “The White Lotus” sees your mean tweets about how the younger characters dress. She told us how she created the chaotic and divisive looks.
  • Michael Imperioli: The “Sopranos” star is enjoying a professional renaissance after years of procedurals and indies. In the new season of “The White Lotus,” he tries his hand at comedy.
  • F. Murray Abraham: The buzzy series is one of several featuring the actor, who at 83 is finding some of the most satisfying work of his career.

“If you were given powers, what would you do?” she asked. “Would you be able to control yourself and do only good? I don’t know if any of us can say yes.”

“Mayfair Witches” is AMC’s second big series to draw from Rice’s work, with which the network hopes to build a TV universe. AMC acquired rights to 18 of Rice’s novels in 2020, the year before her death, including the many books of her hugely successful Vampire Chronicles series and the Mayfair trilogy. The network’s reimagining of “Interview With the Vampire,” which premiered in October, was the first of at least five Rice-based series AMC hopes to debut.

Those two book series have combined to sell tens of millions of copies and earn a famously protective fan base, known for scrutinizing — not always kindly or from the most enlightened perspectives — every decision taken in a screen adaptation. (Some fan responses to “Interview,” which, among other things, altered the racial makeup of some characters, were particularly nasty; the show has already been renewed for a second season.) Daddario is familiar with that kind of stress.

“There was a similar pressure when I was doing ‘Percy Jackson,’” Daddario said. “Of course, you’ll always have people who think something is supposed to be this or that way, so you just have to go in with good intentions and try to bring life to the character.”

The creative team was no less aware, which made their choice of a lead particularly important. The series’s showrunner, Esta Spalding (“Becoming a God in Central Florida”), who created and executive produced the series with Michelle Ashford (“Masters of Sex”), pointed to Daddario’s versatility as a major factor in their choice of her as Rowan.

“The tricky thing about this part is that she’s going to become a witch, but she starts out a surgeon,” Spalding said. “So you have to believe this woman is going to stride through the hallways of a hospital and open a person’s brain up and do an operation.”

“‘Baywatch’ raised my profile and changed the kinds of jobs I was being offered, maybe not in a positive way,” Daddario said. “But I’m glad I did it.”Credit…Thea Traff for The New York Times

Daddario, the daughter of New York lawyers, knew well the pressures and requirements of the white-collar world, too. After attending the Professional Children’s School, an Upper West Side institution geared toward aspiring child actors and dancers, she booked her first professional role — as Laurie Lewis on the ABC daytime soap opera “All My Children” — when she was 16. After small TV roles on “Law & Order” and “The Sopranos,” her big break came at 22, when she landed the female lead in “Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief,” based on the children’s fantasy novels by Rick Riordan.

“Kids are such a great fan base,” she said. “They don’t judge the movie harshly because they don’t know any better than to just love the characters.”

Her experience on “Percy Jackson,” she said, prepared her somewhat to star in the reboot of another popular franchise seven years later, this time for adults: “Baywatch” (2017). Although the film was a critical flop, it changed her trajectory.

“‘Baywatch’ raised my profile and changed the kinds of jobs I was being offered, maybe not in a positive way,” she said of the film, in which she spends a substantial portion sporting a low-cut red bathing suit. “But I’m glad I did it.”

While “Baywatch” turned up the spotlight, it did not turbocharge her career, which she felt had stalled, she said, in the years before the pandemic.

A boost arrived in the pop-culture juggernaut that was the first season of “The White Lotus.” Her turn as Rachel, a newlywed on honeymoon who begins to suspect that her decision to marry the rich and obnoxiously entitled Shane (Jake Lacy) might have been a huge mistake, provided one of the season’s few truly sympathetic characters.

“Rachel in that season was one of the few characters who needed to be kind of likable in a way the other characters didn’t,” said Mike White, who wrote and directed “The White Lotus.” “Alexandra had an unpretentious, natural approach to the character that was very sweet.”

Daddario, who has said that she experienced similar romantic heartbreak to Rachel’s, slipped right into the role.

“Coming out of Covid, I really connected with her,” Daddario said of Rachel. “She lives in this fantasy world where everything is going to be OK and is always trying to please. There was something so heartbreaking and cathartic about being able to tell that story.”

On set, it wasn’t always so serious. Lacy applauded her sense of humor — and a tolerance for his “diva moves.”

“We did a scene where I had no shirt on, and I was doing push-ups before the take,” he said. “I was like, ‘Hey, I’m sorry for the vanity of doing this, I just would like to look good on camera,’ and she was like: ‘Jake, I was in “Baywatch.” That’s everyone with no clothes on doing their best for months at a time. These 10 push-ups are not making me think any less of you.’”

Rachel’s story is, ultimately, a tragedy, a grievous study in the pressures of class and the cost of compromise. If her character in “Mayfair Witches” is darker, it is perhaps more in kind than degree. But with Rowan’s darkness comes power.

“She toes the line between good and evil,” Daddario said, “and that’s interesting to explore.”

Daddario with Tongayi Chirisa, who plays a character in “Mayfair Witches” not found in Rice’s work, an amalgam of two characters in the source material.Credit…Alfonso Bresciani/AMC

Spalding and Ashford knew they would face a significant challenge in condensing Rowan’s story into eight episodes: The first book in the series, “The Witching Hour,” runs more than 1,000 pages.

They restructured the chronology, condensing many of the historical elements into short segments that appear at the beginning of each episode. And they combined a major character from the novels, Michael Curry, Rowan’s love interest, with another character, Aaron Lightner, into a new character, Ciprien Grieve, played by Tongayi Chirisa (“Palm Springs”).

Chirisa, 41, who is a newcomer to Hollywood, recalled hanging out with Daddario for the first time over hamburgers in New Orleans, where the series was shot last year.

“She just felt like she was the girl from next door,” he said. “All the things that she’s experienced gave her this very well-balanced sense of who she is.”

The girl next door — OK, maybe the very popular and attractive girl next door — is still how Daddario sees herself. She still has to audition for roles, she said. She isn’t being mobbed on the street. She can still get coffee in her hometown while going — mostly — unrecognized.

“Beyond all the beauty, talent and glamour,” Lacy said, “there’s just a cool New Yorker.”

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