Jen Richards on becoming part of Anne Rice’s spooky legacy in “Mayfair Witches”

Jen Richards on becoming part of Anne Rice’s spooky legacy in “Mayfair Witches”
Jen Richards in Mayfair Witches Photo: Alfonso Bresciani/AMC

Jen Richards knows all about witches and the occult. Even before she was cast in AMC’s latest Anne Rice series, Mayfair Witches, she had a special connection to the late horror writer’s work. But we’ll get to that.

In Mayfair Witches, Richards plays Jojo, a member of the powerful, sprawling, and supernaturally gifted family at the show’s center. In its most recent episode, prodigal daughter Rowan (Alexandra Daddario) has finally made her way to New Orleans for the funeral of her birth mother, Dierdre (Annabeth Gish), and is confronted with more long-lost relatives than she could have ever imagined. That includes Jojo and her father, Cortland (Harry Hamlin), a smooth-talking dandy who may have a dark agenda of his own.

Thrown into that seething cauldron of family intrigue and otherworldly forces, Jojo seems to be a grounding, welcoming presence. But when it comes to witchy women, can you ever tell? LGBTQ Nation recently spoke to Richards to better understand her character’s motivation and how she fits into the dark saga of Anne Rice’s Mayfair Witches.

LGBTQ NATION: What was your relationship to Anne Rice’s work prior to signing on to this project? Were you familiar with the Mayfair Witches novels?

JEN RICHARD: I’ll try to make a long story short. There is an organization within the Anne Rice universe called the Talamasca. This is apocryphal—I’ve never seen it confirmed or proven anywhere—but supposedly, Anne Rice based the Talamasca at least in part upon a real organization called the Theosophical Society, which is an occult organization, a bunch of scholars who research esoterica and have these old school chapter houses all over the world where people sometimes live and work and study. I was one of those people. I actually lived and worked in the national headquarters of the Theosophical Society in the 90s. I joined the organization when I was 19, so I was basically in the Talamasca.

When The Witching Hour came out, everyone was kind of abuzz in the Theosophical Society—and this was pre-Internet, so it was just a rumor. But everyone was like, “Anne Rice came here and used our library and it’s what inspired the Talamasca.” So, I read The Witching Hour when it came out. I absolutely fell in love with it. I’m from the deep south, just a little bit north of New Orleans, and it just has a mystique if you’re anywhere near there. I was drawn to that world of witchcraft and occultism. But then I never read any other Anne Rice. But when I got the audition, I was so excited, because as a young person, it was like my dream to be in the Talamasca. I would have never dared to dream I could actually be a Mayfair Witch! Then this audition came up: “We’re looking for a trans woman to play a Mayfair Witch.” I was like, “I was born for this!”

Once I got the part, I read Lasher and Taltos. And I think I read eight of her novels while I was down there [filming] in New Orleans.

LGBTQ NATION: Anne Rice talked a lot about her supernatural characters being metaphors for outsiders, and LGBTQ+ people certainly latched onto Interview With the Vampire as a gay metaphor. Do you have any thoughts on witches avatars for LGBTQ+ people and their stories?

JR: Yeah, 100%. Lots of thoughts. I guess I’d consider myself a witch? I think in a kind of general sense, there are certain things that I practice. I definitely feel a part of that legacy. Obviously, there’s a very complicated history of witches and witchcraft, and there are some interpretations of that history…the whole idea of a woman being a witch—much in the way that the show shows Suzanne, the first of the Mayfair witches to call forth Lasher—as being healing women. There’s been a lot of good history that a lot of the imagery and particularly the accusations associated with women being witches were often just based on men’s fear or jealousy of women’s role as healers, but also just their economic position and the independence that came with that. When you deconstruct a lot of the imagery around witches in the pejorative sense, it really had to do with women being healers and financially independent and brewers of beer and other things like that. As a woman, just reclaiming that legacy is really interesting.

Then there’s the other layer of actual witchcraft and magical practices and the use of tools that help enhance a deeper connection to the sacred or to the spiritual and the way that those fields have traditionally been dominated by women. The Theosophical Society was founded by a woman named Helena Petrovna Blavatsky who was a Russian national who fled an arranged marriage when she was 17 and went all around the world studying with spiritual masters. Occultism has this deep connection to women and to the reclaiming of power, and it’s often been a space where women can find community with each other. So, the idea of the Mayfair Witches speaks to that. I find that very appealing and very powerful and consider myself to be part of that world.

LGBTQ NATION: Your character is introduced in Episode 4. Have you been watching the show leading up to this episode? Any thoughts or critiques?

JR: This is where I have to separate being part of a show and supporting it and also being a very critical viewer. [Laughs] I had a little trouble letting go of my love of the book and watching the show, and I think that’s a very common thing for anyone who’s a fan of a book and navigating your expectations and your vision. It took me a few episodes to let go of the book that I love and accept it as its own TV show that’s inspired by the book. Once I did that, I found myself enjoying it more with each episode.

I particularly love Axelle [Carolyn], who directed episodes three and four, who is a queer woman who works in horror. I thought she really brought a wonderful eye to it. Once all the characters are in New Orleans and we get to see that world and we get to meet more of the Mayfair Witches, to me it gets more and more satisfying, and it gets easier to separate the book. And the thing about the book is I’ll always have the book!

LGBTQ NATION: Jojo is a character who was created for the show. What can you tell us about the role she plays in the series and how she relates to plot points that fans might expect from the books?

JR: Anyone who’s read the books knows Cortland’s relationship to the Mayfair women. [Laughs] Which also means my relationship to the Mayfair women. What I will say, and I think you can see this in Episode 4 when JoJo shows Rowan the portraits of the Mayfair women and tells her, “You’re part of this legacy,” I think those two women have an instant intimacy and comfort with each other, that I think is telling of future storylines. What is well established, is that the Mayfairs are a sprawling family and there’s the line of designees, of which Rowan is the 13th, which is a big deal. And they’re the ones with all the power. But then there’s Cortland and his side of the family—[Jojo is] Cortland’s daughter—where we basically run the practical stuff. We handle the money and the law. We make sure the whole family is taken care of and the fortune is well stewarded.

Alfonso Bresciani/AMC Richards, Hamlin, Beth Grant, and Daddario in Mayfair Witches

LGBTQ NATION: The Mayfairs are a complicated and, at least in the books, incestuous family. How would you describe Jojo’s relationship with her father, Cortland?

JR: Jojo sees her father as this noble man who has chosen to support a matriarchal family and a matriarchal lineage, and is kind of a good feminist. Whether that’s true or not…

LGBTQ NATION: So far, I am not convinced that Cortland can be trusted. What about Jojo? Is she a good witch or a bad witch?

JR: Yeah, or is that even a binary that necessarily makes sense? So much of what I love about the books and what Esta Spalding, our showrunner, did a really great job of exploring in the show is the appeal of power, particularly for women who have traditionally been denied it. So, the whole idea of good or bad when it comes to men in power, we kind of accept that it’s nuanced. But with women, particularly with witches, we want to put them in a good or bad category. And the show is so much about what it’s like for a woman to have power. What does that look like? What have you been denied? And what can you do with that power?

Rowan is someone who is compelling because she has the power to kill and the power to heal simultaneously. You were talking earlier about the witches being an avatar for women and for queerness, and I think that’s the core of it. We have something special that makes us different and makes us powerful, and it can both hurt and heal and it can transform the world in all kinds of different ways depending on how we use it.

So, in addition to the designees and the legal/financial side, there are also many Mayfairs who are born with some kind of power. We’ll get to know a few of the different Mayfair witches over the course of the show and what their powers are. I can say that Josephine is a witch, that she does have some powers, and she has been using them in service of her father, who she, at this point, completely trusts. She’s absolutely a daddy’s girl. She’s kind of his consigliere.

LGBTQ NATION: I don’t recall the episode addressing whether the character is trans or not.

JR: It’s not addressed in the whole first season! This isn’t necessarily canon, this is just what I’m bringing to the role when I’m performing it: Jojo, at some point, realized she’s trans and decided to transition and probably had a justifiable fear that she would lose her family and lose all of the wealth and power that she had grown accustomed to. She did it anyway and found that her dad loved and supported her through it. That has bonded her to him in a really deep and powerful way that might also cause her to turn a blind eye or not notice some things about Cortland, which I think will have to eventually come to a head.

LGBTQ NATION: I was curious whether you think that’s even a particularly useful question—whether Jojo is trans.

JR: This is an open debate for me. Nick Adams, who runs all the trans representation at GLAAD, is a very old dear friend of mine, and we have this conversation a lot. And sometimes it’s an argument, because I don’t know that he and I necessarily agree. But from his perspective, it’s pointless to have a queer character onscreen unless they talk about being queer. From his perspective and from GLAAD’s perspective, it doesn’t count unless it’s being discussed. And while I understand that perspective, I also think there’s something powerful about having queer characters who…it’s part of who they are but it isn’t necessarily the topic. In the case of this show, at least in the first season, Jojo is someone who has a lot of wealth and power and she’s well-known in the community and it’s kind of a small world. She transitioned a while ago. It’s not really coming up on a day-to-day basis, it’s not really relevant to the story. We only ever see her with family who have all known her for a long time. So, in context, it would never organically come up in the scenes that Jojo’s part of. It doesn’t mean she’s not trans though.

It’s a really interesting conversation. You would never say of a Black actor that their character isn’t Black because the show isn’t about race. But transness and queerness aren’t the same thing as a visible marker like that. So, is a Jewish actor not [playing a Jewish character if it’s not explicitly stated]? It opens up all these interesting conversations about identity and what that means. I’ve said before, any character I play is trans by virtue of my being a trans person. I’m always going to bring that interpretation—unless it’s very explicit that my character is a cis woman. I always joke that unless you see a baby coming out of my vagina, my character is trans. [Laughs] That’s my attitude. Jojo is a trans woman.

Now, whether that’s legible to audiences is going to vary widely. Obviously, I will have fans watching who know my work and know me and are really excited to see this trans woman. There are people who will see me and just know, Oh, that’s a trans woman. There are some people who will see me and it will never occur to them that I’m a transwoman, they’ll just assume I’m a cis person. There are other people who will see me and be like, That’s a man in a dress and a perversity!

LGBTQ NATION: If you don’t mind, I’d love to ask about your experience of Hollywood as an out trans actor. You’ve been in some amazing shows in the past few years—Better Things, Mrs. Fletcher. I’m curious whether or how your experience of going out for roles and auditioning has evolved in recent years.

JR: Yes, very much. It’s been kind of an up-and-down. There was no work at all when I first came to Hollywood. I had to create it for myself. Then there was a brief moment when it felt like there were a lot of opportunities, like when I was doing Better Things and Mrs. Fletcher and Tales of the City. And then…there’s a weird kind of conservative push right now in Hollywood that I think reflects the country overall. And a lot of those parts have dried up a bit. For me, there’s less work, but the work that’s there is better. As more and more writers and showrunners and directors have trans people in their lives, they’re more familiar. They’ve seen documentaries like Disclosure, so they’re starting to get the issues.

When I first came to Hollywood, the first few things I did, I was often the very first not just trans actor but trans person a lot of the people on set had ever met. So, I was like, I now have to represent the entirety of trans people and make sure I make everyone comfortable so that people get hired after me. I really felt that responsibility. Now, I’ll go on set and the director has a trans daughter and my other actress has a trans sibling and they’ve worked with trans actors and there’s trans directors. It’s a very different world, so people know a lot more, they’re better informed, the stories can be more nuanced.

At the same time, there’s just less work overall, and there are still no trans people actually telling their own stories. There are no shows out there that are created by trans people. It’s definitely a mixed bag, and in some ways things seem to be getting harder right now.

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