by Mary Lathem
If you’re anything like me, AMC’s new Interview with the Vampire series has been on your “must watch” list for quite some time, especially with Halloween just around the corner. Despite some fans’ worries that the story would be difficult to resurrect, rave reviews have poured in for the series since its release earlier this month (it even has a rare 99% critical score on Rotten Tomatoes). You can imagine my excitement when I logged into Facebook recently to see a post from Ethan Uslan – an acclaimed local ragtime pianist and longtime friend to WDAV – announcing he’d been tapped to appear in the series as the Vampire Lestat’s hand double!
I had a chance to sit down with Ethan during his visit to the station for Public Radio Music Day this past Wednesday to learn more about his role (and, if I’m being honest, to satisfy my own curiosity about the process). Enjoy!
You recently had a special opportunity involving vampires, ragtime, and some very fierce-looking nails. Tell us what it was and how it came to be.
This past January, when I wasn’t the busiest person because of COVID, I got a phone call out of the blue from AMC. They said they were doing an Interview with the Vampire TV series [based on the novel by Anne Rice], and they wanted my piano music to be part of the show! It turned out that the series’ creator, Rolin Jones, came across one of my YouTube videos and thought that it would fit perfectly in one particular scene. That’s how it all started.
They flew me down to New Orleans and we filmed in the French Quarter. The shoot was in the middle of the night because, you know, vampires and darkness. [Laughs] We filmed everything in a courtyard outdoors. It was freezing cold – there were flappers everywhere with bare arms, and everyone was shivering. When they finally called for me, I played my song for the cameras, and it really didn’t sound good [because of] the vampire manicure they gave me. The next day, they sent me to a recording studio, and I was able to use my natural cuticles, which sounded much better.
I bet it did. When do you appear on the show, and what do you play?
I’m in Episode 3, and I play Bach’s Minuet in G. In the scene, Lestat’s at a jazz club, and he starts heckling the piano player, who’s supposed to be Jelly Roll Morton. They have a back and forth (actually quite an R-rated back and forth!) and Jelly Roll basically says, “Let’s see what you can do.” Lestat gets up there and starts playing classical music, and everyone’s kind of groaning, like “We don’t want to hear this stuff in a jazz club.” And then, of course, he jazzes it up.
And it’s your own arrangement!
Yes! And I’ll say that I’m really happy it’s used as foreground music, not background music.
That’s a great point. So often when we see pianists in film and television, other characters are talking over the music. And in this case, the music is the action.
Right. I’ve been watching the show, and they use a lot of ragtime music and 1920’s jazz. That makes my ears perk up, and I actually tend to tune out what’s happening in the foreground and start paying attention to the background! The music is great, but it’s really just there [to create ambience]. I love that my music is meant to be listened to.
You just said such a beautiful thing, and here I am wanting to talk about the nails again. How much of the costume did you have to wear to be a convincing double? Those were some serious claws.
I had to wear exactly what the actor did. As far as the nails go, I was quite nervous because, you know, time is money. My nightmare was that I was going to cause a hold up on set. And of course when we did it, the nails broke halfway through the song. I stopped playing, and they said, “Oh, that’s perfect! We just needed a visual.” One of the camera operators even called me a one-take wonder. So that was a relief.
It was tricky to get used to the feel of the nails, though. I went to the snack table and picked up one of those Babybel cheeses, and I got my hand stuck in the cheese. [Laughs] When I tried to take it off, it got stuck on the other hand. So I ended up needing help removing my fingers from a Babybel.
Let’s talk a little more about the arrangement aspect. I’ve seen several videos of yours where you’ve arranged classical works in ragtime and jazz styles. Is there a particular type of piece that works best for that process, or do you choose your favorite pieces and work from there?
Some classical pieces are better suited than others! The Minuet in G was actually one of the trickier ones to do because the chord progression isn’t that similar to something you would hear in pop music. Usually, Romantic music is somewhat closer. Chopin, for example, is typically easier to work with.
This version of Ethan’s Bach Minuet in G features his son, Henry Uslan!
This next question is a personal curiosity of mine, and I’m wondering if you have a take on it. In pop culture, so many vampires are shown to have a strong musical ability, especially when it comes to keyboard instruments. Even Edward Cullen plays the piano. Why do you think that trope exists?
Well, I’m not a vampire expert. I mean, in the question, you mentioned Edward Cullen. I don’t even know who that is.
Consider yourself lucky.
[Laughs] I do have an answer for you. If I had to guess, it’s because lots of vampires are several hundred years old. If they were originally 18th century aristocrats or even older, you’d imagine they would have to learn to play the harpsichord or another keyboard instrument. I was also thinking about vampires as villains… do you think they’re villains?
Anti-heroes, I guess.
Right, anti-heroes. When you have a frightening character like a vampire, they’re more interesting when they’re very cultured. I bet you Hannibal Lecter plays the piano.
Yes! There’s a scene in Silence of the Lambs where he’s listening to a recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and what’s happening on top of that is an absolute bloodbath.
Exactly. I think there’s something dramatic about having the “bad guy” be very sophisticated on one hand and monstrous on the other.
Well, I didn’t think it was possible, but I’m even more excited to watch the show now. Is there anything else you’d like to share with our listeners?
Overall, I was amazed by how much work it takes to create these shows! We all watch a lot of television, and we don’t necessarily think about what goes into it. The actors take the same scene over and over again, and everyone has to be prepared to go on at any moment. That seems so stressful, because if you mess up too much, you’ll be wasting everyone’s time. Also, you can only see so much on the screen – behind the scenes, it was like a massive ant colony of people working to bring the show together.
There’s something else I’d like to share about the YouTube video Rolin Jones found. I originally posted it because I was going to play in [the festival] Bach Around the Clock in Staunton, Virginia in March of 2020. As you can imagine, that was one of the first cancellations I had when COVID hit. I’d been planning to play that piece [at the festival], so I made a YouTube video instead. It didn’t get a lot of views, and at the time, I questioned whether it was worth the effort to make it. That just goes to show you that even if a video isn’t getting a lot of attention, the right person could see it, so put it out there anyway!
You can stream Ethan’s appearance on Episode 3 of Interview with the Vampire now on AMC+! New episodes air on AMC Sundays at 10 p.m.