In NBC’s new series Dracula, Jonathan Rhys Meyers stars as an eccentric millionaire with a truly shocking secret – under cover of darkness he's actually the world's most famous vampire. NBC has re-imagined the classic horror tale for our times, turning the notorious bloodsucker into a Victorian-era Jay Gatsby. This time Dracula's mission is to revenge himself on the shadowy cabal of one-percenters who have hounded his kind for centuries. CAHIR O'DOHERTY previews the dramatic new series.
When NBC's Dracula premieres this Friday, October 25, Irish audiences will spot a familiar face amid all the society swells at an upscale Victorian London party in the pilot episode. Yes, that really is Irish actress Victoria Smurfit playing Lady Jayne Wetherby alongside Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and just like the character she plays she really is a member of one of Europe's most prominent families. (The Smurfits own multiple businesses around the world; the graduate business school at University College Dublin is named after patriarch Michael Smurfit).
It's one of those smile-inducing moments when art mirrors life. But since Dracula is produced by the team that gave us Downton Abbey, perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised to see Smurfit (most famous for hers turns on Ballykissangel and The Clinic), a real life aristocrat, join the lineup.
Fans of Bram Stoker's classic tale will only catch faint glimpses of the original Dracula tale when Rhys Meyers’ version broadcasts, though. That's because the show’s writer has crafted a storyline for our own times.
This Dracula is driven by a centuries long obsession to revenge himself on the shadowy cabal known as the Order of the Dragon that once put his family to the sword.
If you see a parallel between the secret machinations of the Order of the Dragon and the price fixing CEO's of Wall Street, that is probably intentional. Subtle this show is not. But there's immense fun to be had watching a bunch of condescending upper class twits meet their gory comeuppance.
If there's one thing that sets a British persons teeth on edge, it's a fabulously wealthy Yank with more money than breeding. Dracula makes his social debut in Victorian London in the persona of Alexander Grayson, a conspicuously successful American entrepreneur.
Naturally one of the stuffed shirts immediately dismisses him as an “interloping colonial,” and for this shocking insult he is later ripped to pieces under cover of the London fog.
That's a good indication of the kind of entitled Order of the Dragon type that Rhys Meyers’ Dracula intends to decimate one by one. Once upon a time the Order was tasked with defending Christianity, but somewhere along the way they all became more interested in defending their growing fortunes. There's a moral in that, I'm sure.
Dublin-born Rhys Meyers, 36, is clearly having the time of his life playing the kind of role that allows him to chew both necks and scenery, in a show that isn't afraid of a little camp.
Did I say a little camp? The truth is that Dracula is a witch’s brew of horror and high drama where he and Smurfit emerge as the show’s true stars.
The chemistry of their pairing is literally off the charts. Rhys Meyers has finally met his match in the romantic stakes, but in this case he'll also have to fend of the stakes to his heart.
As the show opens Dracula, in the guise of his alter ego Alexander Grayson, announces that he wants to bring American science to Victorian society. Specifically he intends to have electricity supplant oil as the engine of the future.
Grayson knows the members of the Order of the Dragon have bet their entire futures on the emerging oil industry and that his Johnny come lately invention would smash their cozy cartel. He knows because he plans for it to do so. It's all part of his bigger plan to revenge himself on the people who ruined his life centuries earlier, you see.
But Dracula’s revenge mission is complicated by one unexpected development. He’s fallen hopelessly in love with Mina Murray (Jessica De Gouw), a young woman who appears to be the reincarnation of his long dead wife.
Not that we care. The real fireworks onscreen belong to Rhys Meyers and Smurfit, who has admitted she finds him a joy to work with. Unbeknownst to Grayson, Smurfit's character Lady Jayne is a member of the Order of the Dragon, which means the woman he begins a torrid affair with is in reality his mortal enemy.
Not even Dynasty in its heyday ever dared to lay on the complications this thick and fast. Smurfit is an unmitigated joy to watch as she vamps her way through scene after scene in her figure hugging velvet.
Alongside being a formidable society woman, her Lady Jayne is also a skilled vampire hunter, so she's part aristocrat and part Buffy the Vampire Slayer. From her first scene-stealing turn she is also the most compelling character in the series.
When Grayson takes Lady Jayne as his lover he is sealing both their fates and kicking Dracula into high gear right from their first appearance together. The producers' masterstroke was to cast these two very different Irish actors as each other’s nemesis and then allow their love-hate battles to bring the show to life.
Fans know that Rhys Meyers’ career has taken him from high to low and back again, and that has finally given him a healthy attitude to being in the public eye. He's made no secret that he doesn't really care for the trappings of fame.
Instead he says he just lives a quiet life in London doing all the things he enjoys doing – including hanging out with his family, going to the gym, reading books, basically anything that's a 100 miles from the celebrity culture that he left behind.
That sensible new perspective has come after some well publicized falls off the wagon of course, but those days are long behind him now that his rehab has been successful sources say. Today he's not really interested in being another high maintenance celebrity; he doesn't even enjoy hanging out with them. Instead he's quietly become a more centered person and naturally enough a better actor.
He’s also an actor who isn't afraid to laugh at himself or anyone else, apparently. The mix of high seriousness and high camp makes Dracula such an unexpectedly indulgent pleasure. The show's biggest ambition is just to entertain you, and this it does rather spectacularly.
“I play the bad guy because I look like one,” Rhys Meyers told the press recently. “I suppose there’s a kind of feral element in me. It’s just part of those energies that encompass me.”
But in this case Rhys Meyers is really the bad guy you love to hate, and you root for him against the preening snobs he has come to battle.
There's an added bonus in the storyline that the writer may not have intended. It's known to some that Rhys Meyers was discovered at the age of 16 in a pool hall in County Cork. At the time he was a teenage tearaway with a chip on his shoulder.
In Dracula he's still an outsider, a role it seems he was born to play, but now he knows how to handle all the fair weather friends that hang around successful actors and it shows.
Like Smurfit, art seems to be mirroring life in Dracula as Rhys Meyers emerges from testing times smarter and stronger than before and ready to tackle anyone who defies him. Get ready for a wild ride this Friday and hopefully for many Fridays to come.
Dracula premieres on NBC on October 25 at 10 p.m.
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