This is not your great-great grandfather’s Dracula.
It’s NBC’s — and that means in this lush, re-imagined world, the mysterious count made famous in Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic now has washboard abs, is posing as an American (vampire) in London, and is a complicated antihero. The new series, which premieres Friday and seems to have shed any lingering gothic inhibitions about sex, blood and gore, stars the brooding Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers.
“I guess it was inevitable with my looks I would be asked to play a vampire one day,” Rhys Meyers says with a laugh on the phone from his North London home.
The 36-year-old actor is no stranger to playing long-dead historical characters who suddenly return to life looking better than ever. From 2007 to 2010, he portrayed a decidedly fit, vigorous and boil-free Henry VIII in Showtime’s historical drama “The Tudors.”
While rarely taking on big-budget historical productions for ongoing series, NBC has to compete in an increasingly Comic-Con-driven universe overrun by witches, vampires and zombies. In fact, NBC executives are hoping the retooled gothic classic will expand the unexpected and durable success they’ve enjoyed on Friday nights with the fairy-tale drama “Grimm.”
“We wanted to reinvent Dracula the way we reinvented Henry VIII at Showtime,” says Robert Greenblatt, NBC Entertainment chairman, who previously headed up programming at the premium cable channel.
In the 10-episode series, which was shot in Budapest, Hungary, Dracula pretends to be Alexander Grayson, an American inventor and entrepreneur. Including flashback scenes, Rhys Meyers straddles three characters.
“Vlad is who he is,” he says. “Grayson is the mask, a type of Howard Hughes figure, as the American who represents the new world posing a threat to Victorian society, and Dracula is the monster in him that is like an open nerve.”
While retaining many of the characters from the Stoker novel, the series gives one of the book’s main characters a twist: Van Helsing is friend, not foe. In the opening moments of the series, Van Helsing revives — in a very “Raiders of the Lost Ark” moment — an entombed and decaying Dracula.
Soon the pair band together against a common enemy, the Order of the Dragon, an evil conglomerate bent on political domination and pushing the world’s addiction to oil. Not coincidentally this is the same shadowy group that cursed Vlad Tepes and turned him into the vampire Dracula centuries ago. When as Grayson, Dracula makes a splash with a theatrical presentation of wireless electricity, the battle lines are drawn in the cobbled streets of Victorian London.
“We loved the idea that a man that lives in the dark is bringing light to the masses,” says executive producer Tony Krantz. “We thought this was a fascinating time in society at the birth of the 20th century and gives the story an interesting revenge angle.”
Stepping into Dracula’s skin wasn’t easy, particularly since so many other actors have been there before, says Rhys Meyers, who was glad the part didn’t call for capes, bats and a stake through the heart. He did recall, though, a Muppets Count von Count moment when he first tried on the blood-sucking dental ware.
“You do feel a bit ridiculous. It’s really hard to speak, and then you find yourself talking with a lisp,” he says. “You have to be careful you don’t end up sounding like a cliché Count Dracula.”
With an Irish lilt and a self-mocking, jovial manner, Rhys Meyers seems very different to the intense characters he so often portrays.
“I think I’m seen as more an antihero or villain. People find something a bit threatening in me. I have quite direct eyes so that lends to the scariness I can portray. It’s quite funny, because I am not like that at all — I’m just perceived that way,” he says. “I’ve done some good things and a few knucklehead stupid things in my life, but that brings you experience and what I like to call a world wariness to what I play.”
Greenblatt has a long working history with Rhys Meyers that includes the CBS TV movie “Elvis” and then Showtime’s “The Tudors.”
“I thought Johnny would be perfect because he is compelling and sexy in a way that Dracula needs to be but he also feels ‘old world’ and modern at the same time,” says Greenblatt. “There’s no Bela Lugosi to this performance — yes, he needs to be powerful and frightening, but he also brings a vulnerability and haunted quality to the show.”
Australian actress Jessica De Gouw (last seen in CW’s “Arrow”) plays a spiced up Mina Murray, who is now a reincarnation of Dracula’s long-dead wife. Naturally, this leads to a complicated triangle as Dracula tries to woo her away from her fiancé and journalist, Jonathan Harker.
Her role, along with other major female characters such as loyal friend Lucy Westenra (played by “Merlin’s” Katie McGrath) and Lady Jane (played by Irish actress Victoria Smurfit), vampy socialite and secret vampire hunter, are given a decidedly femme twist.
“It’s a very different Mina to the original story,” says De Gouw. “She is a brilliant woman — strong, independent and well educated. Making her a medical student makes her much more interesting. I think all the women in the show are relatable modern women, but just in a different world.”
Though it may not play to the “Twilight” crowd, Rhys Meyers is still hoping the show will attract audiences with an appetite for good-looking, complex bloodsuckers.
“The original ‘Twilight’ crowd is getting older now anyway,” he says with a laugh. “They’ve probably put away their Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner posters, so they might be looking for something else.”
When: 10 p.m. Friday
Rating: TV-14-V (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for violence)