In Vampire Academy, palace intrigue gets a supernatural YA twist.
Based on Richelle Mead's bestselling novel series released in the late aughts, the Peacock drama revolves on a vampire civilization that secretly exists in tandem with humans. Named the Dominion, this society adheres to a strict and oppressive class system that divides the magical Moroi vampires into royal and non-royal status. At the lowest rung are the Dhampir, part-human and part-vampire Guardians who protect the Moroi from their greatest enemy, the bloodthirsty Strigoi vampires.
At the heart of the story is the powerful and class-defiant friendship between Rose Hathaway (Sisi Stringer) and Lissa Dragomir (Daniela Nieves), a novice Guardian Dhampir and Moroi Royal. The pair dream of traveling the world together after they finish their education at St. Vladimir's Academy. But everything changes when Lissa is unexpectedly burdened with new political responsibilities that she never expected.
"They've lived in this happy little bubble with each other, breaking all the rules as young girls and as teenagers," co-showrunner Julie Plec tells Metacritic. "Now as they're on the cusp of adulthood and adult responsibility, there's an entire society trying to now reinstill those rules on them and to tear them apart."
Depicting the richness of Rose and Lissa's bond was paramount to Plec and her fellow showrunner Marguerite MacIntyre. "We've been friends for almost 20 years now," MacIntyre says. "Female friendship in your life, it's such a big deal. You don't see it really represented in the depth and the honesty that this relationship will be in."
Both Plec and MacIntyre have ample experience in the vampire genre: Plec created The Vampire Diaries and its first spin-off, The Originals, with MacIntyre starring in the former before stepping into a writing role for the latter. When it came to bringing their own spin to Mead's story, they were eager to dive into worldbuilding.
"We wanted to be able to take these really cool ideas on the page of this world, this vampire Dominion, and then we had to decide how to build that visually," Plec says. "We had to say, 'OK, what does our money look like?' So we created money. 'What is the religion of this society?' So, we created scripture and scrolls. 'What is the language that they used to speak in ancient times?' So we commissioned someone to create an entire language."
The picturesque village of Olite, Spain proved key to crafting the right atmosphere. "[There's] this beautiful castle, but down the block, you can have a beer and get a burger. It's modern and ancient at the same time," MacIntyre says of the production location. "We wanted that to be the hallmark of this style, that [in] this [vampire] society that's come up, you can see resonant stuff from the 15th century, 16th century, as well as somebody's going to be on their computer doing something."
Previously, Mead's first novel in the series received a 2013 movie adaptation, also called Vampire Academy (Metascore: 31). Some may wonder why the world already warrants another adaptation, not even a decade later.
"I like to make the joke that back when I read the books and was a superfan in 2007, 2008, I had no importance in the world, and nobody was ever asking me what shows I wanted to make," Plec explains. "So it took until about 2021 before somebody said, 'Hey, what's the show you've always wanted to do that you've never been able to?' The answer was Vampire Academy."
Once MacIntyre was on board, she reread the books and honed in on how timely they felt. "It's about a class system that's inherently unfair, it's coming apart, it's pressuring everyone," she says. "I got very excited by the idea of the 'why now' of it, and it feels like a great way to have that conversation in this beautiful world that is a little outside our own."
Within the complex political world of the Dominion, there's plenty of drama and romance for viewers to untangle. To help make it easier, the cast discusses the characters and the key relationship dynamics that make up Vampire Academy.
As the strongest fighter in her class, Dhampir Rose has a promising future as a Guardian — if she can keep herself out of trouble in the meantime. The outspoken teen is fiercely protective of her Moroi best friend Lissa, but the pair experience new pressures as they grow more aware of the system that constrains them. Not to mention, Rose also finds herself in the middle of a love triangle between longtime friend Mason (Andrew Liner) and intense newcomer Dimitri (Kieron Moore).
An avid fan of the book series, Stringer felt a deep connection with Rose. "I read the books as a kid. I was super into them," she says. "I was super excited when the film came out, and I loved watching that; that was a guilty pleasure of mine. When I got the audition brief, I was like, 'No way, they're redoing it. I have a chance to play this character that I already know and love.'"
For Rose's training and combat scenes, Stringer drew from her recent experience doing her own stunts in Mortal Kombat, though not without some bumps and bruises. "This time around, I went into it so cocky. I was like, 'Yeah guys, step aside, I think I've got this.' Go in, fall flat on my face, absolute failure," she says with a laugh. "So I did have a little bit of martial arts experience, but I had to learn how to learn that again, if that makes sense. My stunt double, Cassie Jo Craig, she is phenomenal. By the end of it, we even moved the same while we were doing our fight choreography."
At the start of the series, empathetic Royal Moroi Lissa is more naive about the ways of the Dominion, having thus far lived a cushy life with Rose by her side. Uninterested in the Dominion's petty politics, she's happy to stand in the shadow of her older brother Andre (Jason Diaz), the favored successor of the Queen (Pik-Sen Lim). She would much rather study art in the human world, but a sudden tragedy changes her path. As she grows into her new role, Lissa also forms a connection with Royal Moroi Christian (André Dae Kim), the social pariah of the court.
"When I got the email that I had the audition for Lissa Dragomir, I hadn't read the books; I hadn't even heard of the books," Nieves says. "I remember getting this really good gut feeling. And then [Lissa] was described as this privileged vampire. As I read the scenes, I realized, 'Oh no, she's actually a little misunderstood.' She's smart. She's a leader."
"It's watching them fight for their rights to be friends, it's watching them challenge the society that is trying to create these roles and kind of, in their own way, each of them growing into these young revolutionaries," Plec says of the pair's arc. "There will be conflict in their friendship as they each approach their own maturity and the journey from kind of clueless to all powerful. They will go on separate paths along the way, but they're doing it for each other."
Guardian Dhampir Dimitri is everything that a Guardian should be: highly skilled in physical combat and completely dedicated to protecting the Moroi. The stoic Dhampir seems to never question his role in society, instead placing duty above all else. When he's assigned as Lissa's new Guardian, he inevitably clashes with free-willed Rose. There's also a clear — but strictly forbidden — spark between the two.
But while Rose and Dimitri butt heads, Moore describes their charged relationship as one built on "mutual respect" rather than the "typical I'm-better-than-you thing." He continues, saying that it's "a love through admiration, while there's also that frustration as well. There's elements that they don't like about each other that, I think, in essence, show them more about themselves. I think it flourishes in such a beautiful way."
Moore found it a privilege but also intimidating to step into the shoes of one of the books' most beloved love interests. "Especially through the books, we hear a lot about what Dimitri looks like, what he's absolutely capable of" he says. "For me, it was [important] to focus on what's inside the man: what makes him tick, what makes him vulnerable other than Rose, how does Rose achieve access to that vulnerability?"
Royal Moroi Christian has faced immense loss at a young age. However, the court ostracizes him on account of his parents, who intentionally turned Strigoi. He doesn't understand his parents' choice and spends much of his time in the church archives, searching for an explanation of what could've driven them to commit the Moroi's most taboo crime. "He's so nuanced and layered," Kim says. "I really wanted to play a character that was struggling internally with trying to be one thing, but also having your guard up and being afraid of what the reality of worlds can be."
Christian forms a close bond with Lissa, who finds solace in his company despite the disapproval of those around her. Thanks to all that time in the archives, he's also a valuable source of knowledge for her. Christian helps her practice Old Moroi and prepare for her specialization ceremony, a rite where the magical Moroi determine whether their elemental affinity is for air, earth, fire, or water. "[Christian's] very cool with the fire," Kim says with a laugh.
Speaking from his character's perspective, Kim adds that his burgeoning romance is all about "finding someone who's slowly breaking your mold and breaking those walls down and changing your perspective on things."
Fellow Guardian-in-training Mason completes the love triangle that Rose finds herself in the middle of. While Mason and Rose have long been close friends, the pair have recently started casually dating, a change that Mason welcomes.
"The relationship between them is rooted in deep friendship, growing up with shared experiences, having that known platonic love," Liner explains. "Mason obviously wants to be a little bit more, so with that comes controversy and conflict."
Things get complicated further when Dimitri enters the picture. Compared to the duty-driven older Guardian, Mason is much more laidback. However, Liner notes that Mason's easy-going attitude doesn't mean he won't fight for what he wants.
"I resonated with him a lot because he tries his best in everything that he does," the actor says. "He wants to do the best for the people he cares about. He fights for his love."
Of Mason and Rose's relationship, Liner adds: "He's a sweet guy. I think that a lot of times, you need to see a sweet person, because they're often the people that keep you grounded."
Royal Moroi Victor serves on the Royal Council and advises the Queen. He's witnessed the Dominion's classism up close, due to his husband and adoptive daughters Mia (Mia McKenna-Bruce) and Sonya (Jonetta Kaiser) having non-Royal status.
"We have something very fundamental in common, which is that we're both obsessed with social equality," Richards says of his draw to his character. "In the world of Vampire Academy, there's a very deep class structure. Victor is very disturbed by that."
As Lissa's godfather, Victor also plays an important role in introducing the young Moroi to the Dominion's political world. "He teaches her how to dress, who to befriend, who not to befriend," Richards explains. "He knows that he has an opportunity to mold Lissa into someone who can help him accomplish real change in this world. He loves her as a daughter, but it's interesting how sometimes when we love somebody and we also have a purpose for them, how sometimes our own agenda can cloud what we're asking of that person."
This isn't the first time that Richards has dabbled in a supernatural world, having risen to prominence on Angel as vampire hunter Charles Gunn. He relishes the chance to be on the other side of the equation.
"I always said to myself, if I got to do another vampire series, it would have to be as a vampire," he says with a laugh.
One of Victor's adoptive daughters, non-Royal Moroi Mia wants to achieve royal status, no matter the cost. She starts the series betrothed to Andre in a loveless but mutually beneficial relationship, but her big plans get quickly thrown into turmoil.
"When we initially meet her, she's quite — how do I put it nicely? — standoffish," McKenna-Bruce says. "She has a lot to unpack. I think that was really interesting to be like, 'OK, let's strip this back: Why is she the way she is?'"
The sarcastic and quick-witted Moroi meets her match in Meredith (Rhian Blundell), a Dhampir Guardian-in-training. The elitist Mia struggles with their difference in status, but "the character we meet at the beginning to the character we meet at the end of the season is a very different one," McKenna-Bruce teases.
While she is a "big fan" of the Vampire Academy novels, McKenna-Bruce decided not to revisit them ahead of filming. "I think quite a lot of us made the decision to not reread or analyze the books, because obviously this is a reimagined world of the book. My character is a combination of a few different characters, so [I] didn't want to get bogged down in trying to follow exactly what was written in the book and instead approach the scripts for the way that Julie and Marguerite saw it."
At the start of the series, Mia looks down on her sister Sonya. Her sister's polar opposite, Sonya lives an isolated life, content to spend her days working in the library. Kaiser recognized herself in the quiet character.
"I grew up very shy," she says. "Sonya is the odd girl out, kind of keeps to herself."
Sonya is also one of the rare Moroi who failed to specialize in one of the four elements. The Royal Council believed this means something is wrong with her and therefore subjected her to cruel methods intended to "fix" her. She hasn't quite been the same since, but this doesn't mean she's without powers.
"She talks to birds; I don't talk to birds," Kaiser says with a laugh. "But I could imagine myself talking to birds, which would be very cool to do in real life."
Like her sister, Sonya finds a spark with a Dhampir, and tentatively explores a relationship with the Guardian Mikhail (Max Parker), one of the few who goes out of their way to show her kindness.
Meredith is a Dhampir Guardian-in-training who prefers to fight with her words more than through combat. The sharp-witted and intelligent novice is a good ally to have.
"She's loyal to a fault, like she would run back into the burning building," Blundell says.
From their very first meeting, Meredith has no problem keeping up with Mia — or correcting her elitist assumptions.
"I appreciate her brutal honesty," Blundell says. "That is actually really fun to play. You know that you're gonna be the person that says something that's probably going to light a spark in the room."
Blundell has read all the Vampire Academy books, but like McKenna-Bruce, she chose not to reread them before the show. "[In] the books, you meet every character through Rose's perspective. That's Rose's vision of that character," she says. "So, I think we'd have been maybe doing a bit of a disservice to approach our characters from Rose's perspective. We had to take them from our own."
Royal Moroi Tatiana Vogel has only recently arrived at the Royal Court to study with her aunt, the High Priestess. But while she may be a newcomer, she quickly establishes herself as a political force to be reckoned with.
"She is a bad beep," Uwajeh jokes. "She is just bold and courageous and fearless and shady, but so sharp with it."
Highly motivated and "brilliant," Tatiana sets her sights all the way to the top, determined to take the throne. The Dominion's class structure that keeps the Royal Moroi on top suits her, and she has no desire to change this status quo. As she grows into a more powerful voice on the Royal Council, she clashes with the ideologically opposite Victor.
Uwajeh hints that there also may be something deeper than pure ambition that motivates Tatiana: "Love, I think, drives her quest for power."
Vampire Academy debuts on Sept. 15 on Peacock with the first four episodes of its 10-episode season. The remaining episodes will be released weekly on Thursdays.