Netflix’s First Kill brings queer representation into the genre fold through a Shakespearean lens. Calliope (Imani Lewis) is a monster hunter hailing from a legendary family of slayers. Juliette (Sarah Catherine Hook) is a vampire from a powerful vamp family. Both must make their first kill, but what happens when these two teens set their sights on each other? We see forbidden love blossom in this steamy, romantic horror-drama.
I had the privilege of chatting with showrunner, executive producer and head writer Felicia D. Henderson about what drew her to the show, normalizing queer rep, showcasing Black families in the genre space, what she hopes audiences glean from First Kill and more.
This interview is condensed for length and clarity.
Melody McCune: What inspired you to adapt First Kill for the small screen?
Felicia D. Henderson: V.E. Schwab wrote the short story First Kill for an anthology called Vampires Never Get Old: Tales with Fresh Bite. Netflix liked it and hired her to adapt it for TV. She wrote the pilot and after they had the pilot, they looked for a head writer and showrunner for the series.
They were in a holding pattern, and they called my manager, and he asked me to read the pilot. I said, “I don’t have time. You know what’s on my plate. Why are you bringing me more work?” He was like, “I just think you should read it.” So, I read it. I immediately knew why he insisted upon it.
It was everything I love in terms of who I am as a creative person and who I am personally. I am a Shakespeare freak, so I love that it had this Shakespearean drama with these two warring families at the center of it.
From a personal point of view, I love the idea of fully fleshed-out, three-dimensional characters in a family that was Black. I also loved the idea of a three-dimensional, fully fleshed-out story about queer love. So, to have a Black family in the genre space was something I was very excited about.
I’m also the proud godmother and auntie of young queer women. I wanted to be part of telling a story that I wish they had when they were 16. This is for them. Of course, it’s wonderful and entertaining, and it happens to be in the sweet spot of what I care about and enjoy, so I could not jump in fast enough.
MM: How does this series deliver a fresh spin to a Romeo and Juliet-esque story?
FDH: In lots of ways. Not only are there two girls in love, but they’re two powerful individuals in love. They are equals in every way. I like that in this “Montague and Capulet” way, we have two families that allow us to look at culturally-specific differences in that you have this upper-class Black family. Then, you have an upper-class white family. How do they differ culturally?
It’s not just about, “Oh, we are rich and you’re poor.” A lot of adaptations of Romeo and Juliet centered around socioeconomic differences. That’s not what this is about. Socioeconomically, both families are equal.
That gives us a chance to focus more on who they are as three-dimensional human beings. Why can’t they be together? In this case, it’s not like “she’s not good enough for you” on either side. It’s about being enemies in both cases.
We can let the idea that there are monsters and monster hunters stand in for when Margot Fairmont, Juliette’s mother (Elizabeth Mitchell), or Talia Burns, Calliope’s mother (Aubin Wise), says, “You cannot bring that girl into my house.”
We know that could stand in for all kinds of intolerance. You make it very relatable to a contemporary audience because every parent knows what it means for your kid to bring the wrong person home or pray they don’t bring the wrong person home. Every kid knows what it’s like to want to bring that person home.
MM: Describe First Kill using three words.
FDH: Groundbreaking, emotionally-satisfying and ridiculously-entertaining. [Author’s note: I hereby decree the last two words are hyphenated. I make the rules!]
MM: Oh, I like that. Since family is such a crucial theme, what else do you hope audiences glean from the show?
FDH: Family is an essential theme. Who are you? Are you going to be family first and everything after that? Are you going to be different from what your family dictates you be?
Tolerance and acceptance are huge themes. My goal is to evaluate people and meet them based on wanting to learn about how you’re different instead of focusing on “If we could focus on how we’re the same.” I hope people learn to embrace how people are different and not only accept it, but celebrate it so that we are comfortable and excited about being around people who are different from us.
So, I think that’s important, and the idea of these strong kick-ass matriarchs in both the Burns and Fairmont families. I hope people embrace Margot and Talia and the battle that will wage between them. We did it without compromising strong male characters because their partners, in both cases, are powerful characters and are not intimidated to be married to strong, kick-ass women.
MM: The show focuses on a love story between two queer teenagers, but it doesn’t take the usual route of showcasing a coming-out story. In this way, it normalizes queer rep. It’s such an antidote to what we usually see onscreen. Did this give you the freedom to explore other things in the series?
FDH: Yes, very much so, because I certainly watched and enjoyed many of the more traditional storytelling of queer folks that is about their queerness or coming out stories. But we’re all more than who we love. You fall in love with someone else because of the other things they are.
This allows us to explore why they love each other. What is it about her? Calliope loves that Juliette is determining who she is, and that’s attractive to her. Like, “Oh, this young woman is figuring out who she is and standing on her own two feet, and has a beautiful, loving heart.”
Juliette looks at Calliope and says, “You’re a person who’s already figured out exactly who she is. What’s sexy to me is to be with someone who knows who she is and I can learn from.”
Then, they both look at each other and say, “You also happen to be beautiful.” They are in loving families, and you never hear it mentioned because it’s normal that they’re loved by their families. I know that’s not the story for so many young queer people.
It’s an opportunity to place both of these girls in loving families, to depict the world as it should be. Sometimes, as artists, we depict the world, but sometimes we get to depict it as it should be. Every person who loves whoever they love should have, in a world I want to live in, a family who loves them just because.
MM: Oh, I love that. That’s such a great answer. Thank you.
FDH: That’s from my heart. Thank you so much.
MM: What can viewers expect when watching First Kill?
FDH: A whole bunch of, “Oh my God. I got to watch the next episode right now.” It’s been too long since a show like Buffy, so what do you do next? You do First Kill, where you have two girls at the center of it, both romantically and kick-ass and physically intimidating.
They can expect two matriarchs who will burn it down if they have to. A lot of action, ghouls, werewolves and vampires. Lots of monster fights and fantastic music.
MM: Are there any plans for a Season 2?
FDH: There are plans for a Season 2 in my head!
MM: Let’s manifest it, make it happen.
FDH: Yes, please! I really hope so. We need people to watch. We need people to love it. We feel so confident that it is something worth watching. Netflix has shown so much support for the show. I’ve felt the support from the beginning when they were like, “How many writers do you need?”
The show is set in Savannah. We mostly shot in Atlanta. But when I’m like, “I need to take the show to Savannah,” I said, “For the authenticity and real places.” They supported that.
We have something very special that speaks to people who love genre, specifically vampires; who love YA, teen love, queer love, who want to see a Black family normalized in this space, queer love normalized and people who love fight sequences because we’ve got really nice ones. It’s something for everyone, and I’m excited to share it.
MM: Do you have a favorite scene you’ve enjoyed adapting from the story?
FDH: I don’t know if I have a favorite, but I have a favorite idea, and I love it. I love when these two young women meet for the first time, that Juliette’s very aware of Calliope and Calliope, not so much. But the first moment they come face-to-face and take each other in is extraordinary. That is from V.E.’s short story and her adaptation of the pilot.
I love when they’re standing; everything different about them is right there for you to see. One’s short; one’s tall. One’s Black; one’s white. One is very outspoken; one is very unsure of herself. Yet, they’re perfect for each other.
MM: Do you have any favorite vampire-themed shows or movies that helped shape you?
FDH: It was before I was born, but I remember being a little girl and seeing my sister have this poster on her wall of Blacula and I was like, “Blacula? What is this thing?” She told me the story of this Black vampire during the Blaxploitation era in the 70s. She told me it meant everything to Black people that they finally had their own vampire story that was just about them.
Whenever she moved and even once she was an adult, she had it framed because Blacula meant so much to her in terms of early representation. I feel like from Blacula to First Kill, we’ve been marching in this direction where Black characters can be front and center and in the genre. When you normalize that, you see more of it.
Her telling of how important that was to us, as Black people and our representation in horror films, made an impression on me because it’s how I’ve lived my professional life. Whatever genre I’m working in, I try to be a part of bringing that representation that’s often missing to the fore.
If it [that representation] doesn’t exist, I have to figure out an authentic, grounded way to introduce it because it doesn’t automatically live in every project I get.
So that’s important to me in my career, no matter what I’m working on, whatever I’m writing about. I have another project coming up that is about World War II, with women pilots. Black women weren’t allowed in that program, but because I’m writing it, I’m like, “Okay, well, how do I authentically and in a grounded manner include, in a way that’s true to the 1940s, Black women in the story?” Because representation matters.
If we’re not there, then I should tell the story of why we’re not there.
MM: Felicia, thank you so much for chatting with me! Congratulations on First Kill!
FDH: Thank you, Melody!
This article was originally published on 6/10/22.