Set in the volatile world of 17th century Massachusetts, the original drama series Salem explores what really fueled the town’s infamous witch trials and dares to uncover the dark, supernatural truth. In the town of Salem, witches are real, but they are not who or what they seem to be, and the ruthless yet vulnerable Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery) is at the center of it all. The show also stars Shane West, Seth Gabel, Xander Berkeley, Ashley Madekwe, Tamzin Merchant, Elise Eberle and Iddo Goldberg.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Janet Montgomery talked about how she got involved with Salem, how much fun this character is to play, why she was excited to do the first original scripted series for WGN America, her constant communication with the creative team of the show, the human psyche of it all, why people are still so fascinated by the Salem witch trails, how much research she did, being a part of such a female centric show, and the challenges of the role. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
JANET MONTGOMERY: It really is, yeah. I really enjoy playing Mary. She’s quite tough because she commands so much power. A lot of the techniques that she uses to get what she wants are not things that me, as Janet, use. Not very often is she just nice to people to get what she wants. I haven’t toughen up, a lot of the time, and it can make me quite cold between takes, but I do really enjoy playing her.
How did you come to be a part of this show?
MONTGOMERY: I actually got sent the script. The producer and showrunner wanted to meet with me, so they asked me to read the script. Brannon [Braga] was shooting Cosmos in London. So, I read the script and said, “Yeah, I’d love to meet with him.” I met him at the Soho Hotel, and we sat there for three hours and he sold me on the project. I think he’d already seen my show reel of stuff and Dancing on the Edge, and I was very much, physically, what he thought the character was like. So, he pitched it to me, and then I went away and did a self-tape so that people could see me as the character. And then, some time passed and I got it.
When you learned about this project, were you hesitant at all about signing on for the first scripted series for a network that hadn’t really established the quality level of its programming yet?
MONTGOMERY: No, that actually made me really excited. That was a bonus for me. I wanted to do cable, and I liked that it was a new network. I think that makes it exciting. There’s less expectation of what the show should be. We’re creating something brand new.
The material and the subject matter of this show could have easily gone very wrong, if not in the right hands. Was it really important for you to meet and talk with the creative team, and learn about their vision and the tone they were aiming for?
MONTGOMERY: Yeah, and I speak to the creative team daily. The writers are in L.A., but I speak to them daily because it’s so important to me that we capture the period in an authentic way, and that the magic stays grounded in nature. We’ve gotta keep it realistic. We can’t use the magic or the period as a get out clause to complete storylines.
This is clearly much more than just a supernatural show about witches. Ultimately, it seems to be a deep exploration of the human psyche and how that can be bent, twisted and abused by other people. Was that something that appealed to you about this, more than just signing on to do a genre show?
MONTGOMERY: Yeah. Actually, in the first episode, what I found the most interesting was this situation with Mary and John. It is the human psyche, and being told the person that you love, who was your first love, is dead. She was left alone and had to fend for yourself, and she made a choice. The fucking world was unkind to her, and she made a choice to turn her back on it. And then, that person came back, seven years later, and she can’t tell him, but she also can’t stop how she feels about him. I think all of those feelings make for such a beautiful character. Nothing that she says or does doesn’t have double meaning. It’s quite easy to think about all of the things that are going on with her and not play a scene in a one-dimensional way. With Mary, she’s just complicated.
Does Mary resent John for reminding her of her past?
MONTGOMERY: I think she does resent him. She didn’t know why he left for seven years. It’s not like it was six months or a year. It was seven years. Of course, there’s part of her that’s still like, “Oh, my god, he’s back. I love him.” And then, she thinks, “How fucking dare he come back, seven years later, and just walk in and expect that I’ll leave with him?”
How do you view the relationship between Mary and Tituba, and what’s it been like to play that dynamic?
MONTGOMERY: It’s been really fun, actually. Now that me and Ashley [Madekwe] know each other pretty well and we get along really well, the relationship is just getting stronger through the writing. We first met on set, but now that we’ve actually become friends, it’s only strengthened Tituba and Mary’s relationship on screen.
Why do you think people are still so fascinated with the stories of Salem and the witch trials?
MONTGOMERY: It was one of the prominent parts of history in America. I don’t really know much about the actual Salem witch trials, apart from what I’ve learned from this show and The Crucible. I didn’t learn about it in England. Witches were burned and killed in Scotland and England for centuries before what happened in Salem. If you disagreed with a man, then they could cast that as witchcraft. So, when we say that witches were real, they were real, all over the world. Did they have magical powers, in the way that is depicted in The Crucible with Abigail? Probably not. I think it was much more psychological.
MONTGOMERY: I do research, but I’m lucky enough to have great writers on the show that are doing a lot of that. If I have questions, they can answer quite a lot of my questions. And then, you’ve got hair and make-up. My job is less about the historical element and more about the actual human element, and trying to depict her psyche and become her. But, I did do a fair amount of looking at the late 1600s and tried to figure out what it was like to be someone going over and being in this new world. That was the most important part for me. If you come over from England and are suddenly in America, and it took a couple of years to get there, it would be so frightening. That would take a good few generations to calm down. You’d see animals and you’d see land, and it would just seem bizarre, compared to what you knew.
What were you told about Mary’s journey when you signed on? Did you have any idea what her arc would be, or were you not told much, initially?
MONTGOMERY: I wasn’t told very much, at all. They don’t tend to tell me much about the next episode, which is good because I don’t like to be loaded with too much. I like to know exactly where my character is at, there and then, and in the past. They work on the future bits, and then they send me the scripts and I go, “Oh, no, what’s this?!” They made a decision in Episode 7 where I was like, “Woah, I did not see this happening!” I was very intrigued to know where they would go from there.
How do you view this woman? Do you see her as someone who is justified in her actions, or do you see her as someone who was essentially deceived into her decisions?
MONTGOMERY: I think it’s a bit of both, really. Even if she was deceived into her actions, she could have still been like, “You know, I don’t want to do this.” She knows she’s hurting people, but she doesn’t stuff. So, I don’t think she’s completely innocent, nor do I think anything is that black and white. She made the choice because she had no other choice. And it was a little bit about protecting herself, in that time period. People can say, “Oh, how selfish!,” but that’s the only choice she had. If she had been found out to be pregnant in a Puritan society, then her baby would be taken away from her and she’d be cast out, and she’d probably end up working in a whore house, for the rest of her life. It’s easy to say, “Oh, gosh, that’s an awful thing that she did,” but she really didn’t have much of a choice.
MONTGOMERY: That’s interesting. That’s a good question. I’m really enjoying myself. I’m lucky because I’m really bonding with the rest of the cast. They’re all really supportive and they help me, as much as possible, to do my job. And the crew are amazing. Maybe I’m a bit spoiled because I’m enjoying playing her. It is a great female character. Honestly, because of the way women were treated, I wouldn’t want to go back to Puritan times. I’m far too outspoken to be a woman in Puritan times.
Obviously, you’re acting in a role and doing a job, but have you found any of the content particularly challenging to do?
MONTGOMERY: Yes, there have been a few scenes that have left me quite shaken. I struggle with the bugs. I don’t struggle with the toad so much anymore because I have to do it so often. But at first, I was naked and there was a toad pissing all over me. It was hideous. And it was my first day at work, on the pilot. It was pretty horrific. And then, I had something with a mouse, where I had to crush this mouse in my hand. I was holding the real mouse, and then they switched it out for a fake mouse. The act of violence towards it – even though I knew it wasn’t the real one in my hand anymore, but it was only 10 seconds in between – I found it horrible. And then, there was another scene that started off sexual, but then became incredibly violent. As soon as they called, “Cut!,” I had to get off the set. When they were rolling, it was like being drunk, and then they called, “Cut!,” and I just had to get off the set. You have to flip the switch in your brain. There can’t be any part of your brain, watching yourself. You have to be completely in the character, and that’s so hard to do. That’s why, when they call, “Cut!,” you often feel yourself shift. Unless you’re Daniel Day Lewis, who stays in character all the time, there’s a switch that happens.
Salem airs on Sunday nights on WGN America.