Set in 17th century colonial Massachusetts, the WGN America drama series Salem brings you the real story behind the infamous witch trials. It’s dark, creepy and pushes boundaries, on every level, and always make you question exactly who you should be rooting for, as even the most seemingly evil still manage to be sympathetic, in some way.
Throughout Season 2, new characters have been wreaking havoc and opening the world up, even further, and the most devilish is Countess Marburg (Lucy Lawless), one of the only remaining descendants of an ancient and powerful line of European witches. During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Lucy Lawless talked about the experience of joining the cast of Salem, why it’s never useful to see your own character as the villain, and being surprised by how much of the story is rooted in historical reality. She also talked about why she wanted to be a part of the upcoming Starz series Ash vs. Evil Dead, that she’s expecting the writers to pull out all the stops, and what she thought of Evil Dead when she first saw it at 17, as well as how amazed and gratified she is that people still love Xena, 20 years after the show’s debut.
Collider: You’ve played some very strong and strong-willed characters, in your career. Is that something that you’ve just instinctively always been attracted to?
LUCY LAWLESS: No, I’ve often wanted to play the victim, or somebody who makes terrible choices. I would love to play the alcoholic mother who horribly lets down her children. That’s a great morally imperiled role. I want high stakes things, and often, the higher stakes can be found in this genre of television, like Xena, Battlestar Galactica, Salem and Spartacus. There’s such high stakes, all the time.
Is it difficult to find characters that are different enough from each other that you want to play them, or do you just feel really lucky in the roles you’ve gotten to do?
LAWLESS: I’ve never had that overview. I just look at what’s the most fun thing I can do next. I’m not looking to prove anything, or to break out or to break away. I feel so lucky, honestly, that I’m still working and I’m still here. I don’t think I really expected this, at this time in my life. You expect your career to just fizzle out, or something, and I’ve only gotten busier. I’ve got two shows, at the moment, and I’m really delighted.
A lot of actors talk about finding that one character, in their career, that they truly love or that people connect to, and it seems like you’ve had a handful of them.
LAWLESS: Yeah, I’m getting up to a fistful, aren’t I? I will say that I think The Countess is the combination of all those great roles, taken to another level. The second half of Salem is so insane. The things that I had to do are so beyond all the other shows that I’ve done, in terms of character interaction. It’s horror, really. In a way, she takes the cake.
What was it like to join the cast of Salem and find your place among the already wacky, wild and intensely strong characters that were already established?
LAWLESS: It’s been great. They’re very sweet. They’re a lovely bunch of people. They’re bonded very tightly, but are still inclusive. Joe Doyle, who plays my son, Sebastian, and I were just welcomed with open arms. They’re a bunch of gypsies, and they hang out a lot together, but they welcomed us right in.
In a world of very powerful characters who are vying for power amongst each other, how do you view The Countess? Do you see her as a villain, or do you see her as someone who’s just going after what she wants?
LAWLESS: It’s never very useful to see your character as a villain. You have to play them the way they see themselves, and I think The Countess sees herself as someone who must get what she wants. From the outside, she’s an intensely selfish, demanding, narcissistic person, but you can’t play that, as an actor. You’ve gotta love your character. Why must she get what she wants, all the time, even to the detriment of everyone else? You have to justify it to yourself. I don’t seem to have trouble doing that, with whoever my character is. I’m always horrified when people refer to them as villains. Only with The Countess, I have to give them that. That’s not unjustified. She’s really a terrible person! But when I play her, I just love it.
Have you ever played characters that you’ve found a little harder to love than others, or is it just too much fun, as an actor?
LAWLESS: No, it’s just too much fun, as an actor. The more outrageous they are, the more I like them.
One of the great things about Salem is that the crazier the stuff on the show seems, the more likely it is that it’s rooted in actual history. Were you surprised that so much of what they do on the show is taken from real things?
LAWLESS: Yes, I was surprised by that, and delighted that Adam Simon and the writers have gone deeply into the history of the occult and Wicca, and all kind of sects going back to Egyptian times. Adam is very learned on all sorts of religions and mysticism. There are some very challenging themes for modern Christian or monotheistic audiences. It gets quite deep, but it never gets hifalutin. It’s just thoroughly entertaining and gets more intense, all the time.
People are very excited about Ash vs. Evil Dead, and that you’re a part of it. When the idea of that was brought to you, what was your reaction?
LAWLESS: “Oh, I’ve gotta be a part of that!” It’s getting the band back together. Even though I wasn’t there, at the beginning of Evil Dead, I obviously have a long association with my husband, Rob Tapert, and therefore Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, who was in Hercules and Xena. I’ve known Bruce for 20 years, and love him. It will be neat to be on a show that he stars in. He used to relish being second banana. Now, he’s first banana, and I get to say, “Suck it up!” He’ll have to get to make-up at 4 am and not complain. He’s divine to work with. I worship him.
What can you say about who your character is and how she fits into the story?
LAWLESS: I don’t really know because I haven’t read all that much of it, to be honest with you. I’m taking it on faith. But, it’s gonna be fun! It had better be good ‘cause this Salem role is truly fascinating, and I can accept nothing less now. The writers on Evil Dead better pull out all the stops!
When you first saw Evil Dead, what did you think of it?
LAWLESS: I was disgusted! I was 17, and I had a VHS of Evil Dead. I was at my friend’s house in Mount Albert, New Zealand. He kept saying, “Come on, you’ve gotta watch this really great movie!” And when the girl is raped by the tree, I pitched a fit and stopped off saying, “The people that made this movie are sick and I hate them!” Cut to years later, and I’m married to one of them. Turns out he’s a good guy.
In the time since then, have you gone back and re-evaluated how you feel about it, at all?
LAWLESS: No, it’s terrible. It’s terrible, terrible stuff. But I’m not someone who ever enjoys violence against women or children. So, for my sins, of course, fate has give me this Countess role, and women and children are often in her firing line. She’s a terrible, terrible, terrible person. I have had some ethical concerns about some of the things I’m shooting. But at the end of the day, you’re shooting a new high-end horror, and my personal feelings can’t really get in the way of that. We’re telling a great story.
When you play a mysterious woman who’s hiding what her true agenda is, are you the type of actor who wants to be filled in on the mystery, or do you like learning as you go?
LAWLESS: No, it’s helpful to know, quite often, if they have a very long arc because you seed it in. Very often, I’m part of the deception because the way I play things is that I want you to be able to look back and go, “Oh, my god, I didn’t see that at the time, but now it all makes sense,” and you want to watch it a second time with the benefit of hindsight. So, I love making it real complex, and often knowing the super arc helps do that. It’s immensely rewarding when you do that kind of work.
You and your husband, Rob Tapert, have worked together quite a lot, over the years. What do you like about working and collaborating with him, and why do you think it works so successfully for you?
LAWLESS: Because he’s brilliant and he produces the hell out of not only TV shows, but our entire life set-up. I just stay out of his way. I live in complete free-fall and plan nothing, and it works well because he plans everything. If I tried to be a planner, there would be clashes. We are complimentary.
When you started working on Xena, could you ever have imagined that 20 years later, people would still be talking about that show, and celebrating it and your work on it, and still think of it so fondly?
LAWLESS: I probably would have thought that was the natural course of things, but I was so ignorant. Now, I am amazed and gratified and delighted that people are still watching it on Netflix. One of the few times I got to wear modern clothes for a role was on a show called The Code, which is a political thriller set in Australia, and that’s on Netflix right now. That’s very cool. I’m thrilled about that.
Was there a point, along the way, that you realized that Xena would be a project that would also follow you, in your career, and people would always want to talk to you about it?
LAWLESS: No, because I was just the lucky local kid that got the job when somebody else pulled out, at the last minute. They were paying me, and it was really fun and interesting, and I was learning. I never thought it would become a phenomenon. I didn’t know that anything could become a phenomenon like that. It just caught this wave, at the time. It was the first time we’d had a female action hero that was gritty and funny, and could go toe-to-toe with men. I suppose Wonder Woman did, as well, but she wasn’t gritty and she didn’t have a demon inside of her, like Xena did. Xena was flawed.
After playing that character, and really after playing each of these stand-out characters, do you ever worry about not finding the next one that you connect to like that, or is as strong, as interesting or as fun to play again?
LAWLESS: No, I never think about it. Inevitably, as long as the producers will let me, I’ll make it fun. I’m a bloody fun-seeker. Whatever the role is, I’ll find a way to deliver the line that is confounding. With The Countess, one of my missions is to get people to go, “Oh, she’s really nice and I really like her, but what were the words she just said?!” I want your instincts to be at odds with your mind. The more wicked she is, the sweeter, more reasonable, charming and affable she is.
Salem airs on Sunday nights on WGN America. Ash vs. Evil Dead will premiere on Starz in the Fall.