Forget the magic fairy dust and enchanting spells, the witches of Salem are downright terrifying.
The upcoming WGN America series, the network’s first foray into scripted original programming, takes a fresh — and much darker — look at the 1692 Salem Witch Trials. Its witches are very real and actually manipulating the town into a state of fear. Shane West stars as war hero John Alden (historically, a survivor of the trials) who has returned home to find that his former love Mary (Janet Montgomery) has gone on to marry elderly town leader George Sibley (Michael Mulheren). What John doesn’t know is that he got Mary pregnant and in order for her to get rid of the baby, she essentially made a deal with the devil-like witch Tituba (Ashley Madekwe).
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But it doesn’t take very long for John to realize something is very off about the town he helped build. Still, his love for Mary and his pride for Salem keeps him around long enough to fight back against some pretty twisted and evil creatures, not to mention some of the town’s powerful humans. For West, it’s all the makings for the perfect project to fill his post-Nikita void.
Were you hesitant to sign on to the network’s first scripted show?
Shane West: There was hesitation that it might not end up looking the way I wanted it to be, but no hesitation being the first. We’re the flag-runner giving it its first shot, so it was more exciting to be a part of something new and with a supportive [network] and nice people which is rare and goes along way. I was attracted to it because I’m a fan of the genre and the characters were so rich and vibrant that I rolled the dice. I was finishing up Nikita and we got a lot of pilots and film scripts, and this is the one that stood out as one of the best I’ve read in a long time. And getting the chance to play John Alden, a heroic and dark character, was a no-brainer.
Did you expect the show to get as dark as it does?
West: When I read the pilot, the horror element of the show came across on paper and in my own imagination, it was pretty dark. When we actually filmed it, I was shocked it stayed to the tone of what the script was because we all know things change once it comes to production and because we’re on basic cable and can only get away with so much. So I was pleasantly surprised because that’s why I signed on to it. The horror element is expertly crafted into the story line, so it’s not just there for sight gag or scares it all makes sense and purposes the story.
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John left when he was in love with Mary. Are those feelings what drives him upon his return?
West: That’s a big part and what kept him alive during the war and being a prisoner of war, and it’s what gave him the ability to come back to the town. But it can’t just be one thing. It’s his town as it is Mary’s and they were the first people born here, so it’s also pride. He’s bitter at first [that she married], but makes the decision to stay and not only hopes she changes her mind, but also to try and right the wrongs of Salem and keep everyone from losing their mind.
How far is John willing to go to get what he wants?
West: Right now John seems to be the most normal of the characters introduced, but you’ll find quickly what truly happened to him during the war and that he’s not as stereotypically heroic as put out there. It makes him more flawed, but you have to have that pull back and forth. And even when you learn those things about John, it’s still just talked about [and] he’s not necessarily admitting to certain things. So we’ll explore his war crimes and drag that through to next season.
There’s a lot going on in the first episode. Will it slow down a bit?
West: The pilot is always harder and sometimes the audience doesn’t even know what character to follow and invest in, but we had to introduce the town, the love story, what’s happening with the witchcraft. In the first episode, John is just trying to figure things out, but Episode 2 starts immediately with reaction and aggression.
How does the action in this show differ from what you’ve done in the past?
West: The action is very different. Nikita had a lot of fighting technique and gunplay, but with this, there’s only a certain amount of guns that were around back then. There’s plenty of action, but I feel, in a way, like a veteran coming into this, so it’s been a lot easier. The difficult thing about it is what we wear. The hair, clothes, the boots… but you get used to it. And, of course, we’re worried about the heat [in Louisiana] and I’m worried about sweating through that wig.
Salem premieres on Sunday at 10/9c on WGN America.