Salem is WGN America's first foray into scripted television, and just four episodes into the season, the chilling supernatural take on the famous Salem witch trials is already stirring up a lot of buzz. It's an addictive mix of horror tale, period piece, and compelling character drama, and with a Season 2 renewal already under its belt, it promises plenty of thrills to come.
Wetpaint Entertainment recently chatted with series star Seth Gabel, who brings the show's uniquely sympathetic (and handsome) version of real-life historical figure Cotton Mather to life. Seth gave us an inside look at Cotton's motivations, and teased the excitement to come in Episode 5 ("Lies") and beyond — including a "Tarantino-esque" take on history and even some "buddy cop" moments headed our way!
Wetpaint Entertainment: One of the most interesting things about Salem is the way it blends the supernatural with what is otherwise a very grounded period piece. How did you prepare for the historical side of that equation. Did you do any research?
Seth Gabel: A little bit. I was familiar with the time period and the circumstances because I had been in the play The Crucible by Arthur Miller in high school. It was an awful production [laughs]. But I kind of had that as a background going in. And then once I got the part, Adam Simon, the creator of the show, sent me different excerpts from the writings of Cotton Mather, and different books about the Salem witch trials that were first hands accounts of people's experiences of it. But it was also clear going into it that we were going to be taking some liberties with the facts of what happened in pursuit of trying to get to a higher version of the truth of what that experience must have been like.
What I've discovered through playing different parts over the years is that I don't really fully get into it until I put the costume on. Once you experience those clothes on your body, and the way you move in them, you get a real sense of the appearance of those characters during that time, and how they portrayed themselves when they moved. You're very much informed by the clothes. Where they're tight. If you're wearing a cape, that affects how you move. All of those things. Having these strong boots for Cotton Mather gave me a lot of that character.
And then in terms of being in the time period, WGN and Fox spent a monstrous amount of money building and re-creating the Salem town here in Shreveport, Louisiana. We have this incredible set that you go to and you're just literally transported to another word. Not literally! I hate it when people misuse the word literally. You're metaphorically transported to another world. It makes it so easy. You just put away your cell phone and you're in the 1690s. It's an incredible experience.
That set translates so well on screen, and it allows the fantastic elements to exist in a world that still feels very real.
It keeps it grounded in something strong. And then it's amazing how easy it is to have the fantastical exist when it's lit by firelight. There's just something about that flicker. There's something very magical about it, which I think really strikes to the heart of what the mindset must have been like at that time. Not having electricity — it's a very different world when it's lit by flame and shadow.
Let's talk Cotton! A lot has been made of the way he's living in his father's shadow, but at the same time he does seem to believe that he's doing the right thing. How much is he driven by what's expected of him vs. his internal desire to do good?
I feel like those percentages are shifting all the time. He's a man charged with a task, a monumental task. One of the biggest characters in this show — that I think you're not fully aware is a character but very much is — is the devil. [Cotton] believes he's fighting a battle, if not a war, with the devil. He's a young man who's trying to live up to his father's name, and has all of this societal pressure on him to find the witches and kill them. But he also knows that he is in a battle with the devil himself, and that claws him inside, because he has this horrifying sense that he's not really up to the task. And if he's not really up to the task, a lot of people are going to die.
And so he's very much flailing about, trying to make sense of everything that's going on around him, and at the same time, he has all these urges and desires that are so repressed by the society he lives in. He has desire for sex, and in that time period there wasn't much you could do with that desire except perhaps go to a brothel. He didn't have anyone to talk about his feelings with, so he goes to a pub and drinks. That's kind of the only way he can get those voices in his head to calm down.
So, based on the circumstances going on around him, Cotten needs to self-sooth, or self-medicate, or self-loathe, self-punish, to get himself in the right space to fight the devil.
That brings us to his relationship with Gloriana (Azure Parsons), who's a prostitute. Clearly, he's struggling with that, which climaxed in that dramatic and romantic sex scene in the church. How is he thinking about that, and how will it develop moving forward?
I think Cotton isn't sure he knows what love is, but he's probably very much feeling it with her. But, also, this is a woman he can never be with. Everything in society around him tells him this relationship is wrong, and he hates himself for having it feel so right. And he takes that anger and frustration, unfortunately, out on her, because she's the kindest one who's willing to take it. And so, in terms of the relationship playing out, I think eventually they'll have to face the society that is tearing them apart, and they'll need to confront that. And they'll either end up with the demise of their relationship, or they can actually be together in a real way. Time will only tell what happens with that.
One of his other most interesting relationships is with John Alden (Shane West). They are very different, but they are working towards the same goal. What can we expect from them?
I feel like Cotton and John are opposite sides of the same coin. Their polarity is such that they can't fully integrate, because they are very different people, but they both want the same things. They're united in that. They both ultimately mean well, but they don't totally respect the way each other approaches a problem. At the same time, they are the yin to each others' yang. Cotton needs John's strength, and courage, and resolve, and Jon needs Cotton's ability to think outside the box, and his education and training, and unconventional wisdom when it comes to witch hunting.
So they're kind of forswore together, but that will continue to be tested as the proverbial shit hits the fan. Because in times of crisis, it's hard to polite with each other. We'll definitely see them butt heads throughout the season.
Cotton may mean well, but he's currently being manipulated by the very forces he's trying to stop. If and when he realizes he's been tricked into killing innocents, how do you think he'll react?
It's utterly devastating. I mean he's already tortured, because he's someone who suffers so greatly just seeing how much suffering there is around him. I feel like that's a big part of why he acts out. We live in a flawed world. When we're children we don't totally see that, and when we get older we start to see the flaws of the world. In many ways it's devastating, and we kind of spend the rest of our lives coping with that.
I think when Cotton discovers that he's complicit in that suffering, and has actually killed innocent people — it can lead to a psychotic break, it can lead to crisis of conscience. But also, at the same time, in many ways he doesn't have a choice. He's at war with the devil, and what's better, to have a few innocent people killed and stop the devil, or have the devil win and take over the earth, and bring hell to earth, and ultimately destroy heaven? I mean, the stakes are really, really high.
It's hard to get higher than that!
So, let's talk about Episode 5. There's the question of what this box that they've found is. What can you tell us about that?
All I can say is, it just gets better and better! It's so exciting what begins to happen episode after episode. My concern going into this show was, well, we're limited in what can happen, because there are historical facts as to what happened. But I think, in some ways, we kind of go Tarantino with it. We're able to go to a place that you're not expecting. The box is just the beginning of a series of events where incredible things will happen, that I've had so much fun shooting. It's unbelievable. I don't want to spoil anything, but you have to keep watching. The episode that's about to air [Episode 5] and the episode after that — it just get freaking awesome!
Anything else you can tease about what's coming up?
What's interesting with the relationship between John and Cotton, because they're so diametrically opposed, once the stakes — not that the stakes simmer down at all, but once they get used to the stakes that they're in, it starts to become a little bit like a buddy cop movie. Because the two of them kind of hate each other, but are forced to work with each other. I think the writers and Shane and I started to find the comedy in that. So, surprisingly, as the next few episodes progress, there will be some moments of comedy. I think, if they make the cut! We definitely had fun on set, so we'll see.
For more from Seth, follow him on Twitter @sethgabel.
Tune into Episode 5 of Salem Sunday, May 18, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on WGN America.