Tamzin Merchant and Seth Gabel Interview: Salem Couple Summons the Press

Salem's Anne Hale and Cotton Mather, aka Tamzin Merchant and Seth Gabel, tease us about the Salem Season 2 finale

Salem, which runs on WGN, is one of the most fun series on the air right now. Following in the horror soap opera tradition of Dark Shadows, the show takes a left hand path approach to politics, power, and sex. The witches run the village of Salem from behind the scenes and they are running amok. At the heart of the series is a power struggle between the old family of European witches, led by the Countess Marburg and the Essex Witch Mary Sibley, who was recently stripped of her power in the new Jerusalem and who happens to be the birth mother of Satan on Earth.

As the body count grows, so does the relationship between Salem’s disgraced witch hunter, Cotton Mather, and one of its rising star witches, Anne Hale, who recently found out she is the daughter of Countess Marburg. The newly wedded couple’s marriage is founded on lies and magical chicanery. The witch hunter just learned that his beloved is more than a bit bewitching, but he doesn’t know that his love for her started with a magical working–a love spell.

Salem will run its season finale this Sunday and all the pieces are in place for a truly exciting closer. WGN released a teaser that begs a simple question: does love conquer all?

Seth Gabel has Ron Howard as a father-in-law. His character, Cotton Mather, is married to the daughter of Lucy Lawless’ onscreen persona. Between his in-laws, he is in the company of three of the most recognized figures on TV: Opie Taylor, Richie Cunningham, and Xena, Warrior Princess. But he started out in good company, personally cast by legendary director Sidney Lumet, himself an original Dead End Kid on the stage.

Tamzin Merchant is also acting royalty. Best known for her role on The Tudors, one of her earliest roles was in the 2005 film adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice. Merchant also happened to be the first actress to go before the camera as Daenerys Targaryen on HBO’s Game of Thrones. Though she was carried off by dragons before the pilot finished shooting, she brings the lethal majesty of young nobility to her discoveries on Salem.

Ad – content continues below

Gabel is not new to supernatural drama, his character Lincoln Lee on the Fox television series Fringe was last seen stuck in an alternative universe. Merchant’s fiery red locks, which she dyed for Dragonheart 3: The Sorcerer’s Cures, caught the attention of Salem producers, who could see no one else in the part afterwards.

Tamzin Merchant and Seth Gabel sat for a conference call to discuss the Salem season two finale. Den of Geek is including all of our portion of the interview and portions of some of the other questions. All the participants are named, so Salem fans can google what we’re leaving out.

Den of Geek: Seth, on the show you have the former Xena Warrior Princess as a mother-in-law. In real life your father-in-law is Opie Cunningham. They are both TV icons. Is the pressure the real reason Cotton Mather drinks?

Seth Gabel: Exactly, yes! He’s just trying to escape the burden of all of this TV royalty. Lucy’s been an amazing addition to the show. I really lamented that I didn’t get more scenes with her because I’ve been a huge fan of hers not only from Xena but also on Battlestar and Spartacus. I thought she was brilliant in those.

So when she joined our show, I called Adam [Simon] and Brannon [Braga] our creators and said ‘wow, you guys really are brilliant,’ because she’s kind of known for elevating genre material, which is exactly what we’re striving for in this show: telling something that’s engaging and fun from a genre perspective but also having the material be elevated to where you can take it seriously, and really delve into the drama and the characters.

So when she joined, I thought that was kind of the perfect message to send to the audience and for us going into season two because I feel like we really began to understand what the show is, and it just really feels like at this point in the show’s evolution that it’s really found it’s place, and partially because of the addition of Lucy and everyone else.

Ad – content continues below

Tamzin Merchant: Yes, she’s so great. It’s been so much fun working with her this year.

Would Anne Hale get behind the Countess’ vision of a future for witches?

TM: I think Anne has her very own vision of the future that I think she’s extremely determined to see it come to pass and I think that she may not see eye-to-eye with her mother in that respect, but you never know.

I mean, I think that people with a vision can often get stuck on that vision in such a way that actually they end-up making something that’s kind of a diabolical version of the original vision rather than what they had in mind, so we’ll have to see I think about that.

Jamie Ruby from SciFi Vision asked the actors what they thought was the most rewarding part of working on the show.

SG: Tamzin Merchant is.

Ad – content continues below

TM: I think the most rewarding part for me is kind of not knowing where the story’s going next, and then finding out and being blown away by it. That, to me, is extremely rewarding as an actor, because you just you go on the ride with the character and that’s pretty exciting because you really don’t know what the writers are coming-up with next, and it’s always mind-blowing. Always surprising.

SG: I have two most rewarding things if that’s allowed. One is on set just what I love about the show is that everyone takes it so seriously, and everyone is doing absolutely everything they can to make the stakes however outrageous they become absolutely real and grounded in reality, and they’re just devoted to the scene and all of the incredible situations that we’re placed in.

And then the other thing that I value most is like honestly the connection to the audience and the fans are fiercely loyal to the show, and pay attention to every detail, and it makes it that much easier to show-up to work and really want to put the extra effort.

SciFi Vision asked whether being surprised by what was going made it harder to play the parts.

TM: Yes, it can be because, as an actor you want to do the best job and you want to be able to sort of plan ahead, and sort of drop seeds along the path of where you’re going as a character. You want the story to be a surprise but for the character’s actions not necessarily to be a surprise, and it can be challenging not knowing.

What was your biggest surprise Seth?

Ad – content continues below

SG: I guess that I didn’t visit as many brothels as I thought I would and being put under a love spell, that was definitely a surprise. I don’t think I knew that happened until it did happen. So, the concern was how that would affect me, and how limited the character would become after that happened. But everyone was pretty cool with me playing it pretty much straight as a person who was in love, and because of the circumstances it just seemed a little out of the ordinary.

TM: Yes I think that putting a love spell on your character was quite an intense kind of thing for Anne to go through. She really crosses a barrier, and I think that was certainly a good challenge for me but in completely different way for you, because they say the idea of acting a spell is quite an interesting one and it could go so go many ways but I think that you guys found it amazing.

Tony Tellado with SciFi Talks asked Seth what he learned from playing Vertigo on Arrow about the dangers of going over the top.

SG: Arrow, I still think about whether I pushed too hard on that role. At the time it was presented to me as a Joker-type character, and the show had not aired yet when I shot it, so I didn’t really know the tone of the world that they were creating. As I’ve seen more and more of that, I’ve kind of wondered if maybe I took it a little bit too far and went into a Batman Forever space.

But at the time that was something I kind of needed as an actor who kind of held back a little more. I had just come off of Fringe where I feel like my characters were a bit more restrained, so I really relish the opportunity to jump into the world of Arrow and kind of be an over-the-top comic book super-villain.

I feel that was a perfect segue for me personally to then take on the character of Cotton Mather, who’s just an explosive mess of feelings and also has the restraint and repression. But also there’s so much inside of him that just wants to come out. Having just let all of that out on Arrow, it was a great experience to then try to pick-up the pieces and reassemble myself, and I feel like that’s what the journey of Cotton Mather is.

Sheldon Wiebe from Eclipse Magazine asked how Cotton manages to carry on after finding out his father is a jerk and that books don’t have the answers following so many betrayals.

Ad – content continues below

SG: That’s a good question, I mean, how do any of us manage to keep going. I mean, I as an actor and a human am always in the midst of an existential crisis. I think I can really get to see that side of Cotton when he has his kind of soliloquies to God where he’s questioning, because one of the interesting things about the show is we see a lot of evidence of the devil but we haven’t really seen clear evidence of there being God or a higher power.

We haven’t really seen that hand interfere with much of anything and so Cotton is always recognizing that lack of evidence and longing for some kind of sign and pretty much always when he looks-up and is talking to God, there’s nothing definitive but that’s usually when he hears a little voice inside of him that tells him what to do.

I think all of us experience that and don’t really have a name for it, perhaps the unconscious, I don’t know but that seems to be enough, just that little hint of a voice and whether that’s just our own free will or if there’s something larger and supernatural going on.

I think that little voice is enough for him to carry-on through all the betrayals and through all the mistakes and hearing from his father who he accidentally killed and committed patricide on and then was told that he’s already in hell and that he must save himself.

I think what keeps him going is the belief that there is something out there. He doesn’t know what it is but that’s enough to fight for.

TM: That’s beautiful.

Laura Sirikul from Nerd Reactor asked about Anne and Cotton’s growth on the show, and how the transitions would affect the finale and possibly afterwards.

Ad – content continues below

TM: I think the killing-the-animal thing was something that upset quite a lot of people. There were several earnest tweets about whether or not a kitten had been harmed in the making, but I think the key is that it happens throughout the entire season and that for Anne it’s a slow slip into a person she never thought she could be. That’s very disturbing because it’s so hard to see who she was at the beginning of the season, especially in the beginning of the show, to what she’s become.

The most disturbing thing, I think, with people that do very morally devious things more and more often is to see that they completely feel that they had no choice in the matter. That was something that’s very interesting playing Anne. Yes, I mean, luckily I haven’t taken animal killing into my own life. I think that would be a bad thing for my dog.

SG: For Cotton I think what’s changed him so much from the drinking brother-goer of last season, the biggest think that’s liberated him, is the death of his father. I think that was a constant weight he was bearing on his back, his father’s expectations of him and scrutiny and disappointment. With him dead, it is still haunting him literally and metaphorically in his own mind. But he is beginning to taste a bit of freedom and then his relationship with Anne.

Anne in season one got caught into kind of put the drink down and convinced him to believe in himself, and I think that’s carried through to season two and then only got amped-up by the love spell that Anne put on him because that really gave him a purpose and something to live for that is good. Gives him the strength to become even braver and take on the witches.

Kara Howland of TV Goodness said she was rooting for the love spell to continue working and asked if there was any hope for them in the future.

TM: Well, we can’t tell you. You’ll have to watch on Sunday.

Ad – content continues below

What I love about Anne and Cotton as well is that there’s a bit of lightness there and there is hope. Anne always kind of stood for hope, in my mind, in the town of Salem and in the show, and she sees in Cotton what he can’t see in himself and that is a really beautiful thing.

I think that despite the betrayal that Anne kind of wreaks really on Cotton by putting a love spell on him, that the hope and the center of their relationship is one of love. At least in season two.

But there’s a lot to overcome, I mean, finding-out that she did a love spell to Cotton, that she is a witch, like a fundamental enemy, and that she gave-up the boy to become the devil himself. I mean, those are some pretty big transgressions so we’ll see; we’ll see if Cotton can forgive in the end where and that Anne even really wants to be with him.

Kenneth Hanley from Fangoria asked about the set pieces, Tamzin’s scene in the well and Seth during the exorcism, in particular.

TM: Yes, the well was a feat of many different kinds. It was stamina for everyone, the camera guys and everyone, and the engineering that went into that thing was quite impressive but the actually kind of the well essentially is at the heart of Anne’s change. She kills her first animal in the well and that is very symbolic, and important.

We ended-up filming for 17 hours in the water down the well. It was a real education for me in just keeping stamina and really keeping that momentum of telling the story, and changing. Every piece of that narrative had to change and grow more scary.

I’ve never really done like, cholera kind of fright. Best acting if you know what I mean, like real jump starts and stuff. So doing that was really cool as well. Like working with Mallory, who plays the hag, stunt double and everything. She’s just so brilliant. Stamina, for sure, was needed but also an understanding of how jump scares and all that stuff works. That was a really cool thing for me to do.

Ad – content continues below

SG: So the exorcism, I had gotten a bit lucky because when you’re in the midst of a TV show, you get a script and it’s very much like ‘oh by the way, you’re shooting it tomorrow.’ But I was fortunate enough to get sick. So I couldn’t work for a few days so I got to go home and really like sit with the script and be miserable while I was sick.

But there was the added bonus of having felt completely exhausted and drained of energy which was actually really helpful to go into the exorcism with the process of shooting. It was grueling because we were, like Tamzin, in a very confined space in the hut. There’s no air conditioning, and you’re just in the thick of it and trying to perform this exorcism.

I was really careful not to expose myself. I kind of wanted to watch The Exorcist but I also didn’t, because I didn’t want to be copying anything that had been done in that, and so I just kind of went into the scene feeling tired and exhausted, and just knowing that I needed to perform this exorcism, and fortunately Oliver Bell who plays John Jr. is an incredible actor. He really did his homework and would shift from being a boy to becoming a demon, and you could really just react to everything he was doing.

I asked the props department to put a lot of my prayers and Bible references in the book, so I could actually read it if I wanted to. It took the pressure off knowing the lines but also helped me engage more with the book, because that Bible is kind of the one thing that Cotton can hold onto as a weapon against this demon.

When I watched the episode, I was really happy with it and we had shot it first and then I think once they started the process of post-production they decided to go back and add things like Mary Sibley being there in this really haunting way.

Gavin Hetherington from Spoiler TV asked about working with Brown Jenkins.

Ad – content continues below

TM: He is amazing. There are like seven of him now. He’s not like Tom Hardy. It’s not the same guy just putting on weight or lifting weights a lot for the role. People say never work with children and animals. I actually like working with Oliver Bell and working with a rat really opens possibilities to you because you don’t know how it’s going to be. It’s just a rat, so you can just react to this rat being a rat, If that makes sense. It just lends a kind of spontaneity and a spark to the scene. He’s just really being a rat and he has definitely used me as his toilet a couple of times, which just adds another layer of authenticity to this.

SG: And Tamzin handles that very bravely. I’ve been there for many scenes where a rat or a mouse is peeing or pooping on her and she takes it like a champ.

TM: Well, I’m just like ‘thanks, rat, you’re really helping.’ It’s like really a method as far as a rat goes.

It’s kind of sweet, especially at the beginning, and it then turns into something quite bizarre and she’s sort of almost got this like blindness towards how ugly and disgusting this rat is and that also lends an insight into Anne’s character, because it starts out pretty and gradually becomes a bit freaky and gross. And that is definitely a mirror into her soul I think at this point which is also pretty cool, it’s a very cool metaphor.

Doug Dobbins from Takes on Tech asked about Cotton his mystical battle and his reality?

SG: I think the relationship between Anne and Cotton. before he discovers that she’s a witch, that was the one thing that kept him tied and tethered to reality, and not off in some kind of existential nightmare because he’s someone who’s raised on faith, but as you said when he looks at the facts it doesn’t quite add-up to the same thing.

Ad – content continues below

But at the same time he’s seeing the supernatural occurring with these witches. He’s experienced a lot of what the witches are capable of firsthand so he knows that that’s real. At the same time he’s desperate for any indication that the good guys that God and his angels are around helping out and there isn’t much evidence of that except for Anne Hale. To Cotton [she] is an angel and proof of divinity and goodness.

I think that that only makes the betrayal that much worse that this whole time she’s been a witch, for all he knows witches are completely evil and then, you know, if he finds-out about the love spell, that’s going to be the nail in the coffin for him and I’m not sure how he’ll quite return from that.

Jamie Ruby with SciFi Vision asked Tamzin how she made her evolution seem so natural?

TM: The evolution is always very interesting because where Anne finishes Season 2 and where she starts are two very different places. I think that one of the people I’ve really enjoyed working with this season has been Jeremy Crutchley who plays Hawthorne, who’s just like an excellent man to be, you know, an antagonist if you know what I mean.

He’s a wonderful guy, but Hawthorne is just this terrible person to sort of to be up against Anne and he really kind of makes hard the decisions that she has to make and the predicament she’s in very concrete and very kind of absolute.

I mean, you do not want to end-up married to Hawthorne in Salem because he is a deeply unpleasant person and I think that those kinds of sort of villains that Anne’s come-up against have helped to make that evolution very meaningful and also very kind of it’s a one-way evolution because she’s not you can’t do some of the things that Anne’s done.

You can’t kind of go back to being the naive innocent girl afterwards. She’s lost her innocence for sure.

Kara Howland with TV Goodness asked Merchant what Anne learned from Mary Sibley and the Countess of Marburg about being a witch.

Ad – content continues below

TM: I think Anne’s very perceptive so she definitely learns what not to be as much as what to be from these two women and I think they both set her examples in a way of how not to behave and Anne has always been she’s always been very thoughtful and very kind of strong-willed and had a very independent mind.

Mercy Lewis learns cruelty from being treated cruelly and some people learn kindness from being treated cruelly. Anne and Mercy are two very girls that with similarities. They’re not in similar situations, but their similarities have gone very different ways. I do love how much of a sort of female-centric show it can be at times.

I think it’s really super as well to play a character who is an intelligent, independent woman, growing into young woman who’s got a mind of her own and a wit and a ready brain. 

TM: Such a cool name by the way, I’d love to visit the actual Den of Geek.

Den of Geek: I am the gangster geek at Den of Geek, and Seth you worked with Sidney Lumet.

SG: Yes. That was incredible. Dog Day Afternoon is one of my favorite films. Yes, that was one of my first jobs, just as a lowly student at NYU. I’d started auditioning for different things and got to read for him. He was doing a TV show called 100 Center Street which is kind of a like a Law and Order type show.

Ad – content continues below

And one of the memories I’ll cherish most is auditioning for him. When I was done with the audition, he said, he had a very like classic Hollywood director voice and he goes ‘Kid, that was first rate, first rate all the way. You are a first-rate actor.” That was such a triumph and such a moment. That felt wonderful.

Then I went and did the job. I was so nervous working for him and also shooting one of my first TV shows. I think I did a terrible job in the episode but for that moment I was first rate and I’ll hold onto that forever.

TM: You’re always first rate, Seth. I’ll try and work on my Sidney Lumet voice.

Do you think that Salem would reintroduce the actual trials, now that we’re talking about Center Street?

SG: Yes, I know Brannon and Adam have talked about the possibility of getting back to the trials being an element of everything. I can’t recall how much time has actually progressed during season two, but I don’t think it’s been very much time.

I think all the events have occurred maybe over the course of like two weeks or something, so we’re still very much in the historical time period for the trials to continue.

Ad – content continues below