Even Lucy Lawless admits she is great at being terrible, so the wicked witches of ‘Salem’ may have finally met their match.
The witchy tale takes a new twist with the arrival of a tough New Zealander with an even tougher agenda
For its first scripted series last year, WGN America went all in on out-there with Salem, a witchy tale that rivalled American Horror Story in its willingness to be audacious. Few who saw the pilot will forget the scene in which a naked Mary Sibley helped her husband vomit up a frog. With Season 2, how does the channel plan on upping the ante? By recruiting one of television’s most cult-inspiring actresses to join the cast.
The season premiere introduces a character played by the always fearless Lucy Lawless. How will she fit into Salem’s already bizarre story?
“I don’t fit in,” Lawless said in a telephone interview. “That’s not what people hire me to do.”
Lawless has put that brashness into each of her roles, most notably the titular one in the series Xena: Warrior Princess, which ran for six seasons, ending in 2001.
That character, which was first seen in several episodes of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, brought her a following as a sort of renegade model of female empowerment. She expanded her reputation and fan base playing Lucretia in the Starz Spartacus franchise, where the costuming was often just as provocative as in Xena but the warrior-ing was more of the power-politics variety.
She finds herself in a different time period and milieu with Salem, which is set in 17th-century Massachusetts and imagines the famous witch-trial period a bit differently than the history books describe it.
The show stars Janet Montgomery as Mary, who finds her calling as a witch. And a rather determined one at that. Over the course of Season 1, she fought her way to the top of Salem’s rather well-populated witch world, but the crown sits uneasy.
Season 2 is titled Witch War. Into this fray comes Lawless’ character, Countess Palatine Ingrid von Marburg.
“I’m playing this real old witch,” Lawless explained. “She has survived many incarnations and finally fixated upon Salem.”
Our introduction to the countess is classic Lawless. When we first meet her, late in the premiere, she’s in a bathtub. An aide comes in to give her a report, and she stands, giving him an alluring eyeful that also proves costly. And that, Lawless said, is only the beginning.
“I’ve done things on this show that outdo anything I’ve ever done before,” she said. “Often I hit my head and say, ‘How can nice people dream up these encounters that are so dark and bizarre?’ ” There is, for instance, the countess’ agelessness. “My character has some very unpleasant ways of staying young,” Lawless said, not wanting to give too much away.
That bathtub scene notwithstanding, Lawless said one of the joys of the role is that the countess has quite a wardrobe.
“When I went to the costume fitting, I was thinking, ‘Gee, I’m 47 at the end of this month; that’s not very far from 50’. When they dressed me up and made me so glamorous, I was shocked.”
The wardrobe is high-toned, and so is the character when she’s not being nasty, which for Lawless is part of the appeal.
“She’s so charming and so witty and so cultured, and she is unbelievably inhumanly savage,” she said. “I always like to put that duality into characters — as destructive as they are, they’re also constructive.”
Lawless, a New Zealander, said the bold roles for which she is known weren’t a conscious choice — “I have never planned my career,” she said — but she welcomes them. “I’m great at being terrible,” she admitted.
But she also savours the opportunity to do different types of jobs, like an episode of the HBO musical-sitcom Flight of the Conchords.
“I got to play a woman who is about as impactful as a stain on the wall,” she recalled. The countess is no wall stain; she will be an integral part of the witch war that is to occupy the second season.
“I’m here to give Janet’s character a hard time,” Lawless said. “A very, very hard time.”
Salem is a drama, but the outrageousness of the goings-on — did we mention that in the pilot Mary later fed that frog back to her husband after suckling it on a sort of nipple on her thigh? — give it a darkly comic undercurrent. Will her fans accept this warrior-turned-witch?
“They’ll like it, because they have a great sense of humour,” she said. “And they’ll need it.”