'Salem' series premiere: 'Downton Abbey's' Janet Montgomery takes playing a witch to heart

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The makers of "Salem" are hoping the phrase "If you build it, they will come" holds true. In several ways.

Executive producer and co-creator Brannon Braga points out that an entire 17th-century town was constructed for the new drama premiering Sunday (April 20) on WGN America ... which also marks a rebuilding process with the debut of the decidedly edgy show, the first of several original series commissioned by the nationally distributed cable channel.

Salem's infamous witch trials come to life anew in the program, co-created by executive producer Adam Simon and centered around Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery, seen recently on "Downton Abbey"), the first among the Massachusetts town's sorceresses. Her agenda for the locale is upset by the return of her ex-love John Alden (Shane West, formerly of "Nikita" and "ER"), a war veteran determined to set Salem free from witchery.

"We had to find land that had woods and what appeared to be a sea," Braga explains to Zap2it, "because Salem was trapped between those." Shreveport, La., was chosen as the production location -- and a mythology is being built as well, since the cast and crew recognize the need for a contemporary lure to a show set hundreds of years in the past.

"I was hooked from the moment I first heard this idea," says "Star Trek"-franchise alum Braga of Simon's original concept, "which is that the witches are real, and they're the ones running the trials. It's a unique blend of horror, romance, psychosexual soap opera and other almost-inexplicable elements I'd never imagined before. And I had to be a part of it."

So did Montgomery, who's clearly pivotal in a cast that also includes series veterans Xander Berkeley (who worked with co-star West in "Nikita" as well), Ashley Madekwe ("Revenge"), Seth Gabel ("Arrow") and Tamzin Merchant ("The Tudors").

"I've noticed that it's started to seep into my personal life, which is never good," British actress Montgomery muses of the show's premise. "I can get quite evil, pretty intense. This is such a complex role, it was quite intimidating to me when I started it. Mary commands so much power, and the way I usually get what I want is to be quite nice and smiley. Everyone has different tactics, especially women."

In the "Salem" ensemble of characters, Mary quite obviously is the first among equals. A series lead previously in CBS' short-lived "Made in Jersey," Montgomery knows a lot of responsibility goes with such prominence, particularly with Mary being who -- and what -- she is.

"She spends a lot of the episodes paranoid and conflicted," the performer reports. "There's not a switch that you can just turn on in the scene and say, 'OK, now I'm doing it.' You have to build up to get to that point."

John Alden is a continual instigator of Mary's turmoil. Montgomery confirms that upon his presumed death, "she really has nothing left to live for. She turns her back on life and goes over to the dark side. Then he comes back, and it's like being confronted by a ghost. It's heartbreaking, and even worse, that he's going to stay in Salem is really tough for her."

Being reasonably isolated, the filming location reinforces the show's era and atmosphere for its stars. "I've only been on one other set like this in my career," West says, "and that was (the 2003 movie) 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,' but they had a $90 million budget. With this, it's shocking to see the amount of work and attention to detail that's been put in.

"It just makes the entire experience worthwhile," notes West. "First, there's putting on the wardrobe -- which is phenomenal -- and then just walking into that town, acting is almost unnecessary. It just comes to you naturally. You just feel at home.


"I did want to take a break after 'Nikita,' as a lot of us did, but in reading other pilots, 'Salem' stood out for me. Being a fan of the genre, and playing this kind of character, it was a no-brainer."

With the role "Salem" has in putting a fresh stamp on WGN America, which also has ordered the original series "Manhattan" and "The Ten Commandments," Braga acknowledges "the stakes are very high. It's something that I'm acutely aware of but that I also try to ignore.

"I'm grateful now that they have other shows in development, but on the other hand, I wouldn't have it any other way. 'Salem' is a unique show that I'm passionate about, and there's something really great about your show potentially branding a network. It's found a very special home at WGN."

This spring is a busy one for Braga, since he's also an executive producer of the Fox/National Geographic Channel documentary series "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey." He enjoys the fact that his current undertakings are so vastly different.

"There's a moment" during the "Salem" premiere "that's so bizarre," he says, "we sat with the broadcast standards department and said, 'Are we allowed to show this?' And everyone decided, 'Well, let's see what happens.'

"The show is kind of a cross between 'Wuthering Heights' and 'The Exorcist.' It's a real roller-coaster ride of horror, but it's also an epic romance. And it's most definitely a cable show."
Photo/Video credit: WGN America