Interview: Ashley Madekwe on Her New Show ‘Salem’: “I struggled with trying to find an accent that felt like it was steeped in truth”
Ashley Madekwe is thrilled to be playing the iconic role of Tituba in WGN America’s new series, Salem. However, don’t expect the Tituba you know from The Crucible to emerge, it’s new spin on the well-known character.
Daily Actor was able to sit-down with the actress in a roundtable discussion to talk about the new series and what the audience should expect.
So what was the first thing that drew you to Salem?
Ashley Madekwe: Well, I’ve been obsessed with the role of Tituba since forever. It’s one of the first show I saw when I was at drama school. The girls in the year above were doing The Crucible and I was obsessed with it. So I’ve always kind of had an eye out for anything that’s slightly witchy. And when I heard about Salem I thought… I was like, “Oh, is that just gonna be white girls in the woods? It there gonna be a part for me in that?” and there was. I loved it. First time I read the script I was really freaked out by it. It’s super spooky. It really jumps off the page.
Could you expand about what your character is in terms of what you said [about] “white girls in the woods”? Is there something they are going to be doing with that?
Ashley Madekwe: Well, it’s just not The Crucible at all, our version of Salem. And Tituba, she features in The Crucible the play and features in history. She’s a real person. We are taking a certain amount of poetic license and kind of making her who we think she is. But Adam Simon [Executive Producer] is really good about kind of really looking at the history because I was arguing that she should be “basian” [black/asian] because I’d always heard that she was from Barbados and she should have a basian accent and he was like, “No, no, no. Absolutely not. That’s a misconception, I’ve gone through all of the historical papers and I’ve read the books as well.” We think maybe she was Indian and a lot more kind of ambiguous. At that time the pagans didn’t really have any racial references so they called anyone that wasn’t white was black.
What I thought was interesting from the little bit we saw was the strong female characters. Can women be looked to for power and strength in the show?
Ashley Madekwe: This is Salem, our Salem is set in a time where women had very little power at all. In fact, Mary has a line when she says… they’re talking about women making deals with the devil and she says, “Well, it’s my understanding that women can’t enter into a contract except for their husband.” So it’s interesting that it’s taking place in this time when women have no power but yet the women who are pulling the strings have all the power. The women have all the power in this. Mary is the most powerful witch and Tituba is arguably even pulling maybe Mary’s strings. Hopefully we’ll find out more about that, yeah. So they are outwardly not supposed to have any power, but actually running the show.
Compared to Revenge with all the backstabbing and everything else that’s coming on, how would you draw parallels? How would you put one ahead of the other?
Ashley Madekwe: They’re so different. It’s really hard to compare them. I mean, this is 17th century Salem and Revenge is the Hamptons now, I guess. A fictional version of the Hamptons. For me, playing Tituba is very interesting because she just… she’s more dynamic than Ashley Davenport got to be. I think that where they would be similar maybe would be ambition. I think Tituba is very ambitious, that she kind of… she’s not happy with her situation either. She’s outwardly supposed to be Mary’s servant, but behind closed doors that’s not the relationship they have at all.
How is the work with the special effects in the series?
Ashley Madekwe: It’s phenomenal. Like nothing I’ve ever seen on a TV show before. The first time I met the hag, she was walking down the corridor and I was really taken aback. I mean, she’s really frightful. And I thought maybe they were gonna CGI it or be one of those kind of animatronic things. No. It’s a woman in makeup. A lot of makeup. Really scary. Especially her boobs. Her boobs are like this weird deflated thing that’s just… it’s horrific. Not nice.
And you guys talked a lot about the corsets being a challenge. What else is really challenging about this role and this show?
Ashley Madekwe: I think for me I really… I struggled with trying to find an accent that felt like it was steeped in truth for me because we went back and forth. Right up until 8 p.m. the night before we start shooting my first scene I was still with the dialect coach. We tried different things. I tried a generalized Caribbean, we tried Barbados, we tried… English doesn’t really make any sense whatsoever and then we settled on kind of our own dialect. It is steeped in American because we don’t want her to sound that much different from the people there, but we want something other. So I had a dialect coach work on that with me. She made me feel better. She told me that Daniel Day Lewis created his accent for The Crucible. She was like, “This is not a real accent. He made that up.” So I was like, “If it’s good enough for Daniel, I will make up my own accent also.”
Just a few Oscars.
Ashley Madekwe: He knows what he’s doing.
In terms of the scary element and the romantic element and things like that, how would you kind of portion them out? Because it’s a lot and very contradictory.
Ashley Madekwe: I think the romance is… I don’t think that’s the “A” story for me. Brannon [Braga-Executive Producer] might disagree, probably does. That’s not the “A” story for me. I think it’s there though because there’s that love between Mary and John and he’s gone away and he’s her great long, lost love and when he comes back and she’s this new person I think she really struggled with that. And with Tituba there’s definitely a kind of creepy relationship with her and Mary. It’s not black and white…
It’s not a sisterhood? That’s what it came across as. It’s more of a loving…
Ashley Madekwe: There’s like… it’s… the lines are blurred. The lines are definitely blurred. There’s kind of sexual undertones between them. And all the magic is steeped in sex.
Mary is gonna get more devilish and conniving…
Ashley Madekwe: As she goes further down the path she’s gonna have to make more and more human sacrifices, I guess.
So is that where Tituba is going? Is she going with Mary down this path or is she gonna go steady with this?
Ashley Madekwe: I think she might be leading her down the path. Yeah.
You said you were always looking for a witchy sort of role.
Ashley Madekwe: Tituba specifically.
Have you gotten to do things that you always thought you would do like conjure something or sacrifice a baby? Your dream job there.
Ashley Madekwe: I kind of sacrifice a baby. I can’t tell you exactly because I don’t wanna ruin the show for you, but I do kind of sacrifice a baby. Yeah, it ticks so many boxes for me. I’ve always wanted to be a teacher but I’ve always wanted to be in a period piece. I hardly ever get to audition for them just because of the color that I am. I’m just not gonna play Anne Boleyn. So it’s ticking loads of boxes for me in that way. And doing all the supernatural stuff, I love that and I love doing stunts. I hope to get to do a ton. I’d love to fly. Just putting that out there.
What’s the one thing you think the audiences will be surprised about?
Ashley Madekwe: I think who the witches are and who the accused are. I think that’s gonna surprise them. And also it’s not straight up gory scary. It’s kind of eerie scary. Like with the frog and the crow. It’s not blood and guts scary but it definitely is kind of mind-twistingly scary.
Salem premieres on April 20 for a 13-episode run on WGN America.