Seth Gabel and Tamzin Merchant Talk ‘Salem’ Season 2, Acting Surprises and Working With a Rat
“The testing process for an actor is always rigorous and intense and you’re waiting in a room all day for all these executives to get together and say that they’re ready to see you” – Seth Gabel on Auditioning
Salem just finished its second season and the hit WGN show finished on a high note, especially for series stars Seth Gabel and Tamzin Merchant. Gabel plays Rev. Cotton Mather, the well-educated local aristocrat and foremost expert on witches and Merchant plays Anne Hale, a fearless girl turned rebel witch who doesn’t like to play by the town’s old rules.
This season, the two have seen the evolution of their characters relationship from the moment Anne arrived in Boston and begged Cotton to return to Salem, to their marriage and finally Cotton’s realization that his wife is a witch. That’s a lot to have to deal with and the two got together last week to talk about this past season, working together, their biggest surprises they had as actors working on the show and how Tazmin is loving working with a rat. Seth also talks about his time on Arrow and working with the legendary Sidney Lumet!
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Can you both talk about kind of what’s the most rewarding part of working on the show for you?
Seth Gabel: The most rewarding part is that Tamzin Merchant answers questions before I do.
Tamzin Merchant: 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 so that to me is very exciting. Seth?
Seth Gabel: 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, you know, really want to put the extra effort in because you know people will catch every minute detail and so it makes it all the more worth it to put those…
Tamzin Merchant: Yes, that’s really true.
I know you had mentioned Tamzin about, you know, finding-out things and being surprised but is it hard if you don’t know the things going in and you have to wait to find out?
Tamzin Merchant: Yes, 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, you know, along the path of where you’re going as a character.
You want for 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, you know, what’s happening because but, I mean, the writers do, they really have our backs, and then will tell us little bits of information if we need to know and if we are so there is also that…
What was your biggest surprise Seth?
Seth Gabel: I mean, 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 like did happen.
And 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.
Have you both been able to kind of step back and kind of look at you had done the first two years and just kind of like wipe the sweat off your brow like whew, what a ride so far.
Seth Gabel: Yes, I mean, every day is like that. I mean, you leave work and go home and, I mean, there are a lot of times I’ll kind of look down at my hands and see that they’re shaking a little bit so you’re constantly like decompressing from the high stakes of what happens on set and in the show.
Tamzin Merchant: Or you look down at your hands and you see that they’re covered in like blood or goo or something…
Seth Gabel: Yes, but that’s just you on the weekends.
And I don’t know what it’s like for you Tamzin but getting to see the episodes on TV really helps me decompress because I see like because I have my memory of what happened on the day that we shot it and then so much happens to it in editing-wise and structurally the story’s being changed.
Tamzin Merchant: I can’t watch myself. I’d love to just see you guys and I would watch that but I don’t get that like other side of the story as it were, I just have the being on set and living that thing.
Seth Gabel: Feel like I used to have a hard time with that but it doesn’t bother me so much. Enough time passes between when we shoot it and when it airs for me to…
Tamzin Merchant: Yes, yes, I think when we finish making it I might watch it. Then I can watch it but it just messes with my sense of the world, the realness of that world I suppose.
Seth Gabel: I like it, I like getting the feedback of seeing how it’s coming across because the way it looks and feels to us it ends-up looking and feeling a lot different when you watch it and it I just for me it’s really informative to see how it comes across and fortunately I’ve been so pleased with the way it comes across just in terms of seeing a dark, horrifying world with these characters.
Tamzin Merchant: Yes, I mean, the thing is is it is very impressive to sort of see how the kind of the fourth wall essentially is not there, you know, it’s not broken when you’re on TV and the world is so complete. The Salem world is just so complete on the TV and I have seen bits and pieces of it for ADR. I do appreciate that point of view.
Seth, you played Vertigo on Arrow and with characters like that that have the potential of going too over the top, is it something you rely on the director for or do you have your own internal kind of boundary to say I don’t want to go any further than this?
Seth Gabel: Yes, I just as I worked more and more the director in my head I think has gotten more skilled so I’ve gotten pretty good at that and in being able to watch myself more objectively than in the past where it was a very subjective experience like I could really adapt things as they go along and see what’s landing or what’s feeling like it’s pushed too hard.
Arrow, I still think about whether I pushed too hard on that role, I mean, 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 and 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 and I had just come off of Fringe where I feel like my characters on that were a bit more restrained and held back 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.
And then 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 so 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.
Tamzin, do you have like your own safeguard as to how far you go when you’re doing an over the part, you know, kind of a character that can go over the top?
Tamzin Merchant: No, maybe I should though. I don’t really but maybe I should
Seth Gabel: Fortunately we have a writer on set who every episode we’ve asked even though we’re shooting on location in Shreveport and the writers work out of L.A., we’ve requested that there’s always a writer there and present who has an understanding of the full arc of the season and so everything is able to stay within the context of the reality that’s being created for the season.
And we have our brilliant producing director and everyone’s always available to provide feedback so I think all of us are encouraged to take risks and I don’t think anyone takes it too far. You could also trust it if you do take it too far people will help you reel it in.
Tamzin Merchant: Yes, that’s very true, that’s very true. It’s I think it’s one of those shows that you can really have that freedom to explore something a bit wilder beyond your usual kind of spectrum as an actor so I think that there is that freedom but there is also that safeguard in the form of other people.
Seth Gabel: I personally have loved getting to work with Tamzin in this capacity just because she’s such a brilliant actor or actress and also a reactor. You can kind of throw anything at her and she’ll dish it right back so there isn’t too much improving in the language of, you know, 1692 period but we do. We try to mix it up and Tamzin’s always right there…
Tamzin Merchant: I’m blushing but I feel the same way. Working with Seth has been such a pleasure. The little we got to do last season together was awesome and then this season’s just been super fun and it’s been like an education and it’s been a really, really grueling experience…
Seth Gabel: Yes, you’ve learned what not to do from me.
One of the things I really enjoyed about this season in particular is how many great set pieces each of your characters got. Tamzin, your scene in the wild was one of the scariest of the season and Seth your scene during the exorcism was incredible. What was it like for each to you some of those particular scenes in your characters considering how much they’ve developed from where they were last season?
Tamzin Merchant: 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.
And filming that it took two lots of goes at it and we ended-up filming for 17 hours I think was the total time that we spent on that piece – in the water down the well – and it was like it was a real education for me in like just keeping stamina and really keeping that momentum of telling the story going and like changing every piece of that narrative had to change and grow more scary.
And 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 and stamina for sure was needed but also like an understanding of how jump scares and all that stuff works because that was a really cool thing for me to do that. Seth?
Seth Gabel: 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 and 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 and there’s no air conditioning and you’re just in the thick of it and trying to perform this exorcism.
And so 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 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 which kind of took the pressure off knowing the lines but also and helped me engaged more with the book because that Bible is kind of the one thing that Cotton can hold onto as a weapon against this demon.
And so I just kind of went along for that ride and we really didn’t know how it was going to turn out but 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.
There are a lot of elements that they added afterwards to kind of intersplice with everything and I thought they did a brilliant job with keeping the tension up through that whole sequence.
Tamzin, I cannot get over the amazing converse you actually have with someone other than Cotton and so I’m wondering how he compares working with Seth because he’s just amazing.
Tamzin Merchant: He is amazing. There are like seven of him now.
Tamzin Merchant: Yes, yes, he’s not like Tom Hardy, he hasn’t just been it’s not the same guy just putting on weight like dedicating, get dedicated, you know, like lifting weights a lot for the role. It’s like I think different species of rats that this amazing animal wrangler has got I’ve just really enjoyed working with a rat.
A partly like because when you work with an animal, I mean, people say never work with children and animals and actually like working with Oliver Bell has been really interesting and exciting experiences for me as an actor.
And working with a rat is like really, really it’s kind of it opens all the possibilities to you because you don’t know how it’s going to be. It’s just is a rat and so you can just react to this rat being a rat if that makes sense and it just lends a kind of spontaneity and a spark to the scene.
And I think maybe my most truthful moment sometimes are with a rat because he’s just like 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 so because it would have smelled quite bad in that time and occasionally smell pretty ratty with the rat…
Seth Gabel: 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.
Tamzin Merchant: Well, I’m just like thanks, rat, you’re really helping, you know, it’s like really a method as far as a rat goes so it’s like it’s been so much fun and our animal wrangler is so dedicated and raised the challenge so magnificent with this idea of this throwing this monster of a rat that I just loved that whole portion of Anne’s story.
And it’s bizarre because it’s kind of sweet especially at the beginning and it then turns into something quite bizarre and she’s sort of almost of 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.
Do you guys possibly see where your characters might be headed in terms of the clues that the writers have left you and so are you guys up to the task of fulfilling what they’ve got planned for you?
Seth Gabel: I think it’ll be pretty clear based on what you see this Sunday night. I hope it does continue to keep the relationship between Cotton and Anne an active one, an active part of the story and will actually elevate the stakes of their situation with everyone else.
Tamzin Merchant: Definitely, but we can only speculate as to what’s going to happen. I think that there are certain hints that historically Salem has always surprised me whenever I’ve got the script in my hand, but yes, I think we would all we be up to the task
Seth Gabel: What I love about this show and about and genre shows that are able to do it, we’re able to get deeper and deeper into the story, the scope has been able to get larger and larger and the writers really aren’t afraid to hold back.
A lot of the times on a show like this it’ll be two steps forward, one back. You don’t want to be getting too extreme too quickly but there’s really not a fear of that here as long as it’s still grounded in reality and makes sense.
You might think like wow, it can’t get any bigger, I mean, right now we’re dealing with hell possibly being on Earth but if that actually happens, what would that look like.
How did you both got involved with Salem and what it was that Brannon and Adam did to you guys that made you sign your souls over for this amazing TV show.
Seth Gabel: They paid up. All it takes is cash and we’ll sell our souls…
Tamzin Merchant: Yes, we have pieces of their soul now actually in a safe deposit box in Switzerland.
Seth Gabel: It’s kind of an appropriate analogy because you try to as an actor to put your soul into the project and so you’re hoping that by giving that piece of yourself you don’t lose it from yourself but I guess that’s possible. I think we both came to the show just the traditional way of auditioning I read the script and totally fell in love with it. At first I was supposed to go in and read for the John Alden part but then as I read the script I was like what about this Cotton part? I really like that one and then as a point of synchronicity the casting directors called my reps and said oh, you know what? I think you’d be better for the Cotton part so that worked-out nicely.
And I went in and read and was really excited because it was one of the best auditions I felt like I had given in a long time.
And then they said they want to test you and the testing process for an actor is always rigorous and intense and you’re waiting in a room all day for all these executives to get together and say that they’re ready to see you and then so you’re kind of ready at any moment to have to perform the scene so the pressure is on at all times.
And then you go in and do your best and they told me that instead of having me go into test they were just going to use my tape of that first audition so…
Tamzin Merchant: Oh, that’s lucky. That’s super lucky. I actually was filming something in Romania and Adam I think they were like auditioning people for Anne and they hadn’t found someone and I put myself on tape after Adam was watching.
It wasn’t like waiting in a room there; it actually there was like waiting in a room at the American Embassy to see if I would get a visa. I’m lucky I did but it was a bit touch and go. I think I got it like two days before I had to fly out. Yes, you nearly had a whole different Anne. Maybe, I don’t know but yes, so that was my story.
Seth you worked with Sidney Lumet?
Seth Gabel: Yes. That was incredible. Dog Day Afternoon is one of my favorite films. Yes, Sidney Lumet was 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.
And one of the memories I’ll cherish most is auditioning for him and 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 and that was just it was such a triumph and such a moment.
That felt wonderful and then I went and did the job and 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.