Did you watch the series debut of WGN America's Salem last Sunday? Some jerk had a blood-sucking toad stuffed down his throat in the opening hour, and while it was without a doubt the weirdest moment of the premiere, it probably won't be the only shocking thing we see on the witch drama this season. But what can we expect going forward? I recently chatted with series star Shane West about making the move from The CW's Nikita to Salem, what's next for his character John Alden, and whether or not he's ever going to find out about that oddly sexual, totally creepy demonic abortion in the woods.
So the pilot kind of withheld the witches' plans until the very end of the episode. It made me wish that WGN had screened more than just a pilot for critics, so I could've gotten a better feel for the series and more clearly relayed what's to come. What can you share about what's ahead?
A lot of times the pilot is a taste. It's something to give the audience an idea of what it's going to be about. In our case, being genre specific, it has a few scares in there as well. It gives you an idea of who these characters are. They get fleshed out, obviously, as the season progresses, but you've got to get to Episode 2 to really get into a flow. In Episode 1, we had so much to accomplish. It was a very large scope of the town of Salem and the world of Salem. I think we ended up with a very good first episode. It's only two months [since we filmed it, and] we got into the swing of things. Each episode got better, better, and better... I haven't been a part of a project in I don't know how long where each episode that came in was just thrilling and exciting. And as an entirety of the episode, not just per character.
Nikita just wrapped up its story at the end of last year; when did Salem come calling, and what made you choose it as your next role?
It happened incredibly quickly. We knew we were on the final season of Nikita because they told us that at the beginning of the year. So the cast started looking at scripts toward the end of Season 4. I wasn't honestly sure if I wanted to jump right into television, but I knew if I did, it would definitely be cable and not network, because I could not do 22 episodes again. Far away from home for nine months out of the year is ridiculous.
[But] the thing is with cable, they don't really have a pilot season. They create shows whenever they want to. They cast whenever they want to. There doesn't seem to be a rhyme or reason. So [there were] at least four or five [scripts] that were sent my way while I was still filming Nikita, and this one stood out to me as being the most unique and exciting. And if they did have interest in me playing the lead role this all-American hero with a ton of flaws, then I knew it was going to very hard for me to say no.
Because this is WGN's first scripted series, are you feeling any extra pressure that you wouldn't feel on a more established cable network?
No, I'm not at all. I don't know if the rest of the cast are, but it seems to be a pretty easy-going set. We know we have a very good product. We do. Nine episodes in, we have the luxury of being able to say that. We've already read Episode 10, which might even be the best of the year. So it's a nice luxury, but it's also exciting to be a part of something new.
Sometimes doing a new network television series is frightening because that network might not have any patience for it. They might cancel it after three episodes if it doesn't find its audience in three weeks. With this, it's wonderful coming out of the gate knowing we've got a full season to show our audience the world we've painted. WGN seems to be very excited about it. They're being very helpful and supportive and they're letting us get away with murder, literally. [We're] pushing a lot of the boundaries with basic cable. We're not HBO or Showtime so there's plenty of things we can't say or show, but we get away with as much as as we can. But we do it, I feel, in a way that furthers the storyline. It's not there just for shock value.
Believe it or not, where some people could see it as an intimidating venture, it being the first series, I think for us it's more exciting.
Because the show is set in what many consider to be a very dark time in American history, have you experienced any blacklash regarding the series' dark subject matter?
When we did TCAs, one of the first questions was more of a backlash. At that point, no one knew about the show or had even seen it or even seen like a five-minute clip, but [they were] just asking very strange questions—strange to me—about this time period, and if we were going to be essentially abusive to it, [because it] was also an abusive period of time to women especially. I was shocked by that. I'd studied the Salem Witch Trials, I knew a lot about it. I understand that it was a serious moment in American history, albeit a popular one. But to know going into a series that is genre and fictional—historical fiction, but at the same time still fictional—people need to take a break. They need to relax a little.
I completely understand that. I had read some comments online...
I honestly may laugh if someone comes up to me and brings that up to me again. It was the only time I've heard it, but if it happens again, I just have no patience. It's ridiculous. We're not doing a historically accurate piece-by-piece. That would be pretty gnarly in a whole separate way. But this, once you see the show, you see it's the opposite of what that guy was talking about. If you see the show, you'll see the women are the ones who are empowered on this show, and the men are the ones who are not. So it kills that theory right off the bat, right after Episode 1. It only furthers it and strengthens it as the series goes on.
I want to talk about the first episode. Your character John goes to war and he's gone for seven years and then he comes back. Are we going to see what happened to him during those seven years? He says that he was captured and he mentions New York, but will get any more info than that?
You know, it's one of those things [where] I already can't wait for a DVD for all the scenes and pieces that are being cut. In the pilot... there was a kind of flashback thing that was cut because we believed it was a little too early, so yes you will for sure find out what happened. And some people might be able to figure out on their own what had happened to him, [but] the final piece of the puzzle might be a little surprising. So far he's the more rounded character on the show, but you'll find out, I think by Episode 4 or 5, that he's about as imperfect as everyone else. It's not going to be everything in one episode—we're going to tease, because there's time to tease—[but] we'll get pieces of what happened to him by the end of this first season.
What's John's journey going to be this season? He kind of feels like the sanest person in town. He doesn't believe in witches at the outset, right?
No, he's really cynical, really stereotypically brash. He's the son of Captain John Alden who was kind of a "my way or the highway" kind of guy. He's one of the first born in this town, so he's doesn't really believe in the supernatural and things like that. He believes what he sees—initially. When he comes back to Salem things begin to quickly change his mind [and] alter his perception.
Right, like that scene in the woods. I wondered, why he doesn't run away and leave? If I saw something like that, I would probably be terrified and hightail it out of there, but he stuck around.
It shows you an example of Isaac being next to him trying to hide and eventually screaming at some point after seeing too much. [John] doesn't know what he's seeing, necessarily. Sort of like what you said, some people react and run immediately. Some people stand there in shock. I think he's more in shock. You have to remember he went to war, he's seen a lot of horrible things. And those French and Indian wars were much more graphic than a lot of movies have ever shown. There's a lot of godawful things that happened. And also he was a prisoner of war afterwards. He's got scars on his back, so he's been through quite a lot.
Is he ever going to find out about the baby Mary got rid of? That has to come back into play, right?
It will for sure. Can I say if it's happened yet? Possibly not. That's something that I feel needs time to explore. You need to see the connection that John and Mary have and the love that they have for each other, even if it means they can't be together right now or ever again. You need to keep the hope around, and I feel like her dropping the bomb on that, if he doesn't understand what she's saying, then that could be the end of them for a long time, if not forever. We're getting to point where it seems like he's about to find out, but I'm not sure when that's going to happen, but you have to keep the tension heightened.
Speaking of John and Mary's love story, how's that going to play out over the season? Is her agenda going to be her top priority?
I think (laughs) a lot's happened in nine episodes already. It's back and forth. I remember one of the things Craig Silverstein told me on Nikita when he brought Michael and Nikita together at the end of Season 1 was [that] the difficult thing about doing that was that it brought them together so quickly, so [then] we had to find reasons to pull them apart and bring them back together and pull them apart and back together. And that's how those types of relationships last and become successful on a television series.
With us on Salem, with John and Mary, we have the problem immediately in the beginning, so we're fighting to not bring them together so quickly. She clearly has many things on her plate. Being otherworldly at this point as well, she doesn't think she can be fully human again. And [John] cannot—no matter how many times they run into each other in the very small town that they live in—he cannot fathom how she can still be with this person, [with] Mr. Sibley, even after John has returned from war. I think it's a perfect set-up for a potential wonderful back-and-forth of emotions. I certainly hope it doesn't get resolved by the end of the first season. I'd like to see it continue. It's not an easy relationship to mend. Clearly.