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Exclusive Interview: Kiernan Shipka Makes her “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” Debut

Wednesday, October 10, 2018 | Exclusive

By: MADDI MCGILLVRAY

Something bewitching is coming to Netflix this Halloween season. In keeping with the current trend of TV reboots, revivals, and returns—which have seen many beloved shows like Will & Grace, Gilmore Girls, The X-Files, and Twin Peaks being brought back to life—Netflix’s newest binge-worthy series offers a new take on everyone’s favourite teenage witch. A spinoff of Netflix’s highly popular Riverdale series, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is based on the Archie Comics and the origin story of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Just in time for Halloween, Netflix will be releasing the entire first season (totalling 10 episodes of about 40 minutes in length) on October 26th.

The brainchild of Riverdale showrunner and Chief Executive Officer of Archie Comics, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, this adaptation of the character is much darker than the beloved sitcom from the 1990s. The first episode begins with Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) wrestling to reconcile her dual identity as half-witch and half-mortal as she approaches her sixteenth birthday. Unbeknownst to her friends, Sabrina’s birthday also marks the date of her Dark Baptism, where her aunts Hilda (Lucy Davis) and Zelda Spellman (Miranda Otto)—along with a High Priest of the Church of Night named Father Blackwood (Richard Coyle)—are pushing for her to become a Bride of Satan. Refusing to simply sign her life over to the dark arts, Sabrina now must stand against the evil forces that threaten her, her family, and the people of Greendale—all while trying to live her life as a normal teenager.

Mad Men alum Kiernan Shipka will be stepping into the role of the titular blonde witch. Rue Morgue got the exclusive opportunity to visit the set of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina in Vancouver, British Columbia and to talk with the star of Netflix’s chilling new reboot.

Are you nervous to take on a role as iconic as Sabrina Spellman?
I feel a lot of excitement. I think that it’s healthy to feel some sort of pressure or nerves, but I feel really confident in what we’re doing here. Roberto is one of the most amazing creators that I’ve ever met. He’s got such a clear vision and so much knowledge about Sabrina. He writes her in such a way that really helped me understand her. Once I got into filming, it was more about playing this character. I kind of forgot all of the expectations of it at times. I could really just lean into Sabrina and her feelings on what she’s going through. It’s been so exciting and now she’s just like a person to me. It will sometimes hit me like, “oh this is Sabrina, she means a lot of things to a lot of people!” But this iteration is going to be so fun and so interesting because you really get to see her come to life.

What does it mean to be a witch on this show?
The show is a lot about female empowerment and there’s a lot of very feminist themes in it. There’s a lot of different ways to look at what it means to be a witch and how Sabrina is sort of finding herself and identifying with her mortal self as well as her witch self. It really becomes this journey about relationships, people, and growing up as yourself. It’s about owning your truth and realizing the powers that you have. At the end of the day, there’s some magic in the world, but it’s more about these people and this story.

There has been a renewed interest in the figure if the witch in popular culture. Is there something about our current cultural climate that makes the witch such an interesting and timely character?
There’s something so interesting, alluring, and mysterious about witches, which I think is really appealing to a lot of people. I also think that strong, independent women are also a cool thing that is popping up more and more. To explore the witch side of these people is a really interesting and cool way to go about it. Because it’s not so much just about the powers, it’s about something so much deeper and more interesting… it’s about the power of women. I love it. I’m happy that witches are catching on.

It’s great to hear you talk about powerful roles for women. What advice do you have for young women who are looking to work in the industry?
I would say to read and educate yourself as much as you can. Also to stand up for yourself and know your worth. Never settle for less. I think that times are changing in this industry, which is becoming more different by the day. I think it’s actually a really exciting time for women.

What are the differences between the character from the sitcom and the Sabrina we see in this show?
There’s a boatload of differences. I think both shows completely stand alone. This Sabrina is obviously a bit more dark and twisted. The show goes into really dark places. Every episode I read made my jaw just drop because it’s so shocking, which makes it super fun too.

How was it going from an ensemble cast like Mad Men to being the title character?
It’s so different! It’s a culture shock completely because the hours and amount of time I spend on my character has made it a completely different experience. It’s so rewarding and amazing. I’ve never done anything like this before and I wouldn’t trade it or the exhaustion for the world. Both the character that I played in Mad Men and Sabrina are both very sassy, which I’m all about. It was definitely emotional leaving Mad Men. I left when I was about fifteen and I’m eighteen now, so there’s definitely some time there for me to mull everything over.

The comics are much darker than the live action series and various animated adaptations, is this carried into the show?
It’s next level in my opinion. It’s still balanced out with fun, wit, and charm, but there are really dark elements to the show. It really digs deep. I think it’s going to be something that people find really exciting. It has a beautiful balance between that darkness as well as this very fun sort of mortal vibe. Our first director [Lee Toland Krieger] watched a movie I was in called The Blackcoat’s Daughter and really liked it. Sometimes I would do a take and he would go, “that was great, but give me The Blackcoat’s Daughter!” I mean I hope I’m a little nicer in this one… What’s really fun about this show is that you have this element of witchcraft that Sabrina is dealing with that is something that people obviously can’t relate to, but everything else is so relatable. Even her experiences with witchcraft and figuring out her life and her beliefs that are tied to this element—at the core of it all, it’s a story about the teenage experience.

Will Sabrina be a role model for young women?
I sure hope so. She really sticks up for herself a lot. She is strong and strong-willed. There’s an interesting concept of individuality in the show as far as Sabrina coming into her own. She’s raised by people who believe in one thing and she’s forced to choose between different sorts of lives. Seeing her try to figure that out it so relatable to pretty much anyone. She has moments when she fails and ones where she succeeds. At the end of the day, she doesn’t give up and I think that’s what’s really important.

How was it working with Salem?
Salem is great! I’m allergic to cats though, so my face hates it. I become a hivey, red mess where my face feels like it’s going to burn off. But I take my antihistamine and we avoid having too much contact. So we’re working around it.

Do you watch a lot of Netflix series?
I’m watching Queer Eye, which is my favourite on Netflix at the moment. I also watch Stranger Things, Thirteen Reasons Why, and of course Riverdale. All of it really!

Speaking of Riverdale, this show is a spinoff of the series. Can we expect a crossover down the road?
I’m obsessed with Riverdale, so when I went to their wrap party it was a little shocking because I’m actually a really big fan. The first time I met Roberto I was just trying to hold in all my excitement about asking him about spoilers. Both of the shows exist in the same universe. They’re supposed to be neighbouring towns… so who knows, maybe there will be a crossover. It’s more up to the writers than me, but I would love that. I think it would be fun if you just saw us in the background of a Riverdale episode or something like that.  

Maddi McGillvray
Maddi is the Editorial Assistant at Rue Morgue Magazine. She is also a PhD student in Cinema and Media Studies at York University, where she writes extensively on the horror genre. Maddi is completing her doctoral dissertation on women working in horror. She is also currently writing book chapters titled "Fleshy Female Corporealities: The Cannibal Films of the New French Extremity" as well as "To Grandmother’s House We Go: Documenting the Aging Female Body in Found Footage Horror Films."