Salem

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Salem Interview: Seth Gabel on Cotton's Repression, A Father's Impending Arrival & More

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Seth Gabel has been a fan favorite at TV Fanatic for some time. His role as Lincoln Lee on Fringe is still remembered fondly, along with recent turn on Arrow as The Count.

Playing the role of Cotton Mather on Salem, however, is beyond anything he's done before.

"I love it. We all love it. We're night shooting right now so I'm exhausted, but nonetheless, I think it's the most fun I've ever had working on a part or even on a show in general. I mean, the whole cast is fantastic to work with, the writers are amazing, the crew's incredible and WGN has really supported us in a lot of ways."

Angry Cotton

The series has been ramping up slowly, with Cotton and John Alden (Shane West) finally catching a witch. Gabel says to expect things to get even more exciting over the coming weeks.

"By far my favorite scenes have still yet to air, and they do have to do with the capturing of Rose and what ensues after that. I have memories now implanted in my brain that I never thought I would have experienced first hand, but now through Cotton I have experienced them and I'm a much happier man for having experienced it."

When we talked about the difficulties of playing a character with so many facets, Gabel had an interesting reaction. Does he find it challenging to keep it all together?  

"Perhaps, disturbingly, it's not. I don't know what it means that I have an easy time getting into Cotton's shoes, but for some reason I feel like we're very similar. For some reason it's incredibly easy for me to get in there. But he's also incredibly optimistic, which is also something I relate to and so he's really just trying to do his best but he's kind of a man lost in the wrong world at the wrong time and he's trying to find his way."

Because the series is built around an historic event and features the names of actual people who lived during the era, it's fun to find out whether the actors portraying them feel the need to do justice to their real-life counterparts. "A little bit. I read the real Cotton Mather's writing and used that to find the voice that's in his head. But I think the whole show is running under the assumption that there's more to the history than what makes it to the history books and so I felt free to take liberties along with everyone else, because we're very much approaching things from the Tim O'Brien school of thought."

According to Gable, O'Brien wrote a book called, "The Things They Carried"  about the Viet Nam war. It turns out the stories he told were not factual. Gable explained, "His argument for using those stories to describe the Viet Nam war was that the facts don't properly give you the experience of what it was like to have the truth of those moments and I feel like this show is doing that in a lot of ways.

I feel like we're so used to the dry, history book version of what happened in Salem or people are familiar with the McCarthy version of what happened in Salem and I think what our show is trying to do is make it a little more fantastical and really give you the experience of what it was like to be in that time."

Gable thought about what would come from "having a belief in the devil, having a belief in God and having beliefs that anything could be lurking in the shadows of the world. In that there's hysteria, all kinds of primal, instinctual sexuality, repression and all of that. I think it works in a lot of ways telling the truth of that time without being able to be completely factual."

Would Cotton, or other writing at the time even dare write what they believed considering the ramifications? "The version of history that we read about is definitely an edited version. Is it as fantastical as the show makes it out to be? Probably not, but that doesn't mean that we're not getting to the heart of what it was like during that time," Gable shared. "Metaphorically what we portray as a demon on the show also represents demons of human nature that still exist to this day."

Mary and Cotton

It's amazing how little things have changed, when merely pointing a finger at someone can still change their life forever regardless of the truth of the matter. Gabel added, "We're still dealing with repressed women and fighting for power in society and there are still a lot of archiac problems that we face today that are as relevant in Salem as they are today."

Don't we all wonder what was going through both Gabel's mind and the character he is portraying during the disturbing rape scene with Cotton and Glorianna, as well as the the significance of it taking place in the church. Gabel has given it some serious thought.

"I think it had to do with the repression of his feelings and Cotton had just come from a scene where Mary was shaming him and also seducing him and he's so used to going to Glorianna for comfort -- to the point where it's become a bit of a ravenous obsession to be vulnerable and get comfort from Glorianna in that way -- and when she comes to the church he knows that these urges inside of him are so strong and with everything going on in this town he can't control himself, so he does his best and says to her, 'Please get out of here, I can't control my feelings.'"

Gabel continued: "I think Cotton believes that he has a demon inside of him, that the town is haunted by witches and the devil himself and I think he feels like the devil has gotten into his soul, as well. So he's fighting internal battles while at the same time fighting the battle in Salem. In that scene, he really has the devil in one shoulder and the angel on the other and for a moment he's able to say, 'Get out of here, I'm about to do something terrible,' but she doesn't and that thing just takes over. They make amends, which is good."

Gabel credits Glorianna's portrayer for helping him get into the scene. "Azure Parsons is a brilliant actor and incredibly generous and I think I had just shot the scene with Janet Montgomery where she was shaming me and at the same time turning Cotton on, so he goes into the church turned on and confused and ashamed and just wants to get those feelings out of him, so he takes it out on Glorianna."

We laughed over his scene in Salem Season 1 Episode 5 where he tells Glorianna he was an only child. "Oh yeah, I never learned to share."

He said they shot a scene for Salem Season 1 Episode 4 where Cotton went to apologize to Gorianna and he finds out during his tearful apology she's with a client and he got really upset. "The cut it out, I think because it felt unnatural to have Cotton apologize to her so quickly after that and for her to even consider his apology. It felt not entirely truthful so I think they cut it out. I'm a bit bummed out because it was a really beautiful scene and a really beautiful apology where Cotton really sees the error of his ways."

We agreed that every actor was nailing the conflicting nature of each character and making it difficult for the audience to hold a grudge for any period of time. "What's so great about the characters being layered and dynamic is that the Puritan world is black and white, but what happens within is all grey and people are all grey. There is no black and white and I think that's what this show is imploring; that when you try to define things too strongly there is an imbalance and chaos as a result of that."

Alden and Cotton, Partners in Crime

It's difficult not to wonder what Cotton's world will be like if the Grand Rite is carried out. Gabel has thought about just that. "Cotton sees Salem as a new holy land and because it's a new holy land, the devil wants to destroy it. If the Grand Rite is completed the devil will bring hell to earth. The Grand Rite is almost a supernatural nuke. I have no idea to what extent the damage will occur because it's never actually been performed and we know so little about it, but it's very possible that if the Grand Rite is completed the devil will come out to run the earth and take over and the earth will be his domain and all human souls will be enslaved to the devil and probably burn for eternity in a pit of burning black tar [laughs]."

Isn't that burning pit hanging out there in the woods of Salem? "Yeah, it's there", Gabel admits, "We saw that it's hell on earth and I think that's what Cotton imagines would happen everywhere."

"I'd love to see him find balance in his life, not live the life that he's supposed to live and follow his heart.," Gabel said thoughtfully when asked about his wishes for Cotton. "I think it's clear that underneath his facade that he has a good heart and he's tortured because he feels pain and he's sensitive to what is actually going on. So to him this feeling does exist, but it doesn't need to overwhelm him to the point where he needs to compromise who he is and not be the hero who he knows he can be. So I think through is relationship with John he'll learn over time how to be a genuinely good human being and hopefully stop all of this madness from happening."

When Glorianna said "your father" the look on Cotton's face was telling. Gabel said we don't have much longer to wait for his arrival and it will rock everything. "Everything will be starting to head in one direction and then once my father comes to town everything is just flipped on its head. It's a completely different show once he comes to town and the part is brilliantly played by Stephen Lang and every actor who works with him is a better actor for it. He's just remarkable and it's really helping us elevate the show as much as we all want it to be elevated."

We hope Cotton is really good friends with Alden by the time he arrives, because he's going to need the help. Gable laughed and agreed, "Yeah, he's gonna need support."

Make sure you tune into Salem Sunday nights on WGN at 10/9c. Check around the site, we have an exclusive clip of Salem Season 1 Episode 6 as well as interviews with Gabel's costars Janet Montgomery and Xander Berkely

If you've been out of the loop or just want to do a little catchup, you can watch Salem online via TV Fanatic. Be sure to come back after episodes air for a full review on the latest installment!

Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow her on Twitter and on Google+.

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Salem Quotes

All the world shall be yours in return; all the world.

Tituba

John: Judge not, lets ye be judged.
Sibley: Who said that?
Jesus. You might have heard of him.