Xander Berkeley stars on Salem, WGN's first scripted series that suggests we may have the full story on the famous witch trials that took place in the famous Massachusetts town.
I had a chance to jump on the phone with Mr. Berkeley this week to talk about Salem and his role as Magistrate Hale.
He not only has a great sense of humor, but some good insight into the changing landscape of television and the appeal of a slow reveal versus instant gratification. Following are excerpts from our chat.
TV Fanatic: Congratulations on the success of Salem. What's it like to be featured on a network's first scripted series?
Xander Berkeley: Well, it's fantastic. It sort of reminds me a bit of 24 when that came along and it was on the cutting edge on the wild frontier of it all.
TVF: And that's still going!
XB: Yeah, and Salem has every bit of a chance of being that kind of a cult phenomena that lasts for ages.
TVF: Salem also brought you together again with Shane West, even with a similar adversarial relationship. Has that been fun on set?
XB: Yes, especially since we don't have that kind of adversarial relationship in real life. That would probably make it just as compelling to the audience but much less enjoyable for us. Yeah, he's just a delight. I was reunited with other old friends, too.
TVF: Who else have you worked with in the past?
XB: The creator of the show, Adam Simon and I did a short called "The Necromancer's Wife" which was a black and white homage to gothic horror way back in 1986 when he was still in USC. And (director) David Von Ancken and I go back about eight years and I introduced he and Adam at a salon that I was having where I had cool, smart, arty folks such as themselves on hand and they hit it off and they joined forces on this. Once they had they said, 'Now you have no choice but to join us in Salem a la Shreveport.'
TVF: You do seem to fit well in Salem.
XB: Yes, I do. It was destiny, I think.
TVF: What do you think sets Salem apart from other witch adaptations?
XB: It was almost a law abiding inevitability that the supernatural fixation while maybe becoming tired of the vampire lifestyles and then zombies to go toward a new supernatural predisposition and witches were the perfect thing. What's really great is that witches really did exist and still do, unlike zombies and vampires.
XB: I'm sorry! We can use a loose description of a zombie to include a great many, but the actual walking dead or undead, I don't know. And vampires are great folklore, but very few really meet the test of qualifications for eternal life. But, you know, witchcraft and they're saying Stonehenge goes back to 8,000 years BC now. So, the druid practices of paganism go way back and way preceded the Roman invasion, the Inquisition and Christianity. Long before all that was paganism in the old homeland, so it followed naturally those practices would have continued not only up to but long after their arrival on the shores here.
TVF: You're playing a character based on a real man with a lot of dramatic license. Did you do any research on him prior to joining Salem?
XB: Well, I deliberately avoided getting fixed on them because we were advised not to because there is such license being taken. There's something about the resonance of the names that invoke the period so I think it's wise that they chose them, but I also think it's wise that they departed from any kind of attempt to recreate their lifestyles or who they were. You weren't there and you couldn't begin to really know, so why pretend to? So we just completely take a leap, just like Adam said at the beginning of the history section -- what if witches were real?
So I did a lot of research in other areas, particularly that my character's parents were meant to be burned at the stake for heresy as pagans, and I went into that quite a bit. What it would mean to come from that and what it would be to feel fidelity and loyalty to that family and maybe a kind of a hidden, suppressed contempt for those responsible for killing them, but also a strange gratitude for those that protected and provided him with shelter here and raised him among them as a Puritan. You just have to walk a tight rope.
TVF: There hasn't been a lot of explanation about Hale's past and how he became involved with the witches, and he seems to walk a really tight line, especially because of his family. Are we going to learn more about that?
XB: Yes, we just shot a big episode on it. I don't know if it's confusing or intriguing for the audience to want to know.
TVF: Are we going to find out why Hale stepped aside and let Mary claim the top spot? It seems Hale would be more of a natural leader.
XB: Yeah, but he couldn't very well marry the richest man in town and then skillfully slide his familiar down the throat of said richest man in town on a regular basis without raising a few more eyebrows. Mary has the capacity to have control of him and it's particular to her youth, beauty and feminine power. More is revealed of the puppet strings with each episode. What's so cool about the show is that the roots go deep into the earth and the branches go high into the sky and there's going to be a lot more twists and turns along the way for the audience.
TVF: Hale has started to protect his family from Mary. Are we going to see more of him pulling away from Mary, and where will he end up?
XB: Well, it's a kind of a push me pull me world, then and now, and sometimes those who we find ourselves thrown into orbit with can repel us but we are dependent on them, which I think is true of both Mary and Hale; they need each other so they can't do away with one another or leave one another because they are interdependent and must work out ways to work in accord.
TVF: I would assume Anne having feelings for John Alden is going to throw a wrench into all of that.
XB: Well, it certainly keeps it interesting! It also adds another reason for me to want to spare John Alden and yet to want to get rid of him at the same time. Anne already has suspicion enough and she's going into the classic teen rebellion against her father and disillusionment and all of the things she thought were safe and sure with the town of Salem being turned on its head since the witch hunt began and she can't help but associate -- even though I've been the liberal line of the Selectmen and the town leaders, trying to argue on behalf of a little bit more sensible approach to things -- she can't help but associate me with the Puritans who are burning witches and hanging them. Then she comes to find that I'm associated with other things and that's even more disturbing and confusing to her.
TVF: Is that coming up?
XB: Oh! I don't know how much I can reveal. That was a little tidbit for you, and you were quick to seize on it.
TVF: Can you explain a little bit about the Selectmen and how John Alden wound up with the group?
XB: Yeah, his family were town elders and he was away at war so it made sense on a lot of levels from the Selectmen point of view to have him on the board because his parents were a pillar of the community and he went off to war to protect the community. If there are witches and the fear of witches around, then having a great warrior is a great reassurance, but certainly from Hale's point of view it's a conflict, but certainly hold your enemies close.
TVF: I also haven't been able to pick up yet whether or not Hale's wife knows he's hanging out with the witches.
XB: That's cool. That's great. That's the answer.
TVF: So we're not supposed to know that?
XB: You know, it's just like when you're getting to know people in general and that's what I love about... You know, TV has a strong compulsion, generally speaking, to really spoon feed the audience so there's no questions. That's easily done for the sake of clarity so there's something you can latch onto, but I think it's done more often than not to their detriment, because it disengages the audiences natural tendency to try to figure things out, like we do with real people in real life.
You know, if you meet somebody at a party or at school or at work, you get to know them a little bit at a time, and each time you meet them, more is revealed. You jump to conclusions, sometimes erroneously, that are completely turned around when you get to know them better. I love it when television and film reiterate that aspect of life because I think that's what keeps us engaged with each other and putting the pieces together.
TVF: Overall, do you think people are getting too used receiving the information in large doses and losing their ability to enjoy the nuances of the slow reveal? As if it just doesn't work anymore.
XB: Well, it doesn't seem to work with some, but it works with others. And those are the types of episodes that I've always wanted to play to and I've always had faith existed and the whole concept of the lowest common denominator determining what things have to be in this world, in this life, is really kind of ill conceived. I think people are a lot smarter and have a lot more levels to them than the few that are the noisiest sometimes about things. They might not even be that few, it could be the majority, but there are a minority who might be a might more silent, but they're hungry for that and that's what they're going to get engaged with.
I bring up 24 again because it was such an involved and brave move to get behind because never before had an audience been asked to follow a show where they had to know what happened in the show before that for it to make sense. Usually there was a story introduced in each episode, there would be a bad guy introduced and the good guys would bring the bad guys to justice and that would be your episode of TV and you'd put that into syndication and you could watch it any sequence anytime you wanted and that was the standard fare.
That's why I was surprised and shocked that they picked 24 up because it required something else. It was the precursor, it was one of the first shows that was packaged as a boxed set that people could then binge watch and follow the whole storyline the whole way through. That proved the lie to that notion that you couldn't see things in order and it started a whole new movement, just as many deaths down the line they also made popular the idea that a character that people had fallen in love with, a beloved, main character could be killed off. That also was a big convention on 24.
All kinds of rules are out there, but when they are broken real creativity and new hardcore followings can come because of it. There are a few real direct parallels between 24 and Salem -- that they both involve offshoots of Fox and me, and I'm making the connection -- I always, in general, tend to be drawn to the things that stay a step ahead of the audience rather than hit the audience over the head and those are sometimes the culty things. They don't have maybe as wide or broad an appeal but they have a serious following and a longevity because of it.
Salem airs on Sunday nights at 10 p.m. EST on WGN. For those of you who don't get WGN, you can watch Salem online via TV Fanatic.
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Broadcast Television Journalists Association (BTJA), enjoys mentoring writers, wine, and passionately discussing the nuances of television. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.