PASADENA — Traditionally, when an actor's playing a role based on a real person, long hours are spent trying to find out as much as possible about them. Janet Montgomery decided it would be a waste of time to dig into historical information on the real life of Mary Sibley, the role she's playing in the new WGN America series "Salem."
"I've read quite a lot about the period, but I'm not reading about Mary Sibley. It's pointless because I know the writers have taken creative license with her and I don't then want to be playing something that's not on the page," Montgomery says. "My job is to take what they give me and make that work and create a character out of that."
What they're giving the British actress is an extremely dark look at the witch trials that took place in 17th century Massachusetts. Historically, Sibley used white magic to fend off the evil powers in the village. In the TV series, Sibley is Salem's most powerful enchantress.
In "Salem," witches are real, but they are not who or what they seem. The show, which centers on a romance wrapped around this explosive revelation, offers a new vision of Salem and the witches who called the small community home.
Shane West plays John Alden, Mary's onetime love interest, while Seth Gabel is local aristocrat Cotton Mather, who fans the flames of Salem's witch hunt. Ashley Madekwe, Xander Berkeley, Tamzin Merchant and Elise Eberle also star.
Montgomery says what she knows about the time period is more from Arthur Miller's 1953 play "The Crucible" and her general interest in witches.
"Salem" was created, executive-produced and written by Brannon Braga ("24," "Star Trek: The Next Generation") and Adam Simon ("The Haunting in Connecticut").
"For want of a better phrase, our take on the Salem witch trials is that witches were real and they were running the trials and that's what you didn't know. What they're doing, what they're up to and all that is what the show is all about," Braga says. "Mary Sibley's character is a Puritan, and she's a very powerful Puritan woman who is married to the most powerful man in town who is infirmed. So, by proxy, she's kind of in charge, but she's not really a Puritan.
"There's a lot more going on. Janet's character's both the hero and the villain of the piece, which I think is kind of unique. She's Lady Macbeth and Scarlett O'Hara. She's a women in trouble who's causing trouble."
Because the series deals with both a love of magic and the magic of love, Montgomery has to balance making Sibley tough and vulnerable. Montgomery found inspiration for playing the role in the performance Cate Blanchett gave in "Elizabeth."
"There was a scene where she says something in a very tough way but after you see her, after she's said it, she's shaking. That's how I feel about Mary Sibley. She's powerful, but she's still a woman. She still has fears. She's kind of powerful but a little scared like a lot of people who are in a position of power," Montgomery says. "I think, for me, it was sort of playing with the loss of innocence that sort of plagues Mary, and she's sort of made a choice in her life.
"I think she's pleased with her choice until she's confronted with her past. She's had to grow up and be the person she is to survive."
Before making the leap into American TV and film, Montgomery studied dance in London and landed her first acting job on the critically acclaimed UK teen drama series "Skins."
Her British roots are obvious when she's talking about "Salem," but the actress has no problem adjusting to a regional accent when needed. In "Made In Jersey," she used an accent that would make the "Jersey Shore" crowd proud. For "Salem" — a series set at a time when people from around the world were coming to America — Montgomery went with what she calls a slight tweaking of her own British accent.
Although she's worked in TV and films ("Black Swan"), Montgomery likes the television series format best because it gives her more time to work with the character. That's particularly helpful in this series, where she has to handle the dark physicality of the character's witch ways and some lustful moments.
Braga describes the show as "Wuthering Heights" meets "The Exorcist": "There's a deeply romantic river running through this show, despite all the horror."
"Salem": 7 p.m. Sunday, April 20, on WGN America.