Janet Montgomery
Janet Montgomery stars as Mary Sibley in WGN America's "Salem." (WGN America)

Janet Montgomery: Sick for ‘Salem’

“Salem” has gone to some horror-ific extremes in its second season, but Janet Montgomery’s “weak stomach” suggests those gross-out scenes were just a warmup.

“The next episode—Joe Dante’s episode—I vomited on set,” the British actress said, mentioning that iconic director Dante (“Gremlins,” “Piranha,” “The Howling”) helmed “The Beckoning Fair One,” airing at 9 p.m. May 17 on WGN America.

Montgomery, who stars as Mary Sibley, the most powerful witch in 1692 Salem, Mass., wouldn’t divulge what caused her to lose her lunch, saying only, “You’ll know [the scene] when you see it.”

In “The Beckoning Fair One,” a desperate Mary turns to the darkest form of witchcraft, necromancy, to resurrect her Season 1 nemesis, Increase Mather (Stephen Lang). She needs the witch hunter to help her fight their common enemy, European witch Countess Marburg (Lucy Lawless).

Mary needs all the allies she can muster. The Countess wants to destroy her, rallying Mary’s enemy Mercy Lewis (Elise Eberle) to her cause. Mary’s former love, John Alden (Shane West), wants to kill her, too. And she still can’t trust her companion, Tituba (Ashley Madekwe), or young witch Anne Hale (Tamzin Merchant).

While playing Mary is “great fun,” Montgomery admits that she gets exhausted portraying a character who can’t trust anyone.

“It’s kind of stressful, to be honest. When you play a character so intensely and you’re working 14-15 hours a day every day while staying in character, you start to become a paranoid mess yourself,” she said, laughing. “It definitely spills over into my everyday life.”

During the conference call with reporters last week, Montgomery talked more about the role, Mary’s relationships and what we can expect for the rest of the season. Read the edited transcript below after the tease for “The Beckoning Fair One.”


We saw the Count say to Mary that the men in her life have used her. Does she believe this, because she seems to be using them, too?

I think it definitely does affect her. She does feel sorry for herself in a lot of ways … She is in control of her husband, but that comes from spending six years trying to get him under control, having to have his fat, sweaty body on her. [Laughs.] I think it took her quite a long time to get him under control.

And John, he left her pregnant. So I don’t think she has felt particularly like anyone has given her what she needed. Everything just keeps going wrong for her in her love life.

I don’t think she trusts the Count. He’s obviously very manipulative and sort of frightening.


Who poses a bigger threat to Mary: John Alden or the Countess?

That’s an interesting question. I think they’re very different threats. I think that the surprise that John is now this witch hunter—Mary won’t see that coming. But I think the Countess is also equally dangerous in a very different way.

I don’t know if I could say who is the bigger threat. To find out that John has turned against her and is going to kill her —I think that’s probably the most heartbreaking. I think the Countess is more predictable; the Countess wants to kill her.


Will the rivalry Mary and the Countess be the main story for the rest of the season?

Definitely it serves a part in the rest of the season. What’s so great about this season is Mary started off slightly cocky almost. She had a real confidence. She felt that she was in control. She wasn’t listening to any warnings and now we start to see the world. She’s got enemies coming. Everybody’s trying to get her and nobody’s on her side. So really, there’s so much coming at her. The Countess is just part of a lot of people who are trying to get at Mary.


Despite all Mary has done, you can’t help feeling sympathy for her.

That’s what the writers have done really well and what I am constantly striving to do. … She’s doing everything she can and she does have a heart. But also, there are things that are [irredeemable] that she’s done and that she’s doing.

She’s very complicated and I think a lot of us can say that about ourselves. We’re neither good nor bad, we’re all somewhere in the grey area. That’s the sort of characters I want to play.

And what I’m really trying to do with this character is every time she does something that I think, “Wow, how are people going to sympathize with this,” I manage to find a way in which people can understand why she’s doing it. We’re all just survivors at the end of the day.

Salem Ep. 7 photos


What can you tell us about what’s coming and working with Stephen Lang?

Stephen Lang is an absolute joy to work with, a true professional. He’s exciting to work with and creates such a wonderful working environment. We have fun together …

I was really sad that we killed him at the end of last season because for me as a young actress, he elevated my work. …

His character is different this year and I think people will be excited to see the dynamic between him and Mary slightly change.


Mercy is teaming up with the Countess. What can you tell us about that?

It’s coming from all angles for Mary. She’s got so many enemies now and very few allies. Mercy seems a bit like a perpetual child compared to the Countess, but the Countess is a real threat. Mercy was just trying to destroy Mary but just sort of like throwing her toys out of the pram in the corner.

The fact that now the two of them have come together—I think there’s a real danger in what Mercy’s capable of. She’s unpredictable. Mary doesn’t necessarily worry about Mercy so much though. And she thinks Mercy’s dead, so that’s another worrying situation for Mary.


Mary and Tituba have this complex relationship. What are your thoughts on Mary’s sexuality?

It’s interesting, that question. What I’m playing with in the witchcraft is that the language of witches is often sexual. It’s often based in a sexual nature.

The relationship with Tituba, there’s a sisterly relationship like family, there’s also the fact that they’ve grown up together, and so they’re like best friends. There is a sexuality in their relationship, and I think that comes from just the way witches would speak to one another. They speak in a sexual way to one another, whether it’s physically or through language.

So that’s what I’m playing with with all the relationships between the witches. You can see that this season sort of with Anne Hale—the way they communicate, you can’t really pinpoint it. I think sexuality doesn’t necessarily come into it. … Mary would never say she’s straight or bisexual—she’s just very sexual. [Laughs.]


What were some of the initial acting challenges you found stepping into this role? And how do you see Mary sort of grow and develop since you first began playing her?

The biggest challenge for me when I first took Mary on is I’d never played a character that commanded so much fear around her. And she could go from like zero to 100 in her temper and in her emotions. So everything had to be very accessible and on the surface, like ready to bubble over. And I’d only really had experience in playing characters for this length of time that were quite sort of fun loving and funny.

And I worried that I maybe wasn’t at a mature enough level to be able to play this character. And I think my work as I’ve been playing her has grown as I’ve grown. So now I feel like I’m at an even better place to play Mary than I was a year ago. …

Although now I would say that she could be the fall of Janet Montgomery because I’ve become more and more Mary Sibley as the season’s gone on and I’m a nightmare to be around. I’m exploding at everyone. I’m like, “Sorry. It’s just I’m playing this character.”


Are the Essex witches starting to get on board with her plan and actually back her up against the Countess? Or are they just kind of going to let her be on her own?

Well, it’s a very difficult situation. I think Mary is sort of chosen to go on her own. And she doesn’t really have anyone else to turn to. But I think eventually, she’s going to have to turn to the Essex witches. And that’s going to be interesting to see whether they support her or not.


Is Mary ever going to be able to trust Tituba again or will they work together just because they have to?

Tituba has been lying to her for so long. What she’s done is unforgivable. But Tituba at the same time—and what I love about the writing on this show—has her own reasons for that. She thought she was doing the right thing.

There is room for Mary to forgive Tituba. But I just feel like both the characters together, it’s going to take awhile. People like to see them at odds with each other, the relationship works that way. So you never really know where each one with the other. You don’t know if Mary’s just going to kill Tituba at any moment or if actually she’s forgiven her. I that’s an interesting dynamic.


You’ve really been put through an emotional wringer this season, but no so much physically. Is there a chance you’ll be more physically active this season?

I think that’s a really interesting question because as the season goes on, Mary’s going to go through quite a lot of physical stuff. I have a great stunt double but I did quite a bit of the stunts myself. So my character will be getting more physical and I’ve really enjoyed that. It’s nice to see her not so puritan-like and actually get down and dirty; it’s fun.


Fans are waiting for John Alden and Mary to be together again. Do you think either of them is ready to confront each other? How do you think she’s going to handle it?

Mary believes he’s dead. So I think it’s going to be like a ghost coming back. And I think she’s already been through this with him. She’s just starting to get strong on her own and feel like she’s doing things by herself and everything’s for her son. But she’s definitely not ready for John to reappear in her life.

Whereas John, the longer it goes on and the more he’s sort of watching her from a distance, I think the harder it’s going to be for him to kill her.


Do you think it’s going to be more painful for her to realize that he’s actually alive or that he’s trying to kill her?

I think that she will somehow understand why he’s trying to kill her because he doesn’t know anything about the fact that she’s been manipulated by the witches and that they have a child together.

Let’s just hope he stops before he kills her to hear an explanation. Otherwise, it’s going to be like, “Oh, maybe she has good reason not to show up into the woods.”


It was recently revealed that Count Sebastian is apparently in love with Mary. Is Mary skeptical of the entire thing?

I think Sebastian is a great character because he’s a very dangerous young man. I think he believes in his heart that he is in love with Mary. But he’s also very much in love with his mother. … I love the character. And I love the possibilities if Mary chose to be with someone like Sebastian, it would be almost like Bonnie & Clyde. You know it could be like complete massacre going on in Salem.


Both Sebastian and Dr. Wainwright are really taken with Mary. Is that going to develop into any sort of full-fledge triangle?

I think there’s a good possibility there could be. But there’s also John Alden. Not only is there a triangle—what would you call that?—a square. It does seem like everybody in Salem—someone wrote something online which I think was pretty accurate—that everybody either wants to make love to you or kill you.

I think that’s very true with Mary at the moment. People either want to make love to her or kill her. Definitely Sebastian’s very taken with her and Dr. Wainwright is obviously taken with her. And John wants to kill her at the moment. So who knows what’s going to happen?


Could you talk a little bit about what’s coming up with Mary and Anne Hale?

She’s been this sort of moral compass. You felt she was a real do-gooder all of last season and now that she’s a witch, you almost get to see the demise of her, which makes you understand Mary somewhat more. The choices she’s forced to make change her …

I think it is a similar journey for Mary. And I think that the interaction between the two characters, it’s just stronger throughout the season. The more Anne accepts that she’s a witch, the more she need Mary.


With John Alden having the weapons that he has and the Countess having certain strengths more than Mary, how much of a threat might he be to the Countess?

That’s an interesting question. I honestly think the Countess has lived for centuries and centuries. And I don’t think that even with the help of the Indians and … these weapons, I don’t think he’s going to be any match for the Countess. I think the Countess is in a league of her own.

Although, obviously, at one point Increase Mather defeated the Countess to stop her Grand Rite.


So it depends on the circumstances of the encounter?

Anyone who is super powerful—like Mary felt very powerful at the beginning of the season—can suffer from being caught out and not being aware of other people’s strengths. And I think the Countess is being quite smart at the moment because she’s not aware of what Mary is capable of even though she knows that she’s probably is much stronger and she could destroy Mary very easily.

She’s keeping her close in order to find out what sort of threat she is.


Have producers Adam Simon or Brannon Braga offered any literature or films for you to look at for where your character may be headed as research?

Brannon, Adam and I talk about the show a lot in general, and about Mary and stuff that I can use to help me understand where they might be going with the character. They recommended some horror movies so that when I officially began working with Oliver [Bell, who plays her son John], they could point out some certain scenes so that we could feed off these stories that we all loved. It’s also great because there’s all these great actors that I’m watching and I can see how [Brannon and Adam] are crafting my character in their heads as well as how I can put my own stamp on it.


Is there anything uniquely satisfying about the second season as Mary that you maybe didn’t get the first time around?

I think I’ve grown as an actor so much the second season. And rather than feeling I’m forcing anything…, things are happening much more organically now in my work and with this character. It’s almost like becoming like a second nature. I know her so well now, I know how she’s going to respond in certain situations, I don’t have to push anything in order to reach the emotions. It all sort of just happens.


Do you get grossed out at all by some of the stuff you are asked to do.

Stuff does gross me out. I have a very weak stomach.


Have you ever balked at anything they’ve asked you to do? Have you ever said, “I don’t think I can do that?”

No. I haven’t actually. And I probably will start doing that as of Season 3. [Laughs.]


What about the horror aspect of the series? I’m actually surprised on how much you guys can actually do.

Yes. It is amazing. You never know especially with like a new network how much you can show and how much is too much. The thing that makes the show really work at the moment and especially we’ve really done it in the second season is just going for it. And the writers are not holding back. And it’s very shocking.

I think that really works for the show because they’re having free rein to create the world. And it means that we’re doing something very different from anything else that’s on TV. We’re not holding back.


As far as the period clothes are concerned, are you a fan of them? Or you can’t wait until you get back into your normal clothes?

I’m a fan of definitely the way they look. And our customer designer, Joseph Porro, does such an incredible job. They always look spectacular. And I think you know this season he even excelled himself even further with Mary’s clothes.

But it’s not comfortable. I’m not going to lie to you. It’s uncomfortable. And I can’t wait to get out of them. After 12 hours, 14 hours in a corset, you’re definitely ready to take it off. And I want to put it on last minute. I will go through everything else. … And I want to take it off fast.


What is it like working with old school directors like Joe Dante and Allan Arkush as opposed to newer talents like Nick Copus?

It’s really interesting actually. Every director that we’ve had has been very different. I think Nick did an incredible job in last night’s episode. … I thought it was one of my favorite episodes in the way it’s been put together and directed. And I thought the performances were great. And I was really impressed with it.

With Joe Dante, everyone was a little bit nervous because he’s sort of like a bit of an icon. And I was surprised how different his shots looked…, how it was sort of cinematic almost and how he trusted me as the actor. And he came in very little. Like he’d maybe say one or two things. But he let me do my own thing.