Freeform unveils a bewitching new take on witches Wednesday night.
Motherland: Fort Salem, debuting at 9/8c, is the latest female-empowerment tale from Eliot Lawrence (the underappreciated Claws).
A project that Laurence has worked on for a decade, Motherland: Fort Salem is a gender-reversing alternate history set in modern-day America.
Thanks to a deal cut 300 years ago with the U.S. Government, witches agreed to fight for their country to end their persecution. Now wars are fought globally with magic.
Adding to the tension is a coven of terrorist witches known as the Spree, whose spells are causing mass suicides around the globe.
The 10-episode first season follows three young women from basic training in combat magic into terrifying early deployment.
In exclusive interviews, TV Fanatic spoke with four lead actresses about their characters and the world of Fort Salem.
First up is Abigail Bellweather, played by Ashley Nicole Williams.
A child of privilege, Abigail is the latest witch of the New York Bellweathers to serve, coming from a long line that stretches back to the original accord.
Abigail is an alpha female who puts out a ton of bravado. But according to Williams, that's hiding her insecurity.
“That insecurity comes from how much she needs to prove herself to her mom,” Williams explained. “She acts like she's this strong girl but you'll see throughout the season different cracks and layers in her. She's not really as confident in herself. I think that's why she puts off that queen bee vibe.”
Early, Abigail gets put in her place by General Alder, the military leader of the witches, when she goes in for a private meeting hoping to replace her unit mates.
“She goes in there expecting that General Alder is going to do what she asks because she's Abigail Bellweather, and a Bellweather in general,” Williams said. “She doesn't get what she wants. It makes her realize that 'Hey, I do have to work with these people. If they fail, I fail too. So I'd better hop on the bandwagon of unit unity.' ”
Abigail clashes instantly with her unit mate, Raelle Collar, portrayed by Taylor Hickson.
While Abigail has dreamed about Fort Salem her whole life, Raelle blames the military for the recent death of her beloved mother, a medic.
Raelle comes from the Chippewa Cession, a reservation-like region long ignored by the government, where residents must fend for themselves.
This leads to the chip that Raelle carries on her shoulder.
“That's where Raelle gets her drive to worry about her individual success or problems while disassociating herself from group or team strategies,” Hickson said. “That's why you see her going in with that need to challenge authority because she's never been looked after her entire life. That's where that jadedness in her comes from.”
Deciding she had no choice, Raelle answers The Call (think of it as a magical draft notice.) But she has her own motivations for doing so.
“Initially, it's partly to avenge her mother,” Hickson said. “It's also a sense of recklessness. She's a bit conflicted about where her loyalty lies. Also, I think she wants to learn more about her mother and what her life was like.”
Without knowing it, Raelle ends up getting close to the Spree, which will derail much of her progress.
“Throughout the season, her relationship and her loyalty are challenged with Scylla,” Hickson explained. “She doesn't know who to trust, and when she finds people that she trusted more than anything lying to her, you start to see her retract and revert to the Raelle we first met, with her intense jadedness and her middle finger to the world outlook.”
Stuck in between that pair is their third unit mate, Tally Craven, played by Jessica Sutton.
It's exhausting work being the referee, Sutton said.
“Tally definitely serves as the shiny glue between the two alphas,” she added. “Raelle is the unstoppable force, and Abigail is the immovable object. As the peacemaker, she has the ability to look incredibly passive, but there's just so much going on. She knows how to listen so they can both vent but not to respond.
"They all come to see each other more clearly than they do themselves. In that way, they're each other's mirrors.”
Tally comes from a matrifocal (all-female) compound in Sacramento. So she has some adjusting to do living with men every day.
Coming out of such a sheltered environment, her innocence and naivety won't serve her well.
“In Tally's mind, she romanticizes that men are going offer a way of really growing herself into the woman that she is going to become and the witch that she will be in the greater cause,” Sutton explained. “She's very excited about falling in love. Abigail and Raelle, who are more experienced, try to mentor her through it wherever possible.”
Many of Tally's mother's family had been killed in combat, so she had been able to get Tally an exemption. But Tally answered The Call anyway.
“Tally knows that goodness is in her and the world needed more good,” Sutton said. “And she's hungry to come into her own power. She knows that to step up into herself as a woman and a witch, she needs to serve and be in the world. I think she's also the truest believer in the cause, in what Fort Salem stands for.”
It soon becomes apparent that the Bellweather Unit is something special. And it's up to drill instructor Anacostia Quartermain to get that ability out of them.
“Getting them to come together, getting them to understand that their power lies in being together, is a big task for Anacostia,” said Demetria McKinney, who portrays Anacostia. “She has a full understanding that they have something special. She's seen it, she's felt it. And she relates to each of them very individually.”
Anacostia is special herself. An orphan who became the ward of General Alder, she grew up in her guardian's war rooms.
“[Anacostia] learned every piece of magic, every piece of warfare from her, which made her one of the best candidates to be a drill sergeant and teach the recruits how to fight, how to love, how to use their strengths and the weaknesses to better the situation, and to stay alive,” McKinney explained.
The drill instructors face special urgency with the Spree stepping up their attacks. But they're not the only obstacle.
“Anacostia has the added problem of this being the smallest draft they've ever had,” McKinney said. “The recruits are small in number, so they need everyone on board, everyone ready, everybody of the same mindset so that they can really be effective at war.”
Laurence's audacious vision drew in the actresses.
“When I read the script, literally I ran to my mom and said 'Mother, I have to be a part of this,' ” Williams said. “The female empowerment really set it off for me. And the fact that it's so unlike anything on television now.”
Hickson added that Motherland would open up hard conversations. “It tackles very uncomfortable issues, such as mental illness, women versus women, toxic masculinity, emotional repression, and LGBT representation,” she said. “We've done such a great job keeping our team so diverse and extremely female-oriented.”
All look back fondly at such a female-dominated production.
“I enjoyed the transformation and being part of Eliot Laurence's mindset,” McKinney said. “To bring it to fruition and to trust us with each of the characters he's crafted for all this time, and for Freeform to believe in it the way they do, just getting a chance to transform this world into reality has been a true, true honor.”
“I really felt I was a part of something great,” Sutton added. “As an actress coming from South Africa, this was a dream come true on so many levels.”
Motherland: Fort Salem airs at 9/8c on Freeform.
Dale McGarrigle is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow him on Twitter.