A Discovery of Witches Q&A — Alex Kingston (Sarah Bishop)

Alex Kingston, who plays Sarah Bishop in A Discovery of Witches, discusses meeting a real life witch to prepare for her role, Sarah's conflicted feelings about Em's secret and more.

Q: What initially attracted you to the series and the role of Sarah Bishop?

A: I was basically called by Jane Tranter, who I trust and respect enormously, and I think she has really great taste in choosing projects that she wants to produce… I could see that the relationship between Sarah and Em was interesting, because it’s a slight difference in what we’ve seen in the genre so far, and also because the creatures, in a way, they have their own form of racism. They don’t see color, or they don’t see any of those differences, and they don’t see anything out of the ordinary about people being in a same-sex relationship, but you absolutely cannot mix creature species. So I thought that was a very interesting take on the racism and the misogyny that we experience as humans in the world. So I guess those were all of the things that made me decide to join the cast.

Q: What kind of research did you do for your role, and what kind of choices did you make while bringing Sarah Bishop to life?

A: I’m not sure I would call it research. I had a very strong instinctive sense of who I thought Sarah was, and a lot of that was influenced by Valarie [Pettiford], who plays Em, because Valarie was very different, and Em in the book is very much different from Sarah. She’s softer, and while Sarah is rational as well, Sarah is much more hotheaded. Sarah has a lot of emotion but she shuts it in, and I think Em is more level headed. So that sort of immediately allowed me to explore the other personality in that relationship which would make an interesting counterpoint, so we’d both be balanced out because we have very different personalities. So that was one thing, but there were a couple other things I was doing as well.

I was on another job at the time which involved me flying to South Africa, and when I was in South Africa I actually sought out a witch, a living witch, because I guess I wanted to meet somebody who absolutely believes in and lives that world, who is also living very firmly in the modern world. He was extraordinary, and I suppose in a sense nothing like Sarah, except that all the potions and the unctions and the animal parts hanging in his little house that he had, I found that sort of incredibly inspiring, and I came back with a porcupine quill [Laughs]. I wanted to be involved in Sarah’s room, her distilling room, where she makes all her magic and keeps the books on magic. I wanted to really believe in what we saw, that it didn’t just look like props but felt real and tangible. That helped ground me, in a way.

Q: What kind of things did you think about in your physicality while you were "using magic"?

A: Sarah is very earthy, just very feet-on-the-ground in her denim overalls. Em is a librarian, and Sarah makes soaps and incense and body creams which they will sell in local farmers markets and things like that. And I felt that people who do that, make their own candles and their own avocado face cream, it’s almost like cooking, baking. And I do that. So I’m sort of practical with my hands, so I suppose I brought that element of myself into Sarah when she’s working, as it were, or when she’s working on a spell. It’s a bit like cooking. [Laughs]

Q: In Episode 7, Sarah discovers that Diana was spellbound by her mother, Sarah's sister. How do you think she takes that?

A: Well it’s crushing, because her sister basically shared that secret with Em, and Em has held onto it. Even though Diana’s parents had died, Sarah’s sister died, she still never revealed that secret about Diana. And I think she feels betrayed. It’s the beginning of seeing Sarah's absolute vulnerability. She’s someone who likes to present herself as the strong, tough part of the duo and Em is the soft one, and yet actually, inside, she’s fragile, and she’s incredibly hurt by that. I don’t know if betrayed is too strong of a word, but the fact that her sister Rebecca chose not to tell her, and rather told Em -- and at that point, they wouldn’t even have been married, Em would have been her girlfriend -- is really hurtful. And it’s not anything that Sarah could hold against Em, but it’s her having to come to terms with the fact that, for whatever reason, her sister didn’t trust her enough to tell her.

Q: What do you think Sarah makes of Matthew, and also Diana's relationship with him?

A: Well she’s incredibly distrustful and suspicious of Matthew... She is looking at other creatures as if the witches are the elevated species, and everybody else cannot be trusted — you do not mix with them. That’s what I actually quite like about Deborah doing this, because Sarah is somebody who has very strong fixed views, and gradually those views start to shift and change, because it’s actually precisely because those don’t mix, that you just have fear, but it’s not the reality. So slowly, Sarah’s beliefs are challenged. She loves Diana, absolutely loves her, and Diana is so sort of strong-willed herself, and they are also in danger, so Sarah has no choice but to allow Matthew across the threshold into her house -- and then the others follow. And that’s a lot for her to deal with, and she sort of deals with it.

Q: In Episode 7, Sarah tries helping Diana with her magic, which seems like a complicated moment for Sarah -- Diana finally wants to accept magic, but their training together is a little contentious. How do you think Sarah takes that?

A: I think the thing is, because Sarah is like the guardian of the spells -- that’s her job, she knows the history of her family, her family’s genealogy, heritage -- she is the keeper of the book of spells. And she’s extremely good at making spells, creating spells, understanding spells and deciphering spells that are ancient - that is her specialty, as it were. She doesn’t do scrying like Em does, that’s not her thing. She can’t transport herself through time. She can’t do anything like that, but she’s absolutely the go-to person for when anyone wants to learn more about their kind. So she wants to sort of, when Diana is ready to learn, she wants to teach her in the way that a professor would teach a student, and hopes or expects that that student will respect her, and also learn in a way that she wants her to learn. And of course Diana doesn’t, she’s her own person. And we don’t even know what she possesses in terms of her magical powers and abilities. So it is frustrating to Sarah, because she doesn’t learn in the way Sarah wants her to.

Working with Teresa practically, it was more about the pyrotechnics, more about the prop guy and everybody trying to get everybody to work at the right moment. So actually it was less about us acting and more about hoping and praying that the lavender or whatever it was would set fire. [Laughs]

Read a Q&A with Malin Buska, who plays Satu.

The A Discovery of Witches Season Finale airs Sundays at 9/8c.

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