Praise Satan all you want, but Michelle Gomez better be next on your list, because no one’s done the devil better or badder than she does in “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” which premiered Friday on Netflix.
If you’re the slightest bit familiar with the extended “Riverdale” universe, which the “Sabrina” reboot falls under, then you know that while the series’ action largely concerns itself with well-muscled teens, the juiciest plotlines actually belong to the grown-ups. This holds true with “Chilling Adventures,” particularly when Gomez arrives as a she-devil in disguise, slithering her way into teen witch Sabrina Spellman’s life by taking the form of her favorite high school teacher, the meek Miss Wardwell.
The reboot endorses the long-held supernatural trope that being possessed by the devil instantly turns you into a regulation hot person. But Gomez vamps it up with a dollop of self-awareness, so that when her character starts to don low-cut blouses, favor truly exquisite blowouts and feast upon the hearts of pizza delivery boys, it’s impossible not to root for her.
Her true identity (spoiler alert, but binge faster!) as Madam Satan isn’t made explicit until the season’s final moments. (Fans of the comic book will easily clock the reveal from the opening episode.) But the Scottish actress manages to steal every last scene she’s in along the way. While Gomez was at work filming Season 2, HuffPost spoke with her about the key to making a memorable baddie, why our culture just can’t get enough of the occult, and what advice she’d give to Satan if he comes knocking.
You make being bad look so fun, which makes sense because you’ve had some practice playing antagonists on shows like “Doctor Who.” What’s the trick to being a good villain?
It helps having this face. I was clearly born to play witches and bitches for eternity. Especially when it comes to screen, a lot of the time you’re cast by the way you look. Looks aside, perhaps why I’ve had success with playing villains in the past is because I don’t see them as villains. I see them as your worst best friend. I enjoy working out why they are the way they are. We’re all products of our existence and the sum of our choices, and if you continually make bad choices you’re inviting some darker consequences.
In terms of villains I played in the past, I’ve always been determined to try and not just play evil, because that’s kind of boring for you and for me. I’m able to hopefully give her some charm and likability, and that then gives the character some power to wield ― the power of manipulation.
We first meet you as Miss Wardwell and then a few bloody moments later we’re introduced to Madame Satan. Cue a blissfully campy makeover moment when she walks down the halls of the high school with a new look and attitude. What was it like executing that change?
One of the biggest draws for me of the character is that I get to play those two sides arguably of that one person. All of us think things we shouldn’t think, but Madam Satan gets to do the things we never do. Coming from Miss Wardwell’s point of view ― being this quiet, meek, reliable member of the teaching faculty ― I’m quite sure she at some point would’ve dreamt of busting out of that plaid skirt and taking on her world.
I just loved that I was able to take that long, slow walk down that corridor and evolve by the time I got to the end of it as Madam Satan. It’s fun playing the baddie because the rules don’t really apply to you in the same way if you were playing another character that wasn’t quite as twisted. It’s probably clear that I’m having a blast.
OK, we need to take a quick sidebar and talk about your hair, because it’s Connie Britton-levels of glorious and deserves its own Wikipedia page.
I definitely think my hair deserves a shoutout here. Let’s face it, I have incredibly talented hair. I mean, it was basically my hair that got the part. It’s nothing to do with my acting abilities [laughs]. God just kept giving me hair. He didn’t give me an ass, he didn’t give me any lips. He just kept giving me hair. Like 10 people live on my head! There needs to be a Madam Satan doll.
I’m starting the petition right after this interview.
We used to have these Barbie dolls where you were able to pull her hair out of the top her head and then you wind it back in again. Madam Satan needs her own doll where you keep pulling out her fabulous hair.
Did you base the characterization on the comic books, or were there other devilish figures in pop culture that you looked to for inspiration? In certain moments, I was getting some Elizabeth Hurley in “Bedazzled” vibes.
Not from the horror genre, but more from the kind of character genre. I don’t know about any other actors, but I’m always convinced I’ll get fat after the table read, so I had to have a really strong voice in my head to drown that out. It’s Katherine Hepburn meets Glenn Close. Those two women together for me are Madam Satan.
Nothing in this world has ever made more sense to me.
God love me, I’m a working-class actor from Scotland and have these heady heights of ever reaching the magnificence that those two women inspire, but those are the two that I take with me into work every day. I have Katherine on one side and Glenn on the other, and the three of us just walk onto set and it’s like, “Have a nice day girls! Let’s see what we can get up to today.”
You have this wonderful thick Scottish accent that we hear none of in the show. Did you have a dialect coach for the role? Because you deliver your lines with such variety, sometimes speaking with only a whisper, but always with this devilish hint.
I really did fall down the Katherine Hepburn hole. Not doing an impersonation, by any stretch of the imagination, but I wanted to get a tone, an era and a feel vocally to translate into what [series creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa] has beautifully provided for me on the page. And then make it my own. With a Scottish accent, our consonants can easily be drawn out into American sound, so I wanted to play with that and see if I could make it some otherworldly voice as well.
But you also communicate so much without saying anything at all in many scenes by just slinking in the background and smiling mischievously. Did anyone ever tell you to pull it back on set because you were doing too much?
I’m sure that half of my performance at this moment in time is on the cutting room floor. I clearly like to play, and in that play, there will always be little bits of magic hopefully, but some of it won’t be appropriate. It’s a new show and there’s a lot of wonderful, amazing characters, and everybody has to find their place and fit together, right? In the beginning, it was about finding the right tone and nobody quite knew what that was yet.
It was a balancing act of how far you could push it and then always making sure you give them a little variety so you can go from a more refined in subtler performance to batshit crazy. Somewhere between those two rocks I sit. There’s a lot of people in that show and it’s a big, gorgeous ensemble. Everyone has a bite of the apple, literally.
In the final episode, you compel Sabrina to sign the Book of the Beasts with this speech about power and how women are taught to fear it. She says Sabrina should not only accept power, but take and wield it. Do you think this is how Madame Satan conceptualizes her own journey through the series?
Yes, you’re onto something there, but I can’t talk much more about, because it’s in development in her storyline that’s coming more in Season 2. As I say, there’s always a reason for the way we behave. There’s a reason why she’s evil and why she wants Sabrina for the dark side. It can just be because she feels like it. The audience will discover that as we get further along. But yes, the notion of being a powerful woman in a patriarchal society is going very old for her and also because certain things perhaps have happened. I’ve got to be really careful I’m in spoiler territory here! Wherever we end on the end of Season 1 with Sabrina deeply resonates with Madam Satan directly.
Everything occult and witches are in the zeitgeist right now with the “Sabrina” reboot and “Charmed” returning to TV. Why do you think witchcraft is such a popular metaphor for how women specifically navigate the world?
It’s sort of the fantasy that we can magic things away and gives us this delicious idea that we are in control somehow and can change things. The world out there is pretty dark and the whole world of witchcraftery is exciting. It’s not just about making wishes and having them come true. It’s darker and deeper than that. It takes us from our childhood beliefs into a more adult version of believing something more powerful than ourselves is out here making things happen. There’s fantasy in there, but there’s also the distraction from being who you perceive yourself to be. It’s fun and not entirely dark because there’s an odd hope in there, too.
You play bad so well, what advice do you have for the person who will eventually play the devil?
Watch out. I’m coming for you. There’s not much that’s gonna get past Madam Satan at the moment. She’s not going to go down without a fight and she’s got lot of fight left in her. She hasn’t even begun. I mean, she’s literally just lifted an eyebrow and maybe a finger.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.