In “Salem,” television audiences are being introduced to not only a new show, but also a new network. This is the first scripted series for WGN America, a Chicago-based station that primarily aired re-runs and Cubs games, and it’s a bold one, with violence, sex and intensity throughout. Exploring the question “What if the Salem witches were real?” the show turns what you think you know about the Salem Witch Trials upside down. Shane West, fresh off his role as Michael in “Nikita,” is the dark drama’s male lead, playing John Alden, a hardened war vet returning to Salem. The actor called us from Los Angeles.
How much did you remember about the Salem witch trials from history class?
You know, I didn’t remember too much, and also being 35, it’s been awhile. [Laughs] But it’s historically one of the most tragic periods of time in our American history and we all know that. But there were some things that I just assumed that happened that did not happen back then. One of the biggest things was that a lot of these witches were burned at the stake, and that apparently wasn’t true. There were hangings, there was stoning, drowning, but there weren’t actual burning. I guess what I’m learning now is that it’s just a time of extreme paranoia.
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You’re filming in Louisiana, but have you ever been to Salem before?
I actually have, in no way in preparation for this show. I went to Salem — and now I really want to go back — many, many years ago with my old band Johnny Was when we were on tour. We played in Boston and I remember my drummer insisted that we check out the town of Salem, and we did. We walked all around. It was really a cool, interesting town, and we went into a lot of the creepy stores and got to witness it, but all so many years ago.
Tell us about this awesome wig you get to sport for the show.
It’s definitely been a departure for me so far, but a welcome one. If you’re an actor and you care about characters and craft, these are things that you want to do, playing dress up or dress down, however you want to look at it. But for me, the beard is a little out of control. I wish I could shave the neck part off.
It looks itchy!
You know what, it’s not anymore. I’m too used to it. The wigs about to become pretty hardcore. Look, it’s absolutely period-appropriate. We wanted to stay authentic as possible. Short haircuts were not that popular back then. [My character] comes back from war, he’s been through hell and back, and he’s very wolf man. I can’t remember what episode it is, I think it’s around 4, where certain events happen that brings him to the decision to kind of clean up a little bit. The beard is still there, and the hair length is still there and it’s the same exact wig, it’s just pulled back a little more. It becomes a little bit more “Game of Throne”-ish.
John Alden was a real person. How much freedom do you have to make the character your own?
We have a lot of freedom because the show — and we have to stress this to the viewers or critics — I like to call it historical fiction. It’s based off of real events and real people and real characters, but we’re telling a fantastical story. … There’s a lot of characters in the show, you can’t explore too many developments. John Alden was one of I believe nine children, but it’s not about John Alden and his family, it’s about Salem. Alden might be a little closer to real than the other characters might be. He did leave Salem a lot to go to war, to explore, to do a lot of things that actually weren’t even explained historically. He is kind of the outsider that’s from town, so we have stuck pretty close to that, but I haven’t bothered looking up photos. … We’ve made him kind of the John Wayne before John Wayne existed — kind of the first real American hero, the original cowboy before the cowboys existed.
Rumor has it you were the last person to sign on for the show.
That’s very true. I think I was the last person. It wasn’t that I wanted to be last. It was a long casting process. Most of the characters had already been cast and it was tough for the lead guy — they didn’t want to make a mistake as I understand. And I think they were casting older originally, and I think they went through months of it while I was still shooting the final season of “Nikita.” The second-to-last person was Janet Montgomery, a lead actress, and I think when they figured out that she was gonna do it, that she was their Mary Sibley, they needed to see if there was gonna be chemistry. Unfortunately she was away filming and I was in Los Angeles and there was no way of getting us together so the process of me being cast took a long time. They brought in a lot of actresses. Actually one of the coolest things that not many people know about, if anyone at all, is Jennifer Lawrence was brought in to read with me. She was just helping out the casting directors because she was friends and she’s an absolute sweetheart. It was just the back of her head, giving me off-camera dialogue. She cried for me, she went well above and beyond, it was very nice. So it was a long process and they had a right to be scared because they don’t know if this is gonna work, and then they took the chance on me. Forty-eight hours later I had to be in Louisiana to shoot. It was a whirlwind. I was back in Toronto for I kid you not, just under a month, and a week and a half of that was the casting process for “Salem,” so it was a very short break.
Were you nervous to sign on to a network that’s just coming into its own?
Absolutely the opposite. And I can totally understand if someone would feel nervous, and I think maybe some of the actors have, but for me, no, completely the opposite. For me, because it was new and because cable is in the process of blowing up, it’s a great to be a part of that, and to do something so new. Yeah, WGN is well known for airing repeats of other shows and being the superstation of the Chicago Cubs, but I love what they’re doing. You have to understand, people paid attention to AMC to watch movie classics — they didn’t know what the hell “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad” was, nor did they care, because it wasn’t an entity yet as a network being known for series. Same thing for A&E, same thing for The History Channel, even FX, USA for damn sure. So being able to do this on a brand new [network] that’s really trusting our show to be kind of their flagship is really exciting.
And you’re able to be a bit risqué on this network…
While still skirting the line though, because we’re not HBO or Showtime where they get away with murder. You can’t show nipple but you can show butt. We tried to get away with as much as we could while still furthering the storyline, because that’s the most important thing. But we tried to get away with as much as we could in that first episode to show what we’re gonna try and achieve in the future.
So does that mean we’re gonna be seeing a lot more of you?
I may or may not have already shown my butt, which I’d never done before in my career. I’ve never signed a nudity clause to that extent.
Were you nervous?
Yeah, I made sure to shave it. No, I’m just kidding. I was a little nervous. I did more squats than I’ve ever done in my life, but doing a million squats a week before you film is not gonna help your ass. I think you gotta do that for several weeks. You gotta really commit.
‘A Walk’ down memory lane
On his career breakout, “A Walk To Remember”:
Obviously, ‘A Walk To Remember’ — for me, for Mandy [Moore], for [director] Adam Shankman, for everyone involved, Nicholas Sparks — was life-changing, for the better, and I would never change any of that. I’m very proud to be a part of something that little kids still watch, and it’s not even in their generation. … But in general, I’m not a romantic drama [guy]. So did I have a blast, would I do it a thousand times again? Absolutely. But would it have been my favorite role? No. I’m a guy. But my god, it was one of the better experiences of my life.
On if he’s still in touch with Mandy Moore
From time to time. [We’re] totally friendly. You know, she’s married, she’s got a whole different life, but she’s an absolute sweetheart. We actually reconnected through Twitter.