Vancouver doesn’t have a reputation for blizzards. How fitting then, that the day we landed in the Pacific coastal city, the snow landed also—several inches in fact. We awoke to find the city buried beneath a massive snowstorm, and its citizens slipping and trudging to get on about their lives.
In a way, the freak nature of the snow set the perfect tone for the trip. We’d journeyed north to visit the set of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, the hit Netflix horror series. The show has won praise—not to mention enchanted fans—for its tongue-in-cheek sensibility, as well a diverse, talented cast and several queer-themed storylines. At the time of our visit, anticipation for the show had hit a new high as the January 24 release of the series loomed.
Having braved the snowy roads to the soundstages, we discovered the main sets for Sabrina, the most elaborate and detailed we’ve ever seen. We also found ourselves greeted by two familiar faces: actresses Miranda Otto and Michelle Gomez, who play Sabrina’s Aunt Zelda and her nemesis, the witch Lilith. The two led us on a tour of the Spellman Mortuary with glee, pausing to point out some of the elaborate details and set dressings: eye of newt in a tiny jar crammed in a corner of the embalming room. A skylight and secret passage lifted from the film Suspiria, accent the living quarters. Wallpaper with eyes hidden in the pattern watch over the living room. The macabre surroundings took on an even more surreal look as several crewmen began moving about preparing for a scene, opening hidden walls and passageways to make room for lights and cameras.
Our tour concluded with Miranda and Michelle leading us into the main parlor of the mortuary, where we all sat down at a long table for a chat. On any other show, any given character from Sabrina would play the role of the outcast, of the messed-up, half-crazed freak. Yet in the magical world of the series, they form a family of sorts, focusing more on their shared interests and friendships than their differences. We surmise that inclusion has propelled the show to its popularity, particularly among LGBTQ viewers. We mention as much to the pair of actresses, and wonder how working on it has made them regard their own idiosyncrasies.
“It can be big and campy and it’s been fun to do things that are not so kitchen sink,” Otto says of the female characters on the show. She rests deep in her chair, her red hair flowing to her shoulders. “It’s a world where anything goes. It gives you a great sense of creativity. So when you talk about the inner freak, it’s feeling like you can create anything.”
Next to her, Gomez, dressed in a black leather jacket and skinny jeans, cocks her head back, a pensive look in her eyes. We ask her what’s on her mind.
“Having this face was not always a blessing,” she says in her thick Scottish brogue. “I’m only coming into it now because, clearly, I can play witches and bitches well now. Before, I wasn’t the ingenue. I didn’t have a button nose and silky hair. I was hard to cast.” We giggle nervously, unprepared for her self-deprecating honesty.
“Coming into my own as an older woman,” she continues, “this works to my benefit. The other thing that was really interesting about this show is that whatever the labels are, Roberto [Aguirre-Sacasa, the showrunner] manages to turn them into people’s virtues and strengths. It would seem now that women of a certain age are still out there kicking ass on some level. They’re not having to sit in the background and play the granny. That’s what’s brilliant about the show—it’s embraced everybody across the demographic of whom would once have been considered freaks. This show breaks that mold. That’s something I’ve been celebrating. It doesn’t matter what age I am. It doesn’t matter that I look weird. I’ve been embraced.”
Two of Gomez & Otto’s co-stars, though much younger women, agree. The stunning Tati Gabrielle, who plays Sabrina’s bitchy school rival Prudence, dressed in a white fur coat, echoes the embracing attitude of the show, especially when it comes to gender roles.
“For me, as far as being a woman, it’s been very empowering,” Gabrielle says with a warm smile. “Prudence is so fucking strong and just has this laser beam vision. It’s made me be like that. I’ve learned how to be me unapologetically. I don’t feel a need to censor myself from anybody, or ever need to be too safe. It really pushed those bounds for me and reminded me that if someone wants to accept [me] great. If not, I can’t make them, and that’s fine. I’m me. So be it.”
For Skye P. Marshall—who joined the cast in season two as the voodoo priestess Mambo Marie—the show offered a chance to embrace her entire self. “At the time that I booked this role…I won’t lie,” she confesses with a nod. “My crown was tilted a bit. Playing Mambo Marie gave me my power back. I was able to intentionally move in my feminine energy, but then also move in masculine energy, and combine the two forces to propel, if you will. That was really fun. It didn’t matter if I had a gown and a crown on. I was still able to tap into all the different energies that I felt were necessary in very specific moments with very specific characters.”
Marshall then pauses a moment, before adding: “This is the first show that has allowed me to wear my natural hair.” We express our astonishment, admiring her ebony curls bundled with a headband atop her head. “Crazy, right?” she asks. “To be able to have my natural hair on the show…that was empowering as well. The pineapple is power. I could stand in my truth and feel super powerful.”
For two cast members in particular, that theme of empowerment and embracing the inner freak struck a particular chord. Chance Perdomo, who portrays Sabrina’s sexually fluid cousin Ambrose, playing the outsider among outsiders helped him push back against the corrosive pressures of showbiz.
“I’ve always been a freak,” he admits through a half-smile. “At times I’ve questioned my identity. You get put in many boxes and told who you should be and shouldn’t be. So you question that from religious, psychological, sexual, race and cast social standing. But I’ve always just been myself. Ambrose has helped me remember not to change myself for someone else’s blueprint. When I first got Ambrose, I’d forgotten how to be myself a little bit. He’s a constant reminder.”
No sooner had Perdomo uttered the words, than an even bigger reminder walked over to join us: Lachlan Watson, the trans-nonbinary actor who plays the transgender character Theo on the show. At only 18, Watson ranks as the youngest—and one of the most high-profile—nonbinary actors working in Hollywood.
“I broke this chair!” Lachlan exclaims as they fiddle with the arm of a wooden seat. Nervous, they forces the arm back onto the spindle, an unnerved grimace on their face. The chair in question also serves as a regular bit of set dressing, so we have some idea they might be nervous.
With the seat fixed, or at least passable, anyway, Watson relaxes a bit, their right arm remaining noticeably stiff as it rests on the broken chair arm. We ask about their newfound celebrity and the perception of nonbinary actors in the business.
“It’s a lot of weight,” Watson sighs. “It builds up a lot. It’s been nice playing this role to release it into the world. I think I’ve made a lot of progress, but at the same time, the question that has come up in the past two days in two different phone calls is ‘Is the world ready for you yet?’” They pause a moment, their eyes averted to the floor. “I don’t know if I have an answer to that yet,” they say after a beat, gaze rising again to face us. “But it makes me feel proud to be here.”
We note that Watson’s character, Theo, gets a love interest this season—something still groundbreaking for transmasculine roles. “I have a bad history of joking about things, and then actually just happen,” they says. “I just told Roberto enough times that I wanted a love interest. And then Jon showed up, so welcome.” Lachlan smiles as Johnathan Whitesell, who plays the new character Robin, walks over to join us.
“I always felt it would be something really powerful and new and beautiful to create,” Watson continues. “I’m excited to keep building and show it to the world.”
“In my experience, it’s been really lovely getting to know Lachlan,” Whitesell says with a grin. “I’ve been the new kid at school at a lot of different shows. I’m not used to so much unconditional love. It’s such a cliche thing to say, but everyone is such a tight-knit family.”
We point out to both Watson and Whitesell the groundbreaking nature of their season three storyline, asking them about the pressure of portraying something so precious, and the impact doing so could have on their careers.
“I tend not to think about the next step or how it’s going to be received,” Whitesell declares. “I try to enjoy the moment. It’s so fleeting. I don’t mean to sound obtuse when I say it’s the last thing on my mind. Five years ago this type of relationship would have never existed in a young adult drama. Now it’s just like, here it is. Like it always was there.”
“I think it’s adorable,” Watson giggles. “I feel so connected to Theo. Everything that Theo has gone through I feel like I’ve gone through as well. The love interest was refreshing for me personally because I’m the only queer person on the set, as far as I know. The cast is predominantly straight. It’s very isolating. I spent a year and a half like that. It just gets to your head. To have a love interest is refreshing because I feel less alone.”
We pause a moment, our gaze skipping back and forth between Watson and Whitesell, coming to a realization of our own.
“This show is iconic,” we observe. “This will follow you for the rest of your lives, both of you. All of you. You’ll be signing at comic book conventions when you’re 90.” Both laugh at the notion. We won’t let them get off that easy.
“What’s that gratitude like?” we ask. “Knowing that you’re changing lives, that you’re part of something special…”
“To be able to tell a story so close to my own and to share it with the world—that’s what I’ve always dreamed of,” Watson offers. “So as much pressure as it is and as much weight as it is, as overthinking and terrified as I get—often—that thought of making a difference keeps me coming back.”
“People come up to me on the street,” Gabrielle interjects. “I’ve had people come up in tears and telling me that I’ve changed the way they look at themselves or changed—especially with women—how they feel about themselves. Just seeing in general that people get so excited in my presence. That gives me such a level of gratitude, as well as knowing that people have my name in their mouth within the industry. That blows my mind.” She smiles with pride.
“Moreso than anything,” Gabrielle continues, “when we’re on set, we’re having such an amazing experience. It’s such a great family. You hear horror stories all the time about sets where people are monsters. We revel in the gratitude that we have, that we come to work every day, and everybody’s happy.”
“Another amazing thing: conventions.”
We look up to see Sabrina herself, actress Kiernan Shipka, stride over alongside Sabrina’s on-screen boyfriend Nick, Gavin Leatherwood. The two join us at the table on a brief break from shooting.
“Gavin and I just went to Argentina, and the fans there are on another level,” Shipka explains with a wry smile. “It was genuinely one of the most fun, incredible experiences. When you see people coming in dressed as you, and you’ve inspired them in some kind of way, it hits home. It really does.”
We ask Shipka & Leatherwood about what it feels like to have an adoring fanbase and the idea that the show will be with them forever.
“I have a least a few moments on set every day where I kind of just look around and it hits me,” chimes in her girlish voice. “It’s really easy working these long hours to get tired, get frustrated, or get caught up in the bubble of perfectionism. The second I take a step back and realize it’s an iconic character, I just feel—it’s like a gust of wind going through my body. I get so happy and so grateful.” She sighs, leaning back in her chair. “Luckily I haven’t lost sight of that yet.”
“It’s a tricky thing to say,” Leatherwood says after a moment. “I try to find that gratitude really within myself as opposed to outside validation. It’s a tricky balance. As actors, it’s easy, I think a lot of people might get into it for adoration. But I’m not in it for that. I love doing this.” The rest of the cast nods in agreement.
“I’m playing,” Leatherwood bubbles. “I’m playing just like I did on the playground as a kid. As long as I can play, I’ll be a happy camper. I hope I get to do this for the rest of my life.”
A pair of stagehands appear, summoning the cast from the parlor set and off to a neighboring soundstage. We thank them for their time and watch as they parade off together.
We look around the parlor set, regarding the immaculate detail one more time before we too pack up our notes and recorder. The camaraderie among the cast shows with such brightness, that we find it hard to resist their joy.
And that joy is well earned. Embracing diversity, celebrating idiosyncrasies, portraying groundbreaking characters and relationships on screen—what a dream job for a cast. What an honor for actors. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina may not go down in history as the Greatest Show of All Time, but in a way, it’s achieved something even more impressive. It has touched lives. It has enchanted its audience.
Television seldom gets more magical than that.