‘A Discovery of Witches’ – Alex Kingston, Valarie Pettiford Interview on Playing Sarah and Em

Alex Kingston says Sky’s A Discovery of Witches separates itself from other projects of its genre in multiple ways, including the show’s look and elements that will appeal to adult viewers. “The themes and the arguments within the show are adult,” said Kingston. “It’s just got this sort of cool look to it and I think that’s what sets it apart.”

Alex Kingston was teamed up with her onscreen love interest, Valarie Pettiford, at the 2018 San Diego Comic Con to talk about the first season of A Discovery of Witches based on the bestselling book series by Deborah Harkness. Pettiford, a big fan of the supernatural who was thrilled to be a part of the show, and Kingston talked about their characters (Sarah Bishop and Emily Mather), the source material, and how they approached the show’s magical elements during our roundtable interview at Comic Con.

A Discovery of Witches premieres on Sky One on Friday, September 14, 2018.

Did you do any research into witchcraft before taking on the roles?

Valarie Pettiford: “I didn’t do a whole lot. I did…thank god for Google…I did Google some stuff just so I could get in the mindset. I know for me my character can ‘see’ and because I’m a dancer first I felt anything she does is almost like choreography. I wanted to make sure that was right, so I did read books on how people when they do spells and certain things, they have choreography, really, each one, individually. I wanted to make sure I stayed true to anyone who does practice the craft.”

Alex Kingston: “I didn’t prepare in that way because I didn’t know…I didn’t want to bring something to the table in the sense that it was then not going to be right. I wasn’t sure how they envisioned Sarah and Em and what their world was going to be like.

We had time because we are sort of slowly drip-fed into the show, we basically had time to sort of evolve during the show. I mean, for the first oh my gosh it seemed forever, all we ever were doing was sitting on the porch at the end of a phone. And in doing that and sitting on the porch, you sort of look around. You see how the porch has been designed, what sort of props and little bits and pieces the designers, along with Deborah, have created. And that kind of slowly also informed the sort of life that Sarah and Em were living, and also informed the kind of nature of their personalities a bit. So, yeah, that was it.

And in the interior because Sarah has her own special room where she makes her potions, her soaps, her creams that she’ll sell at the market – farmers markets and things – that felt very much like this is Sarah’s domain. But that was kind of it.

I was doing a show in South Africa at the same time for a little bit simultaneously and I did go and meet a witch doctor/healer. I wanted to talk to him as somebody who absolutely sees himself as a living, working witch, essentially. I spent some time with him in a very small somewhat scary interior little tiny house thing. I came back with some porcupine quills that I gave to Valarie. We had those also then on the set. Those are actually something that are used in some of the creams and potions that he was working on. But I’m not 100% sure what he would use them for because it’s an irritant. The tip of the porcupine quill is actually an irritant.”

With the novels having such a passionate fanbase, how are you feeling about delivering on the anticipation for the series?

Valarie Pettiford: “It’s always scary. I’m a fan of Harry Potter all that kind of stuff, so I know what that’s like as a fan when you have an idea what your favorite characters look like. You just have to trust that they’re going to do right by it. You also have to let go because things are going to be different. It’s not going to be like the book and it shouldn’t be. It’s a living, breathing thing. It’s a whole other venue.”

Alex Kingston: “There’s a very strong element within the Bishop household that is not present and is very much present in the book. It kind of is part of the atmosphere of the Bishop house. I know there was a lot of back and forth about whether this particular element should be added or not, but it was something that was going to be so costly and also in a way would slightly detract from the drive of the narrative that the decision was made not to include this element. That might be something that the fans might probably immediately go, ‘Oh my gosh.’ But I hope that they understand the reasons why and that it is that the story has to just keep being sort of pushed forward. But we were aware of that, weren’t we?”

Valarie Pettiford: “Yes.”

Alex Kingston: “But again like Valarie said, there are things that you just can’t…you can’t include everything. There are things that will have to fall by the wayside.”

Can you talk about the relationship between your characters and how they fit into Diana’s life?

Valarie Pettiford: “Well because we raised her because of what happened to her parents we have a huge influence on her. At the same time, she’s a willful soul and she wants to be normal. We’re like, ‘No, you’re not normal.’

Unfortunately, I’m not a mom in real life but I can only imagine what it’s like having your own children and when they grow up and you get into those 14, 15 rebellious years. We went through that with Diana and we had to let go. But, it’s a close dynamic. We’re just at a point, I think, in the story where it can be a little awkward because she’s very adamant about not using her powers. We’re very proud of who we are and what we’ve come to know as witches, and as creatures we’re starting to lose our powers, everyone – the vampires, daemons, and witches – because of what’s happening in the world. We really want her to own that and enjoy who she is.”

Alex Kingston: “Own her heritage.”

Valarie Pettiford: “So that changes the dynamic.”

Alex Kingston: “I think also again it’s sort of like anyone who’s gone through a tragedy – Diana’s parents were murdered and Sarah and Em know the reasons for their murder. They might even have suspicions as to who may have murdered them, but they don’t know for sure. But, certainly, there is darkness around the deaths of her parents and so to raise this child and to keep that child protected and to fear for that child’s safety as this girl gets older and wants to step out into the world, the answer for particularly Sarah is to be naturally over-protective, and without really being able to explain fully to Diana why. And even Diana going to Oxford and wanting to take the path of being a professor and writing a thesis, she’s far away from them. I think that doesn’t sit comfortably.

Em is incredibly supportive of what Diana’s doing but Sarah is conflicted. But I think Sarah and Diana are sort of closer in terms of their feistiness and stubbornness so, of course, they’re going to butt heads much more frequently.”

What do you think Em loves the most about Sarah, and Sarah loves the most about Em?

Valarie Pettiford: (Laughing) “Just look at her. I mean, this is it. I love that fieriness. She’s the ying to my yang.”

Alex Kingston: “They’ve been together a long time. They’ve kind of grown up together.”

Valarie Pettiford: “Respect. Respect. Respect.”

Alex Kingston: “I think because they are so different, I think they’ve just been drawn together.”

Valarie Pettiford: “I’ve been part of your family, being best friends with her sister.”

Alex Kingston: “She’s kind. She’s sexy. She’s a good cook.”

Valarie Pettiford: “Great in the kitchen! That is not Valarie at all but as Em, yes, I’m fantastic!”

Alex Kingston: “She’s amazing. She has amazing dance moves. She can sing.”

Valarie Pettiford: “I feel protected.”

Alex Kingston: “She just incredibly kind. I think Sarah absolutely loves her for that. Also, I think Sarah knows that she’s not necessarily pleasant to live with and she knows Em forgives her for that as well.”

Valarie Pettiford: “Loves her for it.”

It’s nice to embrace the flaws of the characters too, isn’t it?

Alex Kingston: “Absolutely.”

More on A Discovery of Witches:

A Discovery of Witches cast
Valarie Pettiford, Teresa Palmer, and Alex Kingston star in ‘A Discovery of Witches’