This week sees the TV debut of A Discovery of Witches, the new Sky1 adaptation of Deborah Harkness’ novel that imagines a world of daemons, vampires and witches in a battle for survival, all framed through a love story between Matthew Goode’s bloodsucker Matthew and Teresa Palmer’s spellcasting Diana.
Warning: the following interview contains graphic descriptions of Roger Federer.
So, Matthew and Teresa – what can you tell us about your characters?
Matthew Goode in A Discovery of Witches (Sky, HF)
MG: I play a 1500-year-old vampire, as you do, called Matthew Clairmont.
There’s three main groups of creatures. So you have daemons, you have vampires and you have witches. And there is a board, effectively, which looks after the regulation – there’s three of each of the creatures on this thing called the Congregation. And there’s rules to keep them separate, so you can’t have inter-relationships and that kind of thing.
But all of their powers are kind of dwindling, like vampires are failing to sire…so they’re all starting to lose their powers, though no-one’s quite worked out what daemons do. If we’re honest! Daemons are just sort of incredibly smart, geniuses.
TP: They’re charismatic!
MG: They’re very charismatic. So he wants to find the book of life, the secrets of why they are, how they are and how they were created. And he wants them to be able to live peacefully. Harmoniously. And that’s his sort of main thrust in the story. But unfortunately he falls in love.
MG: Well he falls for somebody he’s not allowed to be with.
TP: I play that person. That’s me!
MG: It’s been a struggle.
TP: It’s been really hard – we don’t get on well at all.
How about you, Teresa?
Teresa Palmer in A Discovery of Witches (Sky, HF)
TP: I play Diana Bishop. She’s a professor, and she’s also a witch. She’s not at all interested in being a witch though, at the beginning of the series. She’s running away from that aspect of her life. She has a really dark past. Her parents were very well-known witches, and their lives ended because they were witches.
MG: They met a sticky end.
TP: Yeah, there’s just like, bad juju surrounding that whole world for her, and she just doesn’t want to have any part of it. So she tries to find something very scientific, something that’s completely polar opposite to anything to do with magic. And then she meets him, and all those plans get turned upside down, and she’s just thrust back into this world that she hasn’t wanted to be a part of.
And it’s great, because you see her go on a beautiful arc within the story. And to me, it’s just about her really leaning into who her authentic person is, and that’s someone who is very powerful, and she’s just a strong woman. And she’s complex and layered, and there’s so many things to play around with. I love that element, and I love that she just comes into her own and blossoms and just embraces the fabric of who she is. It’s been a nice character to just get beneath and get to know.
These are characters that are beloved to fans – were you aware of that, and did you feel the pressure?
MG: I was!
TP: He would sit every night and read chapters to himself…
MG: I liked the book! I don’t actually read that many books, because I’m always piling through scripts or, you know, I’ve got three kids. It’s difficult.
There’s a lot of sort of fantasy books, and I’m not sure what my opinions of them had been, but this was really pleasantly surprising. I thought the really strong element of the book was the love story. And so it was pleasing to have Teresa, because we do get on really really well, thankfully, to sort of go on the journey with.
Why ARE fantasy books so popular at the moment?
Teresa Palmer and Matthew Goode in in A Discovery of Witches (Sky, HF)
TP: Probably escapism, to be honest. I think it’s really interesting to delve into a world that’s unknown, it’s a little scary. It’s kind of vulnerable and exciting, and you can kind of let your imagination run wild.
MG: It’s the kind of thing that reminds you of your childhood as well. Books about magic and stuff seem so hugely important when you’re developing your imagination as a kid. So we’re coming off the back of lots of Harry Potter, which was one of the first books to appeal to children and to adults.
And this really isn’t for children. Although I think they probably have tamed it down a little bit for a younger audience too, which is great.
Is it a challenge to wrap your head around supernatural stuff? How do you get into that sort of character?
Matthew Goode and Teresa Palmer in A Discovery of Witches
MG: I think actually the hardest thing was deciding what kind of things they would wear…
TP: Yeah, exactly.
MG: Because you’re trying not to do something too gothic. And it’s weird when you talk about a mythology for things that clearly don’t exist, but I think a lot of the stuff in the past has got too gothic. For example, our vampires don’t have the fangs, and that side of things. They were very adamant about not doing that. Which I think has been quite clever.
TP: They wanted us to blend in. They wanted it to be as though, you could be in your local cafe and look round, and you really would have no idea who the other creatures are. Which is quite interesting…
MG: That’s probably why it’s set in England, because there’s a lot of pale people here. And particularly in Wales!
Matthew, did you draw from any classic vampire performances?
Matthew Goode filming A Discovery of Witches (Sky)
MG: Oh Nosferatu, for sure. Um, no actually. I actually don’t like horror that much, if I’m honest. You probably do.
TP: I do.
MG: She’s obsessed with murders, this one.
TP: Write that down. Write that down!
MG: I think it’s lazy to watch something and base your performance on that.
TP: ‘I’m going to do that.’ And Diana spends most of her time not going to embrace herself as a witch until sort of, the end of the series. So for me it was like, ‘How do I make her a layered, grounded human being?’ and then figure out the other stuff.
MG: I mean there are moments where I have to hunt a stag, which is weirdly thrilling. In the Brecon Beacons. But a lot of the stuff they’re going through is actually very human.
Actually, when I did think about my inspiration for playing a vampire, a bit like Matthew de Clairmont, I thought…Roger Federer. He looks like a vampire in a weird way.
I’m supposed to be the most formidable assassin of all time, certainly from the vampire world. And I thought he was quite a good person to base the performance on, physically. Because he’s an assassin on the court!
Teresa, what’s it been like moving to the UK for filming?
Alex Kingston, Teresa Palmer and Valarie Pettiford in A Discovery of Witches (Sky One, HF)
MG: And her having to be the mother of two very young children at the same time? Literally, the breastfeeding – it’s like ‘Oh my God!’ it’s hanging there.
TP: Yeah poor old Matthew, it’s just out. It’s like much more conservative with breastfeeding around here. In LA, everyone breastfeeds publicly. Here, I whip it out and Matthew runs away! He just runs into another room. It’s like ‘Oh God, it’s out again!’
MG: It wasn’t important, I’ll talk to you later, bye!
TP: It’s been quite seamless, to be honest. We moved the whole family out here. I got a school for my son locally, and found my favourite vegan restaurants, and just sort of got into life in Cardiff.
And it’s been quite lovely, to be honest. I’ve made a few friends, and the crews are wonderful. It’s quite comparable, I would say more to Australian filmmaking. Just the crews remind me of Ozzie crews a bit more.
There are a lot of vampire romance stories – what sets this one apart?
TP: Something that was so enticing about this is that Diana, without even knowing it, is the most powerful witch that’s ever existed. They don’t even really understand the depths of her power.
And I’m really excited about that. I think there’s a great movement towards showing strong female characters on TV and in films these days, and it was just really nice to know I was coming in and getting to play someone who has a lot to say, and she’s strong as the guys, stronger even.
MG: Centre of the story, really.
TP: Yeah! And I love that she can be all things. She can be vulnerable, and she can be the divine feminine, and she can also be really strong and have these insane powers. I really am gravitating towards characters like that, and I’m really excited that we’re in a climate where we can see more and more of those female characters come to life.
And finally, this series is based on the first book, and there are more books in the series – would you both be back for more?
MG: I think we are signed up.
TP: We are, we have!
MG: Jane Tranter would not be the producer she is if she hadn’t gotten that into the contract beforehand. The second book will suddenly become a massive period drama, because it goes back to Elizabethan times. And we start to learn a hell of a lot more about my character, and there’s a lot of tragedy for us two should we got there.
We’ll be there for season two if this finds itself an audience, I guess!