Kiernan Shipka has been acting professionally since she was six years old. She never went to regular high school, and counted Jon Hamm and January Jones [her on-screen parents in US period-prestige drama Mad Men] as friends when she was in her early teens. She is far from an ordinary teenager, so taking on the role of a far-from-ordinary teenager in Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina came naturally to her.
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“I feel like I’ve always had sort of slightly witch-y practises in my life,” she says, clutching a mug of coffee in an on-brand gothic drawing room in Barcelona next to her co-star, Ross Lynch (who plays her boyfriend, Harvey Kinkle), “but Sabrina has definitely made me go out and buy the crystals and see the mediums. I mean, she’s a 16-year-old girl, and I’ve been there, so I can relate to her. I think I have maybe enough perspective on that year of my life now, but close enough to it.”
She should; it was only two years ago. Now 18, Shipka was still 3 years away from being born when Sabrina the Teenage Witch, a family-oriented sitcom loosely based on the Archie Comics series, debuted on TV in September 1996.
She has never watched the Melissa Joan Hart-fronted comedy – though she has since chatted briefly with its star on social media – and thus didn’t have the reference point when she got the call from Riverdale boss Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who was developing his own take on the Sabrina story, adapting an Archie Horror comic book series he wrote in 2014 for TV. It didn’t matter much, as what he was working on was a different beast altogether.
“The show is not a reboot of the old one,” Shipka says, hammering the point home. Fans of the old show may be surprised to see Sabrina embroiled in much darker matters like exorcism, ritual sacrifice and cannibalism this time around. “I don’t think that comparisons are even necessary. The only similarities are the archetypes of the characters and then beyond that we’re sort of in our own little world – literally.”
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is cut straight from the pages of Aguirre-Sacasa’s comic, from the moody aesthetic and the dark coming-of-age story at its core – it begins on the eve of half-witch Sabrina’s 16th birthday, which coincides with her dark baptism, a ritual that will induct her into the witching world and the church of the Dark Lord – down to a scene in its opening episode which sees her dance around the Spellman estate to Be My Baby by The Ronettes.
Most notably, and relevantly, given the state of gender relations in 2018, the new series, and it’s protagonist, are outrightly feminist. In the opening episodes, she mounts a fight for her independence in a patriarchal society, and it is likely to extend into season 2 and beyond.
“She fights for what she believes in, she’s finding her power and she’s finding herself,” Shipka says. “I think having a positive influence like Sabrina is going to be really valuable. And I think the show is right in line with the Me Too movement. Sabrina questions what she thinks isn’t right, and she doesn’t do things that don’t feel intuitively right to her.”
The character fits the young star like a glove, or, at least, she makes it look so natural that it comes across that way.
On top of the characters that fans of the original Sabrina series will know, like her aunts Hilda and Zelda, played here by The Office alum Lucy Davis and Miranda Otto and Salem the cat (though this one doesn’t speak), CAOS introduces us to Ambrose Spellman, Sabrina’s housebound cousin, who is played by up-and-coming Brit Chance Perdomo (last seen in BBC3’s Killed By My Debt).
And then, of course, there’s Harvey Kinkle – Sabrina’s mortal boyfriend, as immortalised by Lynch, a fellow-child star with quite a different come-up, via Disney Channel sitcom Austin & Ally.
Lynch’s Harvey is earnest, boyishly charming and deeply devoted to the young witch (though he doesn’t know about her powers). He is the main reason why she doesn’t want to let go of her mortal life – and the love they share may well be the thing that saves her from riding off into the sunset with the devil.
At 22, he is 4 years Shipka’s senior, but the two have a fine chemistry that likely stems from their shared upbringing.
”I think that there’s sort of a mutual understanding of having this completely abnormal childhood” Shipka says. “But they were both abnormal in different ways.”
Lynch adds, in jest: “it really just makes us both weirdos.”
He hasn’t seen Sabrina the Teenage Witch either (it’s a generational thing), and he was a little too young for Mad Men, too – though he and his mum revisited the series once he found out he’d be playing sharing the screen with one of its stars.
“It was really interesting watching Kiernan as a little 6 year old,” he says, affectionately, “you feel like you’re watching home footage.”
Shipka still speaks very fondly of her time on the series, in which she played the whip-smart and fiery daughter of adulterous, booze-soaked ad man Don Draper, one of the great anti-heroes of the modern era. Towards the end of the show’s run (it aired on US network AMC for seven seasons between 2007-2015), she emerged as one of its finest talents; Sally’s relationship with her father the only truly meaningful one he had left as he circled the drain. She shone brightest when she got a chance to chastise him for passing the trauma of his childhood down to her and her siblings.
“It was a massive part of my life,” she says. “At one point I had been on the show longer than I hadn’t. It was the most wonderful experience in that I felt like I got to maintain – it’s funny to talk about a life-work balance as a seven year old, but you know… – I felt like I got to have this very fun quote-unquote normal childhood as well as do this extraordinary thing, because the circumstances were such that it filmed 10 minutes away from my house, and I wasn’t working 24/7, but when I was it was super enriching and I was always super excited. So, looking back, I don’t know what my life would be like without it.”
And it helped her prepare for life on camera.
“I think it taught me a lot about how sets work, how things worked, how people worked. It definitely primed me to this because I think that TV is definitely way different from shooting movies. It was a dream job.”
CAOS represents an entirely new challenge, as she takes on a starring role for the first time. Sabrina is a multi-faceted entity, who struggles more and more to straddle the line between good and evil as the show progresses. The young actress excels, as she did in Mad Men, when she gets a chance to explore Sabrina’s inner rage. It comes as no surprise to hear that she relishes it.
“I, like Sabrina, am a scorpio, so I think we both have a certain intensity about us that maybe doesn’t meet the eye,” she says. “And I really enjoy when she taps into her darker side because, we meet her and she has much more of a foot in the mortal world than she does in the witch world, and then throughout the season we kind of see her balancing it. But to see her really lean into this other very true part of herself, it’s really fun to play.”
But a revelation towards the end of our chat, that her TV icon is none other than Lisa Simpson, might be as good a hint as any of the trajectory the half-witch is on.
“She is such a smart little bad-ass,” she says. “And that’s something I completely admire. I think Sabrina and Lisa Simpson are more alike than meets the eye…”
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina launches on Netflix on Friday 26th October