For Kiernan Shipka’s Next Trick, She’ll Make Sabrina Disappear
Her childhood was spent on Mad Men and her adolescence as lead of Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina. Now, a new era of Kiernan Shipka is dawning.
"I’m 20, so now I’m feeling old," Kiernan Shipka says to a chorus of laughter during a press visit to the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Vancouver set in January. She knows what that sentence sounds like. She knows you’re probably rolling your eyes right now. She knows she’s not really old. But as she’s gone from being a 7-year-old alongside Jon Hamm and January Jones on Mad Men practically straight to leading the cast of cult Netflix drama Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina, she can’t help but feel like a lot of life has already passed her by.
"When I started [filming CAOS] I was 18, and I was like, I’m supposed to be a freshman in college trying to figure out what to do with my life, and instead I’m doing this — and there’s nothing I’d rather do," she quickly clarifies.
In the show’s third season, which was released on 24th January, Sabrina Spellman has gone from being a reluctant half-witch to embracing who she is in all of her devil-worshipping, hell-travelling glory. Shipka’s own increasing self-confidence on set mirrors her character’s story — minus, you know, the regular visits to hell.
"Watching Kiernan come up as she has done since that first season has been absolutely thrilling," CAOS co-star Michelle Gomez, who plays teacher Mary Wardwell, says during the visit. "And that girl is a phenomenal human being."
"Not only is she masterful at everything she takes on, she also really knows how to drive a scene, which is something not all people know how to do," Miranda Otto, who plays Sabrina’s Aunt Zelda, adds. "She keeps the energy of everything going. She really is a powerhouse."
While Kiernan’s official role is that of Sabrina, her two years on set have resulted in her wearing a number of hats. For instance, she’s also the person responsible for throwing parties and get-togethers for the tight-knit cast, who can often be seen out and about together on the streets of Vancouver.
"We have game nights," she tells Refinery29 on a later phone call from Vancouver. "We play running charades. And there's a karaoke place here."
But her third job, and arguably the most taxing one, is being CAOS’s unofficial social media correspondent. While Shipka explains that she, personally, is not a huge social media person (she has a 30-minute limit set on the apps), the show’s fandom operates almost entirely on Instagram — popular CAOS hashtags include #harbrina, #nabrina and, of course, #PraiseSatan. Shipka says she’s always striving to be "the best Sabrina" she can be, and the best Sabrina talks to her fans. At least once a day, Shipka posts content inspired by or intended to excite the fandom on her personal feed: a picture of her on set smiling and covered in blood, a video of her and the cast dancing, a steamy picture taken with suave brooder Gavin Leatherwood, who plays Sabrina’s love interest, Nick, on the show.
"You're killing me," a fan account commented on a recent post of the two onscreen love interests.
But there’s a whole other segment of Shipka’s Instagram, a segment that could be called "Kiernan Shipka And Her Cool Friends". B.J. Novak, Beanie Feldstein, Amandla Stenberg and Tavi Gevinson all make appearances, and like any good Gen Z’er, she tells me she has a finsta (a "fake Instagram" that’s kept private from the general public) for her more personal photos.
"I think LA is a really small place," she offers when asked how this friend group of widespread famous people — some of whom Shipka started out as a fan of herself — came together. For instance, there’s the singer Lorde, whom she calls by her given name of Ella. "I remember just being completely and utterly in awe of her and her creativity, and then she ended up being a total homie," Shipka says.
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Or YouTuber David Dobrik, whom she met after accidentally mispronouncing his name at the Kids' Choice Awards. It was a fortuitous gaffe because "they've been best friends ever since," his rep explained in an email.
A friendship that’s persisted over the years is with wavy-locked, glass-cutting-cheekboned, soft boy heartthrob Timothée Chalamet. The two met on the set of One & Two, a 2015 indie thriller in which they play siblings who discover their own supernatural abilities while trapped in a farmhouse with an abusive father. Shipka was 14 at the time, Chalamet 18, and for a month straight they were isolated in South Carolina together, resulting in a bond that made Chalamet "like family" to Shipka.
"It's like watching your brother do amazing things," she says of his subsequent success in films like Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird. "My mum drove him to his final audition for Beautiful Boy. He's such a part of the Shipka clan. He should hyphenate his last name, actually."
Two people who also appear a lot on her feed are Charlie Oldman and Christian Coppola, both relatives of famous Hollywood stars (actor Gary Oldman and director Francis Ford Coppola, respectively) and both frequently the subject of romantic speculation from fans. Some think one’s her friend and one’s her boyfriend; others think she’s dating both. Any photo of her with either of the men is riddled with comments about their possible romance.
"It's hard not to see some of [the romance rumours], especially when your grandma gets every single Google Alert ever and sends it to you," she says. "I don't necessarily engage with any kind of speculation. I'll look at it and laugh at it, but at the end of the day, it doesn't seep into my actual life."
In the end, she declines to clear up the guys’ roles in her life. "I keep my romantic life mysterious," she says. "It's more fun for the people."
Shipka and her parents moved from Chicago to LA after the then-6-year-old got a role on a brand-new TV series about ad executives in the 1960s. It started as a three-month trip for this thing called "pilot season" that the young Shipka had heard of through her acting in Chicago.
"I don't know exactly what they were thinking [listening to me]," Shipka says of that fateful visit that ended up landing her the role of Mad Men’s Sally Draper. "I think it was probably just some kind of amazing mother's intuition that worked out for the best."
"The best" is somewhat of an understatement. She played Sally for almost 10 years — twice winning the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series — and eased into features with movies like Dimension, Carriers and Very Good Girls.
Shipka doesn’t identify with the tropes of being a child star. She claims she had a normal life. Her Mad Men schedule only required her to come in a few days a week. One day she’d be on set with Emmy-winning actors and, the next, dealing with regular teenage stuff. She played tennis and did improv and had friends just like anyone else her age, although — "I did get my TV period before I got my real period," she recalls with a laugh.
Now, however, things are different.
While her post-Mad Men career allowed her to take more leading roles, including in The Blackcoat’s Daughter alongside Emma Roberts and Lucy Boynton and Feud: Bette and Joan, it wasn’t until early 2018 that she finally landed her next big break with Sabrina. This put her front and centre on not just any screen, but one in the same universe as an already cult-favourite CW-turned-Netflix series, Riverdale. Shipka rose to the challenge. She’s now leading the show into its fourth season. Her next challenge is figuring out what comes after.
Despite Shipka and Sabrina’s shared confidence, this season of Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina finds the witch at more of a crossroads than ever before, so much so that some time-travel logistics result in the existence of multiple Sabrina Spellmans who live in their own respective timelines. This means she no longer has to choose between her mortal and magical selves. If only Shipka had access to similar magic.
That way, she could remain in the role that proved she’s capable of being the leading lady while also exploring the "fresh perspective" that comes with the roles that will surely be offered to her next.
Recently, she did get an opportunity to step out of Sabrina’s enchanted shoes for a brief moment. The actress appeared in the Netflix holiday film Let It Snow as Angie, a totally normal teen who has absolutely no relation to the devil nor a broken ad executive having a series of midlife crises. Filming happened during a period Shipka had previously said was going to be a vacation, but the idea of inhabiting a different character for the first time in over a year was too enticing to pass up.
"I loved my workdays," she says. "It was really just an amazing time making friends and having fun and being silly and playing someone new."
But if she actually had taken a vacation, what would that day off look like?
"I'm very interested in what a day off would look like," she replied, adding that much-memed Mariah Carey quote, "I don't know her."
Because even if she did take a break from acting, it would be to spend some time exploring another one of her passions.
"I write music in my spare time, and I just don't know what I want to do with it yet," she confesses conspiratorially. "I listen to sad indie music and I think my own music reflects that in a lot of ways. But who knows, 'cause it's just me and my guitar. If I actually [could] go into a booth and then mix it and add in all sorts of stuff, I have no idea what it would sound like."
But with a heavy workload already, adding a music career on top of it all isn’t necessarily something Shipka is going to do, like, tomorrow. She’s back in Vancouver filming Part 4 of CAOS, and will be starring alongside Diane Kruger in the upcoming Quibi series remake of Swimming With Sharks.
For what it’s worth, on her day off she’d take a bath.