“In times like this we're often being told to shut our mouths and not have a voice,” Ashley Nicole Williams, star of Freeform’s witchy new drama Motherland: Fort Salem, said over the phone ahead of the series’ premiere on Wednesday, March 18. “Motherland is doing the opposite: we're screaming and singing, and you know our mouths are anything but shut.”
The “we” Williams is talking about is her own Motherland character, Abigail, and Abigail’s fellow witches/American soldiers. Take a look at the internet churn, and one thing is clear: Millennials are into all things witchy right now. Our friends are our covens; we’re looking to astrology for guidance and bingeing shows about people with powers — whether they like it or not. With Motherland: Fort Salem, Freeform is adding its own spin on the mystical.
Created and run by Claws boss Eliot Laurence, the show is set in the present day in an alternate version of the United States, where instead of burning witches during the Salem Witch Trials a few hundred years prior, the U.S. government made a deal with the supernatural beings. All future generations of witches would fight on behalf of their country. The series premiere, “Say the Words,” centers on three witches in particular — Williams’ Abigail Bellweather, Raelle Collar (Taylor Hickson), and Tally Craven (Jessica Sutton) — who must band together as a unit to fight the evil witch terrorists, called Spree, who threaten the world with horrifying acts of terrorism.
The Salem Witch Trials are arguably one of early Americans’ worst and most shameful offenses towards women. In late 17th century Massachusetts, women who were deemed too influential were slaughtered. Motherland’s premise, that instead of silencing these women, the country instead put all its faith behind them — literally entrusting them with America’s national security — is powerful. The series is all the more striking when you realize you can go nearly a full episode without seeing a single man on screen.
“It's a perfect time to just underscore that women are a freaking force of nature, man,” Ashley Nicole Williams, who plays the confident, high-class Abigail, added with a wink. “I love that it's woman-led. We're breaking social standards and stereotypes, and the gender roles are reversed. Eliot has created this amazing world, and we can be in charge of it.”
“Women are powerful advocates for our voices to be heard, and to just feel empowered in your own skin.”
Ashley Nicole Williams
While the characters in Motherland are often met with challenges reserved for the magical, most of the time they struggle with issues that young women actually face today: pressures to succeed and please your family, issues with authority, complicated romantic relationships, and feeling competitive among your peers when you really need to band together. Williams sees a lot of herself in “perfectionist” Abigail (maybe not so much the arrogant, “queen bee” traits), which initially drew her to the script. “Abigail wants to make her mom and her family proud, and that is also a very big thing for me,” Williams explained. ”Going through Abigail's character arc, I found a way to deal with the pressure as well that I have put on myself and that Abigail puts on herself.”
The witchier parts of her character, though, are new territory. “I didn’t know much going into it. My castmate Taylor knows a lot about Wicca. I was taught [growing up] that there's a negative connotation about the pentagram, but [in reality] it actually means peace,” Williams — who grew up watching supernatural shows like Sabrina, the Teenage Witch and Charmed — continued. “It was cool to reimagine the witch without the broom and a cauldron.”
While both men and women can be witches in the world of Fort Salem, it’s the women who are born with stronger powers and get conscripted to fight. The men make the weapons, take care of the children, and offer support to their partners and spouses as they defend their country. The academy in which our heroines go about their basic training is run entirely by women, including General Sarah Alder (Lyne Renee), the highest-ranking officer in the Armed Forces who cut the deal with the U.S. government 300 years prior. Yes, Alder has been alive for centuries, and magic has everything to do with it.
According to Williams, the strength of Motherland doesn’t just come from the diversity in front of the camera, but behind it as well. Out of the 10 directors who cycled into Motherland season 1, only two were male. “[Eliot] wanted to bring in female directors, which I think makes all the difference in the world,” Williams said. “During filming, we’d just talk about how it’s important to see diversity everywhere — whether it's in the hair and makeup department or set decoration.”
This is Williams’ first major role — before Motherland, she had only done a few indie films here and there. Having a sense of comfort on set, thanks in major part to a solid female support system around her, made all the difference. “One of our lead producers is a woman, and she made it a point to let us know that we can come to her for anything,” Williams recalled. ”We had everyone's phone numbers. It's just great that, yes, the crew and the cast were connected, but even in the office to have that sense of support from a big boss was very reassuring.”
This encouragement to speak up seems to be Motherland’s ethos. In the show, the witches’ voices are literally the source of their power. They make sounds at different frequencies to cast spells, but are at their most powerful when singing in harmony together.
“In a time like this where things can often feel bleak,” Williams summarized, “it's showing that women are powerful and advocates for our voices to be heard, and to just feel empowered in your own skin.”