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Fiona Shaw as Marnie-slash-Antonia on True Blood.

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True Blood’s Fiona Shaw on Playing the Witch, Rehearsing With Vampires, and Conjuring the Dead in Real Life

Season four of True Blood is the season of the witch, i.e., the season of Fiona Shaw. In her role as the sorceress Marnie (who is possessed by the spirit Antonia), the actress is wreaking havoc among the vampires of Bon Temps: erasing Eric’s memory, melting Pam’s face, and generally bringing unwanted sunlight into their lives. It’s all great fun for Shaw, who didn’t get to do much in the way of magic as Aunt Petunia in the Harry Potter series. Now she even gets to levitate. Vulture phoned the actress in London and talked to her about spotting witches on the subway and trying to conjure the dead.

Were you a fan of the books or the show before you signed on for this?
Alan Ball discouraged me from reading the books, which I don’t regret; I don’t want to hanker for material I don’t have. But when I started reading the scripts, and the first lot of Latin came my way, I knew there were challenges ahead! [Laughs.] And when we had the first read-through, and suddenly seeing all these vampires in person, that was very stunning. I had to adjust and remind myself that they’re all just actors. Nan and Pam, they’re my favorites. Both vampires, both very sour.

Were you disappointed they didn’t offer you a vampire role?
I’m glad I’m not a vampire, but I never thought about it beyond that! And you know, I’ve never seen a vampire show before this one. Can you believe it? [Laughs.] So I was very excited to play a witch. It puts the vocabulary of witches back on the imaginative scale, and it gives you a new eye for them. I’ve been playing at casting them when I’m looking at people at bus stops, on the subway: Who’s a vampire, and who’s a witch? That’s one of the delightful things about the series. Everyone looks normal in Sam’s bar, and then you look again, and you find they have more gifts, and more drawbacks. True Blood celebrates the fact that we should never underestimate anyone.

Did you talk to any Wiccans or attend any coven meetings to prepare for the role?
I did, a lot. I actually spent weeks going to meetings and visiting witches. I liked the idea that with some covens, if it gets too big, the members can move on and form a new coven and be like bees, swarm elsewhere. Rituals can be self made. You can make up a ritual. I watched them conjure the dead, and it’s very moving. It’s all to do with their beliefs, and how they call upon a family member, and you see the comfort they give to people.

Did you participate in any of those rituals?
I’m too busy trying to contact the living to try to contact the dead! [Laughs.] I’m happy not to do that.

Even though Marnie is the villain of the season, she considers her actions justified.
Oh, they’re very justified! She’s just getting on, practicing her little religion, and in comes this big thug who says she can’t practice it. What happened to democracy?

Although, if you’re going to have a big thug come after you, who better than Alexander Skarsgard? Are you Team Eric?
I’ll take him any day! [Laughs.] He’s a very nice young man. How is Sookie supposed to choose between her two vampires? It’s fantastically complicated.

Antonia has increased Marnie's powers exponentially: She's levitating! What else are we going to see your character do?
Well, the question would be, is Antonia running Marnie, or is Marnie running Antonia?

Do you mean this isn’t all the work of Antonia Gavilán de Logroño?
What happens in True Blood is they put two ideas together, and a baby is born in the third idea. Antonia has a particular ax to grind, because of her own rape and murder [in the seventeenth century]. But Antonia’s the most unlikely person to make non-vampires do something against their will, or hold hostages; she seeks only the willing. She only entered Marnie because Marnie begged her to. But Marnie has a deep desire to make her mark on the world, because she’s been overlooked. When Antonia infused Marnie, it brought out Marnie’s latent powers. And being empowered has had a huge effect on her ego. Her entire deportment changes, because how you carry yourself is all about how you feel about yourself.

A lot of the women who were executed in Antonia’s time weren’t actually witches at all.
This show takes it to the extreme, but the history of witchcraft is absolutely the history of the scapegoat. It’s a forgotten bit of history, but millions of women were killed during the Inquisition, and it became a hysteria. The game of True Blood isn’t nonsense. Sometimes we call these powers by different names, but it is exciting to place our fears into shapes. It’s such an innocent idea to want to jump out of your skin and gallop along! The idea that you could behave temporarily as a horse, that’s fantastic. That’s the magic of television.

Photo: HBO