Though Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina lives up to its reputation of being a dark version of the classic teen witch story, the show does have a goofy beam of light in Sabrina’s bubbly Aunt Hilda. As played by British actress Lucy Davis, an alum of the original version of The Office and more recently, Wonder Woman, Hilda’s a benevolent if slightly incompetent figure in Sabrina’s life, a counterpoint to Miranda Otto’s domineering Aunt Zelda. Ahead of the Chilling Adventures premiere on Friday, Vulture caught up with Davis to discuss what it’s like to shoot in the spooky Spellman manor, her reaction to the most brutal aspects of Zelda and Hilda’s relationship, and what it’s like to be on the other side of a TV remake. (Mild spoilers follow for Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.)
How are you? Are you in the middle of shooting?
I’m about to be, yes. We worked late last night but then didn’t complete these three scenes in one go, so we’re going back in.
And is that for more Chilling Adventures?
That is, yes.
The Spellman house in the show is especially witchy, and it’s got such a cool, earthy décor. What’s it like to shoot there?
Exactly that, actually. I had a couple of guests come onto set and I show them [the embalming room] and every single one of them has said, “It’s really creepy in here,” and I’m like, “But you know it’s not an embalming room, right?” There’s an oven in there that we put people in, there’s the freezers for the dead bodies who are … just amazing. We have all these jars and cupboards that are pretty gross and are filled with things like vomit or earwax or dead things. It doesn’t smell good. We don’t know what’s in it!
What’s it like to have to provide a lot of the comedy on a show that’s otherwise pretty dark?
I was trying to think the other day if I’ve ever played a role completely where I’ve had to bring no humor. Possibly years ago, but I just don’t know how to do it another way because I feel like that’s life. I’m also somebody who, when things get rough, I see myself as a bit of a charmer. I really love the fact that we are also doing drama and serious things and horror. I like to be able to do the comedy with that. Sometimes if you do a multi-camera comedy, often there’s rules, like we’ve got to have three main laughs per page. There are multi-camera comedies that are among my favorite shows, but I’m not so great with that. I like doing a mix of the two if I can.
You get to do the good contrast with Miranda Otto, who is steely and so dark as Zelda. What’s it like to work with her?
Miranda and I have a ball. We do amuse ourselves on set. We’ll be in the car in the morning and we’re just roaring with laughter. We’ll find things in the moment where we can go, “Oh, good, that’s another nice Hilda/Zelda contrast.”
There’s the darkly funny bit when Zelda suddenly decides to kill Hilda, and then Hilda comes back.
Did you see where Hilda comes back and she says, “You’ve got to stop killing me”? I love the fact that it was almost a boredom thing [for Zelda]. “Stop it! Stop it!” But it’s a kind of domestic abuse relationship at this point. I get hit on the head. It’s possibly domestic abuse.
They’ve certainly gotten into a toxic relationship, much more so than in the original TV show.
Yes, yes. [In the fifth episode], I was fascinated by the fact that Hilda’s worst nightmare was never being free, and Zelda’s was losing Hilda. You might have guessed that, but I loved seeing that. I loved knowing that Zelda is so rough on Hilda, and yet her world is ruined without her.
Did you consult with people who actually practice witchcraft or Wicca?
Yes, and there are a couple of people, one of the writers and one of the crew, who I guess would identify themselves as witches. I wouldn’t say who, but I know I can say that. As much as it’s fun to say, “Ooh, magic!” this is also actually a real part of some people’s lives.
Did that at all change your perspective on the supernatural?
I mean, I don’t know that we can ever really, really know something until we reach the end of this physical life. I’ve definitely seen millions of things that technically, scientifically, I wouldn’t be able to explain. So I’m on the side of the supernatural, but I don’t know. I used to say something was beyond and I just don’t know that we can say things are. But definitely, encompassing this show, that world has been new to me.
You were in the original U.K. version of The Office, which was remade in America, and now you’re in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which is a darker remake of an earlier show. Was the experience of being in a remake on your mind as you did this show?
I feel like people do compare and sometimes it’s a bit unnecessary. You don’t have to compare one thing to the other thing. I personally love the U.S. Office. I know some of it by heart. It’s been a huge joy. I think the original Sabrina and our Sabrina are so wildly different that isn’t a comparison between them, but I totally get it. I can’t speak on behalf of the people who played the original role — they’ve just been pleasant and kind and I was really moved by the people who played my part in the original.
Did you revisit the original Sabrina as you prepared for this, or was it better to be focused on this specific thing?
I didn’t revisit it for the purposes of the role. Actually, I remember reading that Steve Carell hadn’t seen The Office when he auditioned, and he then made the choice not to see it. I think it’s why when you work with remaking the original, you have to work with bringing something new to it. But Kiernan [Shipka, who plays Sabrina] hadn’t watched it before, and neither had Miranda.
You’re shooting Sabrina in Vancouver near Riverdale. Have you gotten to meet the Riverdale cast?
Yeah, I remember at the first meeting we had for an episode of Sabrina, the younger members of the cast knew it a bit more. But I barely have a social life here. We work very long hours — 17 hours a day — and then coming to the weekend I’ll do laundry and I’ll feed my dogs and I’ll read. So that’s me on the weekend. But yeah, some of them knew each other quite well.
What is it like to work with the various cats who play Salem?
Oh my God, they are just beautiful. I love when they are there. They have a massive cage that’s got cat trees and chairs for people to sit in and keep them company, and they get all their little treats throughout the day. But you have to be careful because poor Kiernan is really allergic to cats in a bad way. If I were to go and hold a cat, I wouldn’t do that if I was working with Kiernan.