Spoilers ahead for Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
The fact that Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a dark show is well evidenced by the actions of Zelda Spellman, aunt and de facto parent to Sabrina. Played with a backbone of steel by Miranda Otto, this Zelda is an intense and unforgiving witch who devoutly follows the Church of Night, wears immaculate outfits, and occasionally murders her sister Hilda (before bringing her back to life, of course). With the first season of Chilling Adventures streaming on Netflix and the second already in production in Vancouver, Vulture caught up with the Australian actress to learn how her performance references classic Hollywood, the ways her character resembles a dad from an old sitcom, and why she thinks Zelda is a big fan of ice hockey.
Zelda is introduced as this devout follower of the Church of Night, but by the end of the season she’s lying to Father Blackwood. How much did you know of the arc of the character?
When we started, I didn’t know. I had one idea of where I thought Zelda was going, and then that didn’t happen, but that may happen at a later point. It took turns that I wasn’t expecting. As the season went on, it became more about her own problems, her own failings, and her struggle to keep control over her life and her family’s life. That is very much Zelda’s story, to try to control situations and regain the lost position of the Spellman family.
As much as she berates Sabrina for her independent thinking and her rebelliousness, she likes that Sabrina is plucky and strong. In some ways, I think Zelda’s a little influenced by that, and I think at the end of the season Zelda has a rebellious part. She has her own thoughts about what goes on in the Church of Night, and how she would really like it to be.
That also comes out in her affair with Father Blackwood. She’s been very tactical and playing the game, even if she has hidden emotions.
Zelda’s kind of a politician in that way. She’s maybe seeking to change the system from within, but she doesn’t want to change the system from without. She sees her journey as within the church.
How did you develop Zelda’s relationship with Hilda? That dream episode reveals how much they depend on each other, even if they torture each other.
The first word that came to mind was that they were codependent. They’re lost without each other — as much as it may be that Hilda is saying, “Will I ever be free of Zelda?” I don’t think she really wants to be free of Zelda. They are like a married couple, like an odd couple.
They’ve formed this unusual family with Ambrose and Sabrina — two aunts, a niece, and a cousin. It’s a little like that John Donne analogy of the compass. One person stays strong, is the center, and the other roams. Zelda, needs Hilda’s influence, and vice versa. Hilda feels safe to be a little rebellious and do her own thing, because she knows that there’s somebody in the family who will be the strict one. She can be warm and cozy with Sabrina, because she knows that Zelda’s gonna be the one who’s gonna kick her butt about stuff. Hilda’s a people person. Zelda’s not a people person.
Zelda has a very specific posture, physicality, and accent. How did you figure it out?
It was important that she was strong. I thought if they were a typical nuclear family, she would be more of the father-type figure, slightly more removed, more strict. She has a lot more male characteristics. She’s not super-soft and she’s not super-nurturing. Sitting behind the newspaper at breakfast, like images of the dads from the 1950s or something.
She’s very concerned with appearances — her own appearance and Sabrina’s appearance and the family’s appearance — so it was important to me that she sees herself as having a certain status within the community, even though that’s being lost. She sees herself as better than some other witches. Those things were important in her preciseness and her delivery and her stature. Zelda’s one of those people where even if she’s wrong, she’s gonna pretty much stick with her path.
Other cast members and the show’s writers have talked about influences from paganism and Wicca on the show. Did you do any research into witchcraft to play the role?
Look, little bits have come up along the way through the scripts and researching certain ideas that they’ve put forward. But no, I haven’t done a serious research into witchcraft to play the role.
The show has all sorts of references to classic horror and noir. Did you want to reference any characters with Zelda? She has a bit of a Gloria Swanson aspect at moments.
There’s a Gloria Swanson reference. There’s a Joan Crawford-y, Bette Davis thing going on. I saw her like the film noir–type women — strong, a little mysterious, dark, and very definite. Those women from the ’30s and ’40s and early stars from that time. I think Zelda might be a big Joan Crawford fan. She loves movies. That and football. She’s a big ice hockey fan, too.
Why ice hockey?
Because it’s very violent.
It’s hard to tell where Greendale might be, but it feels like somewhere in the northeastern U.S., where they would play ice hockey.
With the references to coal mining and those things, I’m thinking up in the east and inwards a little.
What was it like working with Kiernan Shipka? Sabrina has to push Zelda to question a lot of what she takes for granted.
We’d worked together before in a film [The Silence] last year, so when I went into meet with Roberto [Aguirre-Sacasa, who created Chilling Adventures] and he said that Kiernan was paying Sabrina, I just thought it was perfect casting. She’s a terrific actor. She’s really quite amazingly well prepared and incredibly professional. But not only all that, she brings this fierce intelligence to the role, which I think is really important. Sabrina is very, very bright, and Kiernan is very, very bright. It’s been really fun watching her throughout the series, but I think one’s always a little humbled by someone who’s only 18, who’s just such a consummate professional. Lee [Toland Krieger], who is our first director, he nicknamed her “the Machine.” She’s always there. She always knows every line. She’s totally in every scene, knows exactly what she wants to do. Takes every direction brilliantly. Yeah, she’s the Machine.
Were you familiar with Riverdale when you met with Roberto?
I wasn’t hugely familiar with Riverdale. I’d heard of it. I’d seen the posters. Then when I went to meet with Roberto, I watched the first two episodes to get more of an idea of the show. I thought it was super-stylish and beautiful and mysterious and interesting. I thought that boded very well for this show. Then Roberto showed me some of the designs that [production designer] Lisa Soper and [costume designer] Angus Strathie had worked on, the house and everything that they were building. That really made everything very clear for me. Like, those things are a real trigger for me in terms of understanding the world that we’re in.
The Spellman house is so detailed. What’s it like to act in that set?
I love all the sets. I particularly love our house because there’s just this amazing amount of detail in everything. In that way, it reminded me a little bit of Lord of the Rings, when you walked on that set. The detail in all of the props, in every piece that was on the wall. Everything has a history and a purpose, and there’s nothing generic in there at all. It’s a real treat to come onto the set and have a look.
Between this show, 24, and Homeland, and even back to Eowyn in LOTR, you’ve played women who are often very in control. Is there something that attracts you to that kind of part?
I think I’m just attracted to playing characters that are strongly written on the page, that the writers have put time into being really specific about the way that they speak and their actions. I don’t enjoy so much playing myself. I much more enjoy trying to dive into a character. The more specific it is in the writing, the more fun it is for me. I suppose that’s what I’m attracted to — characters with strong actions, strong motivations, strong intentions, and then very specific characterization.
Judging from Kiernan Shipka’s Instagram, the cast has bonded closely. What has it been like to work together on the second season?
We don’t know a lot of people up here, so we have each other, which is a bonding thing when you’re working together as a group. As far as coming back for the second season, we had a week off between the first and the second season. So it was like we never left, really. We madly rushed to finish the first one, and a week later we were back.
Why do you think Aunt Zelda’s lied about Father Blackwood’s baby dying and stole her away at the end of the first season?
It’s this gut instinct in the moment, and it’s not usually the way that Zelda rolls. She’s usually head-driven, thinks through what is the best move. But in that moment, she believes that a female child of Father Blackwood will not have a safe journey. She instinctively makes the rash, impulsive decision, which is not like her, that she needs to protect this child. She is someone who wants to protect people. Since her brother died, she feels that she has to be the one who protects everybody. She takes on that role for the family.
This interview has been edited and condensed.