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Seth Gabel on the 'Salem' finale and the evolution of Cotton Mather

When we first met Cotton Mather, he was an uptight Puritan who spent his days preaching against witches, and spent his nights (and sometimes his days, too) in a brothel, enjoying the company of his prostitute girlfriend. As the first season of Salem draws to a close, the tortured Reverend Mather has turned into a bold, self-aware man of reason (albeit one with some serious daddy issues). Throughout the show’s 12 episodes so far, Cotton has gone up against his menacing father, caught a witch with his friend John Alden, and taken his clothes off and climbed a tree. I had the pleasure of talking to the actor who portrays Cotton, Seth Gabel (whom you may know from Fringe and Arrow), about Cotton’s journey and what it’s like behind the scenes of WGN America’s historical drama.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY COMMUNITY: I’m a huge fan of Fringe, and especially Lincoln Lee. Fringe had the same sort of shocking visuals and that sense of trying to push the audience, which is certainly something that Salem does well. Did Fringe help prepare you for that?

SETH GABEL: Definitely. What I loved about Fringe was that it had an overarching story that every week contributed to a bigger tale, but from time to time, you’d have your simple monster of the week. And interacting with the monster of the week, or sometimes being the monster of the week—you know, being a burned Agent Lee—I got to experience what it was like to go through horror effects and makeup and get used to the glue and the horror that goes with that process.

You had mentioned that you planned Cotton’s wardrobe throughout the season, and how you wanted it to reflect his evolution. Did you discuss that with the costume department?
It was something that initially came up intuitively, and then Joe, our costume designer—he’s incredible to talk to about the show and the evolution of each character, and he cares so much about what each piece of clothing, or even a pin or a button, says about your character. So you’re really able to go into depth with him about the arc of your character and the storyline for the season. And I just thought it would be fun to create some sort of progression.

As an actor you’re in charge of your character, and it was just really fun for me to realize, okay, the character’s arc this season is he’s going from devout Puritan to this naturalist transcendentalist thinker who’s also one of the first scientists employing the tactics of reason. So I was like, how can we represent that with the character? Once my father came to town, I realized [Increase] is becoming the man in black, wearing all the Puritan clothes, and he’s kind of a Darth Vader type. That means I’m free to become more like Luke. I kind of strategized with Joseph what was the best way to do that. How can we get him out of black? And he came up with the great idea of transition to gray, and then slowly add more texture to it, and then get it fully to brown. I feel like the writers picked up on that too. Adam Simon ended up writing the part of that episode where I go in the woods and take the boots off, and that just helps the character evolve in that way: to literally strip off the clothes of his former Puritan self and become this new creature, which is also embodied by the symbol of the butterfly coming out of the skull.

Image credit: WGN America

Image credit: WGN America

That was such a powerful episode. It’s been amazing to watch Cotton’s progression in only 12 episodes and to see how far he’s come in that short time.
He’s grown a lot. My wife, from the beginning of the season, was like, “Just remember that characters in TV shows don’t really change. I know you like to create arcs for your characters to grow and change … ” I was like, “You don’t understand. He’s a fast learner. He needs to change quickly.” And now she’s really into it. She really loves it.

What do you think has been the biggest factor in his transformation, if you had to pick one? His father, his friendship with John, losing Gloriana …
It’s all of it. If I had to pick one thing, it’s probably John Alden. I mean, John Alden for Cotton Mather is very much the way Alt Lincoln was for regular Lincoln in Fringe. Just meeting him was an example that there was a different way to be in life. For Cotton, it was a journey of discovering his own inner truth and who he really was and owning that … learning to not hide himself or repress any parts of himself to fit into this Puritan society. Gloriana gives him the strength to do that. Anne Hale gives him the strength to do that. His father takes away a lot of the strength to do that, but is also a catalyst for him to ultimately reject everything that he was formerly involved in.

I literally had that in my notes, comparing the relationships between Alt Lincoln and Cotton. 

I didn’t really realize that until now, talking about it, but it’s strange. As an actor you find yourself playing similar story arcs where your characters experience similar things and similar obstacles that cause them to grow and change. I wonder if each of us as actors and as people kind of carry this karmic destiny, and the reason you get a role is because the people casting it kind of feel like the energy that you are experiencing in your life is similar to the arc that the character is going to have.

Image credit: WGN America

Image credit: WGN America

I love the relationship between Cotton and John Alden. They’re such an odd couple, and yet they really do complement each other, and they’ve helped each other grow in so many ways. What do you think draws them together?
It’s interesting to me that we make a lot of references to the silver coin, that it represents the vow between Mary and John Alden, because I feel like Shane and I are opposite sides of the same coin. When they first meet it doesn’t seem like they have anything in common, but there is something that binds them together, which is represented by the coin itself. I think that as the series progresses, they realize, Oh, we’re on the same coin. They realize that they’re the yin to each other’s yang, and that it’s almost like a Cyrano de Bergerac, where one is the brain and one is the brawn. One is the bravery and one is the thinker, but sometimes overthinker. I just feel like each one’s strength balances the other’s weakness. They find that they have a similar view of the world, and that Cotton wishes he could be like John, and there are parts of John that wish he could be like Cotton, because we see that Alden doesn’t know how to read. Cotton’s very educated, but he’s not doing what he loves. John has always followed his passion, but he’s never really had the opportunity to rise above his lot in life. So I think they find, essentially, that they’re the same person but raised in very different circumstances.

One thing that’s sort of a recurring theme on Salem is contradictions. Cotton is a preacher who visits a brothel, and John is a war hero but he’s also a traitor. They talk a lot about good and evil and that kind of dichotomy. Was that something that drew you to the show initially?
Definitely. I hate things that don’t have depth. And this show, fortunately, does, and what I love about it is that nothing is black and white. Everything is shades of gray … I love that because I’m a believer in there being no absolute truth in life. Everything is relative, and it’s all based on perception and, kind of, the own ethics or morality that you choose for yourself. I feel like that is represented well on this show, as well as the argument that Increase makes about, you know, is it worth killing an innocent person to save a thousand other innocent people? There are really complicated dilemmas that are being faced on the show, and I think that we’re going to be facing very soon in this world that’s getting smaller and smaller.

Salem 1x06 Cotton and John bloodied

Image credit: WGN America

As a cast, I can’t imagine what it must feel like on set to be working on such a dark show. Do you guys find a way to keep it light sometimes and have fun with it?
We have fun with it all the time. When we’re in Shreveport shooting, and the show is airing, we go to this bar every Sunday night to watch it, and the whole time we’re watching, we’re laughing. Then we talk to other people that are watching the show from home and hear about how it’s really scary and hard to get through, and they couldn’t get to bed that night because they were so scared, and we realize, oh, this is scary for other people. But for us it’s really fun—I think because we know it’s pretend and we’re playing pretend, it’s much easier for us to suspend our disbelief and just enjoy things. But now that I’m not in Shreveport with everyone, I do see the show from a different light, where it’s like, oh, things are pretty dark and twisted and scary. The only days that would feel really disturbing were when someone was being hanged.

It must be so hard for you all to do that as often as you do, with all the hangings this season.
Yeah, so many people die in this show. I wonder if anyone has an accurate kill count. I’ve lost track.

If you had to describe the finale in one word, what would it be?
Let me think about that for a second … Explosive.

There you have it, folks. Get ready for an “explosive” finale on Sunday as Salem‘s first season wraps up. What are you guessing the body count will be? Will Cotton survive? Will he go up against his father in a Vader-esque battle of (sort of) good vs. (pretty much) evil? What are the odds my dream will come true and John and Cotton will run away together to start their own organic squash farm? Tune in Sunday night to WGN America at 10/9C to find out!