You may know him from The CW’s Nikita, which just wrapped its final season at the end of 2013, or you may know him from ER, where he played a lovesick doctor. Maybe you remember his stroll with Mandy Moore in the 2002 tearjerker A Walk to Remember. Or perhaps you even know him as the high school swimmer who turned into a fish monster in the second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. However you may have known Shane West in the past, you’ve never seen him like this.
In Salem, West plays the gruff war hero John Alden, who returns home to find his town being torn apart by witches and the paranoid Puritans who hunt them. We talked to West about John Alden’s inner demons, the benefits of being on a cable show, and what it takes to make a finale that fans will remember.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY COMMUNITY: Episode 12 ends on kind of a cliffhanger. John has just found out that Mary is a witch. Can you walk us through what’s going on in his head with this realization?
SHANE WEST: I wanted to show the audience what most people might think if they were thrown in this situation, where what they didn’t think was true turned out to be a reality. It’s quite an interesting scene to open up the finale, because we start it the way that it ended with the second-to-last episode. I think it’s kind of a collection of emotions all at once. It’s anger, it’s distrust, it’s feeling betrayed, but at the same time knowing that he still loves this woman, and he’s put her through a lot, so it’s kind of a gamut of emotions.
John and Mary have both changed so much since John left Salem those years ago. They’re both completely different people. Is there any hope for them to start over? Or has too much damage been done at this point?
I like to think that there’s still hope … A lot of what you’ve just asked is answered in this first scene. It’s almost a put-up-or-shut-up kind of scene where we challenge each other for a possible—without giving too much away—for a possible future. Then the episode plays out from there and the audience will find out if that will be happening sooner rather than later.
Salem does a great job of maintaining that balance of giving enough story that the audience feels like there’s constant action, but at the same time making them wait for things long enough that it really pays off.
Thank you. That’s something I’ve learned over my career, and especially my career in television, of what can help things out is, if you can sustain relationships for a longer period of time, it’s just more satisfying … It’s something you have to fight hard for because not every studio and not every network or producer wants that. Sometimes they want immediate reactions, and sometimes so does the audience. But I think it’s important to stretch things out for longevity.
I think that we’ve been very fortunate going into this. What we really wanted to create was a show that could have the performance and writing caliber of potentially getting nominated for something someday, while at the same time catering to the horror aspect of the show as well. And that’s not always the case for other television shows, so we feel like we can hopefully stand out in both categories.
That goes along with one of the themes of Salem, where it’s not necessarily one specific thing, and that’s an idea that you guys touch on a lot. No one is good or evil; nothing is black or white, especially with the characters. Is that something that was important to you when you read the script?
Absolutely. We knew going in that John Alden was going to come off more like a somewhat perfect hero in the beginning. I didn’t know necessarily what happened in his backstory right away, but I was told it was going to be somewhat sketchy, and I knew by episode 4 or 5 you were going to find out that John wasn’t so perfect either. What I love about [the show], as these 13 episodes have evolved, is being able to see all those layers for all those characters, and to see the positive and the negative. We’ve even seen Cotton Mather be such a dislikable character in the beginning to truly coming into his own and becoming somewhat of a respectable man by the end of this season, which is truly not the way he started. I find that fun. I find that unique. I know that it’s something that attracted us all to this show. For me, I truly loved being a part of this show, especially in the beginning, of just being the reactor. In the beginning, Alden just kind of reacted to all the lunatics in town and to all the characters that you, the viewer, got to meet in the first few episodes. Then he was able to kind of grow from there and kind of show his backstory, and show why he’s so gruff and why he’s so rough around the edges … why he hides a lot and keeps it all bottled inside.
You touched on the relationship between John and Cotton Mather, which is one of the most compelling parts of the show. What do you think drew those characters together initially, despite the fact that they have very little in common?
You know, opposites attract, I guess you could say. But I think they were united under once common goal, and that was to—at least in the beginning—was to catch a witch. And then when it went further from there, it was to stop the Grand Rite and to save their town. Then, over time, when they go through the ordeals that they went through together, you can’t help but have a natural bond. And I know that the writers really wanted to see where Cotton and John could go. They had ideas on the page, and I think that the writers and WGN were pleasantly surprised that Seth and I had a natural chemistry and that it’s just so much fun to do scenes with him, to be polar opposite and to get zingers in on the both of us, dialogue-wise, you know—it’s a lot of fun going to work with him.
Despite being somewhat of a misanthrope when he first comes back to Salem, John really does care about the people of the town, and that’s one of the reasons he’s so determined to save them. It must have been such a disappointment for him when the town was so ready to turn against him and believe him to be a witch. Is that kind of what wears John down the most? The straw that breaks the camel’s back, so to speak?
Absolutely. I wanted to play these last few episodes against an actor’s natural instinct. I didn’t want to have John be abrasive as usual, and kicking down doors, and looking confused, and trying to understand why he’s been screwed over. He’s been screwed over since he’s come back, so what I wanted to do really is to make him resigned to the fact that it’s over. That, you know what? I’m tired. John’s tired; he can’t battle anymore. He’s lost the love of his life. Now he’s lost the faith of his town. He’s lost the faith of a new friend that he just made, Cotton Mather. Isaac is nowhere to be found … And the fact that he fought against his own militia has always eaten him up inside as well. That’s a lot for any person to take. I think he’s not given up in any pathetic sense of the word, but it’s more of just, he’s resigned, he’s tired and he’s ready to move on to whatever the afterlife might bring him. And that’s where his head space is right now. And what I like about that is that it makes it truly more tragic, and I think it makes the last scene in the second-to-last episode a little more powerful with him and Mary before they kiss in the jail cell, before he wakes up all of a sudden in the middle of the woods.
Without giving anything away, if you had to describe the finale in one word, what would it be?
I’d have to say either “epic” or “chaos.” [Creators] Brannon [Braga] and Adam [Simon] wrote these last two [episodes] together, and they came up, and I remember it was Brannon, specifically, said, “Do you think we have too much going on in the finale?” And I had to tell them, “You know what? No.” For many reasons. One: It’s on cable, and if we truly come back to second-season shooting and second-season airing, and it’s truly six to eight months away … it’s a long time for fans to wait anyway, so we might as well give them as much as we can. Two: It’s harder now in 2014. You gotta have a big finale … You know, some things were pulled by the time we shot it, but most everything was filmed like it was on the page, storyline-wise … It’s pretty crazy. I’d like to say that it’s kind of open-ended. Without giving too much away, it seems like it’s open-ended for absolutely every character on the show. And I think that’s a great way to build off a hiatus.
Well, heathens? Are you ready for one last romp through the corpse-ridden woods? One more witchy ritual involving oil and scented candles? A final scowl from our tortured hero as he tries futilely to save his town from itself? We’ve got all that and more to look forward to in the season finale of Salem. Tune in to find out what chaos is in store Sunday at 10/9C on WGN America.