Exclusive: Alex Kingston Talks A Discovery of Witches & Doctor Who

***The following interview contains spoilers for 3.01***

Alex KingstonSaturday, an all-new episode of the series A Discovery of Witches premieres in the US. In the third season of the series, which is based on the third book in the All Souls trilogy by Deborah Harkness, Diana (Teresa Palmer) and Matthew (Matthew Goode) return from time walking in Elizabethan England to continue their quest for the Book of Life.

Alex Kingston, who plays the role of Sarah Bishop, Diana’s aunt, didn’t know anything about the novels before taking on the role and was a little bit skeptical at first, but once she started reading, she was intrigued. “I thought it was a very good kind of parallel to the lives and the world that we find ourselves in as humans,” said Kingston during an exclusive interview with Jamie Ruby of SciFi Vision, “which is sort of the disparity between ethnicities, the lack of inclusion, the fear in some cases of what people might consider different cultures, and that was all represented within the creature world as well. So, I thought that that was actually an interesting take to follow.”

One of the things the actress really enjoyed about the role of Sarah was that she could just let it all go. “She's sort of in sloppy clothes,” the actress explained, “…It was kind of fab. I didn't have to care about looking ‘just so’ like so many characters for women, you know, executives or whatever; their hair has to be straightened, and they have to look super ‘on.’ I didn't need to for Sarah, so that was actually fabulous.”

Alex KingstonKingston also revealed during the interview what she found difficult while filming. The first season, it was the weather and cold, but in the third season, it was difficult for her to hold it together after the death of her character’s wife, Em (Valarie Pettiford). “We didn't know; we thought that [Em] was actually still alive. We didn't know until a few days before we were due to start filming that a decision had been made to stick to the storyline in the novels and that she was killed. So, it was sort of a great shock just before filming. I tried to hold it together, and actually, further on in shooting, there was one particular scene that we were involved in, and I just lost it…and I couldn't kind of gather myself back together again.”

The actress also discussed another scene from season three, which was Diana’s birthing scene. She really admired the way Palmer wanted it to be portrayed. “She wanted to show women that you can own your own birth; you own it and how you want to have it…whatever it is you want to do, own it, and she did. So, she really worked hard with the writers to do something that I think is very different. I mean, I cannot really remember seeing a birth scene on television that is as sort of elemental and within the context of the show is just as raw and true as she portrayed. It was really amazing.”

The book series had become quite popular, even before the series aired, and although Kingston was surprised they didn’t cast an American in the role, she didn’t feel pressured. She quipped that she probably has the “gravitas and the the feisty energy” of Sarah. “I think I sort of can kind of source that quite easily,” said the actress.

Speaking of feisty, another character, and the one that Kingston is perhaps best known for playing, is River Song on the internationally popular series, Doctor Who. River had quite a complicated backstory which remained a mystery for a long time, as the day she died was the first time they met from the Doctor (David Tennant et al.)’s perspective. The actress, however, was not given information ahead of time. “In fact, Steven [Moffat], I think, because he plays around with time so much, he would throw threads of a storyline out that would not necessarily connect for three seasons...[Y]ou’d just trust that whatever he wrote, he knew what he meant, and there was some sort of resolution at some point.” Kingston did admit, however, that the one thing she was told in advance, was River’s identity, about six weeks prior to filming.

For more of the interview, including what Kingston kept from A Discovery of Witches, what she is looking forward to fans seeing this season, and more, read the full transcript below. Be sure to also check out our exclusive with Teresa Palmer and our upcoming interview with Steven Cree.


SCIFI VISION:  When you first got the role, how familiar were you with the books, if at all?


Alex KingstonALEX KINGSTON:   
I knew nothing about Deborah Harkness’ novels. I didn't know about the world. I had absolutely no idea. I mean, to be perfectly honest, that genre isn't a genre that I read. So, I was a little skeptical, because I did think initially, “Is this genre not tired?” You know, we've had a lot of sort of vampire series, and they all have their merit, but I just thought, “Really? Another?” But Jane Tranter was very good at twisting my arm, and, actually, when I started to read the first novel and read the scripts, I realized that there was an element to this sort of world and this storyline that I found quite intriguing. And I thought it was a very good kind of parallel to the lives and the world that we find ourselves in as humans, which is sort of the disparity between ethnicities, the lack of inclusion, the fear in some cases of what people might consider different cultures, and that was all represented within the creature world as well. So, I thought that that was actually an interesting take to follow.

After you did find out how big it was, though, did you feel any pressure to make sure you got it right?

I didn't feel pressure. I mean, I suppose, because Sarah Bishop is American to begin with, I sort of thought, “Oh, they're probably cast an American,” and Valarie, who plays Em, obviously is American, but I hope that I did a good enough job, and I certainly have had fans come up to me and just say, “We were so thrilled when we heard you were cast as Sarah Bishop.” I mean, I think I have probably the kind of the gravitas and the the feisty energy that she has. I think I sort of can kind of source that quite easily. [laughs]

Are you somebody that when you're working with an accent, you kind of stay there all day, or do you have an easy time going in and out?

Actually, for this, I stayed all day, and in a kind of way, it was easy, because Valarie and I got on so well. I mean, we really bonded, and it just kind of seemed perfectly natural to speak in the same accent as she had. So, it worked. That actually worked quite well for me. Not that I stayed necessarily in character, but certainly I just kept on speaking in an American accent, yeah.

You talk about how she's feisty and all that and connecting to that, but was there any part of her though that you had a hard time kind of getting into the headspace of?

I have to say, I actually really enjoyed playing Sarah, because it was kind of one of the few roles where you could just let it all go. You know, she's sort of in sloppy clothes, and she's got her sort of big work apron, and I didn't wear a bra. I wore socks with my Birkenstocks. [laughs] It was kind of fab. I didn't have to care about looking “just so” like so many characters for women, you know, executives or whatever; their hair has to be straightened, and they have to look super “on,” and I didn't need to for Sarah, so that was actually fabulous. [laughed] And Em loved me all the same.

Was there a part though, that you did find difficult, not necessarily getting into character, but just in general, acting-wise?

Alex KingstonI think, and this was actually in the first season, [but] was the weather conditions, because we were filming in Wales, and in the first season, we were mostly out doors on our porch, and it was absolutely freezing, snowing, raining. So, that was hard.

In the third, in this final season, I would say the thing that was extremely difficult for me was holding it together. And I don't want to reveal any spoilers, but I mean, what happened, it’s the first thing that comes up in Episode One. The death of Em, that was really tough for me, because we didn't know; we thought that [Em] was actually still alive. We didn't know until a few days before we were due to start filming that a decision had been made to stick to the storyline in the novels and that she was killed. So, it was sort of a great shock just before filming. I tried to hold it together, and actually, further on in shooting, there was one particular scene that we were involved in, and I just lost it. I mean, I really lost it, and I couldn't kind of gather myself back together again. AIt was almost - I mean, I was embarrassed. I couldn't say my words. I was sobbing, heaving sobbing at the loss of Em and also, in a way, the loss of Valarie, because we had become so close, and I wanted her there with me, and she wasn't. So, yeah, that was the toughest for me.

Now, when I talked to Teresa, she was telling me that you were involved in the birthing scene. Can you talk a little bit about that?

I really admire Teresa just for what she sort of envisaged in terms of the birth and how she wanted the birth to be portrayed, because very often, if you see birthing scenes on television, it's usually, you know, the mother to be is on the bed with her legs spread or she's in the hospital with her legs in stirrups or whatever, and Teresa was like, “Absolutely not.” I mean, she's an Earth Mother, and she absolutely knows how to birth a baby, [laughs] because she's done it so many times. She wanted to show women that you can own your own birth; you own it and how you want to have it, whether you want to have a water birth, in the bath, whether you want to straddle a medicine ball, you know, whatever it is you want to do, own it. And she did. So, she really worked hard with the writers to do something that I think is very different. I mean, I cannot really remember seeing a birth scene on television that is as sort of elemental and within the context of the show is just raw and true as she portrayed.

It was really amazing, and we were so lucky. Given that it was the pandemic, we were incredibly lucky to have these, I would say, very brave mothers, allow us to actually use their babies who'd only just been born. Having been a mother, I know you don't want to tear yourself away from your baby at any moment when they’re so vulnerable, but these two women were extraordinary and just were there and trusted Teresa, and the babies were just amazing. Amazing.

Was there anything that you took or were given from the set to remember the show by?

I took my Birkenstocks and a pair of socks that had been hand knitted by the costume designer’s mother that I wore a lot with my Birks and also the apron that Sarah wore a lot. It was like a genie apron, and it just it was so her, and I was so comfortable in it. Yeah, those were the things that are with me now, and I wear them. [laughs]

Is there a scene, other than when we just talked about, either that's from the book or not, that you're looking forward to fans seeing that you can kind of tease a little bit from this season?

Alex Kingston as River SongI have to say, because season two was all in Elizabethan England, I think that what I'm excited to see, actually, is how they sort of work alongside those two timelines, because in order to sort of continue the adventure Diana has to find locations that were familiar to her in Elizabethan London, and so I'm really intrigued how they're going to sort of incorporate those two timelines in her mind and for the viewers to actually see on television.

Yeah, me too.

This is a kind of silly question. If you had to choose, and it was real, would you rather be a witch, a vampire, or a demon?


A witch, a witch, a witch.

A witch, okay.

You don’t even need to mention the other two. A witch, absolutely.

Yeah, that's kind of the easy one.

So, other than the cast, what are you going to miss the most about working on the show?


Oh, that's tough, because of course, it is the cast; the cast makes the show. And, you know, we were at three years together, and it really was because we were filming up in Cardiff, so everybody essentially was away from home, and the first couple of years, we were in hotels, and so it was very social. And obviously, the last season, everybody was sort of in their own tiny little bubble accommodation, but nevertheless, I mean, every new season that we were about to shoot, there was a new baby. You know, Teresa had had another baby, and then was also pregnant [in the show]. So, it was so life affirming. So, alongside filming, you also just in a sense couldn't - I mean, not that any of us are, but you can't be too sort of fancy or diva-ish or whatever when you've got the lead actress who's sitting there just going, “Oh, I just need to breastfeed my baby,” you know, just, “Let's take ten” or whatever. Everything was very earthed, and Teresa was the most amazing sort of leader of the company, because she was such an extraordinary, like I said, earthed person. It's very unusual to have a lead actress be so just in tune and so grounded, and not sort of head in their own private world.

I have time for one more question. I’d like to ask a Doctor Who question really quick, if I may.

Sure.

I know a lot of times actors are given backstory ahead of time in order to build the character, and especially with River, having so much going on that no one knew about, were you given stuff ahead of time to help you understand what was really going on with her story?


I was given no information ahead of time. And in fact, Steven [Moffat], I think, because he plays around with time so much, he would throw threads of a storyline out that would not necessarily connect for three seasons. So, very often, you kind of just had to trust - in fact, not “very often,” always - you’d just trust that whatever he wrote, he knew what he meant, and there was some sort of resolution at some point. The only thing on you ahead of time was who I was.

Okay, that's what I was kind of curious about, if you knew you were Melody.

I knew that about six weeks prior to filming, yeah.

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