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'Salem': Seth Gabel on Playing a 'Tortured' Hypocrite and Getting 'Creeped Out'

THR premieres a scene from Sunday's second episode from the WGN America drama as Cotton Mather recalls his witch conquests.

Seth Gabel isn't afraid of exploring the dark side.

WGN America's series Salem, centering on the 17th-century Salem witch trials, launched to strong numbers on Easter Sunday with 2.3 million viewers tuning in on premiere night. The one-hour drama is unafraid of embracing the violence and sexuality that surrounds witchcraft; the first episode opens with a brutal execution, setting an ominous tone for what lies ahead.

"I think that's why we all signed on. Knowing it's a cable show, we wanted to tell a serious story that isn't afraid to get their hands dirty," Gabel, who plays religious fanactic/witch-hunt leader Cotton Mather, tells The Hollywood Reporter. In an exclusive scene from Sunday's second episode, as Cotton heads into a drunken stupor, he recounts his quick progress of the witch hunt, boasting how he's already hanged three witches.

Q&A: 'Salem' Boss on Fearless Witches, Pushing Boundaries and Censors

In a chat with THR, the Fringe and Dirty Sexy Money alum talks about last week's sex scene, playing a hypocrite and having nightmares.

Did you do any significant research on the real Cotton Mather?

The real Cotton Mather has a wealth of provisional writing that he did, so I was able to read a lot of original text. I could really get inside of the mind of who he was and what he felt about the world. He was incredibly fiendish -- at the same time curious about the world. There was this dual contradiction of him. I think that's what we embellished a bit on.

You mentioned he was a contradiction. In the first episode, you see two sides to this character.

What's great about every character in the show is that no one is who they appear to be. Cotton Mather is a reverend but also a scientist. He's a witch hunter and a developed Puritan, but also a sex addict. The moment we make someone either a good guy or a bad guy, you'll learn more key information about them, and your perception of that character will change. It's incredibly dynamic.

Did your perception of him change over time as you began uncovering more and more of who he is?

From the first episode, the biggest thing that you get about Cotton Mather is that he's tortured, and his hypocrisy in his actions are a result of him not fitting into this world. He's kind of a "wait a minute" TV character. He's the kind of man who was born in the wrong time, and he feels that way.

VIDEO: WGN America's 'Salem' Full Trailer: Witch Panic Goes From Zero to a Hundred

When you read the sex scene in the pilot script, were you nervous at all about doing it?

One of my first jobs was being completely naked in Nip/Tuck…

It's gone full circle.

I think my first time was, "Oh! My naked ass!" After that, I felt like the reverend. The very first scene we shot was the sex scene in the pilot, so it was really just like jumping right in.

Were there moments on set where you had to check yourself back to reality because of some of the crazy things that went on in the episodes?

I've been the silent guy having more nightmares. I imagine my subconscious cerebellum tonight is thinking, "What the hell am I suppose to do with these images?" I used to get creeped out by night scenes because there are so many shadows in dark places for everyone to work in.

Is there one down the line that we should look out for?

Every episode is a reveal of information about characters. Episode six is a fun one. You never know who might die or be killed. You never know where the next scare is coming from.

Is there excitement for you over the fact that this is WGN America's first original scripted series?

It's definitely nice. At first it's scary because you don't know WGN America. It isn't a brand we know yet or don't exactly know what you're going to get, but the people involved are fantastic. So far WGN has really expressed passion for the show and have also proven their belief in the show by putting a lot of money toward the publicity of it and production of it. We definitely feel like we are in good hands.

Salem airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on WGN America.

Email: Philiana.Ng@THR.com
Twitter: @insidethetube