Kiernan Shipka Takes on the Patriarchy in 'Chilling Adventures of Sabrina'

Kiernan Shipka is keeping it positive. That's her strategy heading into the premiere of Netflix's Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, the drama picked up with a massive two-season order that is based on the Archie Comics character of the same name.

"Pressure is a negative emotion that I don't want to let get in the way of anything," the Mad Men breakout tells The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the show's pre-Halloween Oct. 26 premiere.

But in a way, what's going to separate this new iteration of Sabrina the Teenage Witch from so much other YA-oriented streaming fair is those darker subject matters — murder, betrayal, lust, guts and gore. Netflix's Sabrina is everything viewers have come to expect from creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's other Archie Comics adaptation, The CW's Riverdale, cranked up to 666.

At the center of all of the satanic madness is Shipka's Sabrina, a modern heroine who wears her feminism as boldly as she does the color red. It was her character's supernatural relatability that got Shipka excited for her first leading TV series regular role, and that didn't require buckets fake blood to sell. All the actress had to do was remember a chilling time in her life — just being 16.

What was your audition process like?

I met with Roberto the day before I auditioned to feel things out. Then I went and did a screen test, which I was told would be my only screen test. I got called back again to do it with blonde hair because the time that I did it, I had long, dark brown hair, and I just didn't look like Sabrina. They wanted to have a full package presenting it to whoever it was [likely Netflix and producers Warner Bros. TV execs]. I went back and did it, then waited around for a few days that felt like months and got it before Christmas. It all happened within two weeks.

So, you were good enough to get the role, but that was only clear to people once your hair wasn't brown?

It's hilarious, but it's so true.

How much pressure do you feel as the No. 1 on the call sheet for the first time?

I don't necessarily think I felt too much pressure because I try to be as positive as I can. Pressure is a negative emotion that I don't want to let get in the way of anything. As far as feeling a responsibility, it's mostly to make the character as good as it can possibly be. I committed myself 110 percent to the role. I had three months of preparation, and I was working on it three to four times a week, looking at the first scripts and developing the character and figuring out her voice. I wanted to be comfortable with her so that the audience would be comfortable with her. I hesitate to really call Sabrina a role model because she's 16 and makes a lot of mistakes. She figures things out, but she's really inspiring. I did not take that lightly. This is the opportunity of a lifetime. It's never not a challenge, but that's the best part of it.

The show was developed at The CW before moving to Netflix. How much did the producers want to change with the move?

I was never part of the show when it was at The CW, so I can't speak to how different it would have been. We're able to do really weird, wacky things [on Netflix]. We're a super weird show, and we go to dark, gory places. Netflix is the perfect home for us.

In the months leading up to shooting, what were your biggest concerns? How were those addressed?

You wonder what the dynamics between everyone is going to be like, especially because so much of the casting felt last minute. We didn't have a Harvey [played by Ross Lynch] until the day before we went up to Vancouver. I was concerned, however, that I was going to be allergic to Salem [Sabrina's cat]. That did turn out to be a bit of a problem.

How allergic are you?

I am the "hives all over my face" kind of allergic, which definitely isn't fun for makeup or production as a whole. We shoot around it. There are some isolated cat shots, and sometimes there's a body double that's holding that cat. It's a fun time!

The animatronic Salem from the 1990s series may have been more agreeable for you.

Definitely! I'm so down for an animatronic Salem. Let's have that be the big shift in season two!

There are a lot of horror movies referenced on the show, and there's a lot of inspiration from the most recent Sabrina comic. How did you prepare for the role, beyond what's in the scripts?

I went to the comics and watched a lot of movies that Roberto and Lee [Toland Krieger, who directed the pilot] reference. My process for this was really isolated; I focused on the character in front of me. Playing someone who is a 16-year-old girl felt important. You can do all of the research in the world, but I've been a 16-year-old girl, so it was a lot of drawing on my own experiences and just developing a character from a more internal perspective.

What were those movies? There are a lot of references to The Witch.

The Witch, Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist and Suspiria. Those are the ones where you can see actual shots in the show.

Have you seen any of ABC's Sabrina the Teenage Witch from the '90s?

Not really. I've never seen the '90s show because I dove so head first into this. By the time filming came up, it was time to go. I thought it was best to wait until after I've finished filming to watch it. But Melissa Joan Hart tweeted me her blessing, and that felt great. It was like the torch had been passed, and that felt cool. Everyone has their own experience with the '90s show, and I think it's not to be taken lightly that it had such an impression on people's lives. It's cool to be bringing this new version to the table.

This is a show about an empowered woman (literally) coming out amid the #MeToo and Time's Up movements. How will those movements be reflected in Sabrina? How did those movements impact the storytelling as a whole?

When I read the original script, I was drawing from the fact that Sabrina is an outspoken, brave young girl defying odds. As the show has progressed, it has gotten even more feminist in nature. I don't know if that's a result of the writers room getting supercharged and each episode becoming more about Sabrina versus the patriarchy, as embodied by the Dark Lord. The writers room is really diverse, with all sorts of different perspectives coming together. It reads as one big voice that feels very timely and of the moment. It was always there, but I'm sure as the show has progressed, the world has been ever evolving and changing. That gives everyone more of an incentive to do more and lean more into that aspect of the show.

Which moment in those early scripts helped you unlock who Sabrina is?

She's pretty clear from day one, but when she says, "My name is Sabrina Spellman, and I will not sign it away," she really has such a moment there. It's humungous for her, and it sets up the series in a lot of ways. That was a moment that made things very clear. From that point on, we move into the third episode where she's basically defending herself the entire time for not doing anything wrong. I think the previous episode helped inform my decisions around that. Once she starts going to the Academy of Unseen Arts, she has a completely different experience. So much of Sabrina is still found in those first two episodes, even if you don't see glimpses of it. Little seeds were planted, even if you don't know exactly what they're referring to. Pretty much everything comes full circle by the end. Even seeing a darker side of her in that first episode in the mines with the sisters and the boys. We see that Sabrina come back, which is wonderful and super interesting. 

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina season one launches Friday on Netflix.