What if the Salem Witch trials never happened? OK, now here’s a thought: What if, instead, the United States military recruited those who practice witchcraft to protect the country? That’s the alternative reality depicted in the Freeform series Motherland: Fort Salem, where powerful women are at the forefront of America’s defense and young witches enlist to protect their fellow citizens from harm.
One such practitioner is Abigail Bellweather, a young witch who hails from a long line of powerful enchantresses. Alongside fellow magic users Raelle Collar (Taylor Hickson) and Tally Craven (Jessica Sutton), Abigail is enrolled at the titular Fort Salem, a boot camp where she’ll sharpen her mystical skills in hopes of one day serving on the front lines.
For 21-year-old actress Ashley Nicole Williams, stepping into Abigail’s combat boots is like standing in front of a mirror. Both Williams and her alter-ego are ambitious to a fault, and always ready to move forward. Though the show has just a few episodes under its belt, the witches have already begun taking up arms against rogue terrorist group, the Spree, who are responsible for some especially terrifying acts, like hypnotizing hundreds of people to jump off of ledges at a local mall to their deaths. Yet week after week, Williams is at the forefront as the confident young witch who refuses to fail.
MTV News spoke with Williams, who offered some insight on the burgeoning cultural influence of Motherland, her character's powerful lineage, and the roles she has her eyes on next.
MTV News: Motherland is your first on-screen role. Congrats! Did you always know you wanted to be an actor?
Ashley Nicole Williams: I started acting when I was five, and it was kind of just something I always knew that I wanted to do. In my soul I was like, I want to be a movie star. I was in an afterschool program and they have things from gymnastics to dance and they also had acting lessons. I happened to be taking classes with Catherine Sullivan in Texas, and she's the ultimate Disney Channel acting coach. She's worked with Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez. Everything kind of fell into place. Then I got my first agent in Dallas and then Los Angeles. That was my little path. My journey is not done, this is just the beginning, as I keep telling myself.
MTV News: What initially drew you to Motherland?
Williams: Typically, when I have an audition, my manager or my agents will send [the script] over to me. I got the script and initially I was like, "I have to be a part of this." I ran to my mom and I was like, "This is so freaking cool." I told her to read it. Typically, I don't like scripts that I read, so the fact that I told my mom to read it was crazy. But I loved the empowerment of women and the fact that every major role was a woman. It's spooky, but not spooky in the witchy Halloween way. We're reimagining the witch. There's so much kicking ass and taking names, and I freaking loved it.
MTV News: What do you think some of the misconceptions are surrounding the portrayal of a Wiccan lifestyle or witches when it comes to fiction? How is Motherland changing that perception?
Williams: We're reimagining a little bit in general. There are no brooms and cauldrons and black cats. They don't worship Satan. We’re not allowing society to demonize the witch anymore. Our magic, or our “work” as we call it, is we're trying to help people and help the world. It’s just all about taking one narrative and flipping it, and I think we're changing the narrative. That's something that I really applaud our show on, because we're doing it in multiple different ways, from the witch to gender role reversals and addressing different toxic traits in our society and in our culture, which I think is really beautiful.
MTV News: What cultural aspects of Motherland do you feel the show does a great job of exploring?
Williams: With my character, toxic masculinity is kind of what we're touching on, but in the role-reversal way. Abigail has a really tough persona and she puts that on because she doesn't want anyone to see that she's scared or she's vulnerable. From here on out after Episode 5, you’ll see her express that vulnerability and allow different layers of herself to open up. We also touch on gender role-reversal. The men in our show take care of the children, they build our weapons. So it's just showing that we are, as women, more than just housewives. It's really cool to flip the narrative and show that we can be in charge too. You guys can do all of the things we do behind the scenes.
MTV News: Abigail's a Bellweather, so she has all this confidence and strength that we don't always see in her companions Raelle and Tally. How has that aided her throughout her own journey? Do you think it might have hindered her in some ways?
Williams: Just being a Bellweather comes with confidence. So being the first to try and learn something in basic training, that's where it helps Abigail — where she has so much confidence there with the army and learning new things. It definitely hinders her; she has a really big ego because she is a Bellweather, and she really thinks of herself rather than others in the beginning.
It's kind of that aspect of there's no I in team that she hasn't really mastered yet. So the confidence can get in her way in that aspect. She wants to be a leader, but I feel like you can't be a leader without acknowledging others and accepting the help from others, which is something that she needs to learn.
MTV News: Abigail’s mother has always been a constant source of pressure for her daughter. Do you think that's been detrimental or supportive to her growth overall and how do you think that could change in the future?
Williams: I do think that the pressure helps keep Abigail on track. That's the only way I'd say it's not detrimental. But Abigail desperately just wants her mom to, I don't know, give her a hug. She desperately wants to be loved. But her mom will say, "Oh, I'm proud of you, if you get to this point." That's even a maybe. Her mom's just like, "You can't fail. If you fail, the Bellweather name fails and you'll be the first one to have us fail." So I don't know, I think it builds character, but that's definitely where most of her insecurities lie and it stems from her mom and all of that pressure.
MTV News: Do you think you have any similarities with Abigail or are you pretty different from each other?
Williams: I'm definitely Abigail through and through. She's such a queen bee, right? I don't think I'm that big of a queen bee, but she puts a lot of pressure on herself. We talked about pressure coming from her mom, but Abigail puts pressure on herself and I, as Ashley, do as well. Neither of us want to fail. We're both perfectionists and we strive to be the best. While I was portraying Abigail for six months and Abigail was learning about herself, I was also learning about myself, which was kind of cool. It's a pressure thing and not wanting to fail and let people down, but also letting yourself down. I think that's the biggest similarity.
MTV News: It's a very physical performance as well. How much training went into the role?
Williams: We did stunt training for three weeks. The rope training — rope dart is what it's called — was intense. I didn't know how to use a rope dart. We're shooting during the week, but on the weekends if we have a fight scene, I'll have to learn the fights. We had a big dance number in Episode 4, so there was definitely a lot of training going into it, which I appreciated, because we want to be as authentic as we can in these roles.
MTV News: Did you have immediate chemistry with Taylor and Jessica when you started working together or did that just kind of grow naturally throughout filming?
Williams: It was immediate. I couldn't have asked for a better vibe between us three. We just instantly meshed from the beginning, which I was a little concerned about, because I didn't know how it was going to be and this was my first time on a show. I hear some horrific stories about actors not getting along with their castmates. I'm like, "I hope we get along." But we did. We're literally best friends and sisters, which is so cliche to say. But we talk every day, even though Jessica's in South Africa, [and] there's a time difference, but we'll WhatsApp each other. I talk to Taylor all the time. We can't stay away from each other. That's how tight-knit we are. Which I'm so grateful for, because I don't know how it would be if we weren't.
MTV News: There’s certainly a kind of power in having so many women involved in Motherland’s production. So what was your experience like working with all of these different women directors who brought their own vision to the show?
Williams: It was so cool. I was so thankful that Eliot [Laurence] had the idea to bring female directors in, because they're female, so they have our female vision as well. Just being led by another woman was just amazing. I was just so in awe that Eliot not only wrote this all-women cast, but also he's like, "No, I want female directors, I want everything to be diverse." He's flipping the narrative, honestly, in every aspect. We had a lot of diversity in the crew as well, which I was really thankful for.
MTV News: In the spirit of women uplifting other women, who is someone in the industry that you admire?
Williams: My all-time favorite actress is Taraji P. Henson. If I can ever work with her, that would just be a dream come true. Being able to not only work with her, but just soak in everything she has to say like a sponge, to be around her for a conversation, would be amazing. I wouldn't even have to work with her, just to be a sponge around her. I feel like she can just embody any character and freaking kill it. So yes, Taraji P. Henson.
MTV News: You mentioned this is the beginning of your journey, not the end. Where do you see yourself in five years?
Williams: I hope Motherland is still going in five years, just to see where we are. I also want to venture into movies. When the movie theaters open back up, I’d even like to appear in a big box office movie. I've always wanted to do a Pixar movie. I'm a Disney nerd. If they ever did a live-action The Princess and the Frog, I'd want to be Princess Tiana. The list goes on and on. So in five years, I hope to be writing as well, not just acting. I’ll get my bachelor's degree in film and digital media in May. If I could write something. I'd love to write a movie and maybe cast myself in it!