Motherland: Fort Salem presents an alternate history, where witches have been turned into soldiers fighting for their country. It also presents a powerful message of female empowerment, strength and loyalty. Both literally and thematically, the Freeform series is something that viewers haven’t seen before.
I recently spoke with Taylor Hickson, who portrays Raelle Collar, about playing a character who is empowered both physically and emotionally, and what her biggest challenge has been considering the number of obstacles Raelle has already had to overcome this season. Learn more about Motherland: Fort Salem in our interview, and watch new episodes every Wednesday at 9:00 p.m. on Freeform.
Brittany Frederick: What was it about Motherland: Fort Salem that spoke to you creatively?
Taylor Hickson: As a young female actor, I’m very attracted to playing characters that are something other than a backdrop or an afterthought to other male personas. We’re often playing the wife, the sister, the girlfriend, and in this narrative you see women driving the entire storyline. It’s incredibly seductive in its pitch for someone like myself or, I’d say, a lot of the other girls.
You even see the first apparent gender role reversal. It’s just so dystopian and so foreign to anything we’re familiar with. And I’d say that’s very much in my wheelhouse to begin with. But as soon as you even get into the anatomy of the witch and the vocalizations used in Motherland, it’s a translation directly to women having a voice and having that sufficient use to empower other women and other youth. It’s a testament to the value of the voice, and that’s incredibly attractive at first look.
BF: It’s been a few years since you were a series regular on Aftermath. What was it like to return to the grind of a regular role with Motherland?
TH: I was lucky. I stayed in training when I was working on a show called Deadly Class just prior to this. I thought that was going to be a few guest star [appearances], and I ended up being in most of the series; it was eight [episodes] out of ten. I got a lot more working days than I expected and that was a very fast-paced show. We were always on the ball, so it kept my acting muscles strong for that quick on the ball energy needed for television.
But it was a very different type of world I was stepping into. I think there was a [time] where I was overlapping, from doing the pilot of Motherland and basically within a couple of weeks, walking straight onto Deadly Class. So it was pretty interesting shifts in the character, for sure!
BF: Deadly Class was another show where some fairly crazy things could happen. Did you learn anything from playing Petra that you were able to bring into the world of Motherland: Fort Salem?
TH: Just in terms of bonding with women, I met a few women on that show that taught me a lot about myself. It was the beginning of creating actual relationships with women that were sustainable, as I always struggled with that growing up. I just got along better with males, and a lot of women didn’t trust each other where I grew up. They were always stepping on each other to get what they wanted.
All of the characters I’ve played share an affinity for blunt communication, so I think I rubbed a lot of girls wrong that way, by just speaking my mind. If I had a problem with someone, instead of talking to somebody else about it, I would just address the issue directly. And that’s very much how these women work in their approach. That was definitely a common denominator that allowed me to step into these roles with full confidence, and really challenge myself to understand the parts that I didn’t share so much likeness to. It’s very interesting.
BF: We’re about two-thirds of the way through the season, and Raelle has already gone through enough drama for several TV seasons. So what has been the biggest challenge you’ve had in playing her?
TH: That’s really tricky. It’s been incredibly emotional, and my character learns a lot about herself, just as I’m learning about myself behind the scenes. But the biggest internal challenge for Raelle is probably overcoming mistrust and learning how to let others in, which was something that I didn’t share with her. I’m very much overly trusting. So just having to dig more behind her thought process, and her mindset towards curing a grief so deep that it affects the way that you make decisions and the way that you interact with everybody around you and your environment, was definitely challenging.
But then there’s the other side of things with physical challenges, which I’d have to say not only were we mentally put through the wringer, but we were physically put through the wringer. There was very intensive training prior to this. We had to pick up a crazy new skill that you’ve seen on Motherland called Rope Dart. It’s a long-forgotten martial art that our awesome creator Eliot Laurence decided to braid into the story of Motherland.
Basically it was said that many, many years ago, the Asian farmers were very poor and couldn’t protect themselves, so they were tying a dart or a knife, something sharp, at the end of a rope, and swinging it in a style that would protect them from other people. They would take that to hands-on combat because they couldn’t afford heavy machinery or weapons. I can’t see myself using that anywhere else in my life, but it was definitely a very interesting addition to my resume.
BF: There is some levity in the show, such as in “Bellweather Season” when the group attends a wedding. How do you, as a cast, find those lighter moments or ways of breaking up all the intense drama that you have to play?
TH: I’d very much say that the homage to youth comedy is Tally [played by Jessica Sutton]. She’s definitely our softer note and the comic relief. She’s really funny. If you just pay attention to her, even when there’s other stuff going on in the scene you’re guaranteed a chuckle. She’s always busying herself [with] something or just her reactions in facial expression, as well as a very apparent calm side to her too. It’s very interesting to watch a character be the comic relief, but not appear the weak link. I think that’s a very hard thing to balance. Jess did an incredible job there.
But it’s hard as an actor not to take your work home with you. Especially when you’re having really, really grueling emotional days, it’s hard not to take that stress home with you because your body doesn’t understand that you’re not actually going through the traumatic situation. A lot of times you’re tricking yourself into believing that something feels so real, and that’s how you get that authenticity factor. So we did play a lot on set to keep that life or death pressure that’s hanging over our heads at times off of our shoulders.
We played a lot, we laughed a lot – sometimes too much, when we should have been working. But we really enjoyed our time together. We’d all just huddle in one of our trailers during breaks, and talk about relationships or our families and what was going on at home, because so many of us were so far from home. Jess is from South Africa, Molly’s [Amalia Holm] from Sweden, Lyne is based out of London, and then a lot of us are from LA or Atlanta, so we’re really from all over the place.
BF: Is there anything that you’re hoping the audience takes away from watching Motherland: Fort Salem? Aside from entertainment, when it comes to these things like gender roles and finding your voice.
TH: We do dive into incredibly uncomfortable conversations and issues, and we’re hoping that opening up these hard conversations will be an effective way to see improvements in society, in our community, and the media.
We’ve already touched base on mental illness, and what your resources are and what it looks like if you don’t use your resources, and your support system and what it looks like when we do. And the stigma of women versus women and toxic masculinity, LGBTQ representation, and emotional repression, and we want to encourage viewers to use their support and use their resources.
So far it’s been incredible to see, even just on Twitter, [how] the fans support each other. People are now making friends with others that they would’ve thought unlikely to become a friend before the show. It’s just incredible to see! But we just want to use our platform to really break these social constructs, and really attack these stigmas full force.
Another thing we’re really encouraging is just the research of Wiccan culture. We’re proud of the homage paid to Wiccan culture in this series. I think Wiccan culture is widely misunderstood as a community, and we’re working incredibly hard to break the image of that Halloween cap and green witch, and share the truth about what she actually stands for. The idea that it’s about unity, growth, healing, femininity, identity, life, love, and empowerment. I think Jessica put it so beautifully: our goal is to wake the witch in everyone.
Motherland: Fort Salem airs Wednesdays at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT on Freeform.