Witchy Women: An Interview with Cast Members from 'Sanctuary: A Witch’s Tale'

Adam Isla O'Brien as Ryan Henshall, Stephanie Levi-John as Maggie Knight, Amy de Bhrun as Abigail Whithall, and Valerie O’Connor as Bridget Patterson in a classroom in 'Sanctuary: A Witch's Tale' Season 1

Adam Isla O'Brien as Ryan Henshall, Stephanie Levi-John as Maggie Knight, Amy de Bhrun as Abigail Whithall, and Valerie O’Connor as Bridget Patterson in 'Sanctuary: A Witch's Tale' Season 1

Szymon Lazewski/AMC

In Sanctuary: A Witch’s Tale, the small and affluent UK town of Sanctuary is rocked by the death of the most popular teen boy. The series explores grief, trauma, power, and fear against a backdrop where magic and witchcraft exist but are not entirely accepted. Magic is often used as a shorthand for otherness, with the sole witch in town becoming the target of unfounded suspicion and, eventually, violence. The show takes its magical subject matter seriously, seamlessly integrating it into the story and drawing on vivid real-life history and symbolism. At the same time it does its own worldbuilding, adding a distinct flavor to a familiar genre.  

Sanctuary has some interesting things to say about maternal love and the lengths a mother will go to for her child – good and bad. The effects of different parenting styles play out in the teen characters’ behavior; draw your own conclusions about the show’s opinions on detached versus overinvolved parents. The teens, for their part, range from emotionally withdrawn to angry to, in some cases, sociopathic. Like their adult counterparts, the teenagers are just as interesting and frustrating.

The charged and dangerous aura of the series is built from the cadre of complex women at the story’s core. We sat down with three of the leading ladies – Amy De Bhrún, who plays grieving mother Abigail Whithall; Hazel Doupe, who plays the witch’s accused daughter Harper Fenn; and Stephanie Levi-John, who plays lead investigator DCI Maggie Knight – to discuss their characters and inspirations.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Hazel Doupe as Harper Fenn the accused killer of the dead popular boy in 'Sanctuary: A Witch's Tale' Season 1

Hazel Doupe as Harper Fenn in 'Sanctuary: A Witch's Tale' Season 1

Szymon Lazewski/AMC

Telly Visions: Abigail’s arc shows how pain can reshape and destroy a person, so much so that she becomes a villain. How did you tackle her actions and motivations?

Amy De Bhrún: What I tried to tune into was her vulnerability and humanity. It’s so boring to play someone as a quote-unquote “villain.” I wanted to explore where it took her. I tried to map out a very fluid journey for her so that I could almost justify everything she was doing. Although I don’t condone anything she did, I understood it in that way. The key to going on an arc like that is to find the humanity and explore what grief can do to somebody. It’s a beautiful subject matter to me in a strange way, a kind of hideous beauty of exploring a mother’s grief. I have two small children, so I can understand it in a way I possibly couldn’t have a few years ago; I understand it in a different way [now]. It’s a specific type of pain. It was an exciting way as an actor to access something. With such a very base pain, I was anxious to see the motivations and where that will bring you. It was exciting as an actor to play Abigail because you see her on all ends of the scale and what grief can do to a person. There’s a saying that grief is leftover love, so it comes from that place of love for her son.

TV: Your portrayal is very affecting. This next question is for Hazel Doupe: Harper is an incredibly complex character dealing with severe trauma. What was important to you in Harper’s characterization?

Hazel Doupe: What was important to me was that Harper wasn’t just another stroppy teenager who couldn’t contain her emotions. I’m not saying most teenagers are stroppy; I just didn’t want to play one note throughout the whole show. I wanted to find her at her core. She was very much not on the same path as everybody else her age, and that comes with a lot of loneliness; you tend to keep things to yourself. She has been exposed to things that people her age wouldn’t, far beyond her years and she’s dealt with them the only way she could: keeping herself insular. I think that’s where her rage comes from. I wanted to portray it in that way. I don’t think she is easily affected; things tend to roll off her back. But very particular things have happened to her that will always leave a mark on somebody until they show it to the world or the people they love.

Elaine Cassidy as Sarah Fenn is confronted by Stephanie Levi-John as Maggie Knight in 'Sanctuary: A Witch's Tale' Season 1

Elaine Cassidy as Sarah Fenn, Stephanie Levi-John as Maggie Knight in 'Sanctuary: A Witch's Tale' Season 1

Szymon Lazewski/AMC

TV: It’s very moving and complex how you give her all those levels. This next question is for Stephanie Levi-John. Your character, DCI Maggie Knight, runs a balanced investigation despite increasing pressures. She’s like the audience avatar as she’s learning about magic. How did you use Knight’s status as an outsider to inform her character?

Stephanie Levi-John: I drew from real life, in a sense. In talking about things like my career, I felt very much like an outsider. Sometimes, it was like life imitating art in trying to understand, gain your craft, get the information, and feed it back to the right people, having that want and desire to do a great job but knowing there are always eyes on you. I was drawing that kind of parallel with people going into a new career; even though this isn’t a new career for her, now she’s become a detective. She previously worked with (town police chief) Ted Bolt as a police officer. She’s leveled up, but he still sees her the same way as six years ago. But she’s not that person. 

It draws a lot from the want and desire to be the best version of yourself while also feeding into that self-doubt, which I enjoyed playing. It was quite exposing to me as an actor to inject that into the characterization of Maggie. The audience will relate to that because it’s a human experience. You just want to be the best you possibly can. You want to do your job, but there is pushback, externally and internally. You go on that journey with Maggie as well within her investigation.

TV: Did you shadow the police at all in preparation for the role?

Levi-John: I did not have the time! I got the job, and before I knew it, I had to go to Ireland. I had to do a lot of research. If I could have, I would have loved it just to see the dynamics and stuff. I’ve watched a lot of documentaries that are amazing because it’s almost like a fly on the wall of how it’s run behind the scenes. Also, watching other people’s portrayals of detectives and injecting a little of myself in there. What would it be like if I was a detective? I hope it all shows in the characterization of DCI Knight.

Magic. 'Sanctuary: A Witch's Tale' Season 1

Magic. 'Sanctuary: A Witch's Tale' Season 1

Szymon Lazewski/AMC

TV: What drew each of you to the script?

De Bhrún: The fact that women are the center of the story. And not just one woman; it’s a big group of incredible, strong, layered, multifaceted women. You’re not playing just the ‘wife of’ or the ‘whoever of’; these are characters within their own right. The magical element woven through the script is exciting, seeing how that informs [events] when it’s only part of this particular world. [Magic is treated] like today’s alternative therapies and things like that; it’s kind of just woven into that world. And even though that’s woven in, the effects it still has, that there are still witches, there is still (the concept of) “different.” When the {expletive} hits the fan, how the “different” or what you perceive as different can be turned on.

Levi-John: I did like the magic element of things. How much the fantasy can relate to real life as an audience member when you’re watching it and enjoying it. I love how the two worlds combine, how they start off living quite harmoniously, and then how that reshapes. I love that about it.

Doupe: I was a big fan of the witchy elements. I used to feel quite connected to that part of myself as a spiritual being. I met that part again through meeting Harper; coming out of my adolescence, I met that part again. It’s a surreal experience. It’s lovely to get to play someone who was connected in that way to deeper things. And I love that it was just pure women, women’s hearts at the front and center of the story. It was refreshing. 

Sanctuary: A Witch’s Tale premiered on AMC+ and Sundance Now on Thursday, January 4, 2024, and streams one episode a week through the end of February.

Marni Cerise headshot

A writer since her childhood introduction to Shel Silverstein, Marni adores film, cats, Brits, and the Oxford comma. She studied screenwriting at UARTS and has written movie, TV, and pop culture reviews for Ani-Izzy.com, and Wizards and Whatnot. You can usually catch her watching Hot Fuzz for the thousandth time. Find her very sparse social media presence on Twitter: @CeriseMarni

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