A conversation with Elise Eberle felt more like dancing around a giant park arm in arm and then doing cartwheels than any regular sit-down interview. Her passion and unbridled enthusiasm for work and life is delightfully infectious. It’s no wonder, really—the commitment Eberle brings to the role of Mercy Lewis in WGN America’s hit series Salem is electric, to say the least. Born and raised in New Mexico, Eberle now fluently moves between Shreveport, Louisiana—where Salem is filmed—and her home in Los Angeles. The morning after she’d returned from a trip to New York, I caught up with Eberle to talk about the audition that won her the role of a lifetime, working on a vegetable farm in the south of France, and how we women shouldn’t define ourselves through the eyes of men. You know, just a regular Tuesday morning chat.
What’s it like filming Salem in Shreveport?
Elise: Shreveport, Louisiana is such a small town; smoking in bars is still legal, you can buy a Daiquiri, a dry Daiquiri. It’s such a strange atmosphere. I like it but you do sometimes need a break and go somewhere where a lot is happening. Families have been there for generations upon generations. I think that this season, in particular, a real community has formed amongst the cast and crew and even the extras. They built like a four-acre town to replicate Salem. And the town is filled with real people. Real old and young inhabitants of Shreveport. So it’s given the show a more authentic, real look. It’s like the Salem village actually really does exist!
Tell me about the audition process.
Elise: I originally auditioned for Anne Hale. But I think Tamzin Merchant is just perfect for it. Then they were like, “Well how about auditioning for Mercy Lewis?” Oh my god, this is such a long story—I’m going to try to condense this as much as I can. Mercy Lewis was actually only supposed to be in the pilot, she wasn’t actually technically a series regular. Then when I did my audition, the scene that appears in the pilot where I crawl on the ground like an animal—
Yes, it was terrifying!
Elise: —yes, it’s terrifying—they were like, “Can you improv what you would do if you were on camera doing that scene?” And I wasn’t expecting any of it. I was like, “Okay, fuck it! I’m just going to go full throttle because why stop now?” And I was in this white dress which meant that they could see more than I wanted them to see, and I was just crawling on the audition room floor acting berserk. And honestly, it just goes back to that saying—which is cheesy—but just take risks and don’t look back. Because I got the part afterwards! So that happened.
They were also auditioning contortionists because I think the character was described as like a “spider, bamboo looking, strange…” So I tried to use that. I think also because I have a dance background, I grew up as a dancer, I think maybe the physicality has benefited me. Because dancers have to aware of their limbs and their body in order to embody a persona and I think that really helps me.
And Mercy is such a physically demanding role. What kind of work do you do off camera to prepare for the role?
Elise: I regularly do a relaxation technique that lasts about 30 or 40 minutes. And just sitting on a chair and doing movements—like I said, becoming aware of your body and your senses. Becoming aware of who you are and where you are. Using that to your advantage. I think once you are incredibly relaxed, that just propels you further.
I do all my own stunts which I think is very important. I just want to get the best out of the best.
Mercy does get burnt and I wanted to do it justice. I talked to some nurses and found out that when you’re burned to that degree, you’re numb. You can’t feel anything. And also the vocal chords are burned. And they were saying that we could do the voice in post-production because they didn’t want me to strain my vocal chords on the day, but I was determined. I was like, no, I have to get this voice down because not only will it help me submerge and dive into the character, it will also help the other actors in the scene. And the voice is so important. It’s worth it because it helps everybody on set dive deeper.
My character is so gratifying, such a complicated role. Even in the first episode of the second season, my character takes away what is most vital to a man and replaces his genitals with this bird. And I think that is absolutely brilliant because talk about a woman that is in control! And this is going to sound horrible, I mean I don’t know how this will read, but I couldn’t be more honored to have done such a task. Because I feel like we need more strong women like Mercy—I mean, not to the point of abusing men and slicing their genitals off. But women can look up to her. She believes that women shouldn’t define themselves through the eyes of men but with our own eyes instead. It’s so fun to be able to play such an intimidating, jaw-dropping, crazy character.
It’s getting better and better in terms of opportunities for actresses, especially if we look at Salem, in particular. I mean, all the women who are involved, all of the female characters are really strong.
If you could draw a contemporary feminist message from Salem, what would it be?
Elise: Oh my god, I love it. We women shouldn’t define ourselves through the eyes of men, but our own. We are definitely taking our creative liberty with the show. For example, the way that Mary Sibley talks in the church, she would be stoned to death. These female characters are all pushing and breaking boundaries; they’re each taking the initiative instead of waiting for men to do so. Because even if that wouldn’t be realistic back then, I feel that women nowadays could definitely look up to something like that.
Right, so I guess what you’re saying is that the show has a contemporary spin on the Salem story so as to be more relevant to women and culture today.
Elise: Exactly! And I love the messages in the news today that strong is the new beauty. I think that’s such a great message. But back then, women weren’t even aloud to speak until they were spoken to. I don’t know how I would have survived back then, I would probably have been told I was a witch because I couldn’t take it.
What can audiences expect from Mercy for the rest of this season and beyond?
Elise: Well if it were even possible, I think that they’re definitely pushing the boundaries further. Especially for Mercy Lewis. She undergoes some quite horrific changes. But I couldn’t be happier to really become this girl because I think she is such an interesting and complicated character. She’s an incredibly emotionally taxing and physically demanding character, but, like I’ve said, this allows me to dive a lot deeper into the role. Because I get to incorporate movement, body work, physicality. It’s an actor’s dream to do something like this.
This was the first biggest break I’ve had, so after the first season of Salem, I was in a state of chaos and needed to regain my balance because I had no idea how to find it. I was lacking something. So when I was done with the first season, I took a solo trip to the south of France and worked on an organic vegetable farm. And I believe that getting my hands in the dirt was so therapeutic. I was able to reconnect with my center. I was able to regain the balance that I was searching for.
Since our focus at the moment at SheRa Mag is ‘the body,’ we’re talking a lot about how we view our bodies and how media, in particular, shapes our relationships with our bodies. Are you comfortable talking a bit about this? Perhaps personally or relating to your character on Salem?
Elise: It’s interesting how women are against other women, rather than in support of women. Now that the internet is so prominent in everybody’s lives, I think it has hurt us. And it really hurts me to see how nasty women are to each other. With a particular focus on body, body dysmorphia, and how people should look. It’s so sad. But I think that there are some great organizations really trying to push the idea of being strong and beautiful rather than being something that you see in magazines, which isn’t even real; it’s all Photoshopped. It’s interesting, it’s what the men want, or what you think they want. And that’s exactly what I was saying about how we shouldn’t define ourselves through what we think men want.
I’m fortunate that growing up, I was very physical. We women should be connected to one another and support each other. Us people all have the power in our hands, we just need to figure it out.
Feature image credits:
Photographer: Marc Cartwright
Hair: Melissa DeZarate with Exclusive Artists