TORONTO – Julia Ormond says playing a 400-year-old sorceress on “Witches of East End” presents a new acting test, following her role as Megan’s mother Marie Calvet on “Mad Men.”
“Witches” returns for a second season Sunday on Lifetime Canada, with Ormond’s character Joanna Beauchamp weakened by poison in her blood after the opening of the portal to spirit world Asgard.
“Joanna’s pretty challenging because she’s more flawed in her choices. She’s the straight one,” said Ormond in a phone interview. “The challenge for me is to keep it likeable while she’s straight and so disconnected. I struggle with that.”
As for Marie, the elegant Quebecois mother of Don Draper’s second wife on “Mad Men,” Ormond said her sophisticated appearance masks a tawdry side — as she takes up an affair with Roger Sterling while unhappy with her husband.
“I see Marie as a very flawed floozy,” she said with a laugh. “I can see how Marie is sexy and elegant in other people’s eyes, but I would see Marie as kind of hilarious. She played such a lie.”
The first season of “Witches” opened with Joanna trying to leave her magical past behind and raise her teenage daughters, played by Jenna Dewan-Tatum and Rachel Boston, as normal young women in a small town.
But when the town was threatened by unearthly enemies, the teens discovered and cultivated their powers with the help of aunt Wendy (Madchen Amick of “Twin Peaks”). Now that the portal to Asgard has opened, a mysterious family member named Frederick (Christian Cooke) will arrive as Joanna fights for her life.
“She’s really in bad shape and it’s not certain she’s going to come through,” said Ormond. “Frederick is someone who has this tangled, negative past with them, so his coming back brings into their lives from Asgard a character shadowed, veiled in doubt. Are they going to embrace him as a family member? How much flak and forgiveness is he going to be given?”
Ormond, a 49-year-old British actress also known for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “Legends of the Fall,” promised the second season would be “darker and creepier” as it explores the effects of the portal opening.
As a single mother herself, Ormond said she related to Joanna and her desire to protect her daughters from the dangers of the spiritual realm.
“I’d like to be my child’s best friend. I’d like to be their fairy godmother. I’d like to have a magic wand that could just wave everything away,” she said. “For me, Joanna is a character who refuses to do that because she sees it as dangerous for her children.”
She called Joanna’s decision to lie to her daughters about their powers “understandable.” The centuries-old witch had watched the teenagers get killed in past lives for their magical abilities — for example, being burned at the stake in the 1600s.
But Ormond said the decision ultimately put everyone at risk and created a rift between Joanna and her daughters.
“Essentially she’s not trusting them. In their world, she’s the only person who could understand them and help them process what they have and what they are, and she rejects that role in this lifetime,” she said.
Ormond uses her real accent in the show — a unique blend of English and American tones from having lived in both countries. Asked whether she felt relieved to be able to use her own voice, Ormond laughed and said no.
“When you go into a show like this, you don’t get to make every decision. That’s not one I kind of agree with. My own accent is all over the place, having spent almost 20 years in the United States,” she said. “I think they’ve justified it through the fact that she’s from this other world.”