Actress Julia Ormond doesn’t believe in ghosts or witches or things that go bump in the night. But she’s willing to grant there are mysteries we can’t explain. “I’m not religious in terms of believing in organized religion,” she says in a clattering coffee bar of a hotel.
“I do believe in our connectivity through metaphysics. I believe that there are strange things that happen that we can’t account for.”
It’s a good thing because in her latest incarnation, Ormond is playing a witch on Lifetime’s new series, The Witches of East End, premiering Sunday.
“What I love about the witch stuff in all the research that I’ve done, if you look at the genocide that happened in the witch hunts and the killing of women, it was about wiping out female power,” she says, brushing an unruly lock of chestnut hair behind her ear.
“I don’t believe that the witch hunts were about supernatural powers that were being stamped out, it was about threatening women within the community … I think most of it – the term even today ‘witch hunt’ – is somebody who is unfairly sought after or plagued or gone after because they don’t fit in some way. I think there was a turning point where, for whatever reason, women’s power and intuition was turned against and (their) healing powers … it was used as an excuse.”
She doesn’t need any excuse to explore the netherworld. Ormond, who’s best known for her roles in Sabrina, Legends of the Fall, Mad Men and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, has already done considerable research on witches.
“I feel I’ve worked a number of different projects where I’ve looked into aspects of being a witch,” she says. “We did The Crucible when I was at drama school. It was exploring about what happened when people were accused of it. I did do a pilot where I was a witch, but it didn’t get picked up.”
Research is a cherished part of her job, she says. In fact preparing for a role is one area in which she can easily go overboard. “In some ways I’m a perfectionist and I don’t necessarily feel it’s a good thing,” says Ormond.
“I don’t know that I bring perfectionism into acting because it almost literally doesn’t have a place. You could maybe once you’re finished, look back at your work and – as a perfectionist – feel like you endlessly fall short. But there’s no such thing as a perfect take. If it’s good, it’s living, it’s alive, it’s too fluid, too mercurial. The good stuff isn’t set in stone. It’s not a painting. It’s not a canvas that’s finished. It’s more open than that.”
Preparation, she says, is a bottomless pit. “You can go on and on and on and on but there is a point at which you feel secure enough to dive into your role, and that stuff is either useful or it’s not. If I have a perfectionist side it comes into play in terms of my preparation.”
Once she’s laid the groundwork, intuition clicks in. “The actual experience is an experience where time should disappear. I’m in it, I’m not observing it. You observe it after. It’s a horrifying moment when the director says, ‘Could you do exactly what you did last time?’ ‘No!’ I kind of have a sense of where that went. I kind of have a sense of it but I’m not completely sure what happened.”
Married and divorced twice, Ormond is the mother of a 9-year-old daughter. She says she doesn’t know if she’d marry again and she finds it precarious balancing her work and her mission as a mother.
“It’s a hard industry to be in. I find it challenging as a mother to make scheduling work, so maybe it’s a particular phase I’m in now with my kid. It’s also about curiosity because it’s a bizarre life. It’s a very specific and particular life, but it is a life that has given me so much opportunity, particularly working aboard on different projects. I’ve had an amazing life in terms of the career I chose.”
A few years ago, though, she had second thoughts about her choice. She’d just finished an exhausting year’s work in Russia in The Barber of Siberia.
“Every project that you do is like pitching yourself into a marathon and you should be wiped at the end of it. You shouldn’t have energy left. But there was a moment in time when I felt somewhat lost. I couldn’t relate to projects that were coming in, so I pulled out of it and went and did a bunch of other stuff. I did an adaptation. I had a production company that dealt with Miramax. I produced a documentary that was about two women who survived Serbia that got an Emmy. I got involved in philanthropic and political stuff.”
Among those activities was traveling abroad as an ambassador with the United Nations in efforts to curtail human trafficking. That revived her muse, she thinks. “I’ve always been fascinated by what it is to be a human being and what I have found about acting is that everybody has a great story. Every individual has a great story to tell.”