fall preview 2018

Kiernan Shipka’s Season of the Witch

Sally Draper grows up on Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

Kiernan Shipka. Photo: Amanda Demme
Kiernan Shipka. Photo: Amanda Demme

Kiernan Shipka is only 18, and she has already given up coffee. “This is me getting cray,” she says as she breaks her own rule and orders a macadamia-nut latte at one of her favorite Los Angeles breakfast spots. While she usually favors a homemade drink made of matcha and mushrooms, today she’s in the mood for something stronger. “My body has been under more stress than ever before,” she says. “I don’t think the adaptogens are helping, I really don’t. Every morning after I drink my drink, I’m like, I’m still so stressed out! Come on, chaga, pull your weight over here.”

Talking about herbal stress relievers with Shipka has the uncanny quality of going out for drinks with a cousin you used to babysit, or running into your now grown-up kid neighbor on Tinder. For nearly nine years, Shipka was TV’s embodiment of girlhood in transition. We watched her grow up in front of us as Mad Men’s Sally Draper, from a neglected 6-year-old with a dry-cleaning bag on her head to a world-weary 15-year-old grappling with the imminent loss of one parent and seeing another through new eyes. But over sneaky lattes on this sunny August morning, Shipka looks, for once, like a thoroughly modern teen. Her shoulder-length blonde hair — usually coiffed into a ’60s-style bob for her period turns on Mad Men and Ryan Murphy’s Feud — is straight and pinned back. She radiates that freckly, makeup-free glow that Glossier has tried so hard to bottle but is best obtained by being a teenage girl on a sunny summer day in California.

While her name is liable to provoke misty-eyed nostalgia in a certain generation of AMC viewers, Shipka has never really been a celebrity among her peers. “Most people who were my fans were my friends’ parents,” she says with a shrug. That is very likely to change when Chilling Adventures of Sabrina rolls out on Netflix on October 26. A sister show to the immensely popular Riverdale, Sabrina seems tailor-made to spur the kind of frenzied teenage fandom that has turned Riverdale’s first couple, Lili Reinhart and Cole Sprouse (a.k.a. Betty and Jughead), into the Gen-Z Brangelina. With Sabrina, not only does Shipka stand to finally find a fan base her own age, she is also taking on the role of a teenage blonde so iconic that it might just unseat Sally Draper as her primary TV alter ego. “Sometimes you need an icon to play an icon,” says showrunner and Archie Comics chief creative officer Roberto Aguirre‑Sacasa, who also developed Riverdale. “And she was more than ready to be No. 1 on the call sheet.”

Modeled after Aguirre-Sacasa’s 2013 Archie Horror comics, the new Sabrina takes a beloved half-hour comedy from the late ’90s and reimagines it as an occult story in the vein of Rosemary’s Baby or The Omen. Aunties Hilda (Lucy Davis) and Zelda (Miranda Otto) aren’t the jovial fairy godmothers of Melissa Joan Hart’s Sabrina the Teenage Witch — they’re bona fide Devil worshippers whose version of a sweet 16 is something called a “dark baptism,” in which you sign your name in Satan’s book and pledge eternal fealty to the Dark Lord. In the pilot, we meet the half-witch, half-human Sabrina on the eve of her 16th birthday, when she is expected to renounce her mortal life (and her cute mortal boyfriend, Harvey) and embrace the spell-casting gig full time. But as she prepares to undergo this initiation, she is confronted with some ugly truths about her community and the worldview she’s expected to uphold. “It’s sort of like The Sopranos, as if you were telling it from Meadow’s point of view,” Aguirre-Sacasa says.

When Mad Men ended, in 2015, Shipka had been on the show for more than half her life and had never been to a normal school. The show was her education and show creator Matthew Weiner her homeroom teacher. You know how you get stress dreams about showing up to your AP Bio exam having forgotten to study? Shipka has her own version for Mad Men: “I had one recently where I was with January [Jones] in a boat and I didn’t know any of my lines and I was really stressed out. And Matt Weiner was like driving by in a car looking at us.”

In the past few years, Shipka has taken on smaller projects — playing Bette Davis’s daughter on Feud, opposite Susan Sarandon; a cameo in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt; an indie horror movie called The Blackcoat’s Daughter — but nothing she could really sink deeply into. “I was sort of like a frustrated actor,” she says. When Sabrina came along, “I was like, Oh my God, this is heaven. I’m obsessed with everything about it.”

Well, almost everything. “The cat is the one cast member I don’t get along with,” Shipka says. She found out she was allergic during her first month on set, when she broke out in hives after picking up one of the five feline actors who play the cat named Salem. “The cats are like Bobby Draper,” she jokes, referring to the passel of kids enlisted to play Sally’s little brother over the years.

When Shipka was cast, Aguirre-Sacasa had written only the pilot, and the pair had many conversations about the show’s tone and themes. Shipka was especially drawn to its feminist aspects, which Aguirre-Sacasa took and ran with. Unlike Mad Men, a tale of women’s empowerment disguised as a macho anti-hero story, there’s nothing subtle about Sabrina’s feminist allegory. The club Sabrina forms at her mortal high school is called WICCA (for Women’s Intersectional Cultural and Creative Association), while Satan is described as an abusive patriarch. (“I have reservations about saving myself for the Dark Lord. Why does he get to decide what I do or don’t do with my body?” Sabrina asks at one point.) It’s also very much a teen show, mixing the campy melodrama of Buffy with Riverdale’s penchant for snappy dialogue and teenage intrigue.

Despite her close relationships with onscreen parents Jon Hamm and January Jones, Shipka acknowledges that it’s been nice to finally have some co-stars her own age. In addition to the other teens on the show, the cast of Riverdale shoots five minutes away from them in Vancouver and has come to form the sort of extended friend group most young people have in high school. “I’m like, Oh my God, this is like my dorm! It’s the whole thing,” she exclaims. Shipka’s recent Instagram posts have the ebullient energy of a college freshman on a first-semester friend-making spree; in a recent video shot during a cast game night, she and her co-stars dance it out to Drake’s viral “In My Feelings” challenge, with Shipka as the centerpiece. “It’s ’cause everyone calls her Kiki,” explains 22-year-old Ross Lynch, who plays her boyfriend, Harvey Kinkle. “Right when the song came out, she was like, ‘Hey, guys, Drake loves me.’ ”

Lynch was also a child actor, which is something he and Shipka have bonded over on set. “She’s super-professional and way beyond her years as far as her maturity goes, but she’s also younger in some ways than your average 18-year-old,” he says. “We relate in that way. We don’t have normal lives. We never had regular relationships as far as boyfriends and girlfriends.”

“That’s the one thing that is all acting — I do not have a relationship,” Shipka says, laughing. “I’m too busy, man.” Still, she recounts Sabrina’s onscreen dalliances — including a love triangle with Harvey and a warlock boy — with a glint in her eye. “It’s not very hard to like either of those boys, to be honest. They’re really cute.”

Tomorrow, she’s returning to Vancouver to shoot the next ten episodes of Sabrina (the show was picked up for a two-season order). “It’s gonna be great, and people are gonna love it,” she declares with true-believer conviction. Sure, Shipka knows the newfound attention will be an adjustment, but she seems better poised than most to handle the pressures of being a teen icon. Unlike Millie Bobby Brown and her ilk’s, Shipka’s rise through the industry has been remarkably free from trolling and tabloids — and she’s hardly a social-media lightning rod, boasting a modest 450,000 Instagram followers to the Riverdalers’ multimillions. And yet, after spending almost a decade on the prestige-iest of prestige dramas, she’s eager not to be the kid on the adult show anymore. “[Shooting] Mad Men, I actually had a lot of normalcy and stability and a lot of being in one place,” she says. “Now I’m like, Send me anywhere. I’ll do it!”

I ask if she’d ever consider being a mentor to the Stranger Things kids of the world, those other impressionable youngsters navigating the grueling slog of being a child actor in Hollywood. “If they want to slide into my DMs, any day!” she says. Though, as an industry old fogey, she says she’s the one who’ll probably need tips from them. “Like, what time should I post things? I probably need their advice when it comes to the ’gram.”

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina premieres on Netflix on October 26.

*This article appears in the September 3, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Kiernan Shipka’s Season of the Witch