Teresa Palmer is feeling witchy.
The actress, who traffics in the most zen of attitudes, is musing about the magical connection she feels with her latest character, Diana Bishop. It was a feeling she got from her first audition for A Discovery of Witches, the new television series based on Deborah Harkness’s best-selling novel of the same name.
“I was so desperate to get the role after I read this book,” Palmer explains. “I felt so connected to Diana in so many ways.” She even went to the extent of using a little bit of her own brand of magic to help her win the role — Palmer meditated in the bathroom before her audition, attempting to bring Diana into her body.
It worked, and now Palmer is leading the new series, which has already been renewed for two more seasons after a successful debut in the U.K. last fall on Sky One. For Palmer, it’s Diana’s journey from buttoned-up academic denying her magical powers to full-blown witch in love with an enchanting vampire. “I love that she’s finding growth and she’s learning more about herself,” she tells EW. “When I first met her, I was rooting for her to lean into her magic…And she does that. She takes her own journey and her own time to get to that place. Through the help of Matthew and the situation she finds herself in, she has no other option but to dive deeper into who she truly is. I found that really inspiring.”
It didn’t hurt that Palmer also had assistance from Diana’s creator, author Deborah Harkness. “Deb was just incredibly encouraging and positive, and she made me really feel that I was supposed to play this character,” Palmer says. “When you get the blessing from the woman who created it, it feels pretty nice.”
Harkness gave her much more than a blessing, instructing her in the techniques of being a historian and a scholar on a field trip to the Cardiff University library. Diana, after all, studies many of the same subjects that interest Harkness as a historian and professor at the University of Southern California, including alchemy and the life of Elizabeth I’s trusted astrologer John Dee.
“I started researching a fair bit into John Dee, and trying to wrap my head around the concept of alchemy and its links to science and magic,” Palmer says of the legwork she did alongside Harkness to prepare for the role. “All of this stuff is so new to me because I went straight from high school into acting, and I never had a college education. So it was wonderful because I felt like I got to go to university for the first time…I got to handle 16th century books and touch the pages and smell them and just look at the bindings and some of the works of John Dee. Deb talked me through it. I didn’t want to be too tentative with the books because she said a lot of first-timers don’t even really want to breathe on the books.”
The series also called upon Palmer to learn how to row. Matthew Clairmont (Matthew Goode) first observes Diana Bishop rowing on the river in Oxford, and it’s a crucial part of her early story. Palmer traveled to Wales six weeks early to learn the sport, and along the way, she discovered rowing was in her blood. Her grandmother was a champion rower for her college in England, and her mom sent her photos of her grandma in her scull that Palmer didn’t even know existed. While many on set assumed Palmer would have to use a stunt double for some of the rowing scenes, they were blown away by the ease and speed with which she mastered it.
For her, it was about embracing the more spiritual elements required — a balancing of the mind so key to Diana’s own development as a character. “It’s much more challenging than you would expect,” Palmer says of rowing. “It’s really meditative in so many ways, and it’s not dissimilar to yoga in that when you have a clear mind and you just drop into your body, the boat responds to you. As soon as you tense up and allow fear to overtake you, the boat starts to wobble. I actually thought that was quite a great metaphor for life.”
Palmer says another main draw for her in the series was the character of Matthew Clairmont, a vampire and Diana’s forbidden love interest. “When I first read this, Matthew was someone that I needed to know more about. I felt really drawn to him and to that world, and I wanted to know more,” she says. “It’s great because Diana’s the same. She has this otherworldly connection with him, and she wants to know about his past and how vampires live. It’s equal parts dark and fascinating and just enthralling.”
She considers herself lucky to have an onscreen partner in Matthew Goode, describing him as her “partner in crime.” The two ground the series and the majority of its eight episodes are focused on their story both apart and once they come together as a couple. “We really have each other’s back in this. I’ve never done something before where I really feel like it’s a team in that way. Where it’s just you and him together in the trenches,” she says of Goode. “I feel that with him and I feel a 100 percent supported by him, and we have the same views about the script and the characters and the world.”
Palmer is still a bit mystified by the whole experience. During a break from filming, she marvels at all the magic and special effects that are central to her character, saying she feels like she’s ended up in a Harry Potter film. But more than anything, she’s proud of the work she gets to do inspiring other women with her character. “I can’t believe that I get to portray a woman who is so powerful within her magic,” she marvels. “To have such a strong female center of the story is something I’ve really been waiting to do. And I’m really honored that I was chosen to bring her to life.”
And that’s a bit of magic in its own right.
A Discovery of Witches is streaming on Shudder and Sundance Now beginning Jan. 17.