The Mortal Instruments fans had a rough go with the initial film adaptation of the beloved Cassandra Clare young adult book series — which is why FreeForm’s Shadowhunters has fans excited and pumped to see the story and characters being given another chance for the screen.
Kick ass protagonist Clary Fray — normal girl turned demon-hunter when she is exposed to a whole new world of creatures and, well, drama — is once again being brought to life, but this time for a slightly smaller screen, by Katherine McNamara. Most recently we saw the actress opposite Dylan O’Brian in The Scorch Trials, the second instalment in the The Maze Runner franchise — so bringing beloved stories to life seems to be a specially of hers.
At just 20 years old, Katherine has a list of television and film credits that almost make us want to put on pants and go outside — almost. The actress first began performing on stage with some of Broadway’s biggest stars, including Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury, going on to star in Disney TV films like Girl vs. Monster and guest in shows like, our personal favourite, The Fosters.
Now, McNamara is slaying demons in FreeForm’s Shadowhunters, bringing to life Cassandra Clare’s fantasy YA series that has spun off multiple other series in the magical Shadowhunter world.
We had the chance to chat with Katherine over the phone about bringing iconic fictional characters to life, the importance of portraying a strong female character on screen, what fans can expect from the Shadowhunters series — which is now available on Netflix— and more.
ANDPOP: What attracted you to the character Clary Fray?
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Well, first of all, it was kind of a dream job for me in the first place, simply because there [are] so many elements to [the role]. The Sci-Fi/fantasy aspect with all the special effects, the stunt work – there’s the fight training – and then, you know, the story, [which is] based on the book series [The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare]. And then there’s this character, who I can really grow with and grow into. [Clary] really is a fully developed, well-rounded character, and someone who I was very excited to play. [She] has this blend of strength and vulnerability that ebbs and flows throughout the season, and as an actor, it’s really exciting to get to go on that journey with her! Something about Clary that I find very unique is that ,yes, she’s the heroine of the story, yes she’s fiercely loyal to her friends and the people that she loves — but she’s also flawed. She’s forced into this situation where…she becomes so passionate about the mission that she makes choices and sacrifices that aren’t hers to make. So throughout the course of the season she makes these choices that ultimately are somewhat selfish, and she has to deal with the consequences of those actions as the series continues. It becomes very heavy for her.
Netflix specifically has been getting behind a lot of television series with these real, raw, bad ass female characters at the center – Shadowhunters included — but also shows like Marvel’s Jessica Jones. What’s your favourite part about playing a strong female character?
I think it’s such an exciting time to be a young woman in television right now, simply because there are so many strong female heroines that are at the helm of all these amazing, bad ass, really raw, gritty shows. To be a young person kind of starting off – having [Clary] be one of my first major roles and [Shadowhunters] being one of my first major projects – it’s very exciting! But it’s also a HUGE responsibility, because I know when I was a young girl I had characters like this that I looked up to. To be stepping into one of these roles – knowing that young girls are going to be watching this show, hoping that they can be strong like Clary and fearless like Clary, things like [that] – it’s important to show those strong elements, but also to show the human elements as well. I try and find that balance.
The Mortal Instruments is an extremely popular Young Adult Fiction franchise. Is the massive fan base of readers intimidating for the cast? Or has seeing all the support that readers are throwing behind the show eliminated that factor?
You know, it’s VERY much a double-edged sword. It’s been amazing to have the support from the fans, and to have an audience that’s already excited to see the show – people who already love these characters and are excited to see them come to life on screen. And…when you’re on set at 4 A.M., in a graveyard, running in heels all night, tired and cold [laughs], it’s great to look on Twitter and be able to see some fan art, or [their] anticipation or fan theories about what’s going on in the show! It’s very exciting, but you’re right — it’s also a little intimidating.
Something I’ve learned from talking [with] fans at ComiCon, on Twitter – things like [that] – is that people really become attached to these characters; they really look up to them, and they become their heroes, because when you read something, you have such a personal attachment to that story. But really, our main goal with [Shadowhunters] is to do justice to the fans that have been with Cassandra from the beginning. We really hope that the series does take on its own life, but that it still remains true to what people love about the [original] story.
For people who didn’t read the books, what would you tell them about Shadowhunters?
Well Shadowhunters is a coming-of-age story about a young girl who finds herself in a new world that she doesn’t understand. The story takes place in New York City – present day – but there’s also a world in which all legends are true. So every story, every creature, every monster, everything that goes bump in the night exists, just in a way that humans – or “mundanes” – can’t see. That’s where Clary and the Shadowhunters come in. These “Shadowhunters” are half angel, half human being, whose sole purpose are to fight demons and protect the world, and sort of keep the peace among all these other supernatural creatures. So Clary is thrust into the middle of this war – this unrest – when her mother is kidnapped and she finds out that her father, Valentine, is one of the most hated, most feared evil Shadowhunters to ever exist. So she’s kind of stuck between her parents and this world, having to learn how to become something she didn’t even know existed.
That’s a great way to put it. It’s such an interesting concept, and Sci-Fi and fantasy have become such an important part of television. What is it about this particular genre that you think gets audiences so excited?
Well, everybody loves fantasy. Everybody loves “make believe.” Everybody loves believing that magic is real! But something that I think really draws people to Shawdowhunters in particular is not necessarily the fantasy, but the humanity of the characters. Because if you look at these characters – at their core, even though most of our characters aren’t human, or half human – they’re young people that are growing up. So they’re falling in love for the first time, figuring out who they are and what their place is in the world, who they love, and what that means [in terms] of their other relationships…which is something a lot of our viewers are going through as well. And because [the show] is set in this realm of fantasy, it allows people to look at their own problems in an objective way, and maybe gain new insight into what they’re going through.
That’s so true! Now, this is the second adaptation for The Mortal Instruments – the first, a feature film, left fans pretty disappointed. Does that add additional pressure – to distinguish the series from past productions?
It does in a sense. And that’s why when we began [working on] the series, our creator, Ed Decter, and…the rest of the team at FreeForm took extra care to make sure that this interpretation had it’s own voice and own perspective. With the change [from ABC Family] to FreeForm, it gives us the freedom to be a bit darker, a bit edgier, a bit sexier – [creating] a…version of this story that fans have never seen before. I’m a huge fan of Lily Collins; I have so much respect for her and the film…but we definitely take advantage of the medium of television, and the time that we have to explain the story, while still keeping [the plot] moving forward.
So true. Pressure aside, what does bringing a beloved story to life mean to you as an actress? You’ve done it twice now with Shadowhunters & The Maze Runner.
[Laughs] It’s a lot of fun! I love this genre of…young adult Sci-Fi/fantasy fiction. I’m a huge fan of both The Mortal Instruments and The Maze Runner [book] series. So, for me, getting to draw from the books and use that to inform what I do on screen is irreplaceable! It’s so fun to bring these worlds to life because they’re so rich…fully developed and so different from our own world. So it’s fun to go on set and fully immerse yourself in this alternate reality. Whether it be in the middle of the desert with, you know, crashing helicopters, things are exploding, masked soldiers are coming down and capturing us. Whether it’s vampires and warlocks and werewolves and fairies and magic [or] angels and demons, itt’s really amazing, and it’s a huge honour and a big responsibility. But it’s a dream come true!
Amazing! Does it make it easier or harder for you as an actress – having all this material to draw from? When you’re playing an original role, it’s your job to create a persona but now, with these adaptations, you already have such strong character development already completed.
Well, I feel like it can only be an advantage. Cassandra has spent so much time with this character – developing her, [plotting] her journey – and a lot of the books are from Clary’s perspective. So the detail [Cassandra] has put into every thought, every feeling, every glance that Clary experiences throughout the six books is really amazing to draw from. As an actress it’s great, because the [television] series is just different enough from the books that I’m able to use that…foundation, and apply [those] elements, that essence to the script in a new way, and add my own stamp to the character. So it’s sort of the best of both worlds.
What’s the one other fictional character from a book you’d love to bring to life on-screen?
I mean, there [are] endless, ENDLESS characters [I’d love to play]! My favourite play is Arcadia by Tom Stoppard, and I’ve been DYING to do that play for ages. I don’t know if it’s been done [as] a film adaptation, so that’s something I’d love to see brought to life. But really, I’m always up for something new and something challenging. I love it when I read a script and it scares me a little bit.
Honestly, that’s what happened with both Shadowhunters and Maze Runner. I’d look at the script and go “Oh…well, geez! Can I go there? Can I do that? Am I up for the challenge?” And of course I know that once I’m on set and once I’m in it…I know that I’ll be able to rise to the occasion…really grow and learn as an artist. That’s something that I thrive on – that challenge. You don’t become an actor to play it safe; you become an actor to take risks, to go to those dark places and come out the other side learning something from it.
Your career really began on Broadway, where at just 13 you were working alongside Catherine Zeta-Jones and THE Angela Lansbury during the production of A Little Night Music. Is theatre something you’d like to come back to?
Without a doubt! The first couple years that I was acting, I was in Kansas City doing theatre – there’s such a rich theatre community there — so working there, and working in New York with Catherine and Angela, and Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch, taught me so much about work ethic and what being a part of this industry is really about; what it means to be an actor and the amazing, wonderful, weird life it can bring. It just made me fall in love with it! Theatre, to me, is something that will ALWAYS have a special place in my heart, because you’re in it – once that curtain goes up, you have to make it through no matter what happens; the show must go on. There’s that energy from the live audience that makes [it] an experience you can’t get from any other medium. It’s something that I definitely want to go back to.
We’re gonna dig for a little exclusive here. Your fellow cast member Dominic Sherwood is currently dating Sarah Hyland – any chance she’s making a cameo at any point throughout the season?
[Laughs] I have NO idea! She does come to visit [us] on set, which is awesome. You know, it’s so great because this cast has formed such a family, and all of the significant others and everyone who’s involved with the cast has become a part of that family. We all get along so well. For me, being the youngest member of the cast, it’s really great to have these people that have become brothers and sisters to me – to kind of learn from personally and professionally. But you never know!
[Laughs] Final question for you Katherine: without giving too much away, what can we expect from Shadowhunters this season?
Oooohhh, there’s SO much!
Seriously! Looking back at pictures from the episodes every week – there’s so much that I’ve forgotten. [Some of] the stuff we’ve done has just adds SO much story! There’s a lot of really special moments. Oh goodness…something I’m excited for in the next couple episodes is you really start to see relationships come to the forefront. We really have a love octagon in the show [laughs]! I’m actually really – honestly – excited for the last two episodes. There’s ups and downs throughout the entire season, but episode 12 is really special – we do something different than in the books, slightly – and it changes things for the characters in a REALLY big way. It’s something special not only for us as a cast, but for the characters and the writers and really for television and for FreeForm as a whole. I think it’s going to be something really exciting and really special for a lot of people. BUT – how we end the season I’m absolutely in love with, simply because we’ve been on this big journey – all these characters have gone through [so much] – and we get to the end, and every character, essentially, gets what they want. But in getting what they want, they’re destroyed by the choices that they’ve made. You see them accomplish what they set out to do, and yet it’s the beginning of [their] next journey, and hopefully – if we get a second season – we’ll get the chance to take you with us.