The highly-anticipated adaptation of Cassandra Clare’s bestselling book series “The Mortal Instruments” is finally here, and Katherine McNamara is at the helm of it all. The accomplished actor is not only driving fans new and old to Freeform’s flagship series, but has helped bring these beloved book characters to life on the small screen. The constant intrigue and relatable moments within Shadowhunters is noteworthy to say the least and has undoubtedly kicked it to the top of our must-watch TV list this year. The show, which takes place in modern day Brooklyn, follows McNamara’s character Clary Fray, an 18-year-old who finds out she comes from a long line of demon slayers, better known as shadowhunters. Shocking, we know. Exciting, we know! This series has emotion, high-energy and an element of fantasy that will surely keep the audience coming back for more.
McNamara spoke with me about becoming Clary and touched on how challenging it can be to keep track of the intricate history surrounding her character and other worldly practices. We not only got the low down on the physical training for such a role, but she touched upon her favorite things about this story she’s come to love so much. Not to mention, she’s a fellow nerd and we geeked out about Marvel, Star Wars and the value of a good education. With a business degree in hand, McNamara is doing exceptionally well for a 20-year-old in Hollywood. All in all, it was a humbling and insightful conversation that I’ll never forget.
Now let’s get hunting!
MCKENZIE MORRELL: To kick things off, can you tell us a little bit about Clary Fray for those who might be unfamiliar with character and her story.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Clary is an art student, growing up in Brooklyn, she has her mother, and her best friend Simon and her mother’s good friend Luke who is kind of a stepdad to her. He’s the only real father figure she’s ever known. She is living a normal life about the start art school and then all of a sudden on her 18th birthday a series of events happen, her mother is kidnapped, everything she knows is kind of taken away from her and she’s drawn into this shadow world, which is sort of another plane in our world, so every creature, every monster, everything that goes bump in the night, every fairytale exists. And Clary finds out that she is from a race of shadowhunters, which is half angel, half human being whose sole purpose in the world is to fight demons and to keep the peace amongst all the different creatures that exist on this different plane. So she kind of is thrust on this journey and this real coming of age story that she never expected to encounter.
MCKENZIE MORRELL: Oh no, I’m sure. And obviously you get to do some fun things in the show in terms of physicality and fighting and all that. How much prep went into this role? Did you have to do a lot of training to get ready for it?
KM: We all had a lot of training for this show, but it ended up being a cast experience for us, which was great. We had fitness training with a personal trainer who kicked our butts into gear, so we would be these warriors that we were portraying. And then we had gymnastics training because all of us, of course, wanted to do our own stunts [laughs] and weapons training with all of these swords and bo staffs and throwing knives, and bow and arrow, whips and all other myriad of demon killing devices that we use. And that was also a really fun experience for us because we all had our individual weapons that we used and then we’d be in the training room and we’d start playing, and Matt [Daddario] would teach me how to use the bow and arrow and Dom [Sherwood] and I would sword fight and Emeraude [Toubia] would try and show us all how to use the whip and we would back away because we were terrified of it.
MM: And do you have a favorite weapon of choice, like your go-to one that you want your character to use all the time?
KM: Yeah, Clary has a couple different weapons that she uses throughout the season. There’s a really cool training fight she has with a bo staff in episode 5, but her main weapon is her seraph blade, which is this sword that’s made out of this supernatural metal that kills demons, but it’s a blade that was crafted especially for Clary by our props people and it was sort of made to fit my size [laughs] because I’m a very small individual and I can’t really use a huge sword as well as I can use a smaller one, and it really became a story point and something very special. But Clary, being an artist her main weapon she really uses more than anything is her stele, which is not technically this, we don’t really like to refer to it as this but it’s sort of the magic wand of the shadow world. They don’t really have powers apparently, but they have these steles that they can use to burn runes into their skin. They’re these markings that each represent a different power or ability or skill that they use over and over again when they need them in battle.
MM: That’s so amazing, and now do you find it hard to keep track of the history of your character and just everything that’s going on in this world?
KM: It can be challenging at times, but that’s why we always have a writer on set, we always have our director who knows quite a bit. And often our Showrunner Ed Dector who’s amazing, he’s always on call for anyone who has questions. I did read the books as well, so I did know quite a bit about the world and sort of what is going on, in terms of where the character is. When we were shooting the pilot we had long discussions about ‘what is a stele,’ and ‘what is a rune,’ ‘how do portals work,’ what are the rules of the world and how do you actually kill a demon, what does it take. So that we were all on the same page when we were in a scene, and sort of crafting everything as we went through the course of the season.
MM: Right! Smart! And obviously you said that you read the books do you feel a responsibility, or pressure to live up to this character since the books have a large fan base already?
KM: Absolutely, I mean, our series is pretty different from the book just because we know we can reach everyone, so we’re taking our own route, and perspective on these books and on this story and sort of going through this in a way that hopefully is a fresh perspective for all fans whether they’re new or whether they’ve been part of the shadow world forever. But something I learned from talking to a lot of the fans at Comic Con and the different fan events that we’ve done in combination with social media is that when you read a book, your imagination adds a lot to the story and because of that you form that personal attachment to those characters. These characters are going through a lot of similar situations to our audience. They love these characters, they grow up with them, and they become their heroes and it’s very exciting to have that support and that excitement but it also brings with it a huge responsibility that I definitely don’t take lightly.
MM: No, of course, and when you were reading the book, and obviously on the show did you find that one person really emulated the character from the books on screen. I’m sure everyone puts their own twist on the characters but were you like ‘oh man, this is exactly who I envisioned.’
KM: Absolutely, we are really fortunate on the show because they cast it impeccably. I started reading the first book during the casting process, but after meeting everyone and spending so much time with them as I continued to read the books it made it so much more special for me because heard each of their voices and could see their faces and really experience the story in a really personal way. But to be perfectly honest with you, everyone is cast impeccably for their characters, everyone has brought a real part of themselves and has put their heart and soul into creating these characters and making sure that we do attach them to the story that so many people care about, and it makes the experience so much better to have so many passionate people surrounding you and I believe that everyone is perfect in their roles.
MM: That’s amazing, and it’s really kind of the age of sci-fi and fantasy, do you feel like you guys are in competition with any shows, or are you embracing all the love from fans of other shows that are going on right now?
KM: I feel like we’re very in sync with the other shows that are currently there, but I feel like Shadowhunters has its own voice. Even though we do have a lot of supernatural elements and we do live in this plane of fantasy, we’re very grounded in reality. Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments takes place in our world, today in New York City and so these characters, a lot of them are young people in this world and it’s more the relationships and these characters that draw more than the fantasy of it. These characters are young, they’re growing up, they’re falling in love for the first time, they’re figuring out who they are and who they love and what that means for their relationship and it really is a story that a lot of people can relate to in that sense. And hopefully our viewers can see their own problems in more of an objective way and hopefully we can help them solve some of the things that they’re going through.
MM: Oh definitely, and I feel that the show does a great job of putting you in a current time with the technology, and just the atmosphere and it takes it to the next level.
KM: Absolutely, and another element to the story that I find really interesting is that there’s sort of two generations of shadowhunters within the story. There’s the older generation of our parents, and our teachers, and then there’s the young generation who’s the main character of our story and there are a lot of problems that have been in existence for generations that our characters are finding ways to solve simply because they are more open minded and they don’t have the same prejudices and the same stereotypical points of view that the parents have or the other leaders of the shadowhunter world. I think that’s very true of today’s world, younger generations are often more open minded, more accepting than some older generations and that just keeps the story moving forward in a very interesting way.
MM: Yeah, and now that the network has kind of moved over from ABC Family to Freeform, do you feel like you guys have a little more leeway to expand the world and touch on things that you might not have been able to do before?
KM: Absolutely, we’re very lucky to be sort of the new flagship show for Freeform, that’s transitioned from ABC Family into this new network and new image. Because of that we were able to push the boundaries and push the envelope with the romance and violence and all the other elements of the story simply because we were helping them to find what Freeform is. I think that’s what Freeform is all about, it’s about finding your way, it’s about growing up, it’s about experimenting and pushing those boundaries and seeing what happens.
MM: You guys are at the forefront of this change and I think it’s going to be a really great shift for the network and the show in general.
KM: I do too. ABC Family itself was such an amazing network and has such a strong viewership and was so successful, that I really have respect for them as a company because they’re staying ahead of the game and they refuse to be stagnant and refusing to rest on their laurels if you will. It’s really an amazing thing that they’re doing moving forward like this.
MM: Oh yeah! And now let’s step into your real life shoes for a second. How do you think you’d react if you found out you were this person who hunted down demons?
KM: I have no idea [laughs] I’m not a fighter in real life, so I hope that I would rise to the challenge, but it’s really quite the arc that my character goes through. She’s got this sort of strength and vulnerability that kind of ebbs and flows this season and as an actor it’s a very fun character to play, to find that balance. In my own life, Clary is the most similar to any character I’ve played before in who I am as a person. So I think I would react in a similar way. She’s got this fierce loyalty to the people that she loves and she’s just a strong, independent woman that she can’t help but fight but and she can’t help but rise to the challenge, I can only think that I would probably do the same.
MM: She definitely kind of dives into things after the initial shock, if you could swap places with one of the other characters on the show, who would it be?
KM: I think as an actor I would like to play Simon for a day. Simply because as he goes on he has such a journey to go on and such a character arc that as an actor is something that we all dream of. And honestly there’s no one better than Alberto [Rosende] to play this role, he does an incredible job and really brings it every episode. I am constantly floored by his performance, but as an actor that would be an amazing role to play as well.
MM: That would be totally cool. We’re really loving Simon so we can get on board with that. It must be interesting seeing fan reactions to your work on social media. Do you enjoy seeing what the fans have to say while they’re watching the show? How has that experience been?
KM: It’s really great, it’s something that really motivated us was seeing the fan responses and hearing their opinions and seeing what they thought. Feeling that excitement and that anticipation for the show, it really felt as though they were on the journey with us. And you know when you’re in a graveyard in the middle of the night and it’s cold and you’re exhausted and you’ve been fighting demons all day it’s always fun to go on social media and see an amazing piece of fanart, or see some kind of excitement for the show, it really fuels our fire.
MM: That’s awesome, and you guys have had positive feedback for the most part? You haven’t had to deal with any negative responses?
KM: I mean honestly there’s always a few negative responses, everyone has a really strong opinion about this piece simply because the fans have such an attachment to it, and it’s something that you deal with but you can’t let that get to you. Because everybody has their own opinion and everybody’s opinion is valid, but we can’t please everyone. We just have to be confident in our perspective and in the story that we’re trying to tell and hope that people are open minded in coming on this journey with us.
MM: Totally, and that’s a great way to look at it, some people wouldn’t see it that way so it’s good for you guys to be grounded in what you need to do in terms of that. That aside, you have quite an impressive background, most people your age barely have their lives together let alone everything you’ve already accomplished, do you think your education has helped you to flourish in this business where people are often taken advantage?
KM: Absolutely do, and that’s sort of the reason why I ended up getting this business degree is because I saw and heard of, especially young people, that they’ve been taken advantage of or making decisions that weren’t necessarily beneficial to their career. I wanted to be sure that I had a proper foundation so that I could manage my career not only creatively but also from a business perspective.
MM: That’s so great, and now is that something you would recommend to younger people who want to go out and follow their dreams and pursue acting, that they should have a proper foundation to walk on?
KM: I really do, business school isn’t for anybody, I’m a huge math nerd so I really enjoyed it and I’ve always loved economics so it was fun for me to get this degree and go through and learn the beneficiality to my career was an absolute added bonus. But I do think it’s important for people to understand the business side of the business and that it’s not all creative and you really do have to watch out for yourself. But there are different ways to learn and everybody learns in different ways, so whether getting a degree is the right choice or taking a class or reading a book, or however you learn but just make sure that you do have some kind of foundation in managing your money and reading your contracts and that you surround yourself with people that are really on your side and have your best interest at heart.
MM: That’s such solid advice, and you mentioned you’re a math nerd, do you have any nerdy vices? What’s something fans might not know about you.
KM: I have so many nerdy vices, I am a huge Marvel fan, I am Star Wars obsessed, that probably happened when I was 8-years-old. I love to knit, I bake, as I’ve stated before I love math. There’s so many things, I’m a huge Mortal Instruments fan now, I’ve read all the books and I really think Cassandra Clare’s world is an amazing, magical place that she’s created and love the journey that she takes with these characters.
MM: We love nerds, it’s the age of the nerds, we’re on board. If you could star in any of the Marvel shows, which one would it be?
KM: Any of them! Jessica Jones is my favorite show right now, I love the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D series. Of course who doesn’t love the Avengers movies. I’m looking forward to Captain America: Civil War and the next Avengers, and Batman vs. Superman, which isn’t Marvel but you know, all of those I just love coming out of the theater and feeling so empowered. You just feel that the sky’s the limit and you can do anything and anyone can save the world.
MM: No kidding! And to wrap things up tell everyone why we should tune in to Shadowhunters each week?
KM: I think Shadowhunters is an amazing story and not only fantasy of it but the reality of it and we take so many chances and push so many boundaries, every week the story builds that every time I go back and see little clips of the episodes in ADR, throughout the editing process, I remember little tidbits from little moments and little things that I had forgotten about but means so much to the characters and means so much to each of us as actors. It’s a story about love, and loyalty and becoming something that you never thought you could become, which is something everyone can relate to on some level.
Watch Shadowhunters Tuesdays at 9pm|8c on Freeform