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Kiernan Shipka on witchcraft, dating apps and growing up on screen

Witchcraft, ricotta brioche and complex female characters… Stylist discovers what makes Kiernan Shipka tick as she showcases the best of the high street. 

Kiernan Shipka is having a blast. Jolene by Dolly Parton is booming through the photo studio speakers and Shipka is singing along at the top of her voice, living every word. 

When the music changes, Robyn’s Dancing On My Own comes on and she’s lost in the moment, fizzing with energy. If you ever needed a reminder of the sheer optimism and lust for life you had at 19 (and really, who doesn’t need that right now?) it’s right here dancing in this studio in New York.

Jumpsuit, £120, Asos

Since starring as Sally Draper in Mad Men, Shipka has frequently been described as preternaturally mature or old beyond her years. And in a way that’s true. She speaks eloquently about her love of literature and makes a point of shaking everyone’s hand after the shoot has finished, which is quite rare for any celebrity let alone one who is 19. But she is also wide-eyed about the world. 

Wearing a red Moncler jumper she bought herself as a Valentine’s present the previous day, she finishes an answer with “obvi” or exclaims, “Oh my god, I died,” about Dolly Parton’s recent collaboration with Miley Cyrus at the Grammys, and suddenly there’s no question of her youth.

Born in Chicago and raised in Los Angeles, Shipka made her television debut at five months old in ER before landing her role in Mad Men aged six. Sally, a strong-willed proto-feminist who rebelled against her parents, grew up on screen for nearly 10 years, as did Shipka. 

She has, it seems, remained unscathed in the notoriously difficult world of child actors. Her mum accompanies her on set (and to Stylist’s photo shoot), and she still lives at home in LA with “the fam”, although change is afoot. “I’m making the big move to the guest house,” she laughs. “They’re kicking me into the garage.”

Green dress, £89, Richard Quinn x Debenhams; purple dress, £299, Whistles; trainers, £74.95, Adidas

While Mad Men was winding up, Shipka appeared in Flowers In The Attic (2014) and The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015). Then in 2018, she was cast in her first TV leading role as half-mortal, half-witch Sabrina Spellman in Netflix’s Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina.

When the series – a more macabre reboot of Nineties show Sabrina The Teenage Witch – premiered in October, it became an instant hit. Netflix has already confirmed it will run for at least four series. And its timing couldn’t be better: with storylines focused on intersectional feminism, gender identity and exploring sexuality, the show covers topics that are pertinent to right here, right now. 

It’s the perfect vehicle for the breadth of Shipka’s talent as she balances portraying an innocent, curious version of Sabrina with one who seeks revenge on the patriarchy. Season two is just around the corner, and for Shipka, it’s a chance to play a darker version of Sabrina who’s tapping into her witchy powers and growing into womanhood.

She is also seizing the chance to play with different roles. Upcoming projects include a Christmas film, Let It Snow – “It’s like if [author] John Green did Love Actually” – and The Silence, a horror film with Stanley Tucci and her Sabrina co-star Miranda Otto. “I love doing TV, I love knowing that I have a character to develop. But movies are really exciting. You pour your heart and soul into them, you go full force, sprint, and then it’s over. Then you have time to sleep, which is also nice.”

Sleep is one of our favourite subjects. Are you obsessed too?

I’m a grandma. I love a nice early dinner and a 9pm bedtime like no other.

Top, £79.99, and skirt, £69.99, both Zara; earrings, £12.99, H&M 

It seems as if you’re having the time of your life right now. What’s the best thing about being 19?

At this point I’m excited about just living. Everyone goes through their fair share of things, and I feel I’ve got to the point now where I’m so happy to experience life and own my emotions. I think that’s always a bit of a learning curve – being OK with not being happy 24/7, and figuring everything out. I feel like living and seeing friends, having fun, being silly, also learning a lot and taking in a lot [has helped me]. It feels like a really fun time. I’m really happy with where my life is right now.

You were really feeling the music at the photo shoot. What are your favourite songs to dance to?

Nobody by Mitski. Anything by Blood Orange is really groovy. Frank Ocean. I’m into ‘the party’s dying down’ music. I don’t know how I did physical activity before A Star Is Born’s soundtrack came out. Needless to say, now it’s all Shallow, me and the elliptical. I mean, people are probably looking at me [in the gym] like, “What the hell is her problem?” But I’m obsessed.

Witchcraft has become very on-trend recently. Had you dabbled in it before starting the show?

Growing up in LA I was a bit woo-woo, but being in Sabrina has definitely inspired that further. I’ve always been curious about spiritual things, healing powers, crystals. It always sparks my interest. We have a few practising witches on our show, a few writers are [witches], which is awesome. I also went to see a medium, and watched a lot of movies that surround that kind of thing.

Blazer, £60, and trousers, £35, both Next; trainers, £84.95, Adidas 

Why do you think Sabrina is important as a young woman on TV in 2019?

I remember when I was 13 or 14, how the TV I watched or whatever I read could influence me so much. To have a character like Sabrina makes me very happy and excited that some young girls are watching and looking up to a strong girl who is doing what’s right and calling out what’s wrong. We see Sabrina fail a lot, but instead of letting it get her down, she gets right the hell back up. I think showing more complex multi-dimensional female characters on television is extremely important. It’s important for people to see themselves in characters.

Who are the characters you looked up to as a teenager?

Blair Waldorf [from Gossip Girl] obviously was my goal and my dream! I’m never going to own that many headbands, but I certainly tried when I was 13. But The Wizard Of Oz was probably the most influential movie for me because it was the first one that ever made me want to actually be in film.

Blazer, £245, and shorts, £70, both Gant; bikini top, £25, Cos

Sabrina Spellman loves a headband too. How about you?

I love a good headband but I don’t really rock one. I do rock a bandana that you tie in this sort of situation [her hands disappear in a blur of hair and bandana]. I don’t know what you call that… I love that.

For our shoot you’re wearing the best of the new-season high street – how do you experiment with your style generally?

For me, it’s about not taking it too seriously – whatever catches my eye. I like things that are basic and chic and adding in fun pieces here and there. I also love dressing up. If I’m going out – which I don’t do a lot – and I get to dress up, I’m going to put on my heels.

Hat, £22, and top, £26, both Urban Outfitters; jumper, worn tied across body, £17.99, New Look

Who are your go-to designers?

Madewell kills the casual game. I really like AG for jeans and whatnot, and then as far as more splurge-y brands are concerned, I really like Markus Lupfer. I love La Vie Rebecca Taylor, the line she does for Nordstrom. I love a vintage moment.

With the benefit of hindsight, how did playing Sally Draper affect your coming of age?

In every way possible. It’s one of those things where you can’t imagine what your life would possibly be without it. Physically, I would not be here; I don’t think I would be anywhere near here. I truly have no idea what kind of person I would be without it because it was so formative. It’s where I learned that I really, really loved acting, and watching everyone work was amazing.

Dress, £249, Ted Baker

Starting so young, have you ever felt like you needed to take a break from acting?

No, honestly I haven’t. After Mad Men I did a few projects here and there, but to be quite honest, acting for the most part has plenty of breaks. It’s always good to take a break from anything that you love doing, just for a second, to get perspective on stuff. Even a month off from Sabrina, I was like, “Oh my god, I see things so much clearer now.” But no, never long-term. That doesn’t sound appealing right now. I love it too much.

Have you considered going to college?

I have done my fair share of college parties, so I feel like I’ve got that experience. And at this moment in time, no, I don’t think so. As long as I can continually educate myself on a daily basis. I never want to stop learning, that’s the thing. If I can continually read stuff and take classes and do things that are interesting to me, that’s perfect. That’s what I want and what I need.

Jacket, £60, and skirt, £35, both River Island; top, £12, Asos 

Have you ever thought about what you’d do if you weren’t acting?

I like writing, so I could see myself doing something in that realm, even if it was journalism. I also like making lists [and] organising things. If Goop was hiring, I feel like I’d be their girl. I would go to all the cities, find the restaurants, write the lists. That’s kind of my side job anyway for my friends.

Where are some of your favourite places to eat?

In LA I like Sqirl – their brioche with the ricotta is like clouds of heaven. Oh my god. Have you been to Bestia? It’s a really great Italian restaurant in LA. And then there’s Guisados. The quesadilla there is literally a grilled block of cheese. I need nothing more in my life.

What do you love to cook?

I make basic stuff. I don’t really follow recipes. I enjoy the eating aspect, I enjoy the fact that I can cook something for myself, but as far as getting into major recipes, I’m not going down that road. The only recipe that I can do is a really good chocolate chip cookie. I made these tahini-based chocolate chip cookies with almond flour, chocolate chips and maple syrup, and they were so good. 

But generally speaking, I love a roasted vegetable. I make a really pretty salad. I love making toast. There’s something very methodical about toasting a really thick piece of sourdough bread, smashing avocado on it and frying an egg. It’s so simple, so basic, but it makes me feel bougie as hell. I love it.

Dress, £89, & Other Stories; top, £19, and leggings, £35, both Arket 

You mentioned earlier that it’s important for you to continually educate yourself. What are you reading at the moment?

Eileen [a book by Ottessa Moshfegh]. It’s modern lit about this girl who lives in this East Coast town. She’s very sad [and] has a mundane, depressing kind of life. And then she escapes. But she’s telling it from the perspective of many years later. The writing is beautiful, it’s all very romantic, and sort of messy and good.

We hear you’re a Queer Eye fan. Who’s your favourite cast member?

Oh my god, I can’t pick. I can’t really pick. I think maybe Tan [France]. He is just a bright light of joy. I love him. I love the French tuck [his signature styling trick]. I’m all about the French tuck.

Coat, £125, Guess; top, £16, Asos; trousers, £49, Warehouse; shoes, £49, Office 

How do you feel about modern dating? Is that something you’re able to do much of?

Not a lot, because I’m so busy. I think that the show made me exponentially busier, and all I want to do is sleep on the weekends. Meeting people has always been kind of a funny situation for me, growing up not going to school, but knowing everyone who went to the schools in LA. It’s good, I’ve found ways.

Have you tried the online dating world?

Of course. Raya [an exclusive members-only dating app] for life. Love it. God bless Raya.

Finally, what’s something people don’t know about you?

I’m very good at Words With Friends; I’m very competitive with Lucy Davis [Hilda on Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina].

Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina Part II is available on Netflix from 5 April.

Photography: Alexei Hay / Fashion: Arabella  Greenhill