When we had the chance to catch up with Catherine Disher this week, our conversation ran the gamut from thoughts on the world’s political situation to COVID-19 to the beloved town of Middleton on Good Witch.
Unlike her character, Martha Tinsdale, everything Catherine discusses is done with grace, and that’s what makes playing Martha so much fun for the talented actress.
And like every one of her cast members, Catherine’s experience on Good Witch has been utterly delightful.
Catherine has been with the franchise since the very first movie, The Good Witch, which spans 14 years, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that much of the cast has become like family.
It’s not only the Hallmark corporate atmosphere that gets the credit here. “She’s just great,” Catherine says of Good Witch lead, Catherine Bell.
“I tell her this because I want her to know this, that she’s the best number one on any call sheet that I’ve ever worked with. She never gets angry; she’s never stressed out when she’s on set. She’s always a very calm, very supportive presence.
“She’s prepared, she’s funny, she’s super nice. She deals with everything very evenly, and very calmly, and that really trickles down. And everybody else is great, honestly great.”
“So it’s actually a pleasure to come to work, and again, we’ve known these producers now since the movies, and it’s just like old friends, it’s really like every day, you get to work with old friends.”
Martha is hardly the woman we met in the first movie, and Catherine shared her thoughts on her character’s journey. “Martha has had a very winding, personal journey through this, she started out as absolutely the bad guy, wanting to drive Cassie out of town for her magic,” Catherine said, laughing.
“Martha was totally against anything magic and looked at Cassie as though she was some sort of evil force coming to town. And gradually, over the movies, they became friends. She was the only one who never rolled her eyes at Martha, which I totally appreciated.
“And then Martha, I think at this point, probably thinks of herself as an honorary Merriwick; she’s one of the family, she walks in the front door without knocking, and she’s just there.”
Catherine continued, “I think the great thing about the relationship between Cassie and Martha is that Cassie honestly makes Martha want to be a better person. So all Martha’s childish instincts, slightly narcissistic instincts, get pointed out.
“And the good thing about Martha is that she kind of learns her lesson most episodes. Cassie teaches her a lesson, and she learns it. And she tries really hard, that’s the other thing, she tries really hard around Cassie to be a better person.
“And she doesn’t always succeed, and that’s the fun of it, when she just loses it, she loses the energy to do that, and reverts back to the most basic impulse that she has.”
“But I think she’s thrilled to be in on the joke now, so to speak. I think she literally feels like she’s a part of it all, and I think she feels like a member of the family,” Catherine says of what Martha now understands to be the Merriwick intuition.
Being an honorary Merriwick never feels more apparent than on Good Witch Season 6 Episode 7, when Martha is so inspired by the family paintings around Grey House that she directs a tableau vivant to bring the history to life in honor of Grey House’s 225th anniversary, another in the string of events that Martha whips up to get her community together.
“It’s true; I consider Martha to be a plot propeller, she’s always coming up with these ideas that involve the whole town. It’s kind of my unifying force to the character, being able to get everybody in on something. Get something together that everyone can participate in.
“And she has the best instincts there; a lot of it is for her own self-aggrandizement, but there is that sense of wanting to do the best for the town, and for the people in the town,” Catherine said.
Martha may have been behind the whole tableau, but Catherine wasn’t even there when the finally filmed it, I learned when we discussed what we had known about tableaus before the episode.
“I’ve never actually seen one in person. I didn’t actually see that one in person, because they shot it from the other way. But when I actually watched the episode, it looked really good.”
Anyone who watches Good Witch has recognized the symmetry between Martha and Tom (Paul Miller) in their marriage. If Martha wants to be a better person around Cassie, then it’s Tom who grounds her when her antics could potentially send her from perilously high to crashing to the ground.
Part of their on-screen chemistry could be due to the long relationship shared by the actors. “I love working with Paul. Paul was in theater school when I was; he was in the class below me. This is what, I want to say, 30 years ago now?
“I loved him ever since the movies because he can walk in and just say, “Martha.” And it just puts Martha right back in mind. And she has a very different relationship with Tom, he brings out a very different side of her, and I love that about doing scenes with him.
“It’s a real contrast to what she can get up to with other people, and when she gets all proud about something. It’s a very loving, very natural relationship.”
Tom even agrees with Martha that the Tinsdale on Toast is a great sandwich, something that gave us quite a chuckle during our interview.
When asked what she thought of the sandwich when she first heard of it, Catherine said, laughing, “It’s like, ‘What does that say about me?’ I suppose. I had to assume that it’s just something Martha ordered so much that they named it after her. But I don’t know; it’s not a taste combination that I would automatically think of.”
So while she wonders what kind of cook Martha must be if Tom, too, loves that interesting taste combination, Catherine greatly enjoys the marriage they portray on screen through all their ups and downs.
“There were a couple of episodes in there where I thought, ‘He’s just getting on my last nerve,’ On Martha’s last nerve,” she said in reference Tom’s short-lived decision to run against her for Mayor. “For a while, for a couple of years, we were the only happily married couple in Middleton. So, I’m glad everyone else is pairing up and looking more solid.”
It’s not often we get to see long-term relationships on Hallmark, so this feels special. “There was an episode a few seasons ago, where Tom and Martha have a fight in front of, I think it was Brandon’s character, and his wife, at their house.
“And then they meet them later in the street — I’m actually just summarizing since I can’t remember the exact lines, but it was something like — because [Brandon and his wife] thought they were going to break up; they were fighting.
“And [Martha and Tom] were like, ‘No, not at all, you show us a couple that doesn’t fight, and we’ll show you a couple that gets divorced.’ Something like that. That was fun to see their relationship, the little ups and downs of their behind-the-scenes relationship.”
“People who don’t talk and communicate, and part of communicating is communicating what you don’t like that’s going on. And that could be, I suppose, construed as arguing, or fighting. But people who don’t communicate, that’s worse for a relationship than communicating loudly.”
Catherine believes their mutual support is why they’re a success, especially since those times she could potentially crash back to earth after an idea of hers goes awry, he can help her descend more naturally with a simple. “Martha.”
“That is true, you’re right, and he does it in such a supportive, loving way. That’s what I like about that relationship.
“Like I said, at the beginning of the series, a few of the actors, their characters were rolling their eyes at me, and I guess you could take the lines either way, but I love the fact that Cassie never did, and Tom never did, his character was nothing but loving and supportive to Martha. And tolerant, he’s extremely tolerant.”
When asked if she’s enjoying Good Witch Season 6 and it’s increased focus on the adults and Tom’s more frequent presence, Catherine said, “Oh, yes, for sure. I enjoy it where my kids turn up here and there, but I remember we did in the movies, when Paul, his character Tom was the mayor, and I think he was in movies one through four, and then I think he might have disappeared after movie number four, and I really missed him.
“It wasn’t just showing up at events with no date, Martha showing up with no date, it was that interaction. And at public events where Martha was officiating, and in between takes, I’d call to the crowd and say, ‘Has anyone seen my husband? Please look under your porches and in your sheds; he’s missing.’ Like he was a lost cat that might’ve got stuck in someone’s garden shed.”
And while Catherine misses working with Bailee Madison, she thinks Kat Barrell is a great addition to the team. “Kat’s been a fabulous addition to the show; she fitted in like another finger on a glove.”
The more adult focus also allowed for Martha’s son, Dylan, to return to Middleton with his pregnant wife, Claire, which offered some wonderful scenes since he appeared to marry a younger version of his beloved mother.
“That was really fun, I actually wrote the writer a little note after our scene at the bistro table, I haven’t actually seen it, I didn’t see that episode, but it was so much fun to do, there was so much rhythm built into it. And Martha, again, just can’t hide her impatience, and it took her a long time to realize who she was face to face with, was, you’re right, kind of a mini Martha.”
And it wasn’t a blind observation, either. “I know. Apparently, the actress was telling me that that’s what they were asking for in the audition, that they wanted her to be like me. I thought, ‘Oh,’ and then I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to have to watch her do an impression of me now, that’s going to be weird.”
Catherine is happy when the kids arrive every now and then to see how they’ve gotten on in life. “In the very first movie, she had two sons who were both juvenile delinquents. They vandalized Cassie’s store. But, it seemed kind of fun when they showed up. The first one showed up, and he was a bit of a ne’er do well. And then showed back up and got married.
“But this one, I hadn’t seen; this was the first time I’d seen him, and he was in and out pretty fast. I love it when the family comes because you introduce a couple of new characters every episode, to Middleton, but it’s always nice when the main characters get to have their family, like when Abigail’s father came.”
Martha’s encounter with Claire and her attempt to write a memoir this season highlighted Martha’s abundance of confidence and the ways she seems to let herself down, so I wondered what kind of insight Catherine could offer into Martha’s state of mind.
“That’s a very interesting question, I think she spends so much time, it’s so important to her, and it looks like it’s all that’s important to her sometimes, is appearances. About the way things look, the way festivals look, the way her run as mayor looks, and the way she looks.
“Scarves, and lots of jewelry, and hair, just glued in place. I think that’s her front, it’s her way of confronting the world, and probably hiding, as we all do, hiding a certain amount of insecurity. That all this bluster is eventually just that, bluster and people are going to see right through you and think, ‘Oh, you’re not up to this.’
“And I think that’s where Tom can come in and give her a little genuine affection and support. But I think she loves to hear the sound of her own voice, and she loves to get carried away, and I honestly just like playing that. She always goes through so many little thought changes in one paragraph, that it’s really fun.
And she’s impatient; I think it hides a certain amount of impatience with everybody around her. And with herself as well. I think that also is what that is, she has very high expectations, and if she doesn’t meet them, then she gets impatient and upset with herself.
“But I think everything that goes through Martha’s head, basically comes out of her mouth. So as she’s thinking, she’s speaking, and it’s all just rolling out there. I love following the thought patterns; that’s what I do.
“Her first thoughts are usually not the most selfless, and they’re not the most, what’s the word? Selfless, they’re not the most selfless. She’s kind of obsessed with herself, and that’s fun to play, childish impulses are fun to play. And then you have to retract it, but it’s fun to play that first childish impulse.”
Coming up on Good Witch Season 6 Episode 7, Martha and Stephanie go toe-to-toe since one of Martha’s first impulses, to deny Stephanie the color of house paint she wants, comes back to bite Martha after she put Stephanie in charge of assigning plots for their new community greenhouse.
Catherine said, “You know what I love? I love the scenes where Martha is heading some committee, and she gets to chair a meeting, I love holding the gavel. And I love it because then she’s just, really, quite rude. Martha can be quite rude to people, but says it all with a sort of… it just comes right out, there’s no thought behind it.
“She can really say some terrible things to people, if she’s silly, if she seems a bit silly, then it doesn’t seem totally malicious. And then her thoughts can pour out. I love the whole color thing, ‘Only four approved colors in Middleton, my God,'” she said in reference to the rule about approved paint colors for homes in Middleton.
Catherine admits there is at least one part of Martha that she wouldn’t mind rubbing off on her. “I wish I had Martha’s energy; I really don’t have it naturally. It’s a lot for me to burst into rooms all the time as Martha.
“The first few weeks when we start shooting every season, I’m always exhausted, and I realize, it’s because Martha has that kind of energy and focus, all the time, and all that excitement, and she’s generating all this energy to bring along everybody else in her plans.
“And I wish I had that because as a person, I really don’t, I’m much more low energy, and I’m much lazier than Martha. Martha isn’t lazy at all. So, I wish I had that. That would be nice to have. “
When it comes to what she thinks Martha could learn from her, Catherine said, “I wish she’d know when to shut up, frankly, sometimes. When to stop talking, that is something that I know, and I’m pretty good at it. Martha, she’ll stop when Cassie stops her when something brings her up full.
“She’s not very self-aware. I think that’s the thing. Probably because I’m an actor, I’m extremely self-aware, and Martha is not. And in a way, that’s kind of freeing to play.
“That’s one of the reasons I like playing her, is there just is very little self-awareness, and that’s what Cassie always brings her back to, to a self-awareness of what kind of effect she’s having on other people.
“I wish she had that, but that’s what makes it so truly fun, is she’s just being blissfully un-self-aware and rampages around. And a sense of humor, I always think that my job as an actor is to come in with five different ideas for scenes.
“If you’re trying to inject comedy into stuff, and find comic moments, it takes some planning. When you’re just doing straight drama, and you can just stand there and say the words, but you have to plan ahead about constructing comic moments, so I’m always the one bringing five ideas, and if they take one idea, I’m happy.”
Part of what makes Martha such a successful character within the Good Witch franchise is Catherine’s comedic timing. Along with the many different takes she likes to use experimenting with what might work best, Catherine never thought she’d pursue the dramatic side of acting.
“When I finished theater school in Montreal, the National Theater School, and came to Toronto, I honestly thought that I would probably go into improv comedy.
“I’d done a lot of that kind of thing in high school and some in university, and I just thought that’s what I was probably good at and would be fun to do. And then I immediately got into doing television, and that sort of fell by the wayside.
“I think dramas that have no hint of comedy are dull, and I think the same about comedies; comedies have to have a hint of suspense. I just don’t think it has to be all one thing or the other; people are not all one thing and the other. Even in the most dire situations, there can be a bit of humor as a release valve.
“I don’t know, I enjoy it, and I enjoy the speed with which Martha speaks, and she speaks in paragraphs. And I actually do better with paragraphs than I do with one-liners. I’m good at memorizing, so far, still, knock on wood. Where’s some wood? I don’t know if I have any wood in here,” Catherine laughed.
“Yeah, there we go, okay, I’ve found some. But, yeah, I enjoy that. I enjoy getting a paragraph and being able to explore the peaks and valleys, and ups and downs, and ‘Whoops,’ and she’s doing it this way, and it ends like this. I enjoy the journey through a paragraph.”
Catherine often takes Martha’s voice on a rollercoaster of emotions in just the space of a few sentences.
“Yeah, because she seems mercurial, her mind is going a mile a minute, and like I said, I like the fact that sometimes she has to go, ‘What? Oh, no, no, no, no, no.’ It’s because she really has, ‘Yes, I’m looking at you, and I’m sort of listening to what you’re saying, but it’s really all about me.’ ‘Oh, wait a minute, what did you say?'”
When asked if she’d like to explore anything else with Martha, Catherine said she likes the way things are going now just fine. “On television, you take what you’re given; it’s not like the actors have any control over what comes in.
“So I’m not used to thinking in that way, I’m used to thinking of, “Oh, look at this. What can I do with this that I’ve been given?” I never think the other way, because I have no control, and I don’t want to think something’s going to happen, and then be disappointed, or whatever.
“So I enjoy seeing what I’m handed, the surprise, and seeing what I can do with it. I’ve never actually thought long term about that, that’s interesting. I think she needs to be mayor for life; I don’t think she aspires any higher office at all.”
Remaining Mayor of Middleton might be the only course for Martha because she does it so well. She cares about her town and the people inside of it. “I think she’s found her niche, frankly,” Catherine said, and we couldn’t agree more.
Good Witch Season 6 Episode 7 airs Sunday, June 14 at 9/8c only on Hallmark. If you’d like to see more of the show, you can watch Good Witch online.
And please follow TV Fanatic for full reviews and more interviews about the enchantment of Good Witch.
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She’s a member of the Critic’s Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.