Hocus Pocus 2 stars reflect on reuniting to resurrect the Sanderson Sisters: 'It's quite satisfying'

·16 min read
Hocus Pocus 2 stars reflect on reuniting to resurrect the Sanderson Sisters: 'It's quite satisfying'

It's been 29 years since the witches of Hocus Pocus first put a spell on the actresses who brought them to life in Disney's 1993 classic. But for Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy, the wait for the upcoming sequel felt more like 300 years — right down to the day. Now, the witches are back (yes, there's hell to pay), and the ladies have channeled their enduring passion for the iconic characters into a sequel that — as they explain in EW's exclusive interview with the enchanting trio — conjures the same magic that made the seasonal favorite a seminal Halloween hit that helped define spooky season for an entire generation.

Before Hocus Pocus 2 hits Disney+ on Sept. 30, read on for our full preview with Midler, Parker, Najimy, Doug Jones, and director Anne Fletcher.

Hocus Pocus 2
Hocus Pocus 2

Matt Kennedy/Disney + Kathy Najimy, Bette Midler, and Sarah Jessica Parker give their first interviews for 'Hocus Pocus 2' — and reignite the magic between them like the Black Flame Candle.

Director Kenny Ortega's 1993 original cast a weak spell over audiences and critics during its theatrical run. With $39 million in ticket sales atop negative reviews, the actresses felt the icy breath of death creep up on the Halloween-themed project's neck — curiously, during the height of summer in July. A sequel, it appeared, was a far-off fantasy for Disney.

KATHY NAJIMY (MARY SANDERSON): It came out in summer, but I think it should've come out in the fall. It sort of did okay but went away. What we think happened was, people weren't sure if they could bring their kids or not, and wondered if it was scary or not. When it came on television, it became a runaway train. Parents showed it to their kids and those parents showed it to theirs. It was a surprise to us all.

BETTE MIDLER (WINIFRED SANDERSON): Even when it became a phenomenon, [a sequel] wasn't considered. Ten years on, when I started seeing the returns, I was surprised, and I started making calls. We got no interest at all, and a few years after that, I remember I needed the costume, and I asked the studio to loan it to me, but they couldn't. My friend suggested that I go online, so I looked, and I was shocked because I'd never seen so much Hocus Pocus merch. I bought the costume, and I came as Winnie here and there, for this benefit or that benefit, and I realized there was something going on. As I watched it progress, I'd call the studio once a year to ask, "How about it?" It wasn't until about three years ago that they advocated for it, and movement started. It picked up when they decided that they wanted it to be on a streamer. They never looked back until they got their movie.

SARAH JESSICA PARKER (SARAH SANDERSON): I didn't push for it. I think Bette was the only [one] who had conversations. [For me] there were moments where it came up and I was asked about it, or something happened on social media that I'd respond to. I'd always say, "Yeah, sure," but I can't confess to being involved in putting it together. The minute I heard it was real, I said yes right away. It was incredibly easy. The hard part was scheduling: COVID complicated things, but I can't tell you how fast I said yes.

With the OG trio officially reunited, they began re-familiarizing themselves with the beloved characters and finessing the script with the studio and writer Jen D'Angelo. The ladies held phone meetings together to sift through the material, working with The Proposal filmmaker and choreographer Anne Fletcher — who joined the movie after her longtime friend and collaborator, Adam Shankman, stepped down as director (though he's still a producer).

PARKER: The most important thing was trying to figure out a story that everybody was excited about and that was familiar enough in tone to make sense, nod to the past, and pay tribute to a [the first film's] whimsy, ridiculousness, evilness, and wickedness. The script was the hardest part.

MIDLER: Anne was so great. She said, "You guys created these characters, you know how they talk and what they do or don't do." When the first draft came in, we sent it back with [character] notes and suggestions, and they interpolated them into the script. As it went on, if there were lapses in logic, we'd bring it to their attention, but it was more about how the characters speak.

NAJIMY: They sent us story ideas, then Sarah, Bette, and I would have phone meetings with lots of snacks, and we'd talk over narratives and character arcs. We were able to give them our two cents, and what the writer and studio came up with was difficult, because you can't take something that was so successful and stray too far from it. The first one had something delicious about it, but you also want to make something new. With a little bit of our input, the writer's input, and Disney's, we came up with something that's current and fun.

MIDLER: We also pitched [a scene about their purgatory period], that's one of the things the three of us got together and talked about. Where have they been for the last 30 years? But, in the end, it fell by the wayside.

Hocus Pocus 2
Hocus Pocus 2

Matt Kennedy/Disney+ Kathy Najimy, Bette Midler, and Sarah Jessica Parker return in 'Hocus Pocus 2'

The cast and crew's calming circle formed around a story involving three Salem teens (played by Whitney Peak, Belissa Escobedo, and Lilia Buckingham) who resurrect the witches 30 years after Max (Omri Katz), Allison (Vinessa Shaw), and Dani (Thora Birch) — all of whom don't appear in the sequel — did back in 1993. In 2022, Salem isn't populated by mere unwitting mortals fleeing the witches' reign of terror. Sure, 21st century Salem is a seasonal hot spot. It's ground zero for the Sanderson Sisters' infamous eve of destruction; the witches' formerly secluded cottage operating as a tourist-trap magic shop owned by Gilbert (Sam Richardson), and the city draws wide-eyed crowds hoping to experience the supernatural chaos of yore. But the teens in the middle of it all aren't helpless victims at the mercy of black magic.

MIDLER: There are three young girls who are relatively new to the world. They're not witches, but they have the potential to become witches, to follow in our footsteps. Pitting the young against the veterans, it's a conflict that audiences like to see. Who's going to win? Or, is anybody going to win? It's well thought-out and constructed, and it'll be satisfying because it's conflict, but conflict in a great special effects way, and a great magical way.

ANNE FLETCHER (DIRECTOR): Our new protagonists are in charge of getting the witches contained before the sun rises. There's no killing them… Gilbert believes in the Sanderson Sisters. Our girls go to his store all the time, which is the witches' cottage, which he turned into a magical shop. Our girls never believed anything he sold because he's a little bit of a cheeseball. Halloween is his money-making time. It's lore to the world. We have [Salem residents] dressing as them, T-shirts of the Sanderson Sisters, we think it's all cheeky and fun, but — lo and behold — our girls find out they are real, and it's a shock.

MIDLER: It's been 30 years since the last picture, when there was no internet and no merchandise, no craziness around the Sanderson Sisters. Now, after 30 years and all this build online, every October, there's a rabid fanbase for Hocus Pocus. That extends to Salem [in the film], so Salem has completely changed, too. It's become aware of the Sanderson Sisters. They play on that, so these three girls have been exposed to this their whole lives.

FLETCHER: [We] give each girl not only the same color in the vein of our witches — Becca [Peak] being Winnie, Izzy [Escobedo] being Mary, and Cassie [Buckingham] being Sarah — and their hairstyles, in a way, are similar. It's a modern-day twist on it…. At the end of the day, the movie is about sisterhood, it's about sticking together through thick and thin, and being there for one another.

Fletcher also wanted to flesh out the story — not literally, with a dead man's toe, but by offering "wonderful surprises in the mythology" of the sisters via an opening sequence set in 1600s New England, back when the Sandersons were simply childhood sisters, and returning actor Doug Jones' pre-zombified Billy Butcherson was, well, still a human love interest for Winifred.

FLETCHER: The opening sequence of the movie, we get some history of our witches and Billy. We get a little kiss — pardon the pun — of the Billy aspect of it, and the world that they lived in and what happened to the witches. I always missed that in the first one. Like, what are the witches the way they are? I did have that question, and the script came, and I loved the opening 1600s. I pushed that a little bit more, because I really wanted to point at, ever so slightly.... the idea that the 1600s and the now are the same. There's no difference. I just want to poke at the irony of it. But, in the joy of the film you get to see the young version of them and have a great time and understand the what and why of what happened to them.

MIDLER: [We] explain how they got to the point where they gladly become witches. They're so tight as sisters, and that's explained. It's quite satisfying.

DOUG JONES (BILLY BUTCHERSON): It is seamless between the first movie and the second, that's the first thing I felt. It keeps the pureness and nostalgia alive and well for those who grew up with the first movie, and for any new fans we're gathering now will be excited about modernization for the current time we're in.

Doug Jones as Billy Butcherson in HOCUS POCUS 2
Doug Jones as Billy Butcherson in HOCUS POCUS 2

Matt Kennedy/Disney+ Doug Jones returns as Billy Butcherson in 'Hocus Pocus 2'

For the ladies behind the witches, piecing their characters back together was like mixing a sweet cauldron concoction steeped in nostalgia and deep adoration for both each other and the source material. They reacquainted themselves with the charms of their work in the first film, but baked in new quirks, too — like boarding an updated fleet of cleaning tools (remember Mary's vacuum and Sarah's mop?) in place of their trusty broomsticks. Though it took a bit of real-life magic to align the busy actors' schedules, especially with COVID-related delays, but they rekindled their magic (and the Black Flame Candle) as a sisterly group shortly after shooting began in fall 2021 in Newport, R.I.

PARKER: I was shooting [Sex and the City sequel] And Just Like That, finished, got in a van, drove to Providence, R.I., and started work the next day. I couldn't look at a script beforehand because I couldn't start learning lines for Sarah while playing Carrie. Luckily, Adam Shankman was there, he and I stayed in the same little hotel, so he got the original Hocus Pocus on TV for me that [first] night, and I watched the whole thing. I wasn't supposed to start shooting the next day, but there was a big weather issue, so we changed the schedule, and I was on camera the next day. I had to remember it all, [because] I've only seen the first movie once in my life. Of course, you're not alone; you're working with two other gifted comedians who are also recalling, remembering, and figuring out: Who are we? What do we do? How do we work together? That came back strangely quick.

MIDLER: Winnie talks in some strange accent, some strange English, who the hell even knows what it is. She's very, "Thou, thy, and thine," and that had to be correct. [Perfecting it] was a fun process.

JONES: Billy came back to me immediately, it was frightening how he's been alive while I've been playing other characters all these years…. He was pretty decrepit to start with, and I out of the grave looking exactly like two minutes have passed. I drank some formaldehyde. The prosthetics are the exact same makeup artist, Tony Gardner…. It was the exact same wig. They had it on a dummy on display for 29 years, they put it back on my head in the same style, it didn't even need a touch-up. The costume was rebuilt to be the same as the first one, so I looked exactly the same. It was so nostalgic for me to look in the mirror and go, "You're 30-nothing years old again!"

NAJIMY: You'll see that Mary's mouth is now on the other side. We can justify it because there's a scene at the beginning where Winnie slaps me, and my mouth goes to the other side, and then she slaps me again and it goes to the other side, and sticks. It's on the other side mainly because it's so hard for me to do it on the side I did it on 30 years ago. I'm sure the fans are going to go into deep detail about why it's on the other side. It's just something I came up with the first week. This is a big comedy, so you don't have to be subtle or have a 40-page Shakespearean backstory.

PARKER: [Sarah stayed] consistent. A slight difference is she answers to accusations of being a simpleton, unreliable, or not a good collaborator in plotting. She's prone to distraction, but this time, she's like, listen, I'm invested, I'm here, I'm a good sister, I'm part and parcel of our successes and failures. She doesn't just play contrition or apologize — she does, until she doesn't. Then she forgets that she apologizes, and gets back to seeing something sparkly or a boy, and she's lost again.

NAJIMY: It's so funny that we're talking about it like it's deep FBI information. You could say that [as seen in the trailer] I'm riding on another form of a clean-up device. I get asked what my favorite part is in the first one…. Other than [acting with] Bette, my second favorite thing was the flying. It's the most fun. I don't think we got to do enough of it!

PARKER: I feel like we're the Greek chorus to Winnie in that we're definitely a trio, a singing group, we're like the Harlettes, and it's nice. It's not like we're without things to do, but in my head, there's a sense of [Winnie] dictating paths the sisters take, and in some ways we're obsequious around her. She's the person that demands authority, and if equality was an issue, it would feel like we were apologizing in some way for the first film, and I like that Winnie is still, for better or worse and right or wrong in terms of decisions, calling the shots, and she'll still blame Mary and Sarah if she's wrong. I didn't feel that Sarah had more to do or that she was equal with Winnie. I would've [questioned] that!

Hocus Pocus 2
Hocus Pocus 2

Disney + 'Hocus Pocus 2' resurrects the Sanderson Sisters for a potential performance on stage.

You can't do Hocus Pocus without music. Salem's soundscape was magical unto itself in the first film, and the sequel crescendos that legacy with composer John Debney's refreshed, fluttery score and two grand-scale musical numbers that hope to join "I Put a Spell on You" as defining moments for the film series.

MIDLER: We suggested that there be songs. That was our big contribution. We said, "They have to sing." We made suggestions as far as songs were concerned, and we went to the barricades on that. It was a collaborative effort where we were happy to defend our choices and also compromise.

PARKER: There are two covers, we have two numbers. Two big musical numbers. We would've done three if they'd let us. They're songs that are familiar to a variety of age groups….  It was a big conversation, whether we were going to use new material or redo a song, and the movie went through various iterations. Anne had thoughts and feelings about the songs, then they became hers because she's the director. I couldn't rehearse the dance numbers, so I was sent a video and tried to learn it without anybody in the studio. We knew we wanted to do songs, but we didn't know what, and I didn't have strong feelings because we were in such good hands, between Anne, the musical team at Disney, and Marc Shaiman. I went to Marc's studio after work and recorded of my stuff, and that was great. He makes you feel super comfortable, he's much more interested in you acting something than singing it perfectly. Character is everything to him.

MIDLER: I hope they fall into the category of equivalent [to "I Put a Spell on You."] We worked hard on them. We had rehearsals during COVID, we went from pillar to post, dancing, singing, and carrying on, in masks. We're 30 years older, and I know the tracks sound great. It's always fun doing a musical number with those girls…. When I saw the first movie, I thought, "Bette, you're doing a great job, it's you, you, you," but I saw it a second time and I saw what those girls did behind me, and I thought, "These girls are stealing everything that's not nailed down!" It made me laugh hysterically. It's all shared now. It's a three-way composition as far as the sisters are concerned. It feels very sisterly. It's much more loving than it used to be. After 30 years in purgatory or limbo, they're happy to be free again.

NAJIMY: It's the same concept. We're looking for something and find ourselves just like we did in the first one: At that big party, people are on stage, it's the same deal at the same Halloween party, but this one is outdoors and a lot bigger.

PARKER: The scary thing was learning it in time to get ready for shooting. We got it, we did it, and that was our first week. We shot in Newport. The first thing we did was an entrance into the Halloween festival in town, and the next three days were all the dance and musical numbers. It was freezing — unseasonably cold — but it was fun!

NAJIMY: The musical number was so much fun. We had three drag queens [Kornbread "The Snack" Jeté, Kahmora Hall, and Ginger Minj] from RuPaul's Drag Race, and for me that was great because I've known Ru since he was 18 years old. I saw [season 8 winner] Bob the Drag Queen on a cruise ship [before she won] and I called up Ru from the seas and I said, "Whatever you're doing, get a ticket, fly to New York, and see this drag queen." I lost my s--- [when Bob won]. We had background artists, 300 who were in the audience. We had a real audience, it was late at night, that's my magic time. Anne let us come up with some of our own stuff. At one point, I turn around and see the drag queen playing me, and I guess the line written was about the queen not looking great and me saying, "Oh!" So, I turned around and said something like, "Hello, beautiful!" She was so cute.

Whether it feels like you've waited 30 — or 300, if you're the Sanderson Sisters — years for another virgin to light the Black Flame Candle, you might have to wait even longer for the series to resurrect another story. For now, the cast just wants fans (whose enthusiasm Midler directly credits for stoking Disney's interest) to enjoy their marvelous (re)introduction.

NAJIMY: I feel like we're done. We've pulled every story you could pull out of this. I guess, never say never, but I feel grateful that we got to do it again. I don't know that there are plans for a third one, but I know fans are dedicated to this film. I'm just happy we can bring this to them.

PARKER: Kathy had a good idea that the third one should be animated. That would be cool and a smart idea. It's fun, funny, and could be interesting and innovative, like old-fashioned or new [animation]. Of course I'd be happy to have a conversation, it just depends on what Kathy and Bette want!

MIDLER: I don't know. I'm envious of other actors who have franchises, and I was hoping for a sequel to First Wives Club, but we never got that. After 30 years with no sequel to Hocus Pocus, I've always been envious of people who get to do their favorite character more than once. The fact that we got to do this finally, after 30 years of promoting the idea, I'm glad we got to do it. I'd love to have a franchise — especially a character I love playing. If there was a third one, of course I'd sign on, but I don't know how. I can't imagine what the story would be, but I love Winifred, Sarah, Mary, and our relationship. It's good for women. We stick together through hell and high water, but we do cause mayhem, and not many women cause that much mayhem!

Hocus Pocus 2 premieres Sept. 30 on Disney+.

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