The Q&A

Witch's Craft

Melissa Joan Hart, turning 30 today, talks about growing out of ''Sabrina'' and into a confident director

Image credit: Melissa Joan Hart: Michael Tran/FilmMagic.com

It's been a big year for Melissa Joan Hart: The actress we once knew as Sabrina the Teenage Witch is now married, has a 3-month-old son, Mason, and turns 30 today (April 18). She's also focused her attention and talent toward directing. Entertainment Weekly caught up with the birthday girl at the Sonoma Film Festival, where she was showing her 15-minute short, Mute, an edgy and disturbing look at sibling rivalry gone too far. Seems like the good witch of the West Coast has a few dark tricks up her directing sleeve.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It's so weird to think of you not only as married, but as a mom. I mean, you're Sabrina, the Teenage Witch — you can't be someone's mother. Was it hard for you to adjust?
MELISSA JOAN HART When I first got pregnant, I freaked out. I thought, ''The press will have a field day with this; an underage actress having a baby.'' Then I had to remind myself: I'm turning 30. I guess I still see myself as this little 16-year-old. And it took some adjusting. I have six sisters, so I assumed I'd have a girl. Learning I was having a boy was really weird.

What's the scariest thing about turning 30?
I was Young Hollywood, and I'm not anymore. The cast and crew were always older than me, and now I'm one of the older people on a set of 18- and 19-year-olds. So that's really strange.

What is Mute about?
It's a twisted story about sisters, yet it's set amidst a bright, beautiful wedding. You learn the younger sister wants revenge on the older one because she's deaf and mute from a car accident she thinks the older sister caused.

So it's a feel-good film. I must say, you did a great job, but I was really shocked at how sinister it was. What attracted you to such a dark short?
I'd always done family-friendly stuff. I wanted to do a film where I could show my darker side and make people uncomfortable. That was my goal behind this. I'm not a happy-ending person — I want to know what happens once Cinderella rides off with Prince Charming.

Casting your 20-year-old sister, Emily, as the lead was a bold move. Did you have to fight for her?
It was one of the biggest fights I had as a director. Everyone thought if I cast her, it would be a joke; it would just be another Hart family production. But I knew she could do the part. She's fantastic in it.

How did you find this script?
I can't write, so my agent got me in touch with a producer who had a stack of shorts. I read them and narrowed it down to Mute and a script about nasty ballerinas on a killing spree. Mute was written really visually, and I thought I could do more with it in terms of stylizing.

What made you start directing?
It started on the set of Clarissa Explains It All. I loved anything that had to do with behind-the-scenes [work]. Often the directors would let me look through their books and explain them to me. When I started doing Sabrina, it was really a timing issue. It was so heavy with special effects, it took us three days to do one show with two rehearsal days, so it was like a little movie. The show ran for seven years with a different director every week. They'd ask, ''How does this work?'' and I found myself explaining it to them. Eventually, everyone said, ''Why don't you direct? It would save time.'' And that's how it started. It was convenient, and I got the cast and crew home on time.

So directing for you was all about timing and getting people home early?
No, not at all. I love directing. It's where my heart is, and it's the way my mind works. Besides having a baby, this was the hardest thing I've ever done. And it's been the most rewarding in terms of my career. Every prop, every shot, every pearl that rolled across the floor was exactly how I wanted it to be. I've never trusted myself with anything in this business until I found directing. I don't think I'm great at acting. I think I'm great at directing.

Originally posted Apr 17, 2006