Fairy tales are something we usually think of as being suited for children but ABC and some of the creative forces from a little show called "Lost" are taking a much darker, adult spin on the classic stories and characters we all know so well in its ambitious new series, "Once Upon a Time," which bows this Sunday.
In the series, classic characters like Snow White (played by Ginnifer Goodwin), Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle), Jiminy Cricket (Raphael Sbarge) and the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) have been cast under a spell wiping their memories of who they are and now they live as ordinary people in the town of Storybrooke, Maine, where time has stopped and nobody can leave. That is until Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) shows up. Emma, unbeknownst to her, is the grown-up daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, so once the son Emma gave up for adoption, Henry (Jared S. Gilmore), brings her to Storybrooke, things will never be the same. And, like "Lost," the show regularly bounces from fairy tale flashbacks to Storybrooke's contemporary drama and viewers will see just how closely parallel these worlds are.
During a recent Warner Brothers-sponsored press trip to Vancouver, our Jim Halterman had the chance to sit down on the "Once" set with Goodwin, Dallas, Sbarge, Parrilla and Executive Producer Steve Pearlman to find out exactly how these fantasy and real worlds will work together in "Once Upon a Time."
First up, while launching a new show is always a stressful time for all those involved, Pearlman is finding some relief in the fact that the series is starting later than the cluttered month of September. "I think airing outside of that glut is great," he admitted. "It creates a second wave of anticipation for an audience, too. I work in the business and I couldn't even tell you the names of a third of the new shows this season because we were bombarded with all the messaging. It also, from a production standpoint, gives us a little bit of a breather. Not much - you never have enough time or enough money. But it gives us a little bit of a breather. Certainly we're an effects-heavy show so it gives us enough time to get it right."
Dallas, who is taking on the iconic Prince Charming role as well as John Doe in Storybrooke, expressed his happiness that the show's creators, "Lost" alums Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, are taking some dramatic license with these familiar characters. "They've taken all these iconic characters that we all know, but they've made them somehow realer. There's a real reality to them. Prince Charming just happens to be a name. He's still a man with the same emotions as any other man. He's a Prince, but he's a Prince of the people. He gets his hands dirty. He's got a kingdom to run. He has a family to protect. He has an epic, epic love for Snow White. He's like everybody else. He's human."
Goodwin agreed and is very pleased that she's playing a version of Snow White that is full of spunk and spirit instead of being merely a waif looking to be saved. "It was very telling when in one of her first scenes," Goodwin remembered, "she grabs Prince Charming's sword and stands up to her stepmother. I feel that 'the boys' [as she said the cast calls Kitsis and Horowitz] have done a really excellent job of justifying what we know of Snow White from the interpretations and Walt Disney and the Brothers Grimm and a million other authors. But I feel that they've really fleshed her out in a way that I hope makes her far more relatable and interesting to watch. [She is] far more modern but not because we're reinventing her. Just because we're fleshing her out and showing her flaws."
Taking on a role of an icon brought a sense of fear to Sbarge, who plays Jiminy Cricket and Henry's kindly teacher, Archie Hopper. "When the script arrived for the Jiminy Cricket episode, I read it and then I put it down and then I had a moment of panic, because you feel kind of like, 'Oh... ' You're treading into people's imaginations and stuff and that's powerful and potentially... I mean there's no place to hide. It's like, 'Here I am!'... [but] they cast me for a reason because there are some qualities in me that they obviously recognize for the story they want to tell."
While most of the actors in the series have two roles to play in their fairy tale character and Storybrooke version of that same character, Jennifer Morrison is the one actor that only exists in the world of Storybrooke. Morrison's Emma may start out not truly believing the tale that Henry is spinning but how long will it take for her to figure out what's really going on in Storybrooke? "I help this kid who seems like he's a little bit emotionally dysfunctional," Morrison explained of Emma's relationship with Henry, "and he's using these stories to try to survive or try to overcome his emotional problems so for her there's really no question in her mind whether it's real or it's not. There's certainly moments of bizarre coincidences where she's like 'OK, that's a little bit crazy' but it never registers as, 'Well, gosh, I bet there's another universe where fairy tales exist.' It's that interesting thing of, like, she just lives in reality and there's no other realm that could possibly be. She just wants to be there for the kid." Morrison teased that Emma's lack of understanding about Storybrooke and its inhabitants will play out for some time.
Since every fairy tale (and good drama) needs a villain, that job falls to Parrilla, who gets to chew the scenery as the treacherous Evil Queen and the potentially just-as-evil Regina, the Mayor of Storybrooke and adopted mother to Henry. In fact Regina will show her conniving side the moment Emma makes her presence known. "Emma Swan coming into Storybrooke is a huge, huge, huge threat," Parrilla offered. "There's always two stories being told when playing Regina. There's the threat of her knowing she's an evil queen and then there's just the pure simple fact that the biological mother has stepped into her world and the threat of losing her son is just enormous. That's a fear that I think any adopted mother would have. I think that's going to really help the audience relate to Regina in some level."
Dallas became as giddy as a child as he talked about how much fun he's having playing Prince Charming and acting out the world of make believe. "I love all the fairy tale land stuff. It's always great fun. It's a boys dream to be able to do this kind of stuff. Get a sword and ride horses and fight trolls and dragons and all kinds of stuff." But like the dual characters most of the actors are portraying, there is a bright and dark side. "It's a challenge and a blessing for actors to be able to have these two characters, which are essentially the same person with the same core, but different experiences and different memories, which make them different people. And it's sad, the Storybrooke characters... they're always trying to get back to that fairy tale character, but they don't really know that. They don't remember that they were who they are. So they're always trying to find their way back, subconsciously, to who they were. So there's always a search going on within them."
One point of amusement for Goodwin and Morrison is the fact that the longtime friends are actually playing mother and daughter on "Once Upon a Time." However, both actresses admitted to thinking about that relationship on a much deeper level. "It's crazy the things that you realize [and] the things you don't know about your parents," explained Morrison. "Yet these women are experiencing each other at the same age and not really knowing that they're mother and daughter, obviously, but there are these moments where Mary Margaret and Emma seem incredibly mother/daughter and sometimes where it seems like I'm her mother and she's the daughter and then some where it seems like we're total mutual friends so it's interesting to see the dynamic of that relationship."
Goodwin said that she finds the whole concept ironic since she has often been mistaken for Morrison in public and vice versa. "In the beginning of our careers, we were confused for each other all the time to the point that I've done interviews as her on red carpets because I got so tired of trying to explain to people that I was really not Jennifer Morrison from House. I had long hair, she had dark hair... I have autographed pictures of her. I've just given up."
Also for Goodwin, going from playing the wife of a polygamist on "Big Love" to Snow White was not one she necessarily had planned. "I was reading every movie that's being made in the next year and was uninspired to work at all and said I wanted to read the pilots. I haven't read pilots in seven or eight years because that's how long I've been owned by HBO and, really, that's where all the great writers have gone. I read genius pilot after pilot and most of the genius ones I thought 'This isn't something I want to do but I can't wait to see it' but then this came along and it was a no-brainer. I have to do this. It wasn't an 'I want' thing. I have to be a part of this." Ironically, Goodwin also said that she's been saying in interviews for years that she'd love to get the chance to play Snow White someday. Maybe dreams do come true on "Once Upon a Time."
Speaking of dreams, Pearlman has a simple one - that an audience tunes in on Sunday to watch the premiere. "That's the part that's completely out of our control. We made the pilot in the spring and it was well received. ABC's doing a great job of promoting it just everywhere... but there's always that fear - we all have it - of throwing a party where nobody shows up. Even though it's a great party, it's just you and your dog. That's my biggest fear."
Jim Halterman blogs at The Futon Critic.