Sympathetic Evil: An Interview with Once Upon a Time's Lana Parrilla

By , Contributor

The ever-growing fan base for ABC’s Once Upon a Time isn’t surprising given the show’s unique handling of the classic fairy tale characters we’ve all known and loved for many years. Combining Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), Pinocchio (Eion Bailey), Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle), and many others, the first season demonstrated a strong cross-generational appeal. Children know these stories, but deft writing deepened the relationships between the characters, which played out in an entirely new way.

Considerable credit goes to the remarkable ensemble cast. Lana Parrilla displays quite a knack for portraying a deliciously hissable villain. Her Evil Queen transported all residents of the Enchanted Forest to present-day Maine. Most of them are blissfully unaware of their true identities. The quaint little town is called Storybrooke and the Queen presides over it as Mayor Regina Mills. Parrilla skillfully balances Regina’s nasty spitefulness with a subtle sympathetic side, especially when it comes to her adopted son, Henry (Jared S. Gilmore).

With the highly anticipated second season of Once Upon a Time premiering September 30, Ms. Parrilla was generous enough to take a few minutes out of her busy shooting schedule to discuss her role on the show.

How is everything going with the second season so far?

It’s been going great. It’s a different season. We have a lot of new characters. The first season really focused on a lot of the essential characters: Snow White, Emma Swan, the Evil Queen, Rumplestiltskin, Prince Charming, Henry. This season we have Jorge Garcia playing the giant from Jack and the Beanstalk, Jamie Chung plays Mulan, Sarah Bolger plays Princess Aurora. There are a lot of new characters so there’s a lot of new storylines. It’s kind of all over the place this season.

Tell me about the initial casting process prior to the first season and how you landed the role.

I actually auditioned for this part. I originally auditioned for a show called Combat Hospital. The casting director saw me at the end of my audition and said, “I have the perfect role for you, I want you to play the Evil Queen in this new show called Once Upon a Time.” And just hearing “Evil Queen” piqued my interest. I thought, “That’s interesting, I guess we’re making fairy tales now.” I read the script that night and instantly fell in love with it.

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So even though they seemed to think you were perfect for the role, you still had to read?

I think it was a Monday when I was given the script and that Friday I went in, auditioned, and ended up booking the role. I read two scenes once each. The scene in the wedding, as the Evil Queen, when she barges through the church doors and interrupts the wedding. And then there was the scene with Emma Swan at the end, after she brings Henry home. There’s a pretty big monologue at the end there. So it was those two scenes, read once, and that was pretty much it.

When playing such an iconic fairytale character, where do you draw inspiration from to create your own take?

You know, I’m still finding inspiration, it just never ends. But I just kind of steal from people that I’ve known in my life. [laughs] Also some actresses, from Ingrid Bergman to Glenn Close, even animated characters like Ursula from The Little Mermaid. I really draw from everywhere but I use my imagination quite a bit.

Robert Carlyle is so terrific as Rumplestiltskin and Mr. Gold. What’s it like working with him?

Working with him is phenomenal. I have done a lot of scenes with him and off set we’ve become really good friends. He’s become not only a friend, but someone I learn from. We work really well together. It’s a very safe environment for us.

Actors often talk about learning from their co-stars. What is your takeaway from playing opposite him?

Well, it’s interesting. Our instruments, our technique, and kind of approaches are very similar, so we have that in common. But early on, there was a scene we did in one episode where the Evil Queen comes to see him in this jail cell of his. And I had screwed up a line. I think I skipped a couple or something. I stopped in the middle of it, and he just looked at me and said, “Stay with me, keep going, keep going, keep going.” And it was just really nice to have that.

It sounds like he’s very reassuring.

Lana Parrilla carlyle (188x250).jpgWell, sometimes early on when you’re playing a new character, there are a lot of nerves that come with it. And you don’t really know the character very well. You’re kind of figuring it out and it takes a while. And he just kind of kept me right in the moment. There was no way I could get in my head about anything. And I just felt like I had met a real team player. But we also talk about the scenes, our characters’ history. There’s stuff that he enlightens me about and vice versa. I’m able to help him with some things here and there. It’s quite validating when I’m able to kind of contribute to his craft.

Given the show’s popularity, is it getting tougher to shoot in Steveston, B.C. without tons of onlookers showing up to catch a glimpse?

Well, we have security now on the set all the time and our security guard is just phenomenal. He really knows not only how to protect us, but also how to control the crowds.

Do you guys ever interact with fans during the downtime?

It depends on who the actor is. I’ve noticed a lot of us are very generous with our time. But [the fans] don’t really distract us. Sometimes they want us to come over and talk to them between takes, and that’s something that we’ve stopped doing. We wait until the end of the scene to go up and say hello, take photos, and sign autographs. But there was a time, before we had security, where it was a little chaotic.

Some people were maybe getting just a little too enthusiastic?

People were just running up in between takes and it got very exhausting. But now it’s very well organized. And it’s nice. It feels like outdoor theater. There are always people watching. I think it actually adds to the performance. I mean, actors love attention, right? [laughs] So, I think it really adds to the performance.

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Have you had time lately for much outside of Once Upon a Time?

Just little things here and there, not anything in the industry. Just doing some HRC stuff, I did the Human Rights Campaign gala. I’m getting involved in the Obama campaign, stuff like that. Just showing up at certain events and showing my support I think is important. It’s really hard to do any kind of shows or any other work, there’s just no time for it. I’m sure I’ve lost some jobs here and there because of my commitment to the show, but I’m really focused on it, so that’s my number one priority.

I know I speak for a lot of fans when I say how much I’m looking forward to season two. Wrapping up, what is your interpretation of Regina’s feelings toward her adopted son Henry?

From the very beginning of the first season, I always made the choice that she loves Henry. She genuinely loves Henry and that is what’s behind all of this. She’s protecting her relationship with him. And we didn’t see much of their relationship develop. We haven’t seen much of her raising him.

Will we be seeing more of that back story in the new season?

I don’t know if the show will ever go in that direction. I hope so, because that relationship has really shaped my performance a tremendous amount. I think the only way anyone was going to relate to Regina as the mayor is that if, at her core, she genuinely loves Henry. I believe she does.

The show has kept her true feelings and motivations pretty ambiguous. I like that about the show, it doesn’t feel the need to spell everything out.

Lana Parrilla full (188x250).jpgAudiences aren’t stupid. People always say the audience is stupid and that you have to explain everything. I disagree. I don’t think the audience is stupid, I think they pick up on everything. And so I always kept that love, not only deep within the core of the character, but also on the surface. And every time I see Henry, there’s a genuine love and joy to have him in my home. You saw it in the season finale when he dies. Then when he lives, she knows the whole town is going to come after her, and she says, “No matter what anyone tells you, know that I love you.” So you’ll see in the second season, it’s really about her redemption. She really wants him in her life and she’s willing to do whatever it takes to get him back.

Watch Lana Parrilla when she returns as the Evil Queen in season two of Once Upon a Time, premiering Sunday, September 30 on ABC. For more information about the show, visit the official website.

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Chaz Lipp is a Las Vegas-based musician and freelance writer. His new jazz album 'Good Merlin' is now available.

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