A Chat with Once Upon a Time's Raphael Sbarge

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Raphael Sbarge as Once Upon a Time's Dr. Archibald "Archie" Hopper

If you have ever read a fairy tale you know that it is never a good thing to upset the Evil Queen. In ABC’s hit fairy tale drama Once Upon a Time, the Evil Queen is ticked off at Snow White and Prince Charming, so much so that she interrupts their wedding and puts a curse on them along with everyone else living in the Enchanted Forest. Robbing most of any memory of their true identities, they are all banished to a new world called Storybrooke, Maine, where they remain trapped in time and forced to live without happy endings.

Among those cast out is Jiminy Cricket, who turns up in the town of Storybrooke as its umbrella-totting, Dalmatian-owning psychotherapist Dr. Archibald “Archie” Hopper. While being wrested from his familiar fairy tale surroundings was quite a shock for Jiminy, it was the beginning of yet another brand new chapter in the acting career of Raphael Sbarge, who, in addition to playing Archie Hopper, provides the voice of the diminutive Cricket. Like earlier chapters, this one started out with that necessary “evil” in most actors’ lives, namely the audition process.

“Some people think actors are born famous and aren’t aware of the many rooms that we have to walk into from an audition point of view,” says Sbarge. “Years ago, my son, who’s now seven, was starting a new preschool, and one day when I dropped him off, his teacher told me that she’d had the following conversation with him. She said to my son, ‘Django, your dad looks familiar. What does he do?’ My son thought for a second and answered, ‘Um, he auditions,’” recalls the actor with a chuckle.

“So we as actors are out there constantly walking in and out of [audition] rooms, while hoping and praying that a body of work comes your way that speaks for itself. When that happens, you also then hope that you find a place where the essence that is you ultimately connects with the part that has been conceived by the writers. What happened specifically in the case of Once Upon a Time is that I received a phone call letting me know that they [the show’s producers] were looking to cast this dual character of a therapist as well as Jiminy Cricket.

“The first thing I thought was, 'Do they want the two characters to sound alike? Do they want something sort of cartoon-like?’ However, when I asked about that I was told, ‘No, they want it very real.’ So I went in, met with the producers, and read the material. They really liked what I did and told me, ‘That was great,’ and then I left. A few minutes later they chased me down in the parking lot and said, ‘Our director is up in Vancouver. Would you mind coming back and reading again?’ So I did, and then after that, the part came my way, which was so wonderful.

“Again, I guess what they wanted and what we’ve subsequently seen as a hallmark of the program is that they were trying to keep these characters very real and grounded. When I tried to describe the series to people prior to it airing, I said something along the lines of, ‘Well, I play Jiminy Cricket, and there’s Prince Charming, Snow White, and the Evil Queen, and there are also these two worlds — the banished world and the storybook world. Peoples’ eyes would eventually kind of glaze over because it sounds a little silly when you just sort of lay it out there, but it’s in the actual execution where the genius of, I believe, the writing really comes to life.

“It’s kind of along the same lines as the book and then the musical Wicked, where they took a story, The Wizard of Oz, and retold it in a really smart and remarkable way. So whenever you watched The Wizard of Oz again, you couldn’t help but think about these other stories from Wicked that had been so skillfully interwoven into the original Oz. That’s what I feel like they’re doing with Once Upon a Time. As a result, the audience seems to have become emotionally involved not with cartoon ideas or concepts, even though these are iconic characters, but characters that have been made ‘real’ through the writing.”

In the Once Upon a Time pilot, bail bonds collector Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) is reunited with her son Henry (Jared S. Gilmore), who she gave up for adoption ten years ago. Henry believes that the world in his book of fairy tales is real and explains to Emma that she is, in fact, the long-lost daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, who was sent away from the Enchanted Forest to protect her from the curse. Emma initially dismisses Henry’s far-fetched tale, but then begins to discover that things are not quite right in Henry’s hometown of Storybrooke, Maine and that she is destined to break the curse and save them all. Although he did not have much to do in this first episode, Sbarge still fondly remembers his work on it.

“I had one scene in the pilot, other than essentially what I did as Jiminy Cricket, which was just my voice, and one thing I remember about that scene is that it was really freaking cold,” notes the actor. “It was the middle of March at one or two in the morning, and we were filming out in the street in this little town of Steveston, Vancouver, and trying not to look cold.

“I also remember meeting Jared, who plays Henry, and thinking what a remarkably sweet and wonderfully bright kid he is, and Jennifer Morrison, who plays Emma, and what a nice person and good sort of sport she is. What I mean by good sport is that it’s not easy when you’re working out in the elements, and that day they shot this very long scene that took six or seven hours in the cold, rain and wind. People understandably get tired, but Jennifer was just so kind and wanting to make it all work and completely there for me as a fellow actor.

“So I was immediately struck by the warm feeling of the set. It’s funny, when we started working on the pilot, we all felt we were making something special. We didn’t really understand quite why, but there were so many remarkable things that seemed to align themselves to make this seem special. Now here we are at the end of the first season, ABC’s highest rated new drama, as well as one of its hallmark series. The quality of this show has sustained itself, the production values remain extremely high, and I’m so proud to be in such an incredible company of actors.

“Everything just came together in a way that you hope for and can’t plan for. You can’t throw money at something to make it work, you know? There’s sort of a chemical reaction that happens because there are so many people involved that it either comes together or it doesn’t. More often than not things don’t quite coalesce just because it’s so hard, but in our case we all felt and spoke about it amongst ourselves that, ‘God, isn’t it incredible how things kind of fell in line.’ It’s given us all sort of a feeling that, again, we’re doing something really special and something that we’ll remember years from now.”

In the Enchanted Forest, circumstances in Jiminy Cricket’s life cause him to form a special bond with a young orphaned boy named Geppetto (Michael Strusievici), who grows up to become an elderly carpenter (Tony Amendola), and Pinocchio’s caretaker. Meanwhile, in Storybrooke, Archie is good friends with handyman Marco/Geppetto. He also befriends young Jared and stands up to Storybrooke’s mayor, Regina Mills/The Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) when he refuses to dismiss or discredit the boy’s claims about the curse and the town’s true purpose. For Sbarge, juggling both the Archie and Jiminy characters has provided him with some welcome acting challenges.

“I thought it was very clever of the show’s writers to redefine Jiminy Cricket — who we know as a conscience — in the real world and make him a therapist or someone who obviously works with people one on one and helps them find their way and do the right thing,” muses the actor. “What they’ve been able to define over this season with Archie is that he has essentially come to do what he does sort of the hard way, and not just by reading about it in books or because someone told him to.

“Although they haven’t really defined things yet in terms of where the character comes from in Storybrooke, what his relationships are or what his outside life is like - which I imagine we will in season two - you get a sense that there’s a soulfulness to Archie and that he truly cares about the work he does, and about Henry as well. Going back to my audition for a second, I know they were looking for Archie to have a caring towards and a connection with Henry, and maybe my being a dad in real life helped make that possible. An important fact, too, is that Jared Gilmore and I genuinely like one another, which is really neat.

“With Jiminy Cricket, one of the challenges has been trying to define him as a character using a voice other than the one I use as Archie. They did that big episode [“That Still Small Voice”] that showed how Jiminy Cricket came to be and I thought it was an interesting story insofar as it wasn’t a sweet, kind of happy-go-lucky way. There’s a great deal of sadness there. A lot of people have said to me that they see Archie as the conscience of the show, and obviously they came to that conclusion because of the writers creating stories that are smart and not in any way clichés or overly sweet and saccharine. They write stories using characters that are very human, very real and in Archie’s case, born of some tough stuff.

“When I went in for my first audition I didn’t really read for the Jiminy Cricket role, but for Archie. I’ve done a number of video games as well as have a voiceover career, and what I love about voice work is that you get to bring emotion to something without using your physical ‘parts’ - eyes, ears, gestures, etc. You have to do it solely through what’s in the sound of your voice. With Jiminy Cricket, what we’ve tried to do is make his voice somewhat different from Archie’s, but at the same time similar enough so that you know it’s the same person. Jiminy has a sense of humor as well as jovialness, and sometimes even a slightly sarcastic side that makes him fun for me to play.”

Besides Henry and Marco, Stoneybrooke’s resident therapist has had the opportunity in the show’s first season to establish relationships with some of the other locals.

“We’ve seen a really wonderful relationship develop with Archie and David Nolan [a.k.a. Prince Charming, played by Josh Dallas],” says Sbarge. “There are some scenes that were trimmed because one of the episodes came in very long. They had to cut out a bunch of B and C stories that will be back in the DVD set when it’s released, probably this summer.

“There’s also a lovely relationship with the Emma character and another big scene that’s coming up in next week’s episode [“An Apple Red as Blood”] that relates to that as she begins to deal with some of the custody issues and her frustrations about those issues. That also includes a very interesting and rather complex dynamic opportunity to work with Mr. Gold [Robert Carlyle].

“At this point in the definition of the two sides, Archie is on the good guy team. There’s a sense that he is both able to talk to people and open up the conversation as well as then be a safe haven for them to come and open up their heart. It’s going to be interesting to see where Archie decides to perhaps also take some action and begin to move things forward somewhat on his own, which we saw a little bit of when he stood up to the queen, or to the mayor I should say.”

When asked if he has a favorite scene so far from Once Upon a Time, Sbarge refers back to the aforementioned “That Still Small Voice,” and shares a behind-the-scenes anecdote from a particular night’s filming.

“I loved doing the scene with the Blue Fairy where the man who is Jiminy Cricket ends up wishing upon a star and deciding to become a cricket so that he can get away from his parents, and is then also compelled to go back and help the young Geppetto,” he says. “That was a powerful scene for three reasons, the first being that it was such an iconic kind of moment of when you wish upon a star. There are sometimes places in the writing where you feel like you’re walking on hallowed ground. I knew and found even more so that Jiminy Cricket holds a very special place in peoples’ imagination.

“The second thing is weirdly that night we shot, we were standing near this railing and the director [Paul Edwards] said, ‘Okay, when you look at the star, look right up there.’ We both looked up and there was a star right where he was pointing. It was one of those, ‘Oh, my gosh,’ moments and up to now no one other than us would have known that because we were there. In addition to that, there was the sadness and other emotions underneath Jiminy’s decision and how that then propels him forward. I found that so beautifully crafted from a writing point of view and just so human and moving at the same time.”

Once Upon a Time is the latest in Sbarge’s long and varied list of feature film and TV credits. He has appeared on the big screen in such movies as, Risky Business, Independence Day and Pearl Harbor while on TV the actor has worked on several made-for-TV movies as well as countless TV series including Law & Order: LA, Criminal Minds, ER, The Mentalist, Prison Break, 24 and CSI: NY. Sci-fi fans also know Sbarge best from his recurring role of Michael Jonas on Star Trek: Voyager.

“I was a huge Star Trek fan when I was a kid,” reveals the actor. “I must have seen every one of the original series three or four times easily, I met [Star Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry at a convention, I had posters, and I had the Spock ears. Yes, I was a Trekkie, so to be on Voyager was so much fun. I would have paid to be on it. I was just so excited to be a part of that enormous machine and franchise, because it had captured a part of my imagination from such a young age.

“Having done Voyager, what I was so amazed at is that out of everything else I had done as an actor up to that point, I never got so much response from a role as I did from Star Trek. That’s not necessarily because of anything I believe I particularly did, but just because of the passion and heartfelt excitement from Star Trek fans around the world. It’s incredible how many letters and other things you get from being on that show. Armin Shimerman, who was [Quark] on Deep Space Nine, is a dear friend of mine and we’ve talked about how amazing Star Trek fans are. It was fantastic to be a part of something that captured my imagination as a kid, and then as an adult to be able to ‘dress up’ and go ‘play’ on those sets as an actor. It was a dream come true.”

When he is not busy with Once Upon a Time, the actor is working behind the camera on a couple of other projects. “I’m producing what is essentially a web series with Ed Begley, Jr.,” says Sbarge. “Ed and his wife Rachelle had a very successful series on the Green Network called Living with Ed. The Green Network is no longer with us, but me, Ed and Rachelle have put together a new show called On Begley Street which follows the couple and their wacky sense of humor as they build what we are calling the world’s greenest house. We’ve finished our first ten episodes and I’m working with a production company called Make It Happen Productions to explore several different options about where we will launch.

“The other project is a very personal one. Ed and Rachelle Begley and I have founded a non-profit organization called Green Wish, which raises money for other non-profits. We work with retailers or in this case businesses and thanks to their donations, take the money and donate it to not one but nine different local, green organizations. With so much need out there, it’s hard to know where to jump in and so easy to be apathetic. So this is a way to help as many people as possible through local and small organizations that are all doing really great work. You can find out more at the Green wish website.”

Although there are only two more season one episodes of Once Upon a Time left to air, the show’s fans can look forward to a season two. What are Sbarge’s hopes for the series as it carries on telling its story? “What I know about the first season is that they [the producer] for all intents and purposes pulled from the Lost handbook where they set up the stories by introducing all these characters and one by one gave us a window into who each of them are,” explains the actor.

“So you learn about Snow White, The Evil Queen, Jiminy Cricket, Little Red Riding Hood, etc., and we all had an opportunity to take a turn at the dance so to speak. I just feel like the whole thing has been so beautifully and so richly crafted, and going forward it’ll be interesting to see how our characters begin to interact with one another and, knowing all their back stories, bump into each other as it were in Storybrooke. The producers and writers have clearly captured peoples’ imaginations and everyone is very curious to come back and see what happens next. It seems at this point, if I can be so bold as to say, that they can go in a million directions and there’s no lack of stores. So I’m just as eager as the next person and can’t wait to see what lies ahead,” enthuses Sbarge.

Please note, all Once Upon a Time photos copyright of ABC, Star Trek: Voyager photo copyright of UPN, and Raphael Sbarge photo by/courtesy of Russell Baer.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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