Actress Lana Parrilla has a great role in ABC’s hit series Once Upon a Time. Not only does she get to play the strong, powerful mayor Regina Mills, she also gets to play the one of most evil female fairy tale villains ever created—Snow White’s Evil Queen. The queen placed a curse on all of Fairytale Land at the beginning of season one, banishing all its inhabitants to Storybrooke, Maine, where they have lived for 28 years without magic and stuck in time.
But along comes Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), the birth mother of Regina’s adopted son Henry (Jared Gilmore), and by the end of the first season, the upstart has not only gained Henry’s affection, but she’s broken the curse! So as we get ready for the start of season two, viewers wonder what’s to become of Regina when the entire town is probably shouting “off with her head!” What of her relationship with Henry, whom she loves and has raised for 10 years?
Parrilla was perfect casting for the role; she exudes intelligence and confidence, and has made a career of playing strong women. She has had major roles in several television series, including Boomtown, 24, Swingtown and Miami Medical after playing opposite Charlie Sheen as a recurring character in Spin City. Named by TV Guide as “Fan Favorite Villain” and nominated for a Teen Choice Award for “Choice Villain,” she has also received a prestigious ALMA Award nomination for her performance in Once.
I had the opportunity to talk one-on-one with Parrilla last week about acting, influences, and of course, the upcoming season of Once Upon a Time.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to me. And congratulations on Once Upon a Time. It is wonderful show. I look forward to writing about season two.
So you’re a nice girl from Brooklyn. How did you get into this crazy business? Who were some of your early influences?
I knew I had a love for it at a very young age. I think I was partially influenced by my aunt who is an actress who I just looked up to and I still do. But I thought she was just so glamorous and beautiful. When I would see her perform, I was just in awe. I just loved watching her. She kind of…I think she planted the seed, not intentionally, but just by example. My father was a huge movie viewer, loved films. On Sundays we’d go to church and then we’d go to the movie theatre and see three films back to back, and then go home and watch movies. It was just our thing. So I saw every classic film growing up, every western. I loved film. I loved telling stories. I loved reading. I loved all of that.
It wasn’t until I was about 14 years old that I knew that I really wanted to study this and learn the craft and make it into a career. It didn’t happen until I was about 19 that I really enrolled in a professional school. And told my mom “This is it, this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.” I don’t think I realized until I was older how rewarding it is to be in this field, the performing arts, on so many levels. Anyway, that’s where it all originated. It originated from family, but it’s become kind of its own thing for me over the years.
Was there a particular actor or actress or movie that just sort of said, “Okay, I’ve got to be like her. I’ve got to be doing that thing.” Was there anything like that? Or was it just a gradual …
One of the ones that really stands out has to be is Bette Davis. All About Eve is one that I really loved. And also Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. That one really stood out. I mostly feel the classics, I think, had more of an influence on me. To Have and Have Not—it was a film I loved watching when I was younger and growing up. And Bogart and Lauren Bacall. I just, it was—I think that all my studying of old films kind of—I just bring into the Queen a lot. I think that there’s a ‘40s kind of quality to her.
Well you’re right. It’s funny because as you were talking about Bette Davis and Lauren Bacall, I thought, yeah that’s really—that actually does come through in the Queen. What a strong presence she is. And so yes, I can see that. In fact, it’s funny because the first thing that I saw you in actually was Miami Medical.
I tuned into it because I’m a huge fan of Jeremy Northam’s work in British independent film. And I thought, huh, how interesting he’s coming to the U.S. to do some work. But your presence in the show just immediately caught my eye. So when I saw that you were starring as the queen in Once Upon a Time, I was really happy to see you doing another big network show. Like the trauma surgeon you played on Miami Medical, your Once character is also very strong. Is that something you look for when you’re looking for roles? Is just someone who’s like a really strong presence to play?
I do. I do. It’s funny because I think I didn’t realize that that was kind of my casting. I discovered that I think on Swingtown when I originally auditioned for a different part. When I walked out of the room, before I even got to the car, my agent called and said “They want to see you as Trina Decker” and I said “Really?” That role had been sought after by so many actresses with huge names. I didn’t know it at the time—not until I actually booked the part. I was told, “Do you know who you beat out for those?” I’m like, “No.” But I knew then that, I must have—there must be something to me that’s definitely—there’s a boldness. And I’ve been playing these characters that are—they do have quite of a presence. But it wasn’t something I went looking for. I think it was something that people started pointing out to me.
But it makes sense. I can really see that boldness—assertiveness, sassiness.
Even when I was cast for Once Upon a Time, I originally auditioned for a different show called Combat Hospital playing a trauma surgeon. And I thought, well I’ve done this before. Shouldn’t be too difficult. And I went in there and I did it. The second scene was a huge monologue. At the end of the monologue, the casting director said, “I want you to play the Evil Queen in Once Upon a Time. And I just thought, “How did you see that in me?” I guess it’s something that—I’ve never had this conversation with anyone apart from you Barbara.
Oh, well that’s good.
It is—and you just brought it to my attention. And it’s honestly something I haven’t really talked about. But I guess I do have a quality that is perfectly suitable for these big characters, or controversial characters as well.
Yes, very much so. So you’re shooting in Vancouver. How do you enjoy working there?
The first year here was a bit challenging. A lot of it has to do with just not having my family and friends. And it’s funny because when you… I think—I’ve never relocated for a show. But I stay more in touch with my family because I’ve relocated. But I miss my friends a lot. It’s sometimes hard not to have them. But I have met some really wonderful people here. And I have seen some—I’ve been to some really beautiful places. Not only on location, but just like on my little weekend getaways. It’s a beautiful city.
Yeah. It is. It is. I love it. I’ve even thought about moving out there. It’s really so beautiful. So I want to talk about the Evil Queen. You seem to be able to find a balance. I mean she’s so evil and she’s so powerful. But you also seem to find the pathos beneath all the anger and evilness. How do you approach Regina and the Queen—as an actor?
Most importantly I always focus on the origin of this pain and hatred and evilness. I focus more on the where is this all coming from, and why is she like this, how did she end up this way? And that really feeds my performance quite a bit. Because playing evil just for the sake of playing evil is very surface. When I dig into her history and her deeper pains and wounds, I feel like there’s a much more interesting person there.
Oh, very much so.
I try to go back to her life before she was evil. Her love before she lost it. And the challenges being an only daughter, the only child, and the daughter of a woman who is equally, if not more, damaging and evil than the queen is. And it’s a—a lot of people focus on how fun it is to play, and it is fun to play. But there’s so much more going on with her that is not so fun to feel. It’s a really sad story.
It is. And in that way, the Evil Queen’s character has a lot in common with Rumple, who also has that very deep sadness running through and informing everything that he does. So what about the relationship between Rumple and the Queen? I think that’s probably to me, one of the most interesting relationships on the show. What will we see in the coming season—and you don’t have to give me spoilers.
It’s funny. Bobby, Robert Carlyle, we always talk about this. I think they are connected. They are so connected. They really at the end of the day don’t have anyone but each other. It’s such a twisted relationship. They love and care for one another, and then there’s the hatred. But they aren’t just rivalries; there’s a deeper connection. And I think you’ll see that story being told in the second season. You’re going to see who they were, and how they met, and the influences that they’ve had on one another.
Oh good. That’s great. That’s great.
The Evil Queen has a lot of conflict going forward, I’m guessing, after the end of last season, especially the loss of Henry. But also her relationship with Rumple, of course. And the fact that Belle is now out of the prison the Queen constructed. How are some of those conflicts going to unfold on an emotional level for your character?
On an emotional level, which is always where I love to speak from anyway, so that’s perfect…
My character, she’s lost everything. She’s lost everything. She’s lost her power, and she’s lost her son. She has nothing left, and that’s a really, really hard reality for her. Because here’s a woman who has been in control of everyone and everything apart from Rumple, Mr. Gold, for 28 years, if not more. It’s quite a jarring experience for her. I would say the biggest loss is Henry. Not so much the curse. I feel like curses can fail; curses can be lifted; spells could not work, and the Evil Queen can deal with that. She can just always find another way. But losing Henry, that was something she—I don’t think she was anticipating. It was happening and it was something she feared. But she literally pushed him away. She did, unbeknownst to her—her controlling nature, her obsession. Also she was very—she was a bit too stern with him. She didn’t listen to him. I think that that just inch by inch started pushing him out the door, and now she’s fully lost him. I think that that alone has broken her. And in this season what we’ll see—we started our sixth episode right now, so a good portion of fifth for a second season, we’re going to see her trying to redeem herself.
With that lovely insight, we ran out of time. But we agreed to catch up mid-season to see how things are going for the Evil Queen and Lana.
Tomorrow I’ll be chatting with Once Upon a Time writer-producer Jane Espenson about the season ahead and the second season of her web series Husbands. And, don’t forget to bid on all of the wonderful pieces of Once Upon a Time memorabilia up for auction on the U.K. Once Upon a Time Fansite. All proceeds will benefit With Kids, for which Robert Carlyle serves as an ambassador.
The Once Upon a Time season premiere airs Sunday night at 8:00 p.m. ET on ABC.