I have to confess. My favorite character on ABC’s new series Once Upon a Time is not one of the series good guys: Snow White/Mary Margaret (Ginnifer Goodwin), Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), or Jiminy Cricket (Raphael Sbarge). It’s not even the deliciously evil Evil Queen (Lana Parilla). I’ve got a thing for Rumpelstiltskin.
Every once in awhile an actor catches my eye whose talent just blows me away. The ability to play the epitome of evil, the most guileless of men, and, particularly, the many shades of gray in between, makes me pause and take immediate notice. He may not be the hottest (either in popularity or appearance), but there’s just something.
When I decided to cover the new ABC series Once Upon a Time, it was for two reasons. First, I’m a sucker for the genre; dark fantasy sci-fi is one my favorite vices. Second, there is the House connection with Jennifer Morrison taking one of the lead roles in the series.
But I found myself intrigued by Rumpelstiltskin and drawn to his modern-day alter ego Mr. Gold. He only has a couple of scenes in each of the first two episodes, but there’s just something, well, magnetic. I should, of course, mention that this dual role is played by the equally intriguing Mr. Robert Carlyle.
The soft-spoken Scottish actor has a wonderful role in Once Upon a Time. With secret motivations that lurk beneath his deranged Enchanted Forest persona and within the overtly sinister demeanor of his Storybrooke counterpart, very few actors could pull it off with such style and grace. Far from simply evil, there is much more to both Rumpelstiltskin and Mr. Gold.
In the series’ second episode, which aired last night, we learn about the origins of The Evil Queen’s (Lana Parrilla) curse—the one that froze in time the inhabitants of the Enchanted Forest, while making happy endings completely elusive for the storybook characters now transported to Storybrooke. Turns out that she required a consult with the gleefully demonic Rumpelstiltskin, who warns her about using the curse. He should know; after all, he’s the one who gave it to her in the first place! And it’s a dire warning. Yet, he tells her how to execute it, at least for a price. On the other hand, this is the same Rumpelstiltskin who gave Snow White and the Prince the information to ultimately save them all.
We also learn that the quietly menacing Mr. Gold is no ally of the Mayor, despite the fact that there seems to be some sort of symbiotic relationship between the two of them. Is it possible, as Mayor Regina accuses, that he’d engineered Henry’s placement in Storybrooke so that the story, as it were, would all eventually fall back into place at the appropriate moment? Hmm. I want to know more. And that’s a good thing.
I love characters like this, whose motives are unclear and whose apparent single-minded self-interest seldom is. Carlyle is the perfect actor to fill what is possibly the series most complex role. This is a man who has portrayed evil incarnate as Adolph Hitler (Hitler: The Rise of Evil) along with a whole host of other bad men. But he’s also played sweet and romantic, generous and compassionate. And conflicted.
Before Once Upon a Time, I’d been unaware of Carlyle’s work on film and on television either here or in the U.K. Of course I’d heard of Trainspotting (which made Ewan MacGregor a star), and The Full Monty. But I’d not seen either of them. And so, as I generally do when I “discover” an actor who intrigues me, I went exploring, thanking my lucky stars for Netflix, an Amazon Prime account, and IMDb Pro.
Carlyle has played such a wide range of evil men and nice guys; blokes and brilliant scientists, I know I’ve barely scratched the surface. But I will suggest, if you are similarly intrigued, as good a place as any to start is with the Syfy Network’s Stargate Universe series, which ran until earlier this year. I’m sad to say, I’ve only just discovered the series myself.
In SGU (as it’s often called) Carlyle portrays Dr. Nicholas Rush, a genius scientist with often difficult-to-read motivations. Machiavellian on the one hand, Rush can be self-sacrificing when it concerns some greater good. But his motives are often self-serving, and it’s hard for his shipmates to trust him or his motives. Rush is driven by his pursuit “the work” and greater knowledge. But he is also wounded by the death of his wife. Lonely and isolated from the social life aboard the spacecraft Destiny, we learn that despite his secrecy and sometimes machine-like rationality, Carlyle imbues Rush with a fine streak of humanity. Cynical about many things, Rush is also a visionary whose thirst for knowledge sometimes pushes his shipmates’ patience and has often cost him their trust (and with good reason). But when the script brings out Rush’s more vulnerable side, it rings true. Of all the characters among SGU’s ensemble cast of characters, Rush is easily one of the most interesting to watch over the 40-episode series run.
I’ll do a more detailed profile of Carlyle’s impressive body of work soon, but in the meantime, catch him in Once Upon a Time Sundays at 8:00 p.m. on ABC.