Lana Parrilla, who plays Regina Mills/the Evil Queen on ABC's "Once Upon a Time," doesn't look very menacing as she reaches over to help with the French press coffee carafe on a recent trip to a Hollywood cafe. There's definitely a softer side to the sometimes vengeful monarch, and to the Puerto Rican/Sicilian actress who inhabits the fairy tale role.
“I grew up in Brooklyn and was tough — kind of loaded with attitude — and then I came here. I'm sure people found me kind of intimidating,” Parrilla says. “I didn't fit in on any level when I moved from Brooklyn to Burbank — on any level. And then I met a bunch of hippies and I became a little hippie myself. A Brooklyn hippie.”
It's that dichotomy that has seemed to fuel not only Parrilla but also the show itself in its second season. As “Once Upon a Time” returns to ABC on Sunday, the characters now know who they are (fairy tale denizens transplanted to a Maine town called Storybrooke years ago by a curse) and have to cope with this knowledge and the return of magic to what was once a magic-less world. Parrilla's Mills, who also is the city's mayor, fights to gain the acceptance/love of her adopted son Henry while resisting the urge to use magic — and sticking it to Snow White's daughter Emma Swan any time she can.
Mills was one of the few characters who actually knew who she was as a fairy tale being, and she, as well as the show's producers, kept the secret safe for most of the first season.
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“I wanted to confuse the audience, so I would do different takes. One where she had the knowledge that she was the Evil Queen, and some where she didn't at all. I would let producers and editors tell which story they wanted to tell,” Parrilla says. “In the beginning it was a creative choice to keep them really different. Then down the road, it's been a blending of the two characters. Now the contrast happens more in the writing, where, in the second season, she's on this road to redemption, but in fairy tale land, it's back to the moments leading up to the curse, so she's the craziest she's ever been. I love the contrast.”
Creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz have said that themes of identity and parenting will permeate the second season of “Once Upon a Time” — notions that played a role in shaping the career of Parrilla.
“At 3 years old, I was imitating and doing fun little commercials for the family. Then at 5, I knew, ‘OK, this is something I really like.' At 8, I was crying in front of the mirror and my mom was like, ‘Oh boy, here we go. We know what she's going to do,'” Parrilla says.
The youngster wasn't allowed to attend a performing arts high school, though, due to a protective father, delaying her entrance into serious acting.
“I studied professionally after high school and started working at 21 years old. I took some time and learned the craft,” she said.
She continued to learn, wanting to emulate the career of her favorite actress, Glenn Close. With memorable roles in Fox's “24” and CBS' short-lived series “Swingtown,” Parrilla found that she enjoyed being a character actor like Close but was advised to expand her comfort zone.
“One of my mentors when I was 19 years old — her name is Jocelyn Jones — said, ‘Lana, you gotta learn how to be a leading lady. Take off the wigs and drop the accents,'” Parrilla says. “On ‘Swingtown,' I think that's when I was able to blend the character-slash-leading lady roles, and that's what I'm doing on ‘Once Upon a Time' as well. She's a leading lady, but she's also this character.”
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A popular character at that. At Comic-Con 2012, a roomful of close to 5,000 fans serenaded Parrilla with “Happy Birthday.” So for the fans, here are a few other observations Parrilla shared:
On filming in Vancouver: "I couldn't imagine a better place to shoot the show. It's perfect for the Enchanted Forest. And some of the shots that we get are truly beautiful. I do miss L.A. and New York. It rains a lot."
On her character's costumes/wardrobe: "I don't get to choose the queen's outfits. They're designed. I'm not a big part of that, but I really trust Eduardo Castro, so I don't get involved. For Regina ... yeah, I get to choose a few things, but then again Eduardo has such a great eye. I've grown to like her attire. Classy. Sophisticated. A little sexy with those high boots and all. She's a businesswoman -- and she's the mayor."
On Regina's magic addiction: "Ultimately she doesn't want to use it because if she does she's going to lose Henry forever -- so it's a pretty good incentive to stay clean of magic. But, it's exciting for her and has gotten her everything that she's ever wanted. There's a security in it for her, in a strange way."
Do you like apples?: "I do now. I never liked apples. In fact, when I was a little girl, my mom wanted to give me apples in my lunch box and I would ask for green peppers. So bizarre. ... It's funny -- I don't have an apple a day, but I can say that I have a few a week."
Regina versus Cora (her mother) -- Who'd win in a fight?: "I think Regina is just as powerful -- maybe a little more powerful in a different way. Way back in Episode 2 of this season, she pushed her mother through the mirror without even touching her. It was just based on her intent. I think that [after all of this time], when they have a confrontation, it'll be a pretty fair fight."
If you could perform magic, what would you do?: "I would teleport and travel. 'Oh, my God, I need to be in New York!' Snap! Instantaneously."
Favorite fairy tale: "Hansel and Gretel. ... I also loved Little Red Riding Hood. I think it was the wolf. I just loved the wolf. And walking through the forest and being fearful of what was out there. I like being scared, so I've always liked fairy tales because they're kind of creepy."