Natalie Abrams
September 28, 2017 AT 12:00 PM EDT

Once Upon a Time is undergoing a major overhaul heading into season 7, which means new characters, new locales, and even a new curse. To keep track of all the big changes, EW will bring you interviews with the cast — new and old — along with executive producers Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis over the next two weeks until the ABC fairy-tale drama’s return.

Once Upon a Time has a new hero.

In the season 6 finale, the ABC fairy-tale drama shocked and awed by revealing that the character Andrew J. West was playing was an older version of Henry Mills, the heart of the truest believer formerly played by Jared Gilmore since the show’s 2011 debut. However, Henry is no longer the wide-eyed optimist, but rather a cynical former author-turned-Uber driver. Yes, seriously. How did he end up so far away from home?

Here’s what you need to know: Henry leaves Storybrooke in search of his own tale, finding an epic romance with a different iteration of Cinderella (Dania Ramirez), with whom he has a precocious daughter, Lucy (Alison Fernandez). But the family is torn apart when a new, yet familiar, curse traps them and a trio of returning characters — former Evil Queen Regina (Lana Parrilla), one-handed pirate Hook (Colin O’Donoghue), and the Dark One Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle) — as well as a quintet of new characters (see the full character rundown here) in the Seattle neighborhood of Hyperion Heights. But just how different has this new Henry become after years of traveling? EW turned to West to get the scoop.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How different is this Henry that we’re seeing?
ANDREW J. WEST: Well, it’s the same Henry, but it’s a Henry who has gone through some trials and tribulations. It’s a Henry that’s gone through some adventures, who has aged. With the passage of time for anybody, things happen and people change — sometimes drastically. It’s yet to be seen how drastically Henry has changed in the time that has passed from when we see him at the end of season 6, but there have definitely been some significant changes in his life. We’ll learn what adventures he went on in the years between the end of season 6 and the beginning of season 7. There’s been a substantial passage of time. It is, in a lot of ways, a brand new character. It’s a man as opposed to this boy that we knew for six years.

What’s his mindset when we pick back up with him in the Enchanted Forest, but also in Hyperion Heights?
In a lot of ways, it’s almost like two different people. The Henry that we see in the Fairy Tale Land is more of a direct continuation from where we leave Henry in season 6. But what’s exciting about him is that he’s on a quest, he’s got a goal that he’s working toward and that’s what makes the character intriguing and fun to watch. In season 1, Henry was on a quest then, he was working towards something every episode. So that’s where we see him, but he’s still that hopeful, optimistic, heart of the truest believer guy that he’s always been.

Now when we pick him up in Hyperion Heights, there’s very much that essence in there. For the first time, we see this guy dealing with some real trauma and that has effects on the person who he is, how he behaves, and how he sees the world. That’s going to be really cool for fans, too, to see this character that’s always been the optimist, always been the one who believes — there’s been moments of darkness here and there in the third season with Peter Pan and different things, but he’s always been the bright shining beacon of hope and light. We see him really being challenged for the first time in a serious way in Hyperion Heights.

Did you go back and watch Jared’s performance and see what he did?
I went back and watched it. It was very important for me to watch it. I don’t want to mimic what Jared did, but it’s very important to understand the essences of those relationships. Really what Jen did with Emma Swan, and what Lana did, and what Josh Dallas did with Prince Charming, who are all members of obviously his immediate family, was a big inspiration for who this person becomes, too. Having those figures in his life that have influenced him so heavily. It’s more about capturing the essence of that than it is mimicking him, because he’s a different person, he’s older now, he’s grown up. But it was important to understand the essence of those relationships to be able to do the job. I couldn’t do it otherwise, there’s no way.

What do you think Henry has learned in the ensuing years?
When Henry was younger and what we saw of Henry through the six years, there were certainly difficulties that he faced and there were challenges, and there were adventures and there were all those things. But since then he’s experienced some hardships that far surpass anything that I think most children, hopefully, would ever experience. I mean, he’s experienced some very adult hardships, for lack of a better word, and it’s really tested him and altered him in some ways.

But at the same time, when we start season 7, we’re seeing him at two separate points in his life, and those are two very different Henrys too because a lot of time has passed between those two points — the person that he is in some of these fairy tale flashbacks that we’re going to see and then the person that he is in Hyperion Heights. It’s because of the things that have happened to him in the interim that are slowly revealed that we realize why he may seem a little different.

To be totally honest with you, a lot of that stuff hasn’t even really been revealed to me in detail yet either. I’ve, of course, gotten bits and pieces and stuff, but I don’t even know how all of the backstory is going to unfold either. But specifically, he’s always had the heart of the truest believer, we know that. He’s always been the one who really believes and I think what’s interesting is that when we see him, at least in Hyperion Heights as an adult, that belief has been shaken like it’s never been before. It’s really been shaken to its core. The problem with which he’s faced, and I guess the audience is faced, is: Is the belief going to vanish? Is it going to disappear? Is it going to break? Or is he going to be able to sustain it somehow? And we slowly find out why it’s gotten to that point.

Jack Rowand/ABC

Let’s talk about that Hyperion Heights version of Henry. What kind of dynamic does he have with some of these returning characters, like Roni, Gold, and Rogers?
When we meet him in Hyperion Heights, frankly, he’s a little bit of a recluse. He’s not a guy who’s got his stuff together. He lives alone. He’s lonely, frankly. He was a published author, but the writing career is not going well at all for him. He’s a Swyft driver in order to make ends meet and he’s not in a good place. Now, he’s not even really part of the Hyperion Heights community initially, but he gets drawn into this world because this child, Lucy, comes into his life and kind of forces him to venture out into this world of Hyperion Heights.

So, when he first comes in contact with some of these characters, with Roni, he essentially needs her to help him gather some information so that he can help this child that he feels for. He doesn’t really know why this child came into his life, but he can tell that she’s in trouble and he wants to give her any assistance that he can. He also wants to get her out of his life a little bit because she really throws a wrench into this little cocoon existence that he creates for himself. But he quickly forms a bond with Roni and it’s unclear to him, and I think Roni also, why they have this connection or why they developed this friendship so quickly because they’re strangers.

What about with Hook in the Enchanted Forest and Rogers in Hyperion Heights?
It’s a nice continuation of the relationship that these characters developed over the six years. The thing is that no one has really seen Henry for a while, so I think that when they’re reunited there’s this, “Oh my God, you’ve grown up, you’ve changed,” and I think there’s a finding of that relationship again in a way too.” Now, in Hyperion Heights, what’s so fun about it is that they are just new characters that are getting to know each other, they’re essentially strangers again. They’re both looking for something and I think that they find what could be an advantageous partnership. At first, there is a little bit of, “Can I trust this guy? Can I trust this guy? Who is this guy? Can he help me? Is he on my side?” But they find a way where they could help each other.

At the end of the day, I think it’s surprising for Henry to come into this new neighborhood, this new city, this new world, whatever you want to call it, and quickly meet people that he develops a connection with, because where we see Henry in his life, he’s not that kind of person. Again, he’s a recluse. He’s shut himself away. There’s not a lot of human connection in his life when we first see him at the beginning of 701, so Rogers and Roni quickly provide that for him, and it’s interesting to him. It’s sort of mysterious, like, why is it happening? He likes it, but it’s surprising to him.

What kind of dynamic does Henry have with Cinderella when they first meet? Is it love at first sight?
In a lot of ways, it’s reminiscent of what we saw with Charming and Snow White in the beginning of the series. It’s an edgier Cinderella, which is awesome to see Dania do, because she does it so well. But it also speaks to what it is that Henry is attracted to, and what it is that lights a fire inside of him. A fire has been lit.

What does that dynamic between Henry and Jacinda look like in Hyperion Heights?
There’s a real connection that he has to this woman and this little girl, and he just wants to help them. There’s a lot to unpack because first you have a guy who, again, is deep down just a truly nice, caring guy. On top of that, there’s this connection that almost feels — I don’t know what the word is, it’s a connection that goes much deeper than just, “Oh, I like this girl,” or “She’s pretty,” or “I want to help her.” It’s something that reaches further back for him. So, a lot of what we see of Henry in Hyperion Heights is him working toward helping Jacinda and helping Lucy maintain the best quality of life that they can have, and that opens an entire can of worms. It just creates all these complications in his life that he’s happy to take on, not at first, but it’s something that he quickly accepts as being very important for reasons that are maybe even beyond his initial understanding.

What has it been like on set as one of the new cast members?
We as new guys, we didn’t know what it would be like on this set — Gabrielle, Dania, you know, the new cast members along with myself. Sometimes that can be real intimidating if you come into season 7 with a show that has been very successful and that everybody’s got their way of working, and their cliques, and they’ve developed these characters — not just the world of the show, but the world of being at work, like being on set every day. But what’s cool about this and what mitigates that is the fact that it does feel so new. Colin, Lana, and Bobby have talked about how new it feels to them and how they are finding different versions of these characters. So, I think it’s helped all of us ease in and not feel too overwhelmed or intimidated and we can all find this new world together. But we have this treasure trove of seasons and material that already exist that we can use as a foundation to pull from.

OUAT fans are very passionate, so what has that been like for you since the moment you appeared in the finale now going into this rebooted season? What has the reaction been like?
It’s been surprisingly positive. I guess I only say surprisingly because your mind — I guess just as in the neurotic human being that I am — always goes to the negative place of, everybody loves this character and they’re going to hate what I’m doing with it. It’s easy to psych yourself out and think that it’s just going to be a negative thing. It’s been the opposite actually. People seem genuinely excited about it. But it’s unlike most shows that you work on. I’ve only ever worked on one show that’s had a similar feel in terms a fanbase, but most TV shows you don’t expect to see fans hanging out around location, snapping pictures, and just wanting to watch you work. You don’t really see that on most shows. There is always an adjustment period to that, but I love it because it’s a reminder.

It’s easy to start to slip into this solipsistic world of work where you may really enjoy your job, but you’re just going into work every day, you’re hanging out with the people you work with and it just becomes a job, a job that you really enjoy. We make this show and it’s fun and we have a good time and we go home or whatever, but the fan response and seeing the fans when you come to work sometimes, seeing the fans on Twitter and Instagram, is a reminder that it really means a lot to people out there, that you’re making the show for a lot of people and it really has an effect on these people. It’s not just your fun job that you get to enjoy. It’s a little bit bigger than that and that’s a great motivating factor. It makes you even more excited to come into work, it makes you excited to share the story that we’re all making and it’s just special. It’s pretty unique. You just don’t get that opportunity a lot when you work in this type of business.

Once Upon a Time returns Friday, Oct. 6 at 8 p.m. ET on ABC. Read our primer of the new season here, our full Q&A with executive producers Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis here, and our interview with Lana Parrilla here. Check back Friday for our interview with Dania Ramirez.

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