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Once Upon a Time's Dania Ramirez on new Cinderella: 'She's not a damsel in distress'

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Eike Schroter/ABC

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.

A new iteration of Cinderella is coming to Once Upon a Time in season 7.

First off: No, OUAT has not simply recast the glass-slippered princess, who was brought to life throughout the first six seasons by Jessy Schram. Instead, the ABC fairy-tale drama is opening up a new storybook, which means we’ll see a different version of Cinderella portrayed by Dania Ramirez.

The “simplest” way to explain it: You, the reader, have already seen different iterations of this character in everyday life. There was the iconic 1950 Disney classic animated version. And the 1997 TV movie-musical starring Brandy Norwood as the titular character. How about Hilary Duff’s modern take in A Cinderella Story. And there’s the recent live-action film starring Lily James. And, of course, we met the aforementioned version of the character in season 1 of OUAT. The list goes on and on. Different cultures also have different versions of the character, like Aschenputtel from the German Brothers Grimm fairy tales, etc. Understand?

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, we’ll meet this iteration of Cinderella in a different Enchanted Forest when she comes across Henry (Andrew J. West), who has been in search of his story after leaving Storybrooke. We know the two eventually fall in love and have a child, Lucy (Alison Fernandez), because she pleaded with Henry to help his family in the season 6 finale. However, what we don’t know is the tale of how Cinderella and Henry fall in love and subsequently end up cursed in the Seattle-based neighborhood of Hyperion Heights. To get some insight on that, EW sat down with Ramirez on the set of OUAT.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell us about Cinderella and Jacinda, and how similar or different they may be.
DANIA RAMIREZ: The essence of who she is, it’s the same in both worlds. It’s still someone that has gone through a great deal of pain and maybe rejection. For Jacinda in the real world, you’re picking her up a few years later. You go back into fairy-tale world to fill in the blanks a few years back to understand how the curse was cast and how they ended up in the real world. So the biggest difference between Jacinda and Cinderella is that Jacinda has a daughter. So you get to see a slightly more mature version of Cinderella in the real world, because she’s been through a lot as Cinderella in the fairy-tale world. She has had to deal with her father’s passing and getting treated like less than a human being by her stepmother. I think there’s a lot of pain and struggle that she’s been through in her life.

Unlike other Cinderella stories, she’s not a damsel in distress. She’s not waiting to just go and meet the prince and marry him and have this guy come sweep her off her feet. She’s really taking action and really taking things into her own hands and is more of a rebel as the younger version in the fairy-tale world. There’s a lot of those rebellious moments that she has as Jacinda in the real world, however, she has her daughter to think about. So there’s a different weight to her actions that take place in the real world that doesn’t take place for her in the fairy-tale world. And there’s a different kind of freedom that she has in the fairy tale world because of that, because she’s really just fighting for herself.

What can you tease of the dynamic between Henry and Cinderella?
Cinderella is a little edgy and a little rough around the edges. It’s a different dynamic. It’s still almost like a bickering dynamic. But there is that magical moment when they do first see each other that you know that there’s something really special and beautiful there, and that love really does exist. That’s what’s going to keep us throughout the season. I think we’re about to take a really beautiful journey together. I light a fire within him.

But talk about when they first meet — is it love at first sight?
Yeah, it’s not that, however, there is that magical love moment. I mean, if you’re really watching, you’ll really catch it, and hopefully we did a really good job making that first look to each other really mean something. You have to have some kind of a connection right away before we open our mouths and then start right away bickering. There is a moment of attraction that happens right away, and I think that’s true for any epic love story. It’s that love at first sight moment, although our love at first sight is cut very short. It’s very brief. It is an epic love story in the sense that we don’t know whether we belong together or not, and we’re both fighting for different things. I think he’s a lot more, in the fairy-tale world as Henry, still the believer, very much the believer, like Henry has been from season 1 to season 6. He’s still on the path of finding his own story and very childlike in that way. So I think he’s more of the romantic in the fairy-tale world when she first meets him, and she’s more of the realist and like, “I’m just fighting for my life here.”

What is the dynamic like between Cinderella and Lady Tremaine?
It is your typical Cinderella story and we do have the stepmother. The good thing is that there are these two parallel worlds, and we are telling a parallel love story — a love story for Jacinda, which is my character in the real world, and Cinderella, who I am in the fantasy world. We have these similarities in both worlds. Lady Tremaine is my stepmother and in the fairy-tale world, it’s very unfortunate for Cinderella. You know how she has the stepdaughters and she’s someone that doesn’t really get the respect that she deserves and gets put through hell. I think that’s the same dynamic that we’re going to see here. I think Gabrielle Anwar is a phenomenal actress. I get the chance to have her as my stepmother. She is deliciously evil.

Even though Cinderella, or Jacinda, is edgy and rough, and cool and tough, Lady Tremaine puts her in her place, and if there’s one thing you can relate to this as a young person, it’s that relationship with your mother. No matter how tough you are outside of your home, when you get home, that’s the one person who can get to you, and I think that’s the dynamic between us too. I go back to how I wanted to play this version of Cinderella, just really authentic and real, and when I think of myself at a young age with my mother, there’s always these issues between mother and daughter that happen, especially when you have an outspoken daughter. That’s my biggest issue in my life is that this is not something that I planned out for myself, and I definitely have an animosity towards her because of how she imposes her power against me. So we don’t like each other. I think I am more hurt by the fact that she doesn’t like me than she is of the fact that I don’t like her, and I think that pain is what makes our relationship very complicated.

How does that speak to Jacinda’s dynamic then with Lucy?
Lucy is a very feisty and a very resourceful little girl, so I don’t know if she is as affected as Jacinda is by how Lady Tremaine behaves. Lucy’s very much a believer. We have this interesting relationship, this mother/daughter relationship, almost like we are raising each other — and she’s raising me sometimes, and allowing me to see things in a different way.

Jacinda and Sabine, a.k.a Princess Tiana (Mekia Cox), are roommates in Hyperion Heights. What’s their dynamic like?
They’re real friends. Like real friends, in general, hopefully, can get into situations where they fight, because they’re different people. I always say a lot of fake friends are the ones I can’t get into a fight with, because if I get into a fight with them, it’s over.

How is this curse different from what we’ve seen on the show before?
It’s probably different because the characters are different. You’re entering a completely different world. The thing about a curse that’s always constant is that it’s bad, and somehow you have to figure out your way to a happy ending from it. So in that way, the curse is the same. In what way is it different? It’s a completely different story. You’re in a different book. So the consequences of the curse have now put all the characters in a completely new trajectory, and they’re in a different world. So the characters that you have known from the past are now with new identities in this completely different realm. And again, now we’re in Hyperion Heights, it’s not Storybrooke anymore. So, therefore, the curse will be different because we’re in a different book, we’re in a different place.

And there’s technology here this time.
It’s a lot more modern. The world that we’re living in is a lot more modern than it was before, and it’s also a lot edgier and more raw. You’re in a city now, and we’re in a different environment. The environment seems a lot more matter-of-fact, like real-life, urban, which I like. It’s a different story, a different point of view.

Is Roni’s the neighborhood bar that everybody goes to? Is that like where everybody knows your name?
It’s the hangout place. It’s the place to be. Honestly, I feel like I would hang out there. I’m originally from New York, so I like the fact that it’s exposed brick, it’s dimly lit, you can go have dates there, or a private meeting there. You just never know.

What was your first day like on set?
I couldn’t breathe my first day. I was actually not in the fairy-tale world. So my first day was as Jacinda in the real world, and it was just a lot of running, man. Jacinda has it rough. The running day was my first day, and I was in Converse running up and down this big street trying to make it to work, because I was late to work. I was on vacation before I got this job. I got pulled out of vacation to come to Vancouver to start shooting right away. I left my family in Hawaii. So I was not working out or doing any of these sorts of things, and I came into just like a day of running and completely being active. It was great, because as far as playing such an iconic character that Cinderella is from the Disney world, walking into such a raw and authentic environment — even though it’s the real world, and it’s Jacinda, it’s still Cinderella that’s being cursed, and now she’s in the real world as Jacinda. So it felt really exciting for me to do something completely different with a character that people might have a different idea of. That was the best part of my first day, just really coming to the realization, I was like, “Oh my God, I’m playing this iconic character in a completely different way,” and keeping her grounded, and stressed out, because it’s part of the curse. She doesn’t know that she’s cursed as Jacinda, so that just feels like her life. Her life is always hectic, and everything’s always going wrong. And every time something might go right, like every time she takes a step forward, something makes her take two steps back. So it just felt really like life. Life is hard, right? And I think that’s what I loved the most about the show, that there’s an essence of these fantastical characters and this incredible idealistic dream world that you think of as a little girl, and then you get hit with the reality of life sometimes that is really painful, and there’s a lot of struggle. And so my first day just felt really honest and pure to what life really is like, and I loved that. I loved walking into it knowing that I was going to be on Once Upon a Time, and here I am as Jacinda running late for work, and no makeup. That’s also the great thing about my character, she’s just really under the radar and different. Princesses are not what you think they are.

What was it like for you to put on the dress for the first time?
The dress? Cool. I mean, come on! I remember my first fitting. I think I posted a picture of my first fitting recently, and they were giving me the petticoat skirts. For my character, I was wearing two of those skirts underneath this massively huge dress. They did such an incredible job designing and creating the dress. It was really heavy though, I must say. So that realization of, “Okay, this is going to take a lot.” I’m a tomboy in real life. I had to do all the sword fighting with all these petticoats underneath, and a glass slipper. So not the most ideal, but it’s great.

Had you watched the show before you were cast or watch any of it since then?
Yeah, I did a movie with Jamie Chung, who played Mulan on the show a few seasons back, and I also worked with like Parker [Croft] who played one of the Lost Boys with Peter Pan in season 3 of the story, so I had watched some episodes. I didn’t know the extent of what the show was really about, because I didn’t watch it religiously; the tone of the show I got. And they called me to come in and test. Lucky for me, because I was on vacation with my family, and one of them, who’s from Mexico, he’s obsessed with the show — that’s another thing, the show is such a universal show. He’s from Mexico and was obsessed with Once Upon a Time. He was like, “Oh my God, you get to go in and test for Once Upon a Time?!” and it just became such a huge thing for the entire family right before I went to test. And so we started watching the pilot episode. They’re still binge-watching it. Season 6 just came out on Netflix, so they’re still just binge-watching it to make sure that they catch up.

Do you think new fans could just jump in now and watch?
As a fan of shows period, and as a fan of this particular show, just because there’s beloved characters that you’ve grown to love, that you’ve watched from season 1 — the Evil Queen and Hook and Rumplestiltskin — these are characters that are really essential characters to the show. They will continue to be essential characters to the show in season 7. And so if you haven’t watched the show prior to this particular season, just even to watch to see the evolution of those characters, to get excited about where those characters are going to be going in this particular season, I think it’s worth giving the entire six seasons a watch; at least season 1, to have an understanding of the tone. And the whole point is that because it is a new book you could start it right now, but it is also a book that is bringing up some old familiar faces, and for fans of the show that have started from season 1, I think it’s also worth it to just go back and have an understanding of who those characters are.

I just want to go back to what you asked about my first day. It was just an emotional day for me, period, because when I went to the test for the role, I didn’t know what I was auditioning for. They didn’t tell me that it was Cinderella. They didn’t tell me it was the main character. They basically said, “They want you to come in and test and they want you to have chemistry with this guy, Henry.” So when I told my family, “Look at this guy Henry,” one of my family member’s brother said, “Oh, I watch the show. That’s Henry, that’s the little kid.” He’s the one that told me about the kid. So we watched the pilot episode of the show and watched the second episode, and the next morning, I was on a plane to go audition. All I know is that they want me to have chemistry with this guy. As an actress, I’m like, “Okay, I can have chemistry with a freaking piece of bread. I got this.”

So I walked in and I remember I was moving, all my stuff was in storage, so all I had was vacation clothes. I had a T-shirt and a skirt or a bikini and I walked in there and just said my lines. They felt my vibe. I ended up flying back the next morning to get to Hawaii. I have a videotape of this because my husband, before I left, was taping me. He was like, “Oh, you’re about to go and test for this big show, Once Upon a Time,” and I was nervous getting on the plane. When I landed the next morning in Hawaii, I got a call from my manager and that’s when I found out that I had not only gotten the job, but that I was playing Cinderella.

You’ve got to understand, for me, I grew up in the Dominican Republic without running water or electricity, in a very remote, small town. The thought of even remotely thinking that I could ever, in any realm of possibility, play such an iconic character, that it’s not even written to play for someone that looks like me, that is like me, it was just overwhelming. I was very emotional the first day that I came to set. It was actually good that I ended up having to do the whole running scene, because I don’t know if I could have been ready to really dive into the scenes. Maybe, maybe not, who knows. Just for me, the realization of like, “Oh my God, I’m getting to play this incredible role and I never thought that it was something that could have been even a possibility.”

It’s magical what this show does and it’s magical what they’ve done with this particular season, really being open-minded, because it’s really about telling the stories, and it’s a very hopeful show. That’s what I love the most about it. In my opinion, it just felt really open-minded. We’re telling a love story and telling a real journey of struggle and pain. All of these emotions are universal and they affect everyone, no matter what country you’re from or what ethnicity you are. That’s the part that actually affected me the most when I came into work for the first day, because I was just like, that’s cool. How creatively genius are they to think, “Okay, well, now we can open up a different book.” And it’s true, when I was growing up, I knew all these stories. No matter where you’re from, what country you’re in, you know the stories and you relate to them because of the universal themes of the characters, not because of how the characters look. So I feel like it’s really groundbreaking.

Once Upon a Time will return 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, our interview with Lana Parrilla here, and our interview with Andrew J. West here. Check back Monday for our interview with Gabrielle Anwar.

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