As Once Upon a Time reaches its conclusion, Jennifer Morrison gets one last chance to say farewell to Emma Swan, appearing in the series finale for, well, another swan song.
After six seasons of playing the sword-wielding Savior, the actress exited the ABC fairy tale drama back in 2017. She briefly returned for an emotional curtain call at the top of the rebooted seventh season, and then hung up her red leather coat for good — something the actress says she doesn’t regret. Below, Morrison reflect on the show’s legacy and how it feels saying goodbye to Emma Swan. (And watch the video above for even more from Morrison on the end of OUAT on a new edition of Couch Surfing.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve had some time away from Once Upon a Time, but are you ready to say goodbye to Emma for good?
JENNIFER MORRISON: I guess. I think that I am in a position where, because I did step away at the end of season 6, I’ve had some time to have some space, and have some peace with it. She’s a character that I will always love, and I will always care about, but I really do feel like she went on an amazing journey. I was so fulfilled and satisfied with how she grew, and how she changed, and where she was able to arrive in her life, and in her relationships. So I feel very at peace, because I feel like she was able to grow into all of the things that I had hoped for her.
Do you have any regrets about leaving Once Upon a Time when you did?
No, I feel like everything happened as it was meant to happen. My contract was up. I felt like Emma’s story had naturally reached its happy ending. There wasn’t really a new place for that to go for her. The things that we were aiming for creatively over those six years had all culminated in a really beautiful way. And for me personally, those things that have transpired in the last year of my life have been incredibly important to me personally and professionally. And it was absolutely the right thing for me.
What has it meant to you to have strong female role model like Emma Swan for young women in this era?
I’m discovering on multiple levels what a big deal it is. I feel so lucky to have played Emma Swan, and been able to bring her to life for the six, almost seven, years. I know how I felt when I went to go see Wonder Woman, and I was really emotional when I watched it. I didn’t expect it. I didn’t expect that I was gonna be that emotional. But I was really emotional because I thought, “I can’t imagine, if I were 10 years old, there could be a female superhero.” It never occurred to me as a kid. And I thought, “Oh my God, this is how boys always feel. They have all the superheroes.” I was really emotional about that. It was one of the first times that it really clicked why little girls have had such a strong response to Emma Swan, and why their moms have been so excited about their daughters being able to have that response to Emma Swan. It really put in perspective what a special thing I got to be a part of, because when I was stepping outside of it, and looking at a different version of something like that, I was able to see it differently.
So I think it’s really important, and I really hope that we’re at the beginning of a lot more examples of that. I’m really hoping that in the next five or six years, as things that are in development start to get made, that we start to see more of those female superheroes, we get to see more of those strong, smart women who might be real people, just the way Emma is a real person, but ultimately they rise above their circumstances and can do something extraordinary with their lives. I mean, like Lady Bird, where it’s a great coming of age story for a young girl, whereas there’s 1,000 great coming-of-age stories for young men and hardly any for women, at least hardly any that make it to the theater. So I hope that in the long run we can look back and see that Emma Swan was a part of the beginning of this movement toward these characters and more of them being out there, so that there is more of a balance.
What’s the most poignant fan interaction that has stuck with you?
I think a lot about the fans that talk about the way they watch the show with their families, and the fact that there’s so few things out there that cross the generations in terms of interest. You can have a 15-year-old watching with their parents, or a 10-year-old, and a 12-year-old, and the parents watching. There’s something nice about the content being something that really is for adults, but also for young people at the same time. Within that, there was someone who came up to me at a convention and said, “This really helped my family, because I’m the stepmother to my children. We were really struggling with the balance between the birth mother and the stepmother, and the whole thing, and this was an example of how you can really love two different mothers.” That that was a really powerful example of that for their kids, and that it really brought their mixed family together in a way that was really helpful for them. I thought that that was a really beautiful thing that was able to be taken away from a television show.
What do you think Once Upon a Time‘s legacy will be?
Gosh, I don’t know. I certainly hope that it’s part of the Disney legacy. The Disney legacy leans into this idea of if you dream it, you can do it. But ultimately there is the possibility of very hopeful situations in life, and that you have to take responsibility for yourself in a way where you can have hope. You can have your own version of magic in life. I hope that we fit into that Disney idea, and that ultimately part of its legacy leans into this same message.
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Can you talk about the importance of sending the message that anyone can get a happy ending?
I think a lot about this lately, especially just the political environment of the world right now, and the amount of unrest there is in the world, and how many negative things we could be surrounded by on any given day. I’ve talked to other artists about this, especially in New York in the playwriting community, and we’ve talked about how, for a long time, the industry just leaned into this idea that in order for something to be good, it has to be dark, it has to be heavy, it has to be dark and have this weight and edge to it, and that somehow something that’s hopeful or positive is cheesy. Then, at some point as artists, and as a community, we had to take responsibility for the fact that we need to put a possible positive future in the world. If all we do is constantly put the idea of an apocalyptic future, and a negative future, and a dark future in the world in the art that we make, we will perpetuate that as human beings. We will make what we see, and it will become a reality.
So, as artists, we have to dig in there and find a way to bring the same quality, and the same integrity, and the same depth to the things that we’re creating. But also take responsibility that we need to put possible positive futures in the world. We need to give people an example of something good and hopeful that they can strive for or say, “Oh, I see that example, and maybe I can be that. Or maybe I could try it that way.” And I think Once Upon a Time is a part of that kind of storytelling. The world is complicated, and there are dark things in the world. But what is it that we can do to have that possible positive future? What are the active things we can do? I think we are responsible as artists to start putting those ideas in the world so that we can start aiming for it and envisioning what it might look like.
If you could open up a chapter of Once Upon a Time 10 years later, what would you want it to be about?
Man, I have no idea. I think I might still be too close to it. You know when you’re so close to something and you’re so inside of it it’s hard to know what something with distance would look like? It’s hard to perceive what a reconfiguration of this would be down the road. The joy that I always found in the show was seeing all the complexities of the relationships, and see past the happily ever after that we saw in the storybooks as kids. All right, so Snow White and Prince Charming get together. Then what? If they’re friends with Red Riding Hood, then what? If they have a kid, then what? And that’s fun. I think that there’s a real sense of fun to that.
There’s probably endless storylines to explore over this long run of all these different stories, and all these different fairytales, the Disney stories that we’ve known over the years. There’s probably a million ways to reinvent it. But ultimately, I think the heart of it, no matter how many ways it was reinvented, or reworked, or re-thought about, I think the heartbeat of it would always be hope. I think that that’s really the heartbeat of the show, and has always been the heartbeat of the show, and has been why it has had such a strong connection with the audience.
Once Upon a Time‘s series finale airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.