By Hillary Busis
Updated May 10, 2013 at 06:30 PM EDT
Once Upon A Time Michael Raymond James
Credit: Katie Yu/ABC

Of all the characters introduced or highlighted for the first time during Once Upon a Time‘s second season — including Captain Hook, Mulan, Princess Aurora, Lancelot, and even Dr. Victor Frankenstein — none is as pivotal to the show’s master plot as Neal Cassady, a.k.a. Rumpelstiltskin’s prodigal son Baelfire. Rumpel engineered the dark curse that created the town of Storybrooke purely so that he could find his long-lost child, meaning that Once itself wouldn’t exist if not for Bae. He spent a significant amount of time in Never Land, giving Once‘s writers an opportunity to introduce an entirely new world in season 2 (and beyond). And coincidentally, Bae also had an intense relationship with Emma Swan, daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming — one that resulted in the birth of Henry Mills, a.k.a. the fulcrum of the series (for better or worse).

As of now, Bae’s fate is uncertain: when last we saw the guy, he was suffering from a mortal bullet wound and falling through a portal to an unknown other land. But though Bae’s in no position to speak for himself, the actor who portrays him — Michael Raymond-James, late of True Blood and FX’s gone-too-soon Terriers — was happy to chat with EW before Once‘s finale this Sunday, May 12. Read on for more about Bae’s journey — as well as whether Raymond-James believes that his character and Jennifer Morrison’s Emma are meant to be.

First things first: Are we going to see Bae again before the end of the season?

I don’t know how to answer that! Are you asking, do I die?

Yeah, I guess that’s a way of asking that without saying it directly.

We don’t know until there’s a body. If there’s no body, then there’s no crime. That’s what they say in Detroit, where I’m from. But I would say, stay tuned.

Viewers learned partway through the season that your character is Rumpelstiltskin’s son. How much did you know about Neal’s backstory when you were cast?

When they offered [the part] to me, one of the first things they did was point to a picture of Bobby Carlyle dressed up as Rumpelstiltskin and said, “You’re going to go head to head with this dude. He’s your father.” They pitched me the entire arc of the season, where it would start and where it would end up, and how they wanted to start the season with me walking around New York City, and not explain to anybody what the f— that was about. They really wanted people to be like, “What the — are we watching the right show? Where’s Once Upon a Time?”

Do you know why Baelfire started using “Neal Cassady” as his alias?

We didn’t speak entirely about that. But I was stoked because I was a huge fan of Kerouac and the Beats. It wouldn’t be a stretch to think that Neal — Baelfire — when he wound up in present day America, came across that book [On the Road] in his travels as a rudderless, wandering hobo that knew nobody and nothing of the culture or customs. And he’d been doing that for years, for hundreds of years.

And how did you react when you found about the show’s twisted version of Neverland?

I think it’s f—ing great. Part of me, when I first heard it, was like, “Oh come on, guys! Peter Pan was my favorite fairy tale as a kid, and now he’s this bastard!” But I think it works incredibly well. He’s this child thief. One of the things that I like best about this show is revisiting these fairy tales with fresh eyes. Some of the best ideas are the ones where you say to yourself, “why didn’t I f—in’ think of that?” And this is one of those.

Bae and Emma had a few tender moments before he fall through that portal. Are you rooting for the two of them?

I’m rooting for happy endings.

Do you think the two of them together would be a happy ending?

It’s certainly possible. I don’t want to be too committal about it, because I don’t want to paint myself or anybody else on the show into a corner. But I’m for happy endings, man, and I think Neal at this point is going to move heaven and hell to get back to where he wants to be, which is in a family. That’s something he’s always been searching for, and that’s the single biggest motivating factor for him — his son, more than anything. When he found out he had a son, that was the first time he had purpose in this world. Now he has the opportunity to be the dad he always wanted for himself.

Of all the people we’ve seen as possible matches for Emma — Neal, Graham, August, even Hook — I do think Neal is the best one. They have such similar pasts – they were both lost, and they found their family in each other.

Yeah, that’s true. Neal lost his sense of family as a young man, and he sort of stumbled onto it with the Darlings. He saw what that could be. And then that was taken away as well. He meets Emma, and here’s this kindred spirit, looking for the same sort of things. We fall deeply in love, and I start to scratch that itch again for the first time in a hundred years, at least.

Clearly, Bae has a ton of issues with his father. But do you think there are any ways in which he and Rumpelstiltskin are similar?

I think in any father son relationship, there’s going to be times you say, “Well, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.” And I think we’ll probably see more of things like that. But there’s also things where I’m diametrically opposed to positions that my dad has taken. If someone asks me, “Well, since Tamara is trying to eradicate magic and you don’t like magic, would it be possible that you could have been on her side?” I really disagree with that presumption. I think Neal is a bit of an eternal optimist. And while he doesn’t like magic, there’s a big difference between dying for your cause and killing for your cause. Neal would never be able to get to that, to killing for a cause, where Tamara clearly can. But same for Rumpelstiltskin — he’s killed. I don’t think Neal sees the world that way.

And finally, what do you think is the most exciting thing about the finale?

I think there’s a lot that’s exciting. A lot of questions that people have will finally get answers, or at least the beginnings of an answer. But a lot of those answers lead to more questions. So stay tuned — buy the ticket, take the ride.

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Once Upon a Time

Everything you’ve ever read about fairy tales is true—the residents of Storybrooke are living proof.

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