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April 04, 2018 at 09:30 AM EDT

Jennifer Morrison has traded fairy tales for a creation of her own.

The Once Upon a Time alum makes her feature directorial debut with the heartfelt drama Sun Dogs, which bows Friday on Netflix and boasts a big-name cast that includes Michael Angarano, Melissa Benoist, Xzibit, Ed O’Neill, and recent Oscar winner Allison Janney.

The film stars Angarano as Ned, a young man determined to be a military hero, who ends up on a misguided adventure with new friend Tally (Benoist). But something is not quite right with the protagonist at the center of Sun Dogs. Following his third failed attempt at joining the military, the intellectually challenged Ned takes a Marine officer’s (Xzibit) advice to “protect the homefront” a little too literally, and creates his own antiterrorism unit.

Full of the same drive and heart Ned possesses, Sun Dogs walks a fine line between heartwarming and hilarious, as Ned’s ambitions can sometimes make the viewer feel awkward and uncomfortable in a very Michael Scott-esque way — and that’s exactly what Morrison was aiming for.

“We were never trying to get a laugh,” Morrison tells EW. “We were never trying to make something funny, and we were also not trying to overindulge in the drama. So by being as direct and as real as possible, it let these real-life situations be accidentally funny.” Read our interview with Morrison below:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What attracted you to Sun Dogs?
JENNIFER MORRISON: I think it was multiple things. I get asked this, and it’s a little bit tricky to pinpoint what the exact thing was, but I was so drawn to all of these characters. I felt like I saw a little bit of myself in each one of them in different ways. I loved the way they impacted each other’s lives in the most subtle and real ways on a daily basis. And I also loved the overall message, which was this idea that sometimes the best thing we can do for the world is be the best version of ourselves. Sometimes it’s a very subtle thing that can make a big difference. The combination of that overall message mixed with these great characters, and these great relationships, it just tugged at my heartstrings immediately.

A lot of Ned’s story is about him trying to find his purpose. Since this was your feature directorial debut, did you relate to his journey on some level?
I absolutely relate to that. Every man does need a purpose, every human needs a purpose. I believe everyone I know around me relates to that. And we’re all searching on a daily basis to figure out where we fit in the world, and what we can contribute to the world. It’s a very universal struggle. Ned’s just dealing with it in a very overt way. He’s talking about it in a way that we may not talk about it on a daily basis in our lives.

I was searching to find a way to tell stories that were outside of Once Upon a Time at that time. I love Once Upon a Time, I’ll always love Once Upon a Time, and it’s been an amazing part of my life, but when you’re living something 90 hours a week, 10 months out of the year for six years, you crave telling more stories. You crave figuring out what else you have to offer. So I think just the same way Ned was saying, “What’s my purpose?” and, “What’s my story in the world?” I was doing the same thing as I was exploring the idea of directing.

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Many actors who step behind the camera seem to first direct an episode of their own show. So was it a bit daunting for you to take on an entire film?
It was interesting because it felt very important to me to do my first feature first. I know that different people have different opinions on this, or different takes on what’s more advantageous, but I really want to be a filmmaker, I want to continue growing as a filmmaker, I want to continue developing my voice as a filmmaker, and my skill as a filmmaker, and I feel very strongly that I have a lot of stories to tell as a filmmaker. I was concerned that if my first move was to do an episode of television, especially a show that I was on, it would just look like an internal gesture to be like, “Sure, we’ll give her an episode of the show.” And that was not the message that I wanted to put into the creative community. What I wanted to say was, “I have stories to tell as a filmmaker.” I do hope to direct episodics, and I do hope to direct pilots, and episodes of cable that I love, and things like that down the road. I know that that’s a tough road to break into, and I’m gonna have to work hard to prove myself in that arena as well. But it was very important to me that my first real foray into directing be a narrative film, and that’s why I was really determined to do it that way.

There’s unbelievable obstacles that you have to overcome no matter what it is that you’re directing first, but it definitely helps for me to have done the short film first, and get my feet wet a little bit, and prepare myself for what I was facing. Very naively I thought, “Oh, well, a feature will be like a really long short film,” which, it’s a whole other beast, and much more difficult. But it’s good that you don’t quite know what’s in front of you, or it might seem too daunting, you know what I mean? Sometimes your naiveté in those situations is exactly what gives you the strength and the guts to push through and do something that is such a new challenge, and such a huge opportunity to grow.

It’s one thing to be the top of the call sheet, it’s another to have everyone in production relying on you. What was that journey and experience like for you?
I really enjoy being in that position. I’ve learned a lot about myself, having directed the film. You don’t know what kind of director you’re going to be until you’re in that situation, until you’re making 1,000 decisions a minute, and you have 200 people looking at you, relying on you, and that at the end of the day there’s nowhere to hide because every decision is yours, and you can’t blame anyone for anything but yourself. So you don’t really know who you’re going to be until you’re in that situation, and what I learned about myself in the process was that I really enjoy caretaking. I really enjoy being able to problem solve in that position.

I thrive under pressure, and in that pressure situation, I was able to look at whoever was coming at me with a problem and say, “Tell me what you need, and how can I help you?” and I felt so fulfilled being able to find solutions, and to problem-solve, and make sure that I was supporting people and their positions, whether it was the actors, or the cinematographer, or the producers, or the camera operator, direction designer. I really enjoyed being in a position where I could find a way to be a caretaker. And I find that very fulfilling. So it ended up being a very natural position for me to be in, despite the amount of pressure that comes along with it. I really actually enjoy it.

There’s obviously been a huge push for female filmmakers, especially in the Me Too and Time’s Up era, but you directed this before then. Did you face any particular challenges in that regard while directing?
You know what’s so interesting? I get asked this, and wish I had a really great answer, or a clear answer. The problem is, I have no idea because I always have been, and always will be, a woman. So I don’t know. I don’t know if the journey would have been different if I were a man. I don’t know if certain things would have been easier if I were a man. I only know the experience that I had trying to put this film together, and I’ll never know any different. It’s hard to tell if there were times that there was an obstacle because people might not have thought of me a certain way, because they saw an actress just standing front of them instead of what they would have seen if it was, like, a young male just out of film school. I don’t know if that would have been different. So it’s hard for me to say what those potential extra obstacles may have been.

What I can say is that I felt very lucky that ultimately the producing team and the finance team that bet on me on this were men. I actually was surrounded by men who absolutely supported my vision, really supported and believed in me as a filmmaker. I felt, in this particular process, genderless in the way you want to feel genderless. I felt respected as an artist, I felt supported as an artist, and it didn’t seem to have anything to do with my gender one way or the other. So I feel like I was very lucky to have found a group of people that really were already forward-thinking, and were already open-minded enough to not be clinging to these old ideas, or old patterns that we’ve seen in the industry. I don’t know if it was luck. I don’t know if it was that I gravitated to the right people. I don’t know if it was that. Because I really loved the story, and they loved the story, there was a natural fit between the people that worked together. But I definitely felt like I was supported in the way that I needed to be supported as a filmmaker.

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The film has an interesting mix of heart and humor, particularly reminiscent of the awkward comedy of The Office. What was your goal with the tone of Sun Dogs?
The tone of this film was incredibly tricky, and it was such a fine line to walk, because the backdrop of so many elements were tricky subject matters, and delicate subject matters. I was very aware of how careful I wanted to be, and sensitive I wanted to be about all of those things. Ned is so innocent, and he is so pure, in such a particular way. So what Micheal Angarano and I worked together to find was just how to make him as sincere as humanly possible, without it being self-indulgent in any way, that it was just as real, and as honest, and as direct, and as straight-forward as you could possibly make a person. And in doing that, I think the humor came from the honesty of the moment.

We were never trying to get a laugh. We were never trying to make something funny, and we were also not trying to overindulge in the drama. So by being as direct and as real as possible, it let these real-life situations be accidentally funny in the way that you’re explaining it. So I was looking at it like I wanted to find the most real, honest performances as possible. And then I was so curious to see what would actually make people laugh, because I wasn’t trying to make anyone laugh, I was trying to be as honest as possible. As we went to this festival circuit even, I would categorize this as a drama that has funny moments, whereas some of the festivals categorized it as a comedy. So it’s interesting how different people’s perspectives on this subject matter also affect the way that they categorize the film.

While Ned’s story is the focal point, there are a lot of very strong female characters in this film. Did you set out to send a message with that?
I just loved the whole story, and I loved all the characters, and I wanted all of them to have the same and equal weight, and care, and concern, and depth. Obviously Ned’s the lead in terms of sheer screen time, but the film is truly an ensemble. Alison Janney is absolutely incredible, and Ed O’Neill’s great, and Melissa Benoist is great, and Xzibit’s great. When you have a group of actors like that playing characters that are so rich, and interesting, and complicated, really it was just trying to find the balance of keeping everybody equally footed in their emotions, and equally footed in their relationships with each other.

I felt like I was lucky, because as an actor I’ve gotten to play such complicated and interesting women over the years that it definitely gives me an insight to how I would guide a performance like that, or the takes that I would choose in the edit, or things like that. I obviously have such a close relationship with female characters like that, so I think I have a natural knack for seeing those things a certain way. But I wasn’t necessarily trying to champion that over something else, as much as I really wanted to champion the balance of the ensemble.

And since wrapping production on Sun Dogs, Allison Janney became an Oscar winner. What was your feeling like for you when she won?
I was just so excited for her, because she’s so extraordinary. She’s extraordinarily talented, but she’s an extraordinary person. You just want to be around her. She’s kind, she’s smart, she’s funny, she’s witty, she’s self-deprecating. She’s truly wonderful, she’s one of a kind. And I was so lucky to have her in the film. She brought so much to the table. All of the actors challenged me and made me better in every way. But she’s just someone that I’ve really revered and admired for so long, and really looked up to. To have her trust me, and put herself in my hands in that situation, was absolutely humbling and amazing. To watch someone you care about get that kind of recognition, and be able to really shine in a moment, that she really has always deserved to shine in, it seems crazy to say, but I’m almost like a proud parent or something. I was just so excited for her. I felt like it couldn’t happen to a better person, or a more deserving person. So I’ve been absolutely cheering her on and feel so lucky to be connected to her in any way.

What would you say was the biggest challenge in directing this film?
The biggest challenge was the timeframe that we had. I started pitching it to financiers in April of 2016. In order to be able to do this in the hiatus between season 5 and 6 [of Once Upon a Time], the last day I could start shooting was June 3. So I had this crazy time clock ticking. I did find my financiers by mid-May. We had nine days of prep, which is really, really short for a film. So nine days of prep, 18 days of shooting with no overtime; just no budget for overtime. And as soon as we wrapped, I had to go back to Once Upon a Time. And I needed to do post in L.A., even though I was working in Vancouver. So every single day that I didn’t work, I flew back and forth to be in the editing room. I flew 70,000 miles in three months to do post on this film while I was on the show.

There was no way to sleep more than, if I was lucky, four hours a night. I felt like I could drop the ball on either side. Obviously I needed to show up and be 120 percent for Once, and I also needed to show up and be 120 percent for Sun Dogs. I just had to find a way. So the biggest challenge really was all of the time restraints. Nine days of prep just isn’t enough, 18 days to shoot just isn’t enough, and to do post in another city than where you’re working a full-time job is crazy. So really it was just dealing with the pressures of all those things, and finding a way to just find a plan that was achievable, and having to realistic about what was achievable, and hiring people that were extraordinary at what they did, and surrounding myself with people far more talented than me so that I could rely on them to do a great job. I was always finding a way to make it possible even though it seemed impossible.

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I noticed there was a yellow Bug in Sun Dogs. Was that a bit of a cheeky nod to Once Upon a Time?
Uh huh. It was a couple things. It’s funny because Once Upon a Time I think is cheekily nodding to several things that are films that I love. Annie Hall is a film that I love, Harold and Maude is a film that I love. The yellow Bug has showed up in a lot of the classic films that I really admire and love. And then on top of it, Emma ended up driving a yellow Bug. So it just felt like a fun way to have a little nod to that. When I had asked Alison what kind of car she wanted to drive, she had mentioned a Bug, and I just thought, “Well, let’s just do it!” She naturally is gravitating to that car because she had that car in college or something, it’s a reference to so many films that I love, and a reference to Once Upon a Time, so it felt like it covered a lot of bases all at once.

What are you working on next?
There are several things in the works right now. I am in the midst of writing a screenplay. I’m also developing projects with different — I guess I can’t talk about it because nothing’s settled yet. But I have been developing other projects as a director. And it’s just a matter of timing, of like which thing comes first, or which deal closes first. I just was in the film SuperFly, which will be out June 16. And Backroads, which I was in, is gonna premiere at Tribeca Film Festival. Fabled, which I directed, is gonna be at the Tribeca Film Festival.

I just have several things in development. I have a television show idea in development with Appian Way. When things are in development, you never know how long they’re gonna take or not take. And I am writing my own script, and also I’m about to close a deal to direct a project for a big company. So, lots of stuff. Lots of good stuff.

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