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.
Following the exits of six castmembers, Lana Parrilla is one of three stars returning full-time for Once Upon a Time‘s rebooted seventh season — and now we know why.
When OUAT returns, viewers will discover that Regina, formerly the Evil Queen, is now a denim-clad bar owner named Roni, who lives in the Seattle neighborhood of Hyperion Heights. No, Parrilla is not playing a brand new character; this is her cursed alter ego.
Here’s what’s happening: When Henry looks to his family for help, Regina is among those who answer the call, which ultimately gets her trapped in Hyperion Heights. But it’s this new version of her character that actually made Parrilla want to return to the world of OUAT as the show undergoes an ambitious reboot. Read our full interview with the actress below to get scoop on Roni. [Editor’s note: This interview was conducted before the news that Rebecca Mader would be returning.]
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Was there something the OUAT bosses said that was instrumental for you in sticking with the show?
LANA PARRILLA: Yeah, one thing I think we’ve seen over the years is Regina has had love, she’s lost it, she’s gone through so much tragedy, and changes, and challenges, and I actually started thinking, okay, well, are there more stories to tell, especially with last season with the Evil Queen and Regina, and getting to this place of accepting oneself, and accepting both sides, and really experiencing inner peace, which ultimately is, in my opinion, a great happy ending. However, there’s still more of her story that’s unknown. I know they want to see her happy with someone, and that’s something I want for her as well, and so they said, “We don’t feel like Regina’s story is over yet.” She’s such a beloved character, I love her to bits, I love playing her, I’ve always enjoyed playing her, both sides, all eight different versions, or whatever it is [laughs], and they said, “We still want to tell her story,” and then they pitched the whole idea behind Roni, and how she was going to be the voice for the people. She was going to have a Norma Rae kind of quality to her, which is something that I feel I have anyhow. I’m always defending and standing up for the underdog and the little guy, and so that really resonated with me, and it’s also such a powerful, strong message as a woman to be that kind of leader in a community.
So I thought, “You know what, I like this.” I had no idea that Roni was going to look the way she looks, and I’m still discovering who she is, but it got me really inspired and intrigued, and I felt like I want to do this again, I want to come back, and I want to tell another story, a different side of Regina, but I also want to be able to see if she can find love again, and maybe, hopefully, it won’t be tragically ripped apart from her. So however she finds love, wherever it is, what we notice in the first couple episodes that there’s moments for her, everyone has a partner, everyone’s having babies, everyone’s doing great, and Regina is just enjoying her family and stuff, but there’s something missing.
Once you returned to set, how different did it feel without having those familiar faces around? Was it almost a little refreshing to have some fresh blood there?
It is. It’s new energy. I loved working with the old cast. I’ve worked so closely with Jared [Gilmore] for so many years and seen him grow up before my eyes, we all have, and I do miss seeing him on a daily basis, and receiving those I love yous, and big hugs in the morning, but I think change is really healthy; it challenges us, it makes us uncomfortable, but it actually forces us to step out of the norm and remain open-minded. With this new cast, there’s such great energy, everyone’s so excited, and happy, and inspired by their characters, and we’re having such a good time.
You know, my friends from all the last six seasons aren’t really going anywhere. We’ve developed really strong relationships, and those people are still in my life, and they will be, so even though I don’t get to see them on a daily or weekly basis, I get to hear their voices, and we see each other. Rebecca [Mader]’s become one of my closest friends, she’s literally like my sister, she’s coming over tomorrow, we’re spending the day together by the pool. Do I miss working with her? Yes. Do I miss working with Jared? Yeah, but I know that a lot of those people are going to remain in my life, so it doesn’t feel like a loss. It just feels like I’ve gained more friends working with the new cast.
Can you talk about Regina’s mindset when we pick back up with her?
She’s kind of given up a little bit on life. She seems a little hopeless when we first meet her, and then Henry comes to town and things start to shift a little bit, as they do.
Does it feel like a sudden weird connection when she sees Henry?
No, there’s nothing there. And I like that.
Does she not like him?
It’s not that she doesn’t like him. I think she’s just asleep. I don’t think she’s quite in touch with all that stuff yet. A few more things need to happen before she starts getting that feeling. Although, she is inspired by a character, and it kind of shifts her a bit, at the end of the first episode.
Is it a bit heartbreaking for Regina to have missed so many years with Henry?
Absolutely, and you get to see a little bit of that too. She basically sees him for the first time, and she is just like, “Oh my God, I realize how long it’s been since we’ve seen each other,” and I think it’s jarring for her when she sees him for the first time, but she’s also really happy for him, because he’s turned into this beautiful young man, and she’s really quite impressed with him, but she’s still getting to know him now at this level.
It’s like I was with my nephew the other day, and it’s been hard for me being away from my family for seven years — my mom, my sister, the kids. I was very much a part of all their lives before I came up here, and often I look at them like, “Oh my God, I’ve really missed out, I’ve missed all these formative years,” and it’s hard for me. I saw my nephew the other day, and I was talking to him, and I didn’t even know how to even… “Do you have any girlfriends now? and like, “Who are you?” I think that’s also going to be part of the storytelling, is Regina getting to know Henry’s journey, and what he feels now as this young man, and the decisions that he’s made over the years, how that has changed him. It’s going to be really cool to see mother and son catch up, and get to know each other in this way, and then also be in the position where maybe Henry can protect Regina. I’d love to see him defend himself or defend someone else with a big sword, and just fight like this man that we haven’t really seen. We’ve seen a little bit of Henry taking these heroic steps, but we haven’t really seen him in action, and so I think it’s going to be fun for Regina to learn about the man Henry has become. She’s really proud of him, too.
What about where we’re picking up with Regina in the Enchanted Forest?
She’s awesome. I don’t know why I keep thinking of Robin Wright in Wonder Woman, you know how she’s just this powerful warrior goddess? That’s what I see Regina as a little bit in this new fairy-tale land, because it’s years later, so there’s a time lapse. It’s like five to seven years later. We’ve gone on this journey with Regina over the years where she’s always having to learn these lessons, and now I feel like she is teaching them. She’s a bit of a mentor and a bit of an advisor and can see things from an aerial viewpoint, whereas before she was so reactive to things. She was calculated, but she was more reactive to things. Now I feel like she’s not as quick to react. She sits back, observes, and then responds, and that’s different for her. It just shows a level of maturity and growth.
Is there anything you’ve heard or hope for in the Regina-centric hour?
I haven’t heard anything. I hope to learn about Roni a little bit, and her backstory, and what are her memories, and what has she gone through? There’s a few scenes that I’ve done over the last few weeks where it’s still unknown to me, but she’s obviously gone through something. She’s loved and lost, or something, something’s gone wrong, because she speaks from a beautiful place of experience and wisdom, which I’m curious to learn how she got to this place in her life. Obviously, we’ve seen Regina’s journey over the years, but we haven’t seen Roni’s. She’s no longer in charge, she’s kind of lost the fight a little bit at first, and then she finds it again. I’d like to learn about how she lost the fight, why, what happened to her, and at what point did she lose hope, and how she’s slowly regaining it. I think it’s because Henry’s back, and magic or something is starting to happen, but his energy is definitely changing things in Hyperion Heights. So I’d like to learn more about Roni, how she ended up in this bar, what this bar means to her, it clearly means a lot to her, she fights for it, she fights to keep it and save it, so I’m curious how she ended up there. I want to learn more about Roni, and I want to learn, did she get a perm, or is she using an iron wand? [Laughs] How is her hair curly all of a sudden? Was she electrocuted? I like the choice with the new hair, and the new wardrobe, I really like it. She reminds me of a biker chick.
How do you feel the show is fundamentally different from before, and how do you feel like it’s the same?
Well, our characters are different. I feel like there’s a time lapse. There’s a level of maturity, and I can speak for Regina, she’s evolved so much. There’s a good 10 years where there’s probably been a lot of self-enhancement and sort of spiritual development, or evolution that we haven’t seen. She’s like a little fairy godmother right now, which I really love. She’s been like a mentor and an advisor, so in that way, my character is different, and with the show, there’s a more modern element to it now. It just feels like everyone is just more relaxed, and yeah, there’s a lot that’s going on, but I just mean how we look, how we dress, we’re not all buttoned up in suits anymore, we’re in T-shirts and jeans, and we’ve moved to Friday night, so there’s a whole different energy that we can bring to that night in itself. In the ways that it’s similar, our formula is the same, we’re still telling stories through flashbacks and present time, and how do they connect? We are still focusing on these awesome fairy tales. And there’s a little more diversity this year, which I really like.
Do you feel like Once, at its core, is still intact?
Oh, yeah. For sure. Absolutely. Absolutely. I just think it’s a new chapter. It’s more of a new book, so we’re on this new journey, and we’re telling these cool stories, and it is different, but at times it feels the same, and then at times it feels totally different. I think in the ways that it doesn’t, at least for me, is a lot with character as well. And I think it feels kind of different for us too because we’re so used to working with certain people, but the formula, and how we tell our story remains the same. There’s just like a little edginess, there’s more edge, there’s a little more darkness. I think visually, it’s going to look slightly different, and I think they’re trying to change that up a little bit, so you definitely see that.
Could new fans actually tune in to the show? Would this be a good place to jump in?
Totally. That’s also what’s really cool about it, because it’s a new book, you have a whole new generation of kids that can just start watching from here on. You know when you think of all these trilogies and stuff, I mean, you kind of have to track them, or it feels like a reboot, or like a spin-off at times, but it’s more of a reboot. But I feel that, yeah, you can tune in now, and start watching from the beginning. I think as someone, as an audience viewer, or someone who knows that the show’s been going for a long time, I would probably want to learn more about these returning characters, and just to see the contrast, and where they came from. But you don’t necessarily have to. You can tune in starting October and just go on this new journey with us.
What would you want to say to the fans who are having mixed reactions right now?
You know, it’s interesting, I haven’t really seen any mixed reaction at all. All I’ve experienced is a lot of support, enthusiasm, and excitement, so I might be missing something, but I’d just tell them to stay open-minded, go on this journey. The alternative is it ends in the sixth season, and then what, then you don’t have another Once Upon a Time. So the fact that there’s an opportunity for us to continue telling these stories, be it through a reboot or as season 7, whatever you want to call it, it’s pretty awesome. You can miss certain characters, we’re all going to miss certain characters, but some of them are going to make an appearance, and they’ll be around, and then you have an opportunity to learn about these new characters, and learn to love them as well. Then you have your returning characters who are beloved and are a lot of fan favorites, so it’s great that you get to see these three characters in a different light, with different names, and different occupations, and different memories, and different energies, different accents. It gives them an opportunity to see what else we can do as artists, and it’s also really cool to see moments where, I know when I’m playing Roni, I look for these little moments for where could I bring Regina in, and it’s fun for me. I was able to do that the other day, and it’s fun for the audience to be able to track those moments and go, “Oh, what’s that, wait, that was kind of like Regina’s voice coming through?!”
What, if anything, makes you most nervous about the reboot?
It’s been very positive for me lately, so I haven’t really felt nervous about it. I’m not really nervous about anything. There’s nothing negative that comes to my head at all. I don’t feel like there’s really anything to fear. The worst thing that happens is it doesn’t work, and then it goes away, and then that sucks, but I just want everyone to stay open-minded, and just have fun, and don’t expect things to be exactly like it was over the last six seasons. I mean, doesn’t that get boring anyway? You think of Game of Thrones, if they didn’t kill off all these favorite characters, what would Game of Thrones be? It’s shocking in those moments when you see some of your favorite characters like, “I can’t believe they killed so and so!” and you’re like, “Oh my God!” but then you stick with it. I just want our audience to be patient, and open-minded, and have fun, and remember it’s a TV show. It’s not like we’re making any big, giant, political decisions here that are going to impact your life in a real serious way, it’s a TV show, so go on this artistic journey with us.
Once Upon a Time returns Friday, Oct. 6 at 8 p.m. ET on ABC. Read our primer of the new season here, and our full Q&A with executive producers Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis here. Check back Thursday for our interview with Andrew J. West.
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