Once Upon a Time's Mekia Cox on playing first black Disney princess
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.
Mekia Cox’s dream has literally come true.
The Once Upon a Time newcomer actually worked at the Magic Kingdom as a kid, but was unable to move up to the rank of princess because, well, there wasn’t one she could portray. But thanks to the debut of Tiana in 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, Cox now gets to bring the first black Disney princess to life on OUAT.
The bubbly Tiana will play a vital role in the Enchanted Forest — check back for more on that soon! — but in Hyperion Heights, her counterpart Sabine is living with Jacinda (Dania Ramirez) as she aims to achieve her dream of being a chef. (EW was on set for a, let’s say, sweet scene involving her character’s animated history.) Below, Cox teases her new character.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your first day like on set?
MEKIA COX: So they had been working at least a week, maybe two weeks, before I actually came in. My very first day was a big day: It was the ball. There was just a lot going on, there were a ton of extras, 100 extras, and it was in front of a green screen. It was my first time doing that, and it was fun. It was pretty amazing.
A little backstory on me: My very first professional job was at the age of 7, and I grew up in Orlando, Florida, and I danced as a kid of the Kingdom at the Magic Kingdom in Disney. So getting to be able to play the first black Disney princess is a big deal for me. I remember wanting to be a Disney princess when I was that age. And I remember, actually, when you turned 16, you were allowed to be a princess in the parades. And I was, “Yeah, when I turn 16, I’m going to do that!” And I was like, “Who am I going to be? I can’t play anyone.” And so when the movie came out in 2009, I was like, “Oh, some little girl has the opportunity to do that now.” So jumping into that character that first day was a big deal for me. Of course, you’re trying to play it cool. [Laughs]
What was it like for you to put on the dress for the first time?
I walked in the first day that I had a fitting, I went, “Oh, my gosh, that dress is gorgeous. I bet whoever gets to wear that is going to be happy.” And they were like, “It’s you.”
Had you watched the show before you were cast or watch any of it since then?
Yeah, I definitely went back and watched. I had seen bits and pieces. When you’re on TV, you don’t get to watch as much TV as you’d like to.
Tell us about Tiana as a character.
So there’s Sabine, and Sabine is Princess Tiana in the real world. I’m pretty close to this character — like they write in a way that I talk, so I literally have to look over the scripts once and it’s in my brain. And then Tiana, it was about 10 years ago, and she is this character who is — basically her backstory is happening in episode 5, and so she has come from an interesting background and it makes you understand where she is now. Her main thing is she has her eyes on this goal of hers, which is cooking. She has always loved cooking, and you go back and you see how she gained this entrepreneurial spirit that she has. And that is brought into the real world, but you don’t really understand why she has it until you go back and explain her story.
How similar is this to the actual Princess and the Frog tale?
When I first auditioned, I asked that same question, and they said that they would like to meld The Princess and the Frog from Disney’s Princess and the Frog with the real Princess and the Frog stories, so they’re taking bits and pieces of it all. I mean, her name is Tiana, and they have bits of the bayou and all of that in there, but then they’re also taking pieces from other portions of the actual fairy tale, the Princess and the Frog story.
Jacinda and Sabine are roommates in Hyperion Heights. What’s their dynamic like?
It’s fun. Just yesterday, Dania was like, “How did they know we were going to be so good together?” We didn’t have a chemistry read or anything, but immediately we bonded. Their relationship is really fun. I hope that the fans will see their relationship and think, “Yeah, that’s real, I know that, I have that with my friends.” I think they’re more like sisters than they are like roommates. They’re just close. They’re like family. “Auntie Sabine” is what Lucy calls my character. They’ve been together so long that it’s surpassed roommates.
What is Sabine’s relationship like with Lucy?
She’s basically family. Sabine was there when she was born. I think that she’s super-close, and I’m the person that she gets to have fun with. I don’t really have to reprimand as much as mom does. I’m fun Auntie Sabine, who believes along with her. In order of believing, she’s first, and then I might be second, because I’m just this huge optimistic person who believes in all this fun-loving stuff, and believes that she’s going to do great things in the world. So we have that in common.
What kind of dynamic does Sabine have with Roni?
We actually haven’t had that much. We had one scene. Any scene that I’ve been in, in the actual bar, has not been with her. So we haven’t really had all that much. But in the fairy-tale world, we’ve met.
Lady Tremaine/Victoria is more tied to the Cinderella story. But is there any dynamic that Tiana/Sabine has with Lady Tremaine/Victoria?
Again, the character is like me: There are very few people that I really don’t like, and I think that she’s the same way, like there are very few people she doesn’t like. But when she doesn’t like a person, you will know, and she does not like Lady Tremaine.
Do you think new fans could just jump in now and watch?
If they wanted to, they could start here. There’s some things they’re going to miss, that they wouldn’t understand. I think what’s going to happen is if people did want to just jump in, they could jump in. They’ll start to see stuff and they’ll go, “Wait a second, I don’t understand that. Now I’ve got to go back and watch it,” and I think it’ll allow more people to go back and want to do that.
Once Upon a Time returns 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, our interview with Andrew J. West here, our interview with Dania Ramirez here, our interview with Gabrielle Anwar here, and our interview with Adelaide Kane here. Check back Thursday for our interview with Rose Reynolds.
Everything you’ve ever read about fairy tales is true—the residents of Storybrooke are living proof.