If you thought that Regina was the one with the scariest of dark magics on ABC’s ONCE UPON A TIME, you haven’t met her mother! Barbara Hershey plays, with relish I might add, the loving mother whose ruthless quest for power ultimately led Regina down a destructive past! After an episode that proved she may never win a prize for telling the truth, it was revealed that Hershey’s character Cora had in fact killed the valiant knight Lancelot in Fairy Tale World, and made it her mission to get to Storybrooke to be reunited with her long lost daughter!
I had the privilege of chatting with Barbara Hershey about why she wanted to play this devilish role, and what’s next for her character!
I have loved the introduction of the character and the way you’re playing this character of Cora on ONCE UPON A TIME. What was it about the show that made you want to be a part of it?
I just was presented with the role and as soon as I became familiar with the show, I really began to admire it and loved the possibilities it opens up, but also what it’s about in some kind of deep way. I think it’s about, and well I think all fairy tales actually are about, I like to call them the “newspapers of the soul” because they are about all of us, but just on an imagination level, it’s so wide open, and Eddie and Adam are so incredibly original and imaginative, how could I say no? [laughs]
Do you look at this character as someone who is truly evil, or someone who lost their way?
I always feel like actors are defense lawyers for your character [laughs], and no matter how despicable a person I might play, I always try to find the place that they changed on an empathetic level underneath it all, and it doesn’t excuse what they do, but it does explain what they do, how they got there. Eddie and Adam have always said about this show about the Regina character – evil isn’t born, it’s made. I think that’s true with Cora as well, as to how this unfolds, as to her past. I’m kind of like the audience, I’m just a few episodes ahead of the audience [laughs] so I’m on the ride. It’s like a grab bag for me!
I like the idea that you are learning as we go as well – are there other bits of back story that you know inherently from talking with Eddie and Adam that maybe we don’t know yet, that helps inform how to play the character?
I am learning script by script. I’ve asked them certain questions and I can’t talk about their answers because they will be addressed hopefully! Until I find out their backstory, truly, I created my own backstory. You always have to have some basis of the character so I made my own up. They definitely are going to address it because it’s interesting. They do that with the characters. It’s wonderful because in life, we make judgments about people, and in this series, we have a chance to get back into what caused this, who they are, what they struggle with, and always empathetically you can identify with the characters which I think is very cool.
I love that even if you’re not in every episode, there’s so much that has been fleshed out in a previous episode that we’re able to learn something new and interesting.
She’s going to be here, like what I’m doing now, the episodes I’m doing now, she’s very, very much in. So, she’s going to figure in, definitely! [laughs]
What will we see next?
Emma and Mary Margaret are understandably cautious about her. I wouldn’t want to, for the audience, because I always believe in the element of surprise. It’s part of the surprise.
Especially on a show like this – it would ruin the show if you know what was coming.
Absolutely, that’s absolutely true. When someone sees a great movie, and they start to tell me about it, I always stop them because I always want that experience as an audience to know what my reaction really is to it, and if I can be surprised or shocked.
Part of the fun for you, too, has to be what line you cross when you talk about this show, so you can protect what you’re playing, even though you want to share what’s going on!
[laughs] Yes, I’d love to blab to everybody! Truly, honestly, to a degree, I don’t know either. I’m only a few episodes ahead of the audience and all I can say is that I’m having a lot of fun. She is something else, Cora! [laughs]
One of the questions that came up from fans was how do you get into the mindset of this character – how do you approach the character?
It’s in the words. It’s in the situations. It’s delicious stuff to act! When I first started acting as a kid, one of reasons I was attracted to acting was it was a place where you could act out anything and be safe. In other words, I could be really evil and not hurt anybody or really be evil. And the same thing holds true as an adult. I still feel that – it’s this place where I can let go this darkness. It’s fun to experience it. It’s an interesting experience and kind of cathartic in a way and it’s fun to be very different than that in my life! [laughs] Also, and maybe this helps, I do think that Cora is helping from a place, albeit a very warped place, of love for her daughter. And as much as she’s destroyed, her soul maybe, she does love her daughter and she is trying to do what is best for her daughter, although by our standards it is very warped! We’ve all seen mothers who are kind of like this, pushing their kids in a direction that they don’t want to go, you know it’s just Cora, is a mega nightmare version. And she rips out hearts!
Oh that small thing!
Oh that! That part of it is really fun, I have to say. To wave your hand and have people flying across the room, or to rip out people’s hearts. That’s really fun.
Take out some of your aggressions with this character!
This has such a family element to it – it’s a show that families can watch together, Cora does come from a place of love. There are so many family bonds with all of the characters and that’s something that we’re not used to seeing that anymore.
I agree and I think that’s one of the emphases of this season, especially with Mary Margaret and Emma finding out that they’re mother and daughter, which is a really interesting dynamic. But I think it’s a lot about parenting, in a way. I think it’s a reoccurring theme in the show – Regina with Henry, repercussions of it through generations and various stories.
As a fan of the show, in addition to an actor on the show, is there a story or a grouping of people that you love what they’re doing, or the storylines that they’re playing?
I have to say I kind of love it all. And all of the actors themselves in person are the sweetest people you could ever hope to work with, which isn’t always the case, and it’s truly the case in this situation. I’m unabashedly fond of them all, so as an audience, I am too.
You touched on a little bit, but why do you think this is a show that people should be watching?
I’m never one to tell people what they should do [laughs], but I think one of the appeals, at least for me, I can only talk about me, is the fact that it’s so imaginative, and you really don’t know where it’s headed. The fairy tale land now has different times within it, almost like different zones, and the present. It’s very mysterious, in terms of where it’s headed and yet it’s about themes that we can all identify with. The imaginative part of it, it’s very unique. I think it’s a lot of fun, and scary, and deep in its way.
You’re deep into filming now for this season – is this a show that you could see yourself returning to as the years continue, season after season?
I could! As to whether they plan on that, or would like that, or whether they even know at this point – they have a lot of characters. I don’t know. I don’t know the answer – I don’t know if Cora has a conclusion or not, but I’m totally open to it, of course because I love playing her.
Have Eddie and Adam talked about where the season ends for Cora at the least?
Oh no, no, they don’t talk to at least me that way. I have a feeling they probably don’t talk to the actors that way. I think they like to leave it open ended for themselves creatively. I know that they have a very strong structure. I know that they know where it’s headed. I think they leave open, my impression is that they leave open a kind of, as to how it’s done, creatively, so they stay juicy creatively. I think they have a very strong idea about it. I don’t know whether Cora goes on or not?
Had you met Lana Parilla before? Because it really feels like you’ve been mother and daughter for a long time! Was the chemistry something that happened right away?
Yep, it happened right away! She was very friendly, warm, and we got together and talked, and it’s always been very easy with us. She’s easy to work with, and there was a real empathy between us and interest in each other, so it felt very natural and easy. Which was good, especially since we’re so conflictual in the story! [laughs] I like getting along with people!
I don’t know if it’s inherent in what Lana is doing and what you’re doing, but as she’s starting to become more like your character, it’s very interesting to watch because she is becoming what you are portraying, which I think is great.
I do too! It’s exciting to see it evolve. It’s an exciting show to be a part of. I think doing any TV series is a grab bag for an actor; you don’t know what they’re going to write, and this one is doubly show, triply show, and again there are so many possibilities and they seem so wide ranging in their scope! It’s very exciting.
As a child, or through the years, that you have always gravitated towards that you’d love to see them pull into the story?
They probably won’t do what I was obsessed with as a child, which were the OZ stories – what I mean by that, which isn’t just the Wizard of Oz, but L Frank Baum wrote about 20 other OZ stories, with some of the same characters, and they’re spectacular. I would read them as a kid; I always thought they’d be great films but I don’t know if they’re introduce OZ [laughs]. It somehow feels different than the other fairy tales.
What else besides ONCE UPON A TIME do you having coming up that we can see you in?
Actually, I did a movie for Lifetime that is coming out November 4, and it’s called LEFT TO DIE. It’s a really interesting and true story of this woman who was thrown into an Ecuadorian prison who absolutely did nothing, and it’s her daughter trying to get her out, and she also has this terrible illness while she was in there, and it all really happened. It’s really interesting, and it’s coming out soon!