In Season 2, Emmy-award winning actress Rena Sofer joins the Once Upon a Time cast as Snow White’s mother Queen Eva. I felt so fortunate to chat with Rena prior to the airing of her episode—and her tremendous intelligence, wit, and passion for the acting craft is nothing short of inspirational! In the following interview, Rena discusses the nuances of her character, her unique experiences on the set, and the importance of embracing your full power when it comes to matters of the heart.
Diane: Hi Rena! We were so delighted to learn that you’re going to appear as Queen Eva, Snow White’s mother, in Season 2—have you filmed the episode already?
Rena: Yes, we have!
Diane: You appear in flashbacks in this episode slated for early March. I’ve seen you in a promotional photo with the adorable Bailee Madison where she’s holding your hand and you’re smiling. We’re certified fairy tale geeks here – particularly Teresa Martin, our Origins writer who’s researched oral versions of Snow White in the original German language. So we’re dying to know if you’re playing Snow’s mother according to the traditional Grimm fairy tale where she dies early in the story? Or are you playing the character from the archaic version prior to 1812 who does NOT die and instead becomes Snow’s evil nemesis rather than the stepmother? In other words, is your character a good mother, or does she have secret evil intentions?
Rena: No, I don’t perceive my character as evil. I don’t know the plans of the show in the future, or the ultimate arc of the character. But in my episode, I didn’t play someone dark—she was warm and loving to Snow.
Diane: Do we see you pass away in this episode like in the fairy tale?
Rena: I’m not going to say anything! I can only say I’m Snow White’s mother.
Diane: Well we know Adam Horowitz has said in an earlier interview that you have “a surprising connection to someone else in our world.” I’m hoping that means you’ll be in more episodes then?
Rena: That would be great! But I don’t know quite yet.
Diane: As far as viewers are concerned, we do know you eventually die because Snow White’s father King Leopold marries Regina. But it’s a fairy tale, so I suppose anything can happen.
Rena: Yes, anything is possible! Who knows, I could come back. I just started watching the show with my little girl, and I got to the part where Katherine is found in an alley alive. We’ve spent two episodes thinking she’s dead and that Mary Margaret is responsible, so there you go. I don’t know for certain, but never say never.
Diane: When you were watching episodes with your daughter, did she enjoy them as much as you?
Rena: Oh, she’s enjoying it as much if not more! And you know, she’s seven and not a girly girl. She’s a real tomboy, and she doesn’t like fairy tales or princesses, but she LOVES the show.
Diane: Now what about you—did you enjoy fairy tales as a child?
Rena: I liked them, but I was never very princessy. I enjoyed the animated films—I’m in my forties so I saw them when they were new! That was amazing and exciting for me.
Diane: So what was it like to wear one of Eduardo Castro’s gorgeous gowns? I saw a picture of you in that spectacular red dress. Is there some part of you that enjoys dressing up as if you were in a fairy tale just once in your life—was that really fun?
Rena: Oh it was so much fun! And I wore his outfits more than once—the more elaborate and uncomfortable, the better because they were so extraordinary. Even Bailee Madison had these massive hoop skirts on, so she had to step sideways to go through a door. She never complained for a second because just to wear one of those outfits was a blessing.
Diane: Has anyone ever told you that you resemble Vivian Leigh? In that spectacular red dress by Eduardo Castro with your regal bearing, you really reminded me of her. You have that same kind of wonderful screen presence.
Rena: Thank you so much!
Diane: Did you audition for this role, or did they just give you a call?
Rena: They did call me to come in and audition for the role. When they did, it was early December and I had the flu, so I had to pass. And I was so upset about it because I’d been told my whole life I look like Snow White! The last thing I wanted to do was not go in. But my voice sounded horrendous—I thought there was no way I could get that part. Then a week or two later my agent called and said they hadn’t cast the part yet, so would I consider going back in? I did, and I have to say it all felt so perfectly right.
Diane: Whoa, that just gives me goosebumps! You really do have a resemblance to Ginnifer Goodwin and Bailee Madison—it almost seems fated that you would get this role.
Rena: But they didn’t tell me I won the role until after the new year, so I had to watch a marathon of shows to catch up before I reported to the set!
Diane: I noticed that you’ve been in a lot of television shows—your body of work is astounding. But you’ve often come in after shows have been under way for a few seasons, so you’re dealing with a veteran cast. What’s it like to be the new kid on the block—does it ever get any easier?
Rena: You know, if the cast is kind, then it’s always easy. As actors, we morph in and out of places—we’re nomads, and you get used to that kind of life. I do enjoy being somewhere for a longer period of time though, and I’ve done shows where I’ve been there for a couple of years. If the cast is welcoming, then it’s a really easy transition. Rarely has it happened that the cast hasn’t been kind. But the one thing that’s wonderful about Once Upon a Time for the guest cast is that they have huge roles in the show! It’s not like Law & Order where you’re just a killer for a short time and you don’t play a very important part in the overall story.
Diane: You’re right—the guest actors occupy a lot of screen time!
Rena: Yes! Look at the Mad Hatter and Sebastian Stan—that episode was so much about him. He wasn’t just memorable as a character in that episode—he WAS the episode! And that’s the great thing about Once Upon a Time—the regular cast has got to be welcoming because it would be difficult to maintain the show with these huge guest spots if they weren’t. And they absolutely are welcoming! People couldn’t have been nicer to me.
Diane: Has anyone on the set surprised you by how different they are in real life from their character?
Rena: Everyone is really nice, regardless of whether they play evil characters. I had just watched Regina’s mother Cora in an episode, and when I was on the set I got to meet Barbara Hershey. She was incredibly ill with the flu, and yet she was one of the nicest people! And Lana Parilla is amazing. I met her in the trailer and make-up room and she was very nice as well. She’s not the Evil Queen in person—she’s just lovely! Most of the time actors are very gracious. Not always, but most of the time. But in this show, everyone is wonderful.
Diane: It makes sense because someone like Lana Parilla couldn’t play her role with complexity if she was one dimensional herself. Did you happen to have any scenes with Lesley Nicol of Downton Abbey?
Rena: I did! And that was probably my greatest surprise because I’m a huge Downton Abbey fan. On the day that I arrived on the set of Once Upon a Time, I happen to see this woman who has red hair walking towards me. I had just come to the set to meet the director, and fortunately I got to meet everyone—Ginnifer Goodwin, Josh Dallas, Lana Parilla, and Barbara Hershey. Then all of a sudden this woman walks up, and I’m thinking, “Oh my god—that’s Mrs. Patmore!” I was so excited to meet the cast—I didn’t even expect to meet Lesley Nicol, too. So it was hard to concentrate on meeting the cast after that because there was this woman standing right in front of me who I associate with an entirely different show in a different country—yet there she was! It was very exciting. And she’s absolutely wonderful.
Diane: That must feel so surreal, especially if you’re a fan of the show! But this has happened to you a lot—you’ve worked with everyone from Jerry Seinfeld to Edward Norton. Have you had any huge, star-struck moments, or do you just try to stay in your work “zone”?
Rena: Well, I try not to get too star struck because I don’t think it’s very becoming on a person. But on the other hand, I also realize that when you pretend to act “cool”, as though the person in front of you doesn’t really matter, you’re actually doing yourself a disservice. I think the greatest thing you can do as an actor is to look the other person in the eye and say, “I’m a huge fan of yours.” I’m not going to scream and cry and fall all over them, but I will admit that I’m in awe of their work. And I will muster the courage to say, “I’m so excited to be standing here right now and to have the chance to meet you.” I believe it’s better to just let myself have those moments, and to allow myself to be excited about who I’m with! And I feel that way about chefs, too, at a great restaurant—or anyone who’s really good at what they do. I like to let people know that I appreciate their talent.
Diane: That’s wonderful because you’re allowing yourself to stay emotionally authentic in the moment, regardless of who it is. Now in your body of work, I’m fascinated by the fact that you won an Emmy award for Lois Cerullo in General Hospital, who is rough around the edges with a heavy Brooklyn accent and is at times quite comedic and over the top. (For a clip of Rena playing Lois Cerullo, click here) Yet I’ve also seen you play roles like Heidi Petrelli, the politician’s wife in Heroes where you are very serious and dramatic. Your range is huge! What was it like to win that Emmy for your television work—did it fry your brain for a moment?
Rena: Shock. Total shock! (See Rena’s Emmy-winning moment here) I had done a soap opera before that called Loving, and I’d been to the Emmys and watched them before, but it was always behind the velvet rope. I didn’t consider myself “of the people” who win those kinds of awards. So I never connected myself to that possibility. When I was doing Lois, I understood her almost more than I’ve ever understood anybody.
Diane: How is that possible? She’s not like you at all!!
Rena: If I could have chosen to be somebody in this world at that time, I would have chosen to be her! She is who I wished I could be. And because the writing was so brilliantly done, I just was able to do and say things that Rena could never get away with! It was like I put on an entirely different “suit” when I walked onto the set each morning. And it was a very transcendent experience for me, which I think showed when I won the Emmy. I remember sitting there watching all these amazing actresses in their scenes where they were crying their eyes out. I mean, I was up against Jackie Zeeman during the season where her child dies and she donates the child’s heart! All these women are sobbing in their film clips for the Emmys, and here I am jumping out of a cake with sparklers! (See Rena’s cake scene in General Hospital here) So when they called my name I was in complete shock. But it was such confirmation that I had done what an actor is supposed to do—I had literally changed who I was for a role so much that you couldn’t see the seams.
Diane: You were so incredibly fresh in that role. You were on fire in those scenes, compared to the “soap-opera type” of acting that we see in those shows sometimes that can become a bit stale. Are there any dream roles that you still wish you could tackle? Have you ever done a gritty or very evil role?
Rena: I auditioned once and almost got the role of a cop. But the producer said, “You did great in the audition, but you just don’t look like you’ve worked a day in your life.”
Diane: Ouch—you shouldn’t have washed hair that day!
Rena: I know! So one of the roles I’d love to play is a New York cop—an inner city detective. I’ve played a lawyer on NCIS, and I loved that character. I felt really connected to the role, and I’d love to explore characters like that more. But sometimes when I’ve read for a role and really felt like I understood the character, it became more about which celebrity is going to get the part, rather than the working stiff actor. Yet I have to say, playing Queen Eva on Once Upon a Time is a dream-come-true kind of role for me. The way they write the role, and wearing the costume, is wonderful. A lot of what helps me play a character is the outfit. If you can totally change the way you look and speak to be a character, the transformation becomes even more complete. So with Lois and her Brooklyn accent and way of dressing, I could become someone very different than myself, and it’s the same with Queen Eva.
Diane: Did you change your voice to become Queen Eva as well? How did you alter yourself or carriage to inhabit her?
Rena: Well, when the writing is this good, you don’t need to do as much work as you might think to become the character. It just becomes natural and you really let the words flow right through you. And of course, then there’s all the support around you on the set—the costuming, the lighting, along with the terrific writing. I even had that amazing wig with an incredible tiara that helped me become the role, and I have very short hair! So that whole process put together helped me transform to become her. At first, I came onto the set with a specific understanding of what I wanted to do. But until I stood there, in those clothes and in that environment—that’s when I fully became Queen Eva. That’s the magic that sealed the envelope.
Diane: It’s so interesting that you can do a kind of “soul exchange” in that moment.
Rena: Yes, and that’s why certain contemporary parts can be more difficult—because you don’t have the costumes and environment to help you get into the role. And sometimes the writing is not nearly as good as on Once Upon a Time. So you have to search inside yourself to make things fresh and believable. I didn’t have that issue with this job!
Diane: Well you’ve certainly worked with some heavy hitters in your career. Are there any favorite actors that you would still love to work with?
Rena: Every actor out there would love to work with Meryl Streep for the simple fact of being able to watch her in action. But to tell you the truth, my penultimate dream—as in, “I could die now because this happened”—would be to be directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Diane: What a fascinating answer! He’s so interesting and you never know what he’s going to do next.
Rena: Yes, and I’d love for Quentin Tarantino to just say “Do this!” Of course, I’d be thinking, “Okay, I don’t have any idea what this is, I don’t even understand it—but I’m going to do it!” To engage in that artistic process would be amazing. So I have to say, working with a well-known actor isn’t quite as important to me. Sometimes new actors are really terrific. Look at Bailee Madison—she’s phenomenal! And working with Lesley Nicol, who I never knew before Downton Abbey, was just outstanding. I love the surprise of acting sometimes with people you don’t know anything about—just let it come through. And I love feeling like you’re on an equal playing ground so you’re not nervous about anything. You become totally present for the role.
Diane: Wow, your willingness to take risks is so inspiring, especially for someone like you who kind of stumbled into acting in a way. I heard you got your start by being discovered in Greenwich Village at the age of 15 by a modeling scout?
Rena: Yes, I was a kid in the Village just hanging out with my friends. This woman approached me from the petite division of the Elite Modeling Agency and asked if I wanted to become a model. So I started with her, but modeling just wasn’t my thing—I didn’t really enjoy it. So she then turned around and said, “What about acting?” I decided to give it a try and started to take acting classes, and eventually I got an acting coach. That was my beginning.
Diane: And you got your start in soap operas like Loving and General Hospital. Then you won an Emmy! Those shows must have been a good training ground.
Rena: Soaps are a great training ground. Here’s what I have to say about soaps: To me, there are two sides to them. There are people who spend their lives in them, like Susan Lucci, and it’s not a training ground to them—this is their job and their life, and you need to respect that. Then there are the young kids who come on and say, “I just want to be here, make some money, work on my craft, and then go. If you’re going to use it for that purpose, then respect it for that purpose! The problem is that those kids come in and all they care about is the “celebrity” part of the business. They go to the functions and love having people fawn over them. They learn their lines literally just before they’re going to shoot! And then they either get stuck in soap operas forever and become bitter, or they take off from a show thinking “I’m a celebrity now, here I go!” and no one cares. So my opinion is that soap operas are an amazing opportunity to learn a script a day—every single day! And they force you to learn lines faster than you will in your whole life with no more than a couple of takes per scene.
They also teach you how to make dramatic choices quickly and to navigate other people’s choices that you didn’t even see coming. You literally dive headlong into the pool of the acting process, and you learn from every talented person who’s there. And then you also get to watch people who maybe aren’t so talented, and you say to yourself, “Okay, maybe that’s what I don’t want to do.” So often people look at soap operas as a kind of summer camp for acting, and they don’t take them as seriously as they should. When I was on my first soap opera Loving, I was only 18 years old—and to be honest, I was just having fun! But when I got the role of Lois on General Hospital, by this point I knew it was a terrific opportunity, and I wanted to make every episode as brilliant as I could.
Diane: Wow, you’d really learned to invest yourself as an actress, hadn’t you?
Rena: Exactly. I’m not saying I thought I was brilliant—I just knew I wanted to make the character of Lois truly shine. And getting to play a character who was so raw and funny opened up a whole new world for me.
Diane: Well, soap opera fans are certainly known for their loyalty—I’ve had friends who are Ph.D’s in nuclear physics who are addicted to their shows! It can be a surprisingly sophisticated audience. Do you think there will be much of a difference with the fans of Once Upon a Time compared to soap operas, or do you think they might have a lot in common?
Rena: I think people like to fall in love with an ongoing story. Once Upon a Time is really a nighttime soap opera told extremely brilliantly! So original, so fresh. And just like with soaps, you’re hoping that the characters will find each other, fight off evil, and find true love. But not quite yet—because you want the show to keep going and to keep watching! You want it all to come together, yet secretly you don’t.
Rena: And soaps are really the same thing—they just have to figure out how to make it run for fifteen years rather than five seasons. But fans are fans. People love their characters and they love their shows. They totally invest themselves with the time and energy it takes to watch a show faithfully for years, so you really have to deliver. That’s a lot of dedication on their part.
Diane: So I’m curious to know if you developed a big fan following before the Emmy award, or did it really balloon after that? Let me tell you why I’m asking—I saw this fan site for you called Lady Blue Eyes and they have an astonishing 24,000 images of you! That’s LOYAL— I was floored.
Rena: Oh, the blue eyes fansite is sooo post Emmy! I won the Emmy 18 years ago—I mean, that was before laptop computers! This website is much newer. And speaking of websites, people are always coming up to me and saying I look just like Snow White and that I have beautiful skin—how do I do it? And the answer is a skin product that my facialist for over 14 years developed.
The website is www.dinomorra.com. Just click on “The Boutique” tab, and you’ll see the BON VIVANT collagen body candles I use that come in several beautiful fragrances—blood orange, peony, and vanilla. They’re all-vegetable, animal-free products with no paraffin, and they totally transform skin by infusing it with moisture and collagen.
Diane: Wait a second, are you telling me you play a fairy tale character AND you have a magic candle for women? Talk about casting spells—I love it!
Rena: Yes! You just light the candle and let it melt, and it makes your room smell wonderful. Then you use a little spatula that comes with the product and put it directly on your skin. I’d love the fans to tell me on Twitter what they think of it. (Rena’s handle is @RenaSofer). The metapmorphosis it creates for beautiful skin is incredible.
Diane: Well on the subject of metamorphosis, I adore what you said once in an interview for the film Always and Forever. In that movie, you play a middle-aged woman who dares to find love again and decides to presss the “reset button” on her life, and you said, “When I turned forty, I realized that I deserve to be who I want to be.” That is such a profound statement about truly inhabiting your own skin. And about summoning up the courage to embrace who you truly are—particularly at the soul level.
Rena: You know, my feeling is this—we spend so much time as women in our lives trying to be what we think we’re supposed to be, pleasing others, or trying to get a man because we think it’s what’s expected of us. And then there’s wanting to be good mother, or attempting to impress the PTA on top of that. For years—even decades—we might spend all this energy trying to fit in without taking stock of who WE really want to be. And I think something wonderful happens when you turn forty, if you let it. It’s almost like there’s a click in your brain that goes, “Wait a minute—I don’t have to please anybody anymore!”
I really believe you can feel that change and allow that shift. And I’d love to tell women who are approaching forty, “Don’t freak out about it! You don’t have to go along with what you’ve always been told or even the way think you’re supposed to look.” I mean, I’m 44. I’ve had no plastic surgery, I eat right, I work out. I don’t have to look the way women in their 40s used to look. You can look like me without messing with yourself or your face. But it’s all about feeling good with who you are on the inside. Then look forward to the opportunity to step into who you’ve always wanted to be! Discover your own personal stardom.
Diane: I love that line—it’s beautiful!
Rena: You know, they say 40 is the new thirty, where women are really stepping into their own power. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if women started much younger than that? What if, as a society, we got to the point where there are all these empowered women even at twenty? It’s not something to be afraid of. Our personal power is something to embrace. That’s the gift of being a woman—we shine best when we’re unencumbered. And when we take responsibility for what we truly want.
Diane: And how synchronisitic that you’ve taken on the role of royalty—Queen Eva—just as you’re entering a phase of life where you feel you’ve become the most empowered. Full throttle Rena! Thank you so much for this interview—it’s been such a joy to talk with you.
Rena: Any time! Thank you for having me.
Interview by Diane J. Reed
February 3, 2013