Michael Socha is filling Wonderland with his charming accent and sardonic wit on his first American series, ABC’s “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland.” As the Knave of Hearts, Socha journeys through the fantasy world with co-star Sophie Lowe who plays Alice. The pair hadn’t met prior to shooting the pilot, but quickly clicked. In fact, Socha says he hadn’t met any of the cast prior to the pilot, but bumped into Emma Rigby and Peter Gadiot in the airport. Socha had, however, worked with Robert Carlyle (Rumplestiltskin on the original “Once Upon a Time”) in the BAFTA Award winning film “Summer.”
Despite the connection, Socha had never seen “Once Upon a Time” when he was asked to go on tape for the spinoff. “I didn’t have a clue what was going to happen in the story. The scenes were quite generic, really, and I didn’t get too much information as to what was going on. I just played the scenes with the notes that the casting directors and writers told me to do,” he says. Even though he didn’t have a lot of information on the show, he was immediately attracted to the role of the Knave. “The first scene was him strolling through this mad world, Storybrooke, and I just thought it would be a really cool part to play.”
Socha tries not to over-prepare for the roles he’s playing. “Within the first minute of reading the breakdown plus script and sides, I’ve got it. As a character, I’ve got him. I don’t really have to think too much about it. I think the more I act the more it’s bullshit. If it’s just there, and it’s in me, I can be it, rather than just act my way into a performance. I am him,” says Socha, who believes that transformation happens early on in the audition process. Even once he’s booked a role he tries not to create too much backstory. “I don’t want to invest too much time into something I don’t know is the truth, because the writers will give me more clues as to who he is as the series goes on.”
Communicate with the cast.
With green screen, many elements are added in post-production. “The green screen scenes are challenging to shoot because you can’t see anything. There’s nothing there and you’re looking at marks,” Socha says. An example is the White Rabbit, voiced by John Lithgow. This makes communication between the actors essential so that everyone is on the same page when they are interacting with a character that isn’t actually there. “I’ll often turn to Soph and say ‘Where are you looking?’ and between us all, we all decide where the eyes are going to point.”
“The only thing I can say is keep doing it,” says Socha, who’s had his fair share of rejection over the years. “I’ve been told ‘no’ so many times, and if I’d have just gone ‘oh, fuck this, I’m not doing this anymore!’ I wouldn’t be here now, working on a brilliant show with excellent people and having this opportunity.” In fact, getting told "no" was what started Socha on his career path to begin with. He was frustrated when a teacher in primary school didn’t cast him. “I auditioned for things outside of school just to piss the teacher off, really. Just to say ‘You’re an idiot,’” he says. But after his first performance on stage he fell in love with acting. Even though at that point he had no idea it would become his career, he just kept pursuing it.
Make the unbelievable believable.
Although fantasy was not really a genre that Socha watches, his recent work is converting him. “I bloody really enjoy working in fantasy. And now I enjoy watching it because of these shows.” With his last series “Being Human” focusing on vampires and werewolves, and his current series set in Wonderland, a world filled with magic, Socha is quickly becoming an expert in the fantastical genre. “Being Human” opened the fantasy/sci-fi door for Socha and made the job of creating a sense of reality in Wonderland easier. “So talking about things that I’ve never come in contact with in my life and trying to make it sound like I have is a little bit easier.” In a recent episode, Socha found himself suspended in the air hanging from wires and a harness to portray his character being strangled by magic. “That’s the first time I’d ever worked in a harness. But I just look at the stage directions and then decide that’s the sound I’d be making while I’m choking in mid-air. I always try to keep it as real as I can in this unbelievable world. It’s sometimes difficult, but I think I owe it to the audience as well as myself to portray something that is believable.”