Ginnifer Goodwin Brings Snow White to Life in 'Once Upon a Time'

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Photo Source: Jeff Vespa/
This story first appeared in the Sept. 1 issue of "Back Stage."

Ginnifer Goodwin has made a career of playing likable ladies—women the audience is willing to follow on a journey even when their actions are questionable. Whether her character makes painful mistakes in relationships ("He's Just Not That Into You"), is married to a man with two other wives ("Big Love"), or even falls for her best friend's fiancé ("Something Borrowed"), Goodwin brings a decency and humanity to her roles that sets her apart from her peers. Goodwin is now playing the ultimate good girl—none other than Snow White, the fairy-tale heroine of the legendary beauty and kindness who sings to birds and is awakened by Prince Charming's kiss. She is one facet of ABC's ambitious new drama "Once Upon a Time," which premiered on Sunday. The show is set in a modern world where fairy-tale characters such as Rumpelstiltskin and Cinderella exist, but they are under a spell that causes them to forget their true identities. As a result, Snow White is a schoolteacher in Storybrooke, Maine, named Mary Margaret; though she has no recollection of her previous life, she still has a way with birds.

This is not to say this princess doesn't have her dark side; in the role Goodwin exhibits a fierce steeliness and determination the fables only hint at. It has been a demanding role for Goodwin, emotionally and physically: On this July afternoon, she's sporting a small red mark above her right eye, the result of an on-set injury. "There's a lot of stories going around about how I got this," she says. "The one I prefer is that I was trying to leap from one horse to another during a scene, and a tiger got in the way." Whatever the truth—Goodwin will only say, "I fell on my face"—it's not the only scrape in evidence. "I have a lot of injuries from it: I have stitches over my eye, I screwed up my hand, I'm all black and blue," she says. She then adds, "I think it was the most fun day I've had there." As she explains, "I'm in heaven as an actor. We're telling a story full of a world of possibilities, and I'm doing things I've never done before."

Back Stage: You're best known for characters who emanate decency. Have you ever pursued a villain role?

Ginnifer Goodwin: I have, but it usually doesn't feel organic, so I tend to feel a little ridiculous and embarrassed because I wouldn't cast me in those roles, either. I would like to be trusted to explore a darker character because I certainly do have a dark side. But you don't look at me and see that, and typecasting is a huge part of what we do. For a very good reason: You only have a short period of time to tell a story. If it's a film, it's only two hours. That's partly why, these days, I'm preferring television. I really like that I can dig my elbows in and explore and change within a character.

Back Stage: Were you looking to do TV when "Once Upon a Time" came along?

Not at all. My experience on "Big Love" was perfect; the best years of my life were the "Big Love" years. I could always count on it to be creative and safe and challenging, and that set was full of love, as it were. So I didn't turn my nose up at the idea of doing television again, but I was thinking the end of "Big Love"—while being devastating—would provide me with the opportunity to see what it would be like to exclusively make films and really have that freedom. I thought it would be a liberation, in terms of time, because everything for seven years was based on my availability, the things I could consider. So when I knew "Big Love" was ending, I started reading everything under the sun. And to be honest, I was really not impressed with the state of film scripts. I'm not Natalie [Portman], I'm not Anne [Hathaway], I'm not Amy [Adams], and I'm not Michelle [Williams], and I sort of had a come-to-Jesus moment realizing that they are going to be playing the kinds of characters I would be inspired to play. And there's only a handful of really great movie scripts out there. Production companies really are not investing in the kinds of ballsy material that they were before, in this economy. So I did open myself up to the possibility of television and said I wanted to read the pilot scripts, and I was blown away. I realized that's where all the great writers have gone. It was a totally different experience from when I read pilot scripts 10 years ago and was just starting out in the business. "Big Love" had been more of an anomaly then. I read "Once Upon a Time," and there was no question for me that it was something I had to do—it was a story I had to tell.

Ginnifer Goodwin in "Once Upon a Time." (Courtesy of ABC)

Back Stage: There are several great women's roles in the show; was it always Snow White you were drawn to?

It was always the Snow White role. The creators, Edward [Kitsis] and Adam [Horowitz], knew exactly who they wanted for all the roles. I know that I'm drawn to characters from whom I know I need to learn something, and right now that's certainly Snow White and Mary Margaret.

Back Stage: What sort of research does an actor do to portray Snow White?

It's interesting, because I've almost exclusively played characters based on source material—characters based on real people or characters from novels. So I'm not surprised that Snow White would come my way. But we're not telling the story of Snow White that everyone knows. We are justifying that the story everyone knows is about a woman based on the woman I am playing.

Back Stage: Your Snow White is the woman who inspired the fairy tales.

Goodwin: You believe, when you see our Snow White, that Disney's animated feature could have been inspired by this very real, very flawed, relatable woman, even though we are fleshing her out in a very thorough way, as our writers are genius. I think we'll surprise everyone in how we represent her. We haven't reinvented her—we've just filled in the blanks and given her a lot of qualities that are less than expected but still justifiable. So when I was researching the history of Snow White—I guess you would call it the anthropological effect of fairy tales in history—I was watching every freaking version of Snow White that has ever been made, and boy, are most of them terrible! I thought I was going to draw things from those versions of the stories, that there would be little tidbits here and there I would want to pick up and infuse my Snow White with. But I didn't. In fact, even Disney's animated feature doesn't really inform me as much as a couple of books that I read about fairy tales in general and their purpose as cautionary tales.

Back Stage: Do you have an example?

Goodwin: I was really inspired by something I read about the Snow White story clearly focusing on the effects of vanity. It never occurred to me that Snow White might have the same fatal flaw as her stepmother, the evil queen. It wasn't until I was reading an analysis of the story and looking at the fact that Snow White can't resist the beautiful comb being offered her by the evil witch—or in the Grimms' version, there's the stay-laces she wants to tie around her neck. Or ultimately, she can't resist the beautiful apple. So I loved the idea that Snow White is actually in a battle with her own egotism and that she might possibly believe she really is the fairest in the land. And then that opened up a world of possibility. What if it's true that she's competing for the king, her father's, attention? And it's not just the perspective of the stepmother? What if she really was just as jealous of his attention? And what if it wasn't entirely familial—what if it was a little inappropriate? It was that kind of research that opened up a world of possibility to me and changed how I saw Snow White.

Back Stage: There's something about Snow White that is in the Zeitgeist right now, between your show and two upcoming Snow White movies.

I understand why, absolutely, fairy tales are in the Zeitgeist right now, but I'm surprised that there's such a focus on Snow White specifically. I guess for our show, it makes sense in that "Snow White" was Walt Disney's first animated feature, so it was our first princess, so why not start there. But that's not the case with the Grimms' tales, so I'm not really sure why there's the obsession that there is—but I'm certainly proud we're getting there first.

Back Stage: When did you first realize you wanted to be an actor?

Goodwin: I'm one of those obnoxious, annoying people who will tell you there was never any question that's always what I was going to be. I didn't have a backup career.

Back Stage: You were born and raised in the South, far from Hollywood, but you had artists in your family, correct?

Goodwin: My great-grandfather started variety, and my great-aunt was a hugely famous, successful actress in the early part of the 20th century. My father was in the music business when I was growing up. So there was a lot of show business in the blood. My parents were artsy-fartsy, hippie-dippy parents who woke me up by blasting rock 'n' roll music. And if I wanted to put on a four-hour play I wrote, they would clap and push me to further explore. I did every school play and the local productions, and I was told I had to go to college and get a degree but it didn't matter what the degree was in, so I chose theater. And my parents bent over backwards to find a way to put me in the best schools. I went to Boston University school for the arts, where I got a BFA. Then I was in a program at Stratford-Upon-Avon with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and then I did a semester with LAMDA in London, and then I did a Shakespeare intensive with RADA.

Back Stage: What do you consider your big break in the film industry?

Goodwin: Probably "Mona Lisa Smile," which was my first film. I was very lucky—I had an agent before I got out of school. B.U. showcases its actors, and so I was picked up by an agency my senior year, and I would fly back and forth to New York, auditioning for things, knowing that I had to graduate, as I was going to honor my parents' wishes. But I learned a lot about auditioning that way. And I ended up on a television show right out of school called "Ed," where I had a recurring role. Then everything has been a massive domino effect; every job I've gotten came from another. That show led directly to my getting an audition for "Mona Lisa Smile." It was my first big fancy movie audition, so there was no question to me that I wasn't going to get it. It was my first big movie audition, and Mike Newell was directing, and Julia Roberts was starring. I just thought it would be an incredible audition experience.

Back Stage: How do you feel about auditioning?

Goodwin: I think we audition for a living, and I actually love the audition process. I know that's unusual, but I really feel I'm given an opportunity to play characters I'm never really going to get to play—but I get to own them for 10 minutes. And I really get to push myself and try new things and fall on my face and learn about myself as an actor. And frankly I also love feeling that I earned something—because there is something that comes from just getting an offer on something. It's an insecurity like "Oh, they trust I can do this, but can I really do this? Or do they just want to see something I've done before with another character, and I don't want to just play the same characters, so will I be allowed to grow and stretch and try something new?" It comes with a world of other issues. Also, for all intents and purposes, we get to audition our directors while they're auditioning us. I've certainly walked out of auditions and called my agent and said, "We're really going to have to talk about this, because that experience is not what I'm looking for." Or said, "This part isn't for me, but I would like to audition for everything this director does because I connected with him or her on a certain level."

Back Stage: I think many people first remember you from "Walk the Line," as Johnny Cash's first wife, Vivian. Was that a challenging role, since you're playing a basically good person, but you're also keeping the couple from being together?

That was a very tough balance to strike, because in that film we were glorifying an affair, and so it was very important that I be an obstacle. That was my puzzle piece in the story. But it is based on a real woman who, from what I understand, was wonderful and lovable and never any kind of villain. It was difficult for me, actually, because I wanted there to be the version of their story that was, from what I understand, something hearkening a little closer to the truth—which is that Johnny Cash could not choose between these women. He said when he was home, he never wanted to leave Vivian, and when he was on the road, he never wanted to leave June. I think that would have made a very interesting story, but that's not the story we were telling.

Back Stage: You have said your representation has been great at helping you follow your dreams. What did you tell them you wanted? Can you articulate what those dreams are?

Goodwin: Well, that's a whole other interview. [Laughs.] Ultimately, I just want the power to play all kinds of characters; I never want to do the same thing twice. I want to explore every genre—I want to exclusively challenge myself as opposed to playing characters who are always part of my wheelhouse. I want to be able to make my own films based on the books that I love, and I need a road map to get there. I want to experience creativity every day for years and years and years, and always be changing and growing and exploring.


- Repped by William Morris/Endeavor and John Carrabino Management

- Other films include "A Single Man" and "Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!"

- Says she sometimes has to see herself in a project twice to fully enjoy it: "I actually find it's important to watch myself onscreen because I learn a lot about how I express myself. But I am incredibly self-critical and generally have to see everything twice. The first time, I'm cringing at everything. It's usually something shallow and aesthetic, like I can't stand the face I'm making. The second time, I can really concentrate on the work and watch the story unfold."