Train To Fame: The Roots Of a Would-Be Queen

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The dreams and hopes of going to a four-year university were very much a part of my life plan,” says Lana Parrilla (“Once Upon a Time,” “Miami Medical,” “Swingtown,” “Spin City”). But when that wasn’t possible, she took her situation and turned it into a résumé most actors would salivate over. With the poise of a queen, Parrilla saw her way through hardship, proving that if you’re dedicated, persistent, and creative, you can hone your craft without a four-year university. She speaks from the heart as she discusses her craft, articulately looping the technical aspects of her training with the spirituality of what it means to create.

Create Your Own Four-Year Plan

“[When] life took a turn, I learned about the Beverly Hills Playhouse and ended up studying there twice a week,” Parrilla says. Spending time at the school encouraged the young actress to further her learning. “When it comes to actors and training, it’s not just learning acting. There [are] so many parts that sum up and help shape a full artist. It’s not just reading a script and learning how to say your lines. I don’t know how one learns how to say anything, but I think as far as training goes, I just knew that there’s scene study [and] script analysis, but then there’s also so many other things that fall in line with that—vocal training, body movement, dance—and so these were all the things I studied in addition to scene studying. I created my own four-year program.”

An Actor’s Buffet

“When you’re in a community of actors, you hear what other people are doing and you learn from others.” Parrilla surrounded herself with people who inspired her, forgoing big names for fellow classmates she admired such as Navi Rawat (“Numb3rs”), who led Parrilla to her vocal coach, David Farkas. Although she’s been working with Farkas for about 16 years, she finds that training never really stops. “I’ve trained with him my entire hiatus this time around. We’re constantly evolving and so is our instrument, so it’s important to keep up on things.” The Linklater-based vocal training has become second nature for Parrilla; she’s even taught it herself. She calls the technique “essential” for actors looking to open up their “emotional reservoirs.” “You can just emote in ways that I’ve never been able to, prior to my vocal training. Scene study and script analysis is incredible, but I find that…you have to learn many different techniques…to help you become a more well-rounded artist.” Having studied the Alexander Technique and some Meisner, Parrilla suggests trying all the acting buffet has to offer. “It really depends on the scene, on the script, on the role. I’ve learned every technique that there is to learn when it comes to acting, but I don’t necessarily have a favorite. I just use whichever tool is necessary for the moment.”

Jumping From Evil to Innocent

For her work on “Once Upon a Time,” Parrilla takes the once-infamous Evil Queen, Regina Mills, to new depths. A lovelorn teen, the villainous Queen, and the redeemed savior all require the use of her entire body. “It really depends on where she is in her life. When she’s young Regina, there’s a higher-pitched, more innocent, doe-eyed feeling to her, and with that comes a lighter, more innocent [voice], a voice that’s learning, that’s interested and intrigued and excited.” Parrilla gets physical to give young Regina a buoyant feel. “I would jump in the air while I would say [lines] while I was rehearsing them—in the privacy of my home, obviously, and not on set, or people would think I’m crazy,” she says with a laugh she doesn’t share with any of her characters. “I’ll work from a higher [place] or I’ll stand on my toes and sort of float.” People do this naturally, she notes, “like when you see a baby or a dog, you automatically pitch up into your head voice. You’re excited and you know that pitch, that tone, is actually more appealing.” As for the darker characters (the Evil Queen, Ursula) in her repertoire, she plants her roots. “Even [with] the old hag [it] was a completely different voice, like a Romanian gypsy. She was, like, 400 years old, so I was speaking from my toes. It really depends on where the character is at that point in her life—how much they’ve lived, how much they’ve learned.” She produces a deeper chest resonance for the Evil Queen. “It even goes beyond that sometimes; it’s very guttural…like in my belly. She’s so grounded and she’s so connected to the earth I feel like she has roots coming out of the bottom of her feet, and there’s this weight to her that I find naturally just pulls my voice down to a lower register.”

Just Do It

Classes can be a safe place, but there’s a balance between participating and practicing. “I did do some audition training, but it didn’t really sit with me. I just felt like there’s really nothing like going and doing it. When you’re sitting in a real audition room and you’re waiting for your name to be called, it’s a completely different emotion and feeling, and there’s a level of nervousness and excitement and your palms are sweaty. I still get a little nervous at times, and I find that in a classroom setting you don’t really experience that.” The “Spin City” alum fondly remembers Charlie Sheen’s advice when she was starting out. “He always made fun of me because I would go to class.” When he asked why she did that, she explained, “Because I think it’s really important and I love my training and it’s what I want to do.” Sheen argued, “The best training is on the J-O-B.” Though she agrees to some degree, Parrilla still thinks both are necessary. “It’s vital to learn your craft. I don’t come from the schooling of just go in there and learn as you go along. I think everyone should train before they put themselves out there.”

Working Out the Knots

Different techniques can help an actor work through challenges. “I use my Alexander Technique where I go into a meditation and breathe into my body and then it switches into the vocal training. I let out a couple of ‘huhs,’ the ‘huh’ and ‘ha-has’ and I just breathe and go into a meditative state. I find that it calms my mind and I can start feeling on a deeper level that’s going to help me resolve whatever issue [or block] I’m having.” She also employs the techniques of Sandra and Greta Seacat. “It’s like a melting pot of many things, but they do a lot of symbols and archetypes and some Alexander, as well, like Carl Jung’s ‘active imagination dream analysis.’ That usually really helps me get out of [my] block and I start making bold choices. It’s in addition to the relaxation and breathing exercises, because I find that with acting it’s not just your body and your soul, but your mind is a huge part of this as well.”

The Business Called Show

“When I started acting, I got involved in it because I loved the craft. Building a very strong team of people that can really help facilitate this dream is super important, but I don’t think I really understood it until later in my career.” The self-described softy reminds actors it’s called show business for a reason. “Learning your craft is all fun and great and awesome and I love it to bits, but the business side of it is something I wish I would have had a little more experience in. Whether it’s taking business courses or getting your business degree or whatever it is, I think it’s really important and it would have been super helpful over the course of my career.”

Set A Goal…and Work For It

“Success doesn’t happen overnight,” warns Parrilla, who worked hard for years before finding success on the hit ABC drama. “I would go to Backstage to see [the notices]. I did a handful of student films because of it, and I think even some plays.” Further encouraging actors “to really be patient and know that it’s a process,” Parrilla suggests setting a 25-year goal: “We can get so impatient and want things to happen right then and there and want the job,” she says, but advises actors to “take the time to learn the craft, [learn] to do the vocal training, to do the body work, and to be the best well-rounded artist that you can possibly be. So you actually have a career and you’re not just trying to get the next job. Because a job is a job, but having a career is what I aspire for and I would advise actors to do the same. To just be patient and learn your craft and enjoy the process.”

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