One of this season’s most anticipated shows is the ABC Once Upon a Time spinoff, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland. Set in Victorian England, Alice (Sophie Lowe) returns from Wonderland full of amazing stories about her travels through a land of talking animals and murderous queens, and the love (Cyrus, played by Peter Gadiot) she found along the way. Her father, unsurprisingly for both the time and circumstance, has her institutionalized. Imprisoned and alone, she is just about to give up hope and undergo a therapy that will make her forget all she has seen and lost (electroshock? lobotomy?) when the Knave of Hearts (Michael Socha) and the White Rabbit (voiced by John Lithgow) turn up to rescue her and lead her back to Wonderland to search for Cyrus.
At this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, ABC premiered the full trailer, and then we had the opportunity to sit down with the people bringing Alice back to life this season in Once Upon a Time in Wonderland…
What drew you to Alice?
Zack Estrin (producer): I think because the Alice we know is a good little girl but we have no idea what she’s like as a woman. When I was little kid, I used to wonder about what happened after she came back (from Wonderland) and was talking about all these things – a hookah-smoking caterpillar, grinning cats… I have a nine-year-old daughter and if she came to me and swore that somebody was chopping off people’s heads, you know there’d be a doctor’s visit. And there’s a doctor visit here in ours. But it’s really about the imagination of a child, and what happens to that when you grow up. Do you still maintain that same sense of wonder as you get older even if you maybe stop believing?
Producer Zack Estrin
Can you describe your characters?
Sophie Lowe (Alice): My character is the original Alice, but now she is a grown-up. She’s stronger now, a woman now, and lost. But not as lost as she used to be as when she first entered Wonderland. She’s in love with this guy, and nothing will stop her from getting what she wants – especially nothing will stop her from getting her love back. She’s a strong woman and she’s really fun to play.
Peter Gadiot (Cyrus the Genie): Cyrus is kind of a mysterious entity – someone who’s obviously been around for hundreds of years and has had this interesting journey. He’s been enslaved and has found freedom through love. He’s also someone who’s very good at fighting and also somewhat soulful – a mix between the lover and the warrior.
Would you describe this version of Wonderland as a love story then?
Lowe: Definitely. It’s a love story – very romantic – but there’s still some action here and there and people kicking ass. Alice kicking ass.
Gadiot: Totally. It’s an adventure, and a love story with fantasy elements and a hint of darkness to it.
And you’re not enslaved anymore?
Gadiot: Well, she frees me, but the narrative is not linear; there is very much back and forth in time.
Do you retain your powers then?
Gadiot: Yeah, it’s always kind of a process of me being powerful, me being enslaved, me being free and you get to see all of it.
Peter Gadiot, Cyrus the Genie.
Usually genies take wishes and twist them, either because they are required to or because of some chaotic evil essence within themselves. Does your character have that kind of requirement or desire?
Gadiot: You know that is yet to be decided. That’s an interesting point. But from my understanding, with the whole being enslaved thing, I pretty much have to do what I’m told and that makes being free being that much more tantalizing
I think it’s very interesting because wishes being twisted, Wonderland is basically a dream that’s been twisted, so bringing them together is kind of frightening – I really like the darkness of that juxtaposition. How dark is it?
Gadiot: Pretty dark, but I think there’s been a lot of good response to the dark tone in it and I really hope that continues. There’s lots of imprisonment and torture and other things going on.
Emma Rigby (Red Queen): I think we will be going pretty dark.
Michael Socha (Knave of Hearts): Jet black!
Rigby: The tone is can be very, very different from the original series. It’s going to be very, very serious and just like the original novels, because those are so dark and so tragic. It will be very interesting to show those elements in the show.
Socha: I always wanted Alice to be in a mental institution, that that would be a great idea. That’s a very dark path to take.
Michael Socha, The Knave of Hearts.
So can we expect the same complexities out of your character as we see out of characters such as Regina in Once Upon a Time?
Naveen Andrews (Jafar): Yes, it’s the real nature of the character, the fact that it is the synthesis of the ancient and the modern. You know, ancient storytelling, folktales, fairy tales, the strong elements of the classic in the contemporary sort of age. It gives you tremendous freedom and gives you the chance to do a lot of things with characters like Jafar. He already has made e a very vivid impression in people’s minds – he’s a sort of iconic villain. People have this fixed idea of what kind of villain he is, and we want to go against that.
Does he have a good side?
Andrews: Well, that remains to be seen but everybody is human. Everybody had a childhood, you know.
What was the main draw of the character for you?
Socha: I wanted to do it because he’s just a cool character – the sardonic, lonely heartbreaker. That pretty much sealed the deal for me.
Rigby: And for me, I think it’s a dream come true: dressing up, and who doesn’t want to play a queen? And I’ve been called HRH for a long time.
The power aspect of “I can do it so I’m going to?”
Rigby: Yeah, that and the costumes are cool. They’re so much fun to wear, and it’s great to play an actual character like this. It’s very different from doing a modern-day piece – a lot more gritty and raw… more theatrical actually.
What do you think of the costumes?
Lowe: They are so great! I love wearing the costumes; it really helps me get into character. They are definitely amazing.
Sophie Lowe, Alice.
Cyrus: The coolest thing is we’re not doing any sort a cliché or any standard type of genie with the harem pants or anything. It’s got a very sexy, modern twist. I’m wearing leather pants with studs on them. There’s a hint towards that kind of ornate Middle Eastern feeling, but it’s very much modern and contemporary with a kind of swashbuckling buccaneer thing.
On the subject of clothes, how you feel stepping into Barbara Hershey’s shoes?
Rigby: Well, I wouldn’t want to step on her shoes. I really want to make my character very different, to bring a comedic element into it. I think this series is going to be so different, that it’s got a very different tone to the original series.
Speaking of the original series, Once Upon a Time, can we expect the same complexities of characters that we get in the original series?
Estrin: A lot of people say it’s very similar storytelling to Once, but you know, I actually think it’s a little closer to Lost in that we have people in Wonderland that we don’t know how they got there. You know not everyone was born there, so what happened to them beforehand? So our flashbacks are going to be who she was before she became the Queen. Who was this Knave of Hearts, and especially for Alice, what happens to the young girl when she comes back telling these kinds of stories – those crazy things – and what would a parent do if their child did that?
Are we going to see the development of the Red Queen and are we going to be seeing a lot of crossover to her life in London?
Rigby: Yes, I spoke to the producers about this, and they want to explore how the Red Queen came to come be the Red Queen. We get to find out why she is so determined to kill Cyrus and control Wonderland, make Alice’s life hell. This will be very interesting because not only will we see the reason why but we will also be able to cross into all sorts of different fantasy lands and meet different characters in different worlds and see lots of wondrous things along the way.
Emma Rigby, The Red Queen.
There is a reference in the preview we were watching in the public panel earlier to Alice getting your heart back. Are we talking a heart in a box or are we possibly tying in The Wizard of Oz?
Socha: Mind your own business! Honestly, I don’t know. I’m still looking to find out. I mean, they told me a little bit but I can’t say anything.
Rigby: I know the answer to that.
Socha: But we can’t say, can we? No, but I think it involves… no… I just can’t say it… I always put my foot in it and get told off.
Rigby: It’s a very clever the idea, that Wizard of Oz thing.
Socha: In fact, I’m going to suggest it and nick it off you, and have a writer’s credit.
So since the beginning of Once Upon a Time, most of the fairytales we’ve seen so far have been very Western in focus except for Mulan -although she has gotten kind of short shrift. So does the presence of Jafar and Cyrus mean some possibility that we’re going to get some Eastern mythology here?
Andrews: Well, I wouldn’t really want to geographically fix it like that because the whole nature of fantasy is that it’s almost irrelevant where these places are. It gives it certain colors and maybe different sorts of notes, but it shouldn’t make any difference…
I’m just thinking there are just so many great stories that are not Western fairytales that we have had very little access to, some of the Eastern ones which would be really amazing. Not necessarily thinking of it geographically, but that there are stories that we don’t get exposed to – you have to go out of your way in order to see or hear them – so I’m excited about the possibility that maybe Once Upon a Time in Wonderland is going to give us some of these.
Andrews: In that sense, you are right. It’s like when I was talking about synthesis. We are talking about bringing in elements of the Arabian Nights which is hundreds of years old, obviously. So absolutely.
Naveen Andrews, Jafar
How different is this role compared to some of the other acting roles you’ve taken?
Andrews: I’m looking forward to having fun, for Christ’s sake – you know what I mean? Because quite honestly, with some of the work I do, I think you have to go to certain places which may be rather dark you know.
And so this gives you a little more comedic focus?
Andrews: Well, there should definitely be lighter elements, I hope. One can only hope. One doesn’t want to hang oneself.
We’ve talked a lot about the original Once Upon a Time. What’s the most difficult part about making a spinoff show?
Estrin: I think it really depends on what show you’re spinning off of. This is more of a brand spinoff, kind of like CSI: Miami or CSI: New York. You know, it’s more about “if you like this type of programming, then you might also this.” I think of it like a cousin: you know it’s in the same family but lives in a different neighborhood and has a different accent and is a little sexier and a little more dangerous. That is what Wonderland is.
Is this a limited series or is the series kind of like Hannibal where they keep the story very tight, and at the end of thirteen episodes, there is a very compact finished story? So that if the show were to go away at the end of that first season, it has an ending?
Estrin: Yes, that is exactly what we are doing
So you do hope for a second season but if you don’t get it, we’ll still have a complete story of sorts?
Estrin: What is awesome about that (universe) is that we have a lot of options. Are always other adventures to have in Wonderland? Probably. Are there adventures to have in other lands? Probably… Who’s to say there’s not a Once Upon a Time in Oz or Once Upon a Time in any other land?
With the same characters or new characters?
Estrin: I don’t know. What’s nice is that, in this show, characters can do strange things. A lamp can wash up on the shore of anywhere, even Storybrooke, Maine. So there’s lots of opportunities for other back-and-forth, for other journeys, other adventures. And I think it will be always be about how satisfying this story is and are there more stories to tell?
Once Upon A Time In Wonderland begins on Thursday the 10th of October on ABC at 8pm. Read our wishlist for the series, here, and come back for our spoiler-filled review after broadcast.
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