JOE YOGERST catches up with JENNIFER MORRISON in Los Angeles on hiatus from filming Once Upon a Time to talk about acting and producing, love of the stage and learning from Hugh Laurie
THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT Jennifer Morrison that sets the world on fire. The American actress rose to fame and acclaim on the long-running television series House – which at one point was the most watched TV show on the planet (airing in 66 countries). And now she seems on the verge of doing it again with another small-screen hit called Once Upon A Time.
Morrison's name may not be instantly recognisable, but her face is familiar to millions and her characters are of the ilk that never seem to fade from your mind. On House, she played the idealistic and amorous Dr Allison Cameron opposite Hugh Laurie's famously grouchy lead. In Once Upon a Time, she's a former foster-care kid and grown-up bounty hunter who discovers that her real parents are Snow White and Prince Charming – and that her mission in life is saving the other fairy-tale characters who populate the series. She also played the zany Zoey Pierson on the hit sitcom How I Met Your Mother. An incredible array of roles that run the gamut from hard-core drama and fantasy to screwball comedy.
She has shown that same incredible range in movies, a celluloid career that started 20 years ago with a small but important role alongside Richard Gere and Sharon Stone in Intersection. Jennifer was 15 at the time, still in high school, playing in the band and cheerleading in suburban Chicago. But it was enough to launch a career that has tallied 29 movies and counting. Among many other roles, she has been a serial-killer-stalked student in Urban Legends: Final Cut (2000), Ben Affleck's bratty girlfriend in the holiday caper Surviving Christmas (2004), and Captain Kirk's mother in the 2009 remake of Star Trek. These days Morrison is diversifying into other aspects of the entertainment process – directing, producing and writing. She recently directed a comedy called Warning Labels, her first short film. She has three feature films in the can awaiting release later this year – a romantic comedy called The List, the paranormal thriller 6 Miranda Drive with Kevin Bacon, and the horror flick Locked In, a retelling of the Amityville saga starring Jennifer Jason Leigh. And she's actively searching for new creative properties to bring to life in the manner she did with Glee several years ago – it's not commonly known, but she was one of the producers who discovered the series and brought it to the attention of Ryan Murphy, who converted it from film to smash TV hit.
Unlike so many Hollywood stars, Morrison keeps a very low profile when it comes to the paparazzi. She was engaged for a while to House co-star Jesse Spencer, an Australian actor and musician. Jennifer also dated Romanian-American actor Sebastian Stan, one of her co-stars on Once Upon a Time. But that romance ended more than a year ago. For the time being she remains unattached but plenty busy with her various showbiz pursuits.
You must be pretty excited that Once Upon a Time is coming back for a fourth season.
Yeah, it's great. It's really awesome when a show is so well received. It's so rare these days, where things seem to come and go so quickly.
Were you much of a fairy-tale fan when you were a kid?
My parents are big, big Disney fans. We went to Disneyworld three times a year. So we definitely saw all the Disney versions of those characters. That was my main point of reference to all those fairy tales. But as a kid I also loved the Rodgers and Hammerstein Cinderella, a musical version that my sister and I used to watch over and over again. We would sing the songs together.
It's been a big hit all around the world. What accounts for the show's success?
You never really know what that magical element is. It only happens every once in a while. These fairy tales are stories that people have heard versions of or grown up with, so there's something familiar and universal about that. Some people think it takes them back to their childhood and some people feel excited that they're being rewritten in certain ways and filling in the blanks about stories you always wondered about.
It kind of reminds me of Harry Potter – it was edgy enough and cool enough and smart enough that any adult would want to see it, but it also was very appealing and accessible to kids. Sometimes I go into a Starbucks or somewhere and there are these guys who shout, “Hey, dude! I love your show!” And I'm like, “Really? You're not our target audience.” You just never know what attracts someone.
House was also a huge hit around the world. You probably know that at one time it was the most watched television show on the planet.
Yeah, I did hear that. They estimated that one billion people worldwide were watching it, or something crazy. But that one, for me, was less obvious. I will never understand how that crossed so many barriers. Once again, it must have tapped into something that's universal. Even though House was such an antihero and he was such a curmudgeon, he was tough on people because he wanted them to get better. I think that's something people really responded to, as we live in a world where a lot of us don't get the truth on a daily basis, and there's something refreshing about watching a character who says: I'm going to tell you how it is! And people thinking, “God, I wish I had a doctor like that.” At least you know exactly where he stands, you don't have to wonder.
You've now played three very iconic characters on television – Allison Cameron, Emma Swan and Zoey Pierson. Which one of those three is most like you?
Oh, God. Maybe none of them. If you put all three of them together there would be a version of me in there, but what is interesting is that I am very different from all of them. There are little bits of me, of course, in all of them. I think that's inevitable. But I wouldn't say there's a huge portion of me in any of them.
How about Emma Swan?
I don't know if I would have known what to do with Emma Swan when I first read the script if I hadn't spent six years watching Hugh [Laurie], who is so masterful at a character who was gruff like that and not soft. I learned that it's OK to take some of those risks and not always be likeable and let the character make mistakes. Emma is very, very guarded and determined to survive without anybody's help. As the series progresses, the story is obviously chipping away at that and she is becoming more vulnerable. One of our ongoing jokes of season three was “Emma Swan Cries.” In like 20 out of the 22 episodes, it was scripted that I was crying and there was definitely no way around it.
A lot of people are guessing that there are big changes in store for your character next season because of how season three ended.
I honestly don't know yet. I'm having dinner next week with Eddie Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, our show runners, and will be trying to get any piece of information that I can. We respectfully keep our distance over the hiatus while they're working out the next season. But now that we're getting close to the end of the hiatus, I'm going to start digging for some hints on where things are headed. Obviously, we know that the end of the season three was the first time that Emma genuinely, truly kissed Hook and felt vulnerable with him and Hook felt like he had finally earned some trust in her eyes. That's a big step for her. But the problem is that it's a television show, so no one stays happy for too long [laughs]. There's no story if everybody is happy.
What have you been doing on your break from the series?
Working on a few things. I shot the movie Locked In and then another called 6 Miranda Drive. And then I directed a short film.
The studio hasn't said a lot about 6 Miranda Drive other than it's a supernatural thriller in the tradition of Poltergeist.
I don't know how much they're releasing about the movie because we just shot it. I have a cameo right in the beginning. But it was fun for me as I got to work with Kevin Bacon again. I worked with him years ago when I was a kid in Stir of Echoes. So it was fun to be reunited with him. He said, ‘I can't believe years ago you were the dead girl in the wall and now you're the girl I'm hitting on in this movie.'
Tell me about Locked In.
Locked In is a next edition to the Amityville horror series. Frank Khalfoun directed it and he's got a great sense of all the horror. They're returning to the same house [as the original 1979 film and its 10 sequels] but for different reasons. They're aware of the presence. And they have the movie set up so they reference what happened previously. I play Jennifer Jason Leigh's stepsister. And Bella Thorne, who plays her daughter, is the lead.
And what about your short film, Warning Labels?
It's a comedy about everyone liking the wrong person. But in the world that we establish in the script, everyone wears a little label that the universe assigns to them that tells the truth. So you wear a little sign on your left chest right above your heart that says where you are in life at that moment.
“I'm Not Over My Ex” or “Warning: Danger Ahead” and another that says “Attention: Decent Guy” but underneath in smaller print it says “superficial tendencies”. So the universe has assigned these truth labels yet we're still just ignoring what we know about each other and making the same mistakes anyway. My friend Jenelle Riley wrote the script. And then we kind of worked on it together and doctored it up together.
You've done a lot on both the small and big screen. Do you prefer one over the other?
I like them for different reasons. I definitely feel that 22 episodes is a lot, too much in terms of how mentally and physically exhausted you get. I would much rather be doing 12 episodes a year. And it's just very scary when you get towards the end – because you always want to do your best work and be as good as you possibly be – and you're working against the strain of just the sheer amount of hours and time. Nine months of 16, 17, 18 hours a day – it takes a real toll. But I do like television in that you get a long period of time to develop a character and you have a total different relationship with your character than if you were just playing it for three months on a movie set.
But it's also a relief that on film you have a definite beginning, middle and end. You know exactly what you're building; you know exactly what you're aiming for. There's a different type of precision you can have when you're going through that process. Whereas television is more like living like a real person, where you're just not sure what each day's going to bring – what each episode's going to bring. So there's something really exciting about both ways of working.
Ultimately though, my favourite is being on stage. I've been on stage since I was about five and I just couldn't be happier than when I'm in the theatre. I love the live audience. I love how every performance is different based on how people are reacting, the energy of the audience. The thrill of having the presence of the audience just heightens the stakes. You don't get another take, you don't get a re-do. You're so present and in the moment, having a true experience every time through. I was trying to figure out how to get on stage this hiatus, but it's just such a short period of time that it's hard to fit something into that exact window. So I'll probably have to wait until I'm done with Once Upon a Time.
Was The Miracle Worker the last thing you did on stage?
Yeah, and that was way too long ago. The New York Times was middle of the road about it, unfortunately. Glowing reviews everywhere, but middle-of-theroad reviews from them – which is what ends up making or breaking you on Broadway.
I read that it was a challenge getting into the role of Helen Keller's mother because it was so different.
I'm sure that's the spin someone put on it. I mean, every role is a challenge. She was different. She was older than I've ever played. It was a period piece with a very specific accent. What I found interesting and intriguing about The Miracle Worker was the take on it – two mothers fighting over this child. It wasn't just, “Oh, this teacher is so miraculous to come here and solve everything.” My character – Helen's birth mother – has been doing everything she can and is utterly failing because whatever she tries she can't really help this child, and this woman decides, out of love, to give her child over emotionally to someone else. There is something so heart-breaking about that when you think about it – all the mother wants is to be able to provide for the child and she's incapable.
Were your parents supportive of your acting at a young age?
Yes, they always have been. Weirdly, people try and spin this story as if that was not the case. I see articles sometimes and I'm like, “You've just decided my parents weren't supportive.” But they were. They always were. But they wanted me to keep my options open. They were very thoughtful that way. A lot of kids that start that young have stage parents. I did not. They said go ahead and do this for fun, but just make sure you do other things, too.
Not many people know that you helped discover Glee and get it on air. As a producer, do you have other mega-hits waiting?
I have a couple of things. There's a show that I really love. It's a Canadian comedy that I'm in the process of seeing if I can bring over to America and do sort of what The Office did, in that you start fresh but use the same concept. And then there are a couple of things film-wise – one of which I want to direct and one I want to be in – where I'm trying to connect the dots. Obviously my focus right now is finishing this short film but everything else is kind of in a holding pattern while I finish what I tangibly have in front of me right now. But yes I'm definitely developing other things that I want to produce.
PHOTOGRAPHY BLEACHER+EVERARD AT UNALI ARTISTS
STYLING ERIN MCSHERRY AT UNALI ARTISTS
MAKE-UP COLEEN CAMPBELL-OLWELL AT EXCLUSIVE ARTISTS
HAIR MARISSA MARINO AT THE WALL GROUP
MANICURE BARBARA WARNER AT CELESTINE AGENCY USING CIATE PRODUCTS