ABOUT 45 MINUTES into a meeting over coffee with Ginnifer Goodwin, a young man approaches her, apologising profusely for the intrusion, and asks for an autograph.
“I never do this,” he says plausibly. “But I’m on the phone with my 14-year-old niece and I told her you were here and she’s, like, literally crying right now. She loves you so much.”
Goodwin, obliging graciously, is used to this.
The TV show in which she stars, Once Upon a Time, and which bowed in October 2011, is one of the highest-rated programmes on American television, drawing in 11 million viewers a week. The premise is one that viewers are either drawn to, or scoff at: it’s set in the fictional coastal town of Storybrooke, Maine, whose residents are fairytale characters transported to the real world. Goodwin plays Snow White and her alter ego, Mary Margaret Blanchard, sharing screen time with The Evil Queen, Rumplestiltskin, Pinocchio and Red Riding Hood. Now she’s back in Los Angeles while Once – which is filmed in Vancouver, where she now lives – is on hiatus.
But over the course of the next couple of months, Goodwin is going to be stepping into a rather more realistic role. The day before our meeting, it was announced that she had won the coveted role of Jackie Onassis in the National Geographic Channel’s retelling of the John F Kennedy assassination, pairing up with the ever-handsome Rob Lowe. Production starts shortly in Richmond, Virginia.
With a hit series under her belt, a string of popular movies behind her, and now being asked to play an American icon in a biopic to be produced by Ridley Scott, Goodwin’s star is on the rise.
Nonetheless, she retains a homespun earthiness about her that is endearing. She’s literate, candid and articulate, refreshingly honest about the travails of being a working actress in Hollywood (there are some, as it turns out), and self-deprecatingly funny about why well-crafted stories still need to be grammatically correct. She has wholesome, girl-next-door looks: her close-cropped auburn hair showcases perfect skin and fine features, and on this midweek afternoon, she’s strolled over a couple of blocks to her favourite cafe, wearing a casual Sonia Rykiel knit ensemble from two years ago, and Alaïa sandals, waiting her turn in line at the counter for a coffee.
Her well-rounded attitude has a lot to do with her upbringing. Born in Memphis, Tennessee to parents she describes as being both creative and business-savvy, she never considered being anything other than an actress. She took her affinity for the art seriously from the beginning, getting a BFA in acting from Boston University, her first choice. She subsequently studied on three separate occasions in England – at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Shakespeare Institute in conjunction with the Royal Shakespeare Company, London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. With Boston University hosting actor showcases on both the east and west coasts, Goodwin was signed to an agency while she was still in college. Upon landing in Los Angeles, she scored a starring role as one of Bill Paxton’s sister-wives in Big Love, which went on to collect a multitude of Emmy and Golden Globe nods before it ended its highly successful fiveyear run in 2011.
What’s it like being on yet another TV show?
I prefer TV, to be honest. I believe we are in the golden age of television, and I like growing and changing with a character. I like the longevity. The lifestyle is far more pleasant. I know a show can be cancelled at any time. But instead of only having that monetary security in three-month chunks, at least I know I’m going to work for nine months at a time. I’m a workaholic and I love that.
It seems like you went straight from one TV show to another. Was that deliberate?
I jumped right from the last day of Big Love to the first day of Once Upon a Time, although I did have enough time to go to Paris for Fashion Week. I was devastated when Big Love ended. I didn’t know any other LA except for when I was on that show. I moved here and was cast in the pilot immediately. When it wrapped two years ago, I was looking around at other films. I’d finished Something Borrowed (with Kate Hudson and Colin Egglesfield). I’d read every script I could get my hands on, and I’d been reading film scripts for many months leading up to the wrapping of Big Love. The studios are clearly making fewer movies, and to be honest I didn’t want to struggle. I didn’t want to exclusively dive into small movies where the scripts were perfect and nobody would see them, and the scripts I really loved weren’t coming my way. It became a matter of opening myself up to pilot season. Big Love was the greatest experience of my life, and I knew I might not be able to match my love for another project in that way, but I could keep on working on myself and grow in that way.
And Once Upon a Time really did appeal to you.
I love my character. I am a Disney-o-phile, and I was raised on fairytales. Fantasy is one of my absolute favourite genres in terms of what I like to watch. I took the role for selfish reasons. I knew I would be jealous of the actors in it, if I wasn’t in it. I knew it would be fun, and that my inner eight-year-old would be delighted. I haven’t made a lot of films that my future children can watch, and I was delighted to be part of a project that they could.
So you’ll be going from Snow White to Jackie O. How do you prepare for that?
I’m a homework junkie, and an obsessive researcher. She was a very private woman, so I’ve been avoiding reading bios of her. I don’t want to read other people’s opinions of her. I’m really working hard to uncover things that she had written about herself, and said about herself.
It seems like you haven’t really had much down time, that you’ve had one great gig after another.
I have been incredibly lucky. I hope that in a past life I did really amazing things for people because I certainly don’t deserve the trajectory I’ve been blessed with. I got out of school, and immediately was cast in Ed. Then I got a part in Mona Lisa Smile (with Julia Roberts and Kirsten Dunst). The next thing I did was Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! I left Ed after two years to shoot that, it was filming in LA, and I never left. I got Big Love and Walk The Line at the same time. It was all really magical, and I’ll never have another time like that in my career.
What has changed about how you choose what you want to do?
I’m definitely more willing to compromise, and make choices based on my feeling that my career needs to move in a certain direction. Back then, I was totally cool with being broke and having no clue what was going to happen and waiting for my dream project. Now, there’s lots of hemming and hawing with my reps. We’ve worked together for 10 years and I really, really trust them. We make decisions based on different things: sometimes I want to work with the people involved, or it will help me get other things I want. I didn’t think about any of those things when I was starting out. It was all about the story, and that’s really romantic, and it was a perfect time in my life but I couldn’t make those same decisions because I have different priorities now.
There’s always talk about there not being enough juicy roles for women. Are you seeing that?
I never understood that, to be honest. We clearly still live in a male-driven society. And they certainly make a lot more money than we do. There are a lot more male parts, but I don’t think there are necessarily many good male parts. Men open movies, so there are technically more roles, but I wouldn’t want a lot of those roles. My biggest complaint is that there aren’t more movies being made. When I started out in 2001, there were a million movies being made. Now, everything is a tentpole film. A lot of movies I love don’t get greenlit. They don’t come together.
Is the reality of your life now different from what you thought it would be, before all this success came your way?
It is, but in a really pleasing way. I thought I would get lost in acting. I had lofty dreams of the kind of roles I would take, the amount I’d be working, and how often I’d be travelling. I find that acting enriches my private life more than it even enriches me as a performer. Because I’ve been so lucky, it’s meant that I’ve been able to have an incredible quality of real life that I hadn’t even thought about. The fact that I can take off work, just to go be with my family, or travel with my friends, or help family members in some way or choose to see the world not just because I’m on location. I want to do a French immersion class in France. I’d never thought about that before. But now, I can.
When did you know you wanted to be an actress?
Always. There was never a question.
Was your family supportive?
If my parents had doubts, they never let on. My father was in the music industry, and my mother is a computer genius. They were a perfect balance of being artistic and being ambitious. They both have business sense and are creative people. I was told I had to go to college, and had to graduate with a degree, but it could be in anything I wanted. I have three grandparents who are still alive, and they were my benefactors. They gave me my education, everything. My parents bent over backwards to send me to any school I wanted to go to, and what they did to get me into those schools was unbelievable.
So there was never a plan B?
No. I did other things, much to my agent’s chagrin, when I needed money. I called her one day, I had done the Big Love pilot, and Walk the Line, but neither had come out and I didn’t know what was going to happen. I told her I needed a job, and I was going to do some waitressing. I’d worked before in a record store, a coffee shop, filed papers in an office, and I loved all of it. I had already established myself, had done three studio films, but I needed to work. My agent said, “I can’t have you waiting on people who are potentially going to be your employers.” So I said, “Fine, I’ll go muck stables.” I did. I got up at 5am and mucked out stables. She was OK with that because it was private. It was one of my favourite jobs because I’ve ridden horses my entire life, and I love being in barns.
If this acting thing hadn’t worked out, what do you think you would have done?
I thought I would either be an actress or an astronaut, knowing full well I’d never be an astronaut. Realistically, though, I think I would have liked to become a copy editor. When I was in college I minored in English Literature, and I had a lot of friends in liberal arts classes and I would edit their papers in exchange for ice cream. I loved editing and reading. My whole family is a family of grammar Nazis. We’re all about efficient, appropriate, proper storytelling. I make the writers (on the set) crazy because I actually have a lot of trouble memorising scripts that are not properly written. My grammar bossiness definitely comes out on Once Upon a Time. Sometimes I’m OK with ending a sentence with a preposition. Sometimes you just end up there. But my character is a teacher, so I’m not going to misuse “who” and “whom”.
Are you keen on developing your own projects?
I’d love it. I haven’t done more than found novels and investigated rights. But that’s something, when I’m less busy, that would really satisfy me. I’d love to produce, and have no interest in directing. I’d like to act in things that I produce, but that won’t be mandatory.
You seem very grounded. Is that a function of being close to your family, and having the same friends for years?
A lot of my friends are what I call “Hollywood-adjacent”. They do something in Hollywood, but only one of them is a performer. They’re really grounded people, and we’ve all been together a long time. I’ve had the same best friend since graduating. My mother comes to visit all the time. She has a room in my house. She is the best guest to have because she’s the most incredible support system and cheerleader, and the most low-maintenance person on the planet. She doesn’t need to be fussed over. She wants me to concentrate on work while I’m working, and I can guarantee that she’ll have a good time. I can take her to any event, on any press trip, and she just loves everything.
What do you like watching in your down time?
I’m a marathon series watcher, and I like watching things back-to-back, one at a time. I’m now on season three of The Walking Dead. I love Downton Abbey. Next I’ll do Breaking Bad and then Homeland.
The last movie that I saw that wasn’t about Jackie Kennedy was Amour, which was one of the most incredible films I’ve ever seen. I didn’t necessarily enjoy it. I endured it. I broke down outside the theatre, I was so distraught. It was a perfectly made movie, and a perfectly told story.
Being in the public eye – how do you deal with it?
The thing I hate the most, hands down, would be the paparazzi. They actually invade, they violate. My family gets it when they’re in town. It’s scary, upsetting and disconcerting. I find it unfair, and I didn’t ask for that part. I hate that I can’t go to the store in my sweats without it becoming an ordeal. In Canada, they’re respectful, and because of that we give them photos, sign anything they’d like us to sign, because they’ve found a way to do it appropriately. Here, they’re animalistic, greedy and provocative.
Still, you do always seem to get it right on the red carpet. Your look is always you.
Thank you. But I do need help. I work with stylists. I don’t read a lot of fashion magazines so I’m not up to date on what’s new. I count on other people to introduce me to new designers. My favourite thing is working with new designers. I find it refreshing. They’re not jaded or cynical. It was exciting to wear Jonathan Saunders and Erdem when they were starting out. I’m a hardcore online shopping addict. I’m good about returning things, and I hate going to stores.