Hubert Burda Media

Fantasy Life

We catch up with Jennifer Morrison in LA and talk about acting and producing, her 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 on the long-running television series House — which at one point was the world’s most watched TV show (airing in 66 countries). And now, she seems on the verge of doing it again with 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. It’s an incredible array of roles that run gamut from hard-core drama and fantasy to screwball comedy.

She has shown that same 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 and 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 and has three feature films in the can awaiting release later this year: Romantic comedy The List, paranormal thriller 6 Miranda Drive with Kevin Bacon and 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 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 and also dated Romanian-American actor Sebastian Stan, one of her co-stars on Once Upon a Time, which 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 Once Upon A Time is coming back for a fourth season.
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 as 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. But as a kid, I also loved the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, a musical version my sister and I used to watch over and over again. We would sing the songs together.

Once Upon A Time is a global hit. What do you think accounts for its success? 
You never know what that magical element is — it only happens every once in a while. Fairy tales are stories people have heard versions of or grown up with, so there’s something familiar and universal. Some people think it takes them back to their childhood and some feel excited 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, cool and smart enough that any adult would want to see it but it’s also 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. At one time, it was the most watched television show.
I did hear that. They estimated 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 anti-hero and 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. 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 played three iconic characters: Allison Cameron, Emma Swan and Zoey Pierson. Which one is most like you?
Maybe none of them. If you put all three of them together, there would be a version of me in there, but what’s interesting is I’m 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. 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 and not soft. I learned it’s okay 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 20 of the 22 episodes, it was scripted that I was crying and there was definitely no way around it.

What have you been doing on your break from the series?
I shot the movie Locked In and then another called 6 Miranda Drive. And I directed a short film (titled Warning Labels).

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 do 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 it 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 — 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 redo. 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 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-the-road reviews from them — which is what ends up making or breaking you on Broadway.

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 Gleeand 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 I’m in the process of seeing if I can bring over to the US and do sort of what The Office did, in that you start fresh but use the same concept. 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.