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Cinderella

Wingman Wednesday

Mekia Cox

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Once upon a time there lived a television series that brought together viewers both near and far for seven magical seasons. Many imaginative storylines were conceived with characters of whimsical origins. Laughs were had. Tears were shed. A fandom was born.

Mekia Cox joined the cast of the fantastical ABC drama series “Once Upon a Time” in its seventh season. Shifting between a cursed Hyperion Heights reality and the fairytale world, the Saint Croix native portrays both Sabine and Princess Tiana, a character first made famous in the Disney animated feature, “The Princess and the Frog.” As the sword-carrying Tiana, she’s on a mission with Cinderella (Dania Ramirez) to spearhead a resistance, one that aims to defeat Lady Tremaine (Gabrielle Anwar) and reshape the Enchanted Forest, ultimately leading to fans of the series living (hopefully) happily ever after.

We recently sat down with Cox to discuss how she approached bringing an animated character to life, her favorite aspects of Princess Tiana’s personality, and why we could all use a little dose of niceness in our lives.

TrunkSpace: You joined “Once Upon a Time” in its seventh season, but with so many new cast members stepping in at the same time, does that make joining an existing show easier?
Cox: I don’t know if I would say easier. It’s definitely different. In some ways it does feel like it’s a completely new show with a new cast because there are so many newcomers coming in. We’re all sort of in the same place, the ones who are new. However, the people that have been there, it’s nice to have them as well because they sort of know the ropes and they know how this whole thing works. If we ever have any questions about anything, whether it be what we’re doing on set or whether it be about backstory or what we have to look forward to, they’re always there, which is really kind of nice.

I really have enjoyed coming into this world and this set that has already been established, but yet there’s still this sort of renewed feeling of newness that’s happening.

TrunkSpace: It must also be a good feeling coming into a show with such a passionate, built-in fan base. They’ve been going on the journey with these characters for years, and now they’re going on the journey with you and your character Princess Tiana.
Cox: Exactly, which has been really nice. You know, the fans, I feel like as an actor they sort of help you. I’ve gotten some really sweet gifts and some really nice fan mail and it bolsters you up and helps you get through the day, so I enjoy all of that.

TrunkSpace: Because you are portraying such a well known character from the animated space, did you go back and try to bring any of those original character elements into your performance?
Cox: In speaking to Eddie (Kitsis) and Adam (Horowitz), the show creators, I discovered that they were taking small bits and pieces from the 2009 animated film, but they were also trying to create a new character as well, or a new version of this character. I think they kind of do that with all of these characters. They put their own spin on it, which makes it kind of interesting because you get to see more of their backstory, which you got to see a lot of in episode 5. You get to understand a little bit more about where this specific character came from that the “Once Upon a Time” creators have created.

TrunkSpace: From a performance standpoint, was there something that she allowed you to do on-screen that you have yet to be able to tackle in the past with previous characters?
Cox: I get to play with a sword. That’s always fun. (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: (Laughter) What about in terms of personality?
Cox: The character in the real world, the scenes are very, very close to me and my personality – probably one of the closest characters that I’ve ever played to myself. What is nice is being able to play this sort of leader in the fairytale land – this leader of the resistance. There is a bit of quiet confidence that she has that I enjoy being able to play and this leadership role is a little bit different for me. It’s been fun to get to tackle.

TrunkSpace: You mentioned the fairytale land. Because you’re jumping between the two worlds within the storytelling, does it feel like you’re shooting two different projects at times just because of those jumps?
Cox: It does, actually. Even the way in which they speak in fairytale land is a little bit different. I try to keep it real as much as possible, but it is a different form of speaking when they’re in the fairytale land. You have to play the same character but in completely different environments, so there are times that it does feel like we’re shooting two different films.

TrunkSpace: To look around you and absorb that fairytale vibe that you’re entrenched in, we’d imagine it really helps you tap into the mindset of a fairytale character?
Cox: That’s exactly true, yeah. How it works is we come in, we’ll read the lines together, we’ll block it maybe and run through it once or twice before we actually shoot. Sometimes when we do that we come in and we’re just in our normal clothes and we’ll run through things before we go back and get changed and come back as our characters. All of the sudden, like you said, once we are in this world where the environment has already been created for us with our clothes and with the set pieces and with everything that’s going on, it all of the sudden becomes a little bit easier to tap into that character because you don’t have to imagine all of the things they are. It’s right there for you.

TrunkSpace: “Once Upon a Time” is a show with such a large ensemble cast. For you, what’s the best part about being part of an ensemble where there are all of these various storylines going off in different directions and intersecting?
Cox: You get to meet a lot of really cool people. That’s fun. (Laughter)

I will say this, it does make it a little bit more challenging when you’re reading the script because you’re like, “Oh wait, okay, there’s a new character here? Okay, let me go back and figure out who this character is.” You have the real world and fairytale land and they have different names in both. It makes it more challenging, but also a more fun story, I feel like. I think it gives the creators many different ways that they can go with many different stories and players telling the stories.

TrunkSpace: It’s not easy for a series to make it seven seasons these days. What do you think it is that has enabled “Once Upon a Time” to thrive for so long?
Cox: I think it’s something that a lot of different people and a lot of different types of people can connect to. It was internationally, I believe, ABC’s number one show for a long time. I’m not sure if it is now or not, but I know it has been. There is something that people just can connect to and it takes them out of their own world for a second and allows them to remember, if they’re older, what it was like to be a kid, and if they’re younger, to be able to see these characters come to life and just to have fun for an hour and imagine these fantastical things that might not happen in the real world. And there are still nuggets that they give that are things that can help you learn how to deal with what’s going on in your real world.

TrunkSpace: It’s a heightened reality, but the emotions are real.
Cox: Exactly! That’s exactly right.

TrunkSpace: You’ve been acting since you were kid. Are there any pieces of advice or things you absorbed on a set in those early years that you still apply to your career to this day?
Cox: That it’s best to be as professional as possible. Things that everyone should know but sometimes people forget, which is, don’t be late, know your lines, and be nice to everyone around you.

TrunkSpace: We’re in a bit of a hyper-divided time in this country. The advice of being nice to everyone around you could certainly be applied to every day life as well.
Cox: This is very true. It would help the world if everyone was just nice to each other. That needs to be a new campaign – “Be nice.”

Once Upon a Time” airs Fridays on ABC.

Featured image by: Benjo Arwas

 

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Wingman Wednesday

Dania Ramirez

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Ramirez in Lycan

Welcome to the second installment of our LYCAN WEEK ongoing feature!

Opening Friday in select theaters, “Lycan” tells the story of six college kids who revisit an old Georgia legend, the strange and puzzling story of Emily Burt, the Talbot County werewolf. Based upon true historical events, the film stars and is produced by Dania Ramirez (“X-Men: The Last Stand,” “Quarantine”) who teamed up with best friend Crystal Hunt to turn a lifelong dream into a cinematic reality.

We recently sat down with Ramirez to discuss how the film was a family affair, the cultural importance of local ghost stories, and why the 1980s did such a great job capturing an authentic and suspenseful tone in the horror projects of the time period.

TrunkSpace: Our chat is very timely because it was just announced that you’ll be playing Cinderella in “Once Upon a Time.” Is there anything with this version of the character that will be different than what we have seen of her in the past?
Ramirez: I think every time you see a different actor take on a role, you’re going to see a different take on it. As actors, we bring our own flair to things. The world that we’re setting up for this particular Cinderella will be a different kind of world. The great thing is that it’s still a love story and so essentially the aspect of the Cinderella story will still be there, but there will be different circumstances in which everything sort of happens to her. It’s kind of how the love story goes. That’s the one thing I really do love about the creators of the show, Adam Horowitz and Eddie Kitsis, is that if you watch the show at all, you know that they are very committed to making female characters very bad ass and not damsel in distress types of characters. I think that in itself makes the Cinderella character different.

I also come from a different background with a different set of situations that I’m going to go through in the real world that are going to take my journey in a different direction. I’m also a mother, and I’m really dealing with different kinds of struggles in my life. But essentially, it’s a Cinderella story so we all want a happy ending.

TrunkSpace: Between “Once Upon a Time” and “Lycan” also due to be released, it seems to be a bit more of a happy beginning for you in terms of a new chapter in your life and career?
Ramirez: It’s been such an incredible journey in my life. For me, the journey with “Lycan” does feel kind of like a Cinderella story because I started my journey in the Dominican Republic in a very, very humble background just dreaming of something better. Coming to the States as an immigrant, figuring out the language, and then finally getting into the world of entertainment has been a journey within itself. I remember just at a very young age being in my acting class. That’s where Crystal Hunt and I met, who is one of the “Lycan” executive producers. We made a pact back then. We said, “Hey, one day we’re going to make it. We’re going to produce our own films.”

And we’re making it a family affair. My husband, Bev Land, wrote and directed it. His brother, Donnie Land, is one of the producers. Crystal’s mom really came in and helped us out a lot. It does feel like a fairy tale to be done with the film and then right before the film premieres, be able to get this role in “Once Upon a Time.” The journey feels like we’re writing our own happy ending. That’s kind of cool.

TrunkSpace: And from a work standpoint, it must have a special feeling attached to it when you’re so emotionally invested in a project?
Ramirez: I think every time I work on something it feels really special, but this particular project was our baby. I was pregnant when my husband was writing it. It’s interesting because I had just given birth about four months prior to starting pre-production for the film and then we started shooting about a month later. The hard work that it takes to really get something off the ground, and that persistence and work ethic to make an independent film work, it’s just really about not giving up. Every time something comes up, it’s being able to just tackle it and say, “Hey, we’re going to get this done! That’s talking from the pre-production aspect of it to actually shooting it, which by the way, we shot it in 13 days.

TrunkSpace: Wow!
Ramirez: I know. It’s insane.

TrunkSpace: Having just given birth a few months prior to production, how did you find the time and energy to both star in and produce the film?
Ramirez: My motto is that I’ll rest when I’m dead. For right now, if I have an opportunity to make something happen, I will. I’m just a hard worker and I’ve always had that work ethic in my life. Again, I come from a different kind of background. The way I see it is, I have nowhere to go but up. I just dedicate my life to doing something that I love. Being able to touch the masses with a story and have people relate to it, it’s a gift. I see it that way. Whenever I wanted to just take a nap in the middle of the day, I just thought, “No, we have something that we have to do!” We just kept trucking.

TrunkSpace: And you shot in Georgia, right?
Ramirez: My husband’s mom was amazing and let us use her entire land. She has acres of land in Columbus, GA near Talbot County, which is where the Emily Burt legend started. That’s how we ended up finding out about the legend of Emily Burt.

TrunkSpace: Did shooting an indie film in such a secluded location force you to think outside of the box from a production standpoint?
Ramirez: I remember at one point we didn’t have enough money to rent lights. Somebody said, “One of our guys knows how to build lights. If we just buy the parts and ship them in from China, we can build our own lights.” That’s what we did.

All these little challenges kept coming up. We just trucked on and made it happen. It’s really beautiful to be able to do that. That’s also what I want in my life, to inspire and show people that, “Hey, you can do it! Just say that you’re going to do it and don’t stop!”

Ramirez with director Bev Land on the set of Lycan

TrunkSpace: You mentioned how your husband grew up around the area where the legend of Emily Burt first took shape. Did you have any local legends or ghost stories in the area where you grew up in the Dominican Republic?
Ramirez: In the Dominican Republic, especially where I grew up, we didn’t have much electricity, so we didn’t have TV. I didn’t even grow up watching television. I think I started watching television around the age of 5. So yeah, there are always legends when you’re growing up in a remote area like that, because that’s what people talk about. “So and so died and she was there and the spirit went inside her.” I grew up listening to ghost stories like that my whole life.

I’ve always been fascinated by the horror genre. The one great thing about “Lycan” that I really responded to was the fact that it was based on something that people knew about. You can research it online. The way I see it, “Lycan” is more of a Hitchcockian suspense thriller. It’s something that you can look up and inquire about. It feels a little more scary if you know that it is something that actually happened to real people.

TrunkSpace: They always say that something needs to be grounded in reality to connect with an audience and what better way to ground it in reality than with actual reality!
Ramirez: That’s what I mean. My husband, as a writer and as a director, is interested in those kinds of stories more than anything. He has an incredible mind. He was able to take this legend and then write a story around it. We kind of made it a little more interesting because we really wanted to put a face to the disease of lycanthropy. That’s what makes it a little more interesting than just the legend, the fact that lycanthropy is a disease that to this day is misdiagnosed as schizophrenia and is something that still occurs.

TrunkSpace: And that’s when people believe they are wolves?
Ramirez: Yeah, it’s when people believe they’re turning into wolves and believe that the hair is growing out of their faces and that they’re transforming. We wanted to really bring light to that disease as well as talk about this legend.

Ramirez as Cinderella in Once Upon a Time

TrunkSpace: And in addition to all of that, it’s also a period film.
Ramirez: Yeah, our film takes place in the 1980s, which I love because I grew up watching those kinds of movies. The temperament of the film also has that old school feel to it as a suspense story, so that’s really cool. I do think that the 80s had a sensibility to the take on a horror film that I really enjoyed. It felt pure and youthful, but really interesting. I grew up and I was a teenager in the 80s, so for me it was really good to kind of go back and reminisce on all of that and watch all of the movies and see their take on all that stuff.

TrunkSpace: Even the poster has that great throwback feel to it.
Ramirez: Yeah, the 80s sensibility is great because, I believe, films have taken such a science fiction turn. As far as feeling that eerie suspense, I’ve always liked the tone of the way the 80s films were made, especially the idea of a bunch of young kids in the middle of the woods. There’s something really authentic about that. We wanted to really tap into that and bring that back. Even the look of it and the feel of it has that vibe and makes it a little different than other films that are coming out today.

That’s why I really loved tapping into the disease as well, because it’s more of a human psychosis film than it is a jumpy horror film. That’s what makes it not only authentic, but I feel, way more scary than just watching a movie where you’re fascinated by the effects.

TrunkSpace: As you look back over your first producing experience, is there anything that you would have done differently, either to make your own life easier as the producer or for the production as a whole to run more smoothly?
Ramirez: It was really challenging to do it independently and to do it for no money. As a producer and as a creative entity, if you ever finish a project and feel like you’re completely satisfied and that there’s nothing that you wouldn’t change, then you have stopped your mind creatively. There are always things that you’re going to end up, after the project, saying, “Oh man, I wish I did…” Not everything is going to be 100 percent exactly what you thought it was going to be.

The great part about this project is that there are things that I didn’t expect that came out even better than I thought and that’s a testament to the people that were a part of it. Not just in front of the camera either, but the people who really fought and worked in the trenches with us making sure that even after we shot the film that the look of it was great and that the color was perfect.

Lycan” arrives in theaters this Friday!

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