“Plainly I’ve never been to an acting class darling,” joked Victoria Smurfit to Merrin Dungey during Saturday’s Once Upon a Time panel at MCM Birmingham Comic Con. They were discussing just how well they (and fellow Queen of Darkness, Kristin Bauer van Straten) managed to get along on set. “When we all got together, it was as if we’d known each other forever,” said Smurfit. “When you find that on set, it’s such gold.”
Both Smurfit and Dungey made their first appearance in season four of Once Upon a Time as two of the Queens of Darkness. Dungey plays the sea witch Ursula, whose long tentacles can crush people with ease. Smurfit portrays Cruella de Vil, who has the power to control animals. Along with the third Queen of Darkness, Maleficent (played by Kristin Bauer van Straten), the trio are initially seen working together to force Rumplestiltskin, aka Mr Gold (Robert Carlyle) to part with a mystical gauntlet.
Smurfit revealed that when she first received a call about working on the show, it was to audition for the role of Belle’s mother. “I heard nothing, thought, ‘Oh well, that’s a shame,’” said Smurfit. “Then I got a call saying, ‘They’re interested in you again.’” During a 20 minute phone call with the creators Adam Horowitz and Eddy Kitsis it was only when she asked them who she would be playing that they told her it would be Cruella de Vil. “It was pretty shocking, extraordinary and exciting,” said Smurfit.
“I got a call on the way to pre-school to pick up my kid,” said Dungey about receiving an offer to play Ursula. “I was just so floored and thrilled and excited. I have to admit that I did tell my daughter’s teacher, because I was on the phone getting this information.” She added that the creators Adam and Eddy told her they were fans of her work after seeing her in Alias. “Once you get into those characters, in the costumes… it’s enough. They just said, ‘You are Ursula and you come in like this with all that she is.’ It’s enough to play the part.”
A question from an attendee asked the two if they ever pranked each other on the set. “Life is complicated, weird, bizarre and strange enough that there’s never really time or space for actual pranking,” said Smurfit. “But we would laugh like pigs on a daily basis.”
“You, me and Kris, we were too tired, too pretty and busy to prank each other,” said Dungey. “I think the longer you’re there, the more comfortable you are, the more you feel like you could be a troublemaker.”
Asked if they could be a different character on the show, Smurfit chose Mr Gold. Upon hearing this, Dungey started singing Spandau Ballaet’s Gold and even asked the audience to join in (but they didn’t). Dungey chose the Evil Queen Regina, saying, “She’s awesome.”
Dungey was then asked a question from the audience about what it was like working alongside Colin O’Donoghue, who plays Killian (Captain Hook). “He is as funny and lovely as he is handsome,” replied Dungey. “The first day that I worked with him was the day that we did all that stuff on the dock. It was a very long, very cold day. The fog never lifted, it was freezing. At the end of the day he said, ‘I’m really sorry, I haven’t been feeling well. I just wasn’t myself’ Then I got to see the full-force Colin the next time we worked, and it is a force to be reckoned with!”
When asked how they keep their energy going during long days on set, Dungey replied, “There is endless sources of coffee,” adding how the cast were generous and would often order things for everybody. “You’re also just so excited to be doing this. You are so excited and so happy to be a part of this show.” She went on to describe the show as “the most fun I’ve had in years as an actor, because I got to act and I got to play, and that’s why I got into this.”
Dungey then gave an example to highlight her point, detailing a scene (which she said was unfortunately cut from the show) where the Queens of Darkness were walking into town. “We were all walking into the town, all in our outfits, and it was freezing cold. And we couldn’t give a shit because it was so much fun. Because when do you get to play a bad ass, overlooking Storybrooke, and be like, ‘Ha ha, I’m gonna make you my bitch!’ It’s amazing! So that’s how you keep up your energy!”
“Totally agree,” added Smurfit.
“And sweet cocaine,” said Dungey, before quickly adding, “No, I’m kidding!”
Smurfit was in hysterics upon hearing this and then told her co-star, “Okay love, one word: Disney. Hello!?”
“I made a joke,” said Dungey in response. “A total joke. I’m joking, okay.”
When asked if there was a chance their characters would be returning to the show, Dungey simply pointed to Smurfit.
“Spill,” shouted someone in the audience.
“I’ve been back already,” said Smurfit, indicating that she had already filmed her part. However, she remained vague on what exactly Cruella’s return involves, saying, “I am returning to somewhere and going to do something with some people.”
“You were seen in Vancouver on the set,” Dungey told her. “I think that can be said.”
They were then asked what it was like wearing the costumes on the show. “Mine was uncomfortable, with a corset,” said Dungey. “You can’t eat.”
Smurfit interjected explaining how she and Kristin had both worked on shows previously where they had to wear corsets, and that they explained to Dungey that she should never take her corset off, because she’ll never be able to get it back on again.
“It’s like taking off your shoes when you’re out in the evening,” said Dungey. “When you kick them off under the table and they can’t go back on.” She had to learn how to eat while wearing the corset, which she described as “eating a Christmas dinner in your tightest jeans, and then not being able to unbutton them all day.”
“Mine was super comfortable,” said Smurfit of Cruella’s costume. “I was super warm and cosy.”
“You’re in a big coat,” said Dungey.
“Mine was definitely cosier than yours,” said Smurfit.
The topic then turned to Dungey’s appearance on the show Brooklyn Nine-Nine. “I’m so jealous she’s on that show,” said Smurfit.
“I love, love, love, love, love working on that show,” said Dungey, adding that she’s happy watching the show, even if she isn’t in it. “It’s nice to do something that’s completely silly. It’s just so fun and silly all the time.”
When asked what would stand out as the most fun moment they had when working on Once Upon a Time, Smurfit replied, “Being able to use your imagination, completely, freely. You have free rein to be as insane as you like. They’ll pull you down and they’ll push up and they’ll move you left and right, but there’s no sense that you failed if you go too far.”
“When you’re literally chasing dragons and conjuring somebody back up from the dead… you get to really get your ya-ya’s out,” said Dungey. “I got to play with a whole group of people who are willing to go there. Robert Carlyle goes there. He’s a magnificent actor.”
When questioned about why they think Once Upon a Time is so successful, Dungey replied that it is a show with heart. “It’s these iconic characters that you are already familiar with, their stories have been expanded and it’s a fairytale. There’s belief, heart and heightened drama.” She also praised the quality of the scripts and that it felt like the cast and crew were making a movie every week.
Asked about their response to their characters backstories, Smurfit said that she loved the fact Cruella was born bad. “They haven’t done that before,” she said. “That was an absolute treat to play.” She also noted that it was the first time Cruella had been given any sort of backstory. Feeling a sense of responsibility she would constantly ask producer Helga Ungurait if her portrayal was okay. “When you get the backstory, they’re just really clever about tying up the stories and coming up with the ideas – setting her dogs on her mother and setting up her innocence only to shoot it out of the water, it was just super clever.”
“Mine was a mixed bag of emotions,” said Dungey of Ursula’s backstory. “As much as it was cool to see how it developed, and it totally made sense to me, the idea that she made herself this way, it just came too soon. I was so sad that this happened so quickly in the course of the story.” She added that she wanted more time to play Ursula.
A question from the audience asked if they would consider working on a Queens of Darkness spin-off show. “Absolutely,” responded Smurfit. “To play evil, the three of us together, in our own show? Hah!” Smurfit then asked the person who posed the question to organise the spin-off for them.
Dungey then said that if such a spin-off went ahead, she would like it to be “the Queens of Darkness meets Sex and the City,” adding, “It would be kind of cool to have a modern evil version of us in modern day. Like, what if they were set free in modern day New York?”
When asked if they kept any props from the show, Dungey responded with, “I did.”
“Did you?” said Smurfit. “You naughty minx! What did you keep and why didn’t you tell me this before?”
“I like to have secrets,” smiled Dungey.
“Oh, you’re a bad one,” said Smurfit.
“It was a prop that we didn’t ever use,” revealed Dungey. “It was my aquarium tag that said ‘Ursula’. It was something that we made and then they decided to not use it.”
Smurfit said that she had no props, but if given the opportunity, she would take Rumplestiltskin.
“Very hard to get through customs with Robert Carlyle in your bag,” said Dungey.
“I don’t know…” said Smurfit. “But I would try.”
They were then asked what it feels like coming to conventions, meeting the fans and hearing feedback. “It’s great to get that instantaneous response,” said Dungey, who had never done conventions before appearing in Once Upon a Time. “To be a part of something that is so beloved is amazing. We have met some of the most incredible people, and for me, it’s energising.”
“I think a lot of the younger girls particularly kind of attach themselves to one of the characters,” said Smurfit. “It could be something about the character that makes sense to them. Because of the fairytale issue, it creates a sort of space to be able to place yourself onto it, and experience all the emotions and crazyness of just being alive through your TV screens through these characters.” She added how social media and attending conventions allows them to have a chance to connect with their audience and then pointed to a group of girls sitting in the front row. “I know these girls, [I’ve met them] several times from the conventions. I’ve seen faces I recognise all over the place ”
“I think we’re also remiss if we don’t mention the response that people got off of our characters,” said Dungey, who noted that they were aware of the ship that was created from their characters, called Sea Devil. “Everybody had this tremendous response to our characters and it’s been embraced by the gay community. However that translates to a fan, it’s an honour to us; we carry something for them. They see that there’s a lot of love here, there’s two strong women together who are powerful, funny and charismatic… and that’s a really flattering thing as well.”
Finally they were asked which other show they would take their characters Cruella and Ursula on. “CSI: Cruella de Vil,” said Smurfit. “Some of the evidence might stick in my furs darling, but that’ll be fine!”
“I think Ursula could have totally been on Breaking Bad,” said Dungey. “She could have been a dealer… dealing with my many arms and legs.”