Jennifer Morrison: Life Outside The Once Upon A Time Fairy Tale

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embedPhotographed by Bryan Bowen Smith.
Remember the creepy dead girl in the quintessential Windy City thriller Stir of Echoes? It's hard to believe that was Jennifer Morrison, the stunning (and grown-up) bombshell who plays the brave and loyal Emma Swan on ABC's Once Upon A Time. But, before the Chicago-born starlet joined the big leagues, she could be found doing everything from listening to her "talking" Rice Krispies in commercials (adorable) to modeling for local department-store legends JCPenney and Montgomery Ward. She even graced the May 1992 cover of Sports Illustrated for Kids with Michael Jordan.

Eventually Morrison decided that her passion was the stage and not the catwalk. And, while many Chicago-born-and-bred actors credit The Second City for launching their acting careers, Morrison gives props to the 10-week intensive program at the Steppenwolf Theatre for giving her the self-esteem boost she needed to head to L.A. and pursue her lifelong dream.

With another season of OUAT on the horizon and several movies in the works, the actress took some time to talk about those crazy college days at Loyola (Lakeshore Hall anyone?), her latest projects, and what it was like to work with Kevin Bacon again, 15 years after they starred in Echoes together.

What are some of your fondest memories from your days at Loyola in Chicago?
“I met some of my best friends at Loyola. We lived my sophomore year together in what was Lakeshore Hall. I think they've since then gutted it, and now it's something else. But, we lived together in apartment 3-C, which is what I called my corporation — I wanted it to be something that would make me smile. We are all still super close and have some incredible memories, like going to classes and parties together. And, you know, having our fake IDs to get into Hamilton's. Also, at the time, I didn’t really appreciate a liberal-arts education. But, I ended leaving college really well-rounded. I feel like all of that really ended up helping me later on, so I wound up being very grateful that I got the education I did.”

Since you started off as a child model, did you ever think you career would go in that direction instead of acting?
"No, I was never really interested in modeling. It was something I did on the side when I started to audition for commercials and other things. I was a very patient kid, so I got hired a lot for that kind of stuff. Also, I just happened to be a sample size at that time. But, it just wasn’t for me. I was already so obsessed with acting that I didn’t respond to the idea of having to drop everything to change my look based on whatever the trends were at the moment — especially if that didn’t go with the roles I was playing on the stage at the time. The two careers are in conflict with each other. I was more interested in doing a play than cutting all my hair off and losing 10 pounds to parade in my underwear in front of people and have them judge me. I have so much respect those who do it — it’s hard. If you’ve ever watched Top Model, you kind of get a little sense of what it’s all about."

What drew you to the Steppenwolf Theatre?
"They do this 10-week intensive program — which is what I did — and it’s such an extraordinary opportunity to grow as an actor. The Steppenwolf Theatre has consistently done such great work. It's basically access to the minds of incredible artists."

Do you feel your experience there aided your career?
"I felt like I grew tremendously in the 10 weeks that I was there. And, it was such a great investment to my acting abilities that I never had before. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who was interested in doing it. The confidence that I got from that experience aided me before I moved to L.A. and really pursued acting for a living."

Your OUAT character, Emma Swan, has a great eye for detail, can detect a liar, is brave, loyal, and knows the power of true love. How do you relate — or not — to these characteristics in real life?
"I think I am similar to Emma in that her heart clouds her sense of being able to tell when people are lying or telling the truth. Like, when she’s trying to protect Henry, or if she has feelings for Neil at one point. Her ability to judge situations gets muddled by her heart. So, I think that’s similar with my own life. When I have distance from things, I have a pretty good sense for seeing things for what they are. But, once my heart gets involved, things get a little clouded."

Who is your favorite fairy-tale character and why?
"I would say it’s a tie between Alice [in Wonderland] and Cinderella. They were both really prominent loves of mine as a kid. There were things I just related to with both of them. With Cinderella, I was always kind of obsessed with being busy, with figuring out how I was going to make a living since the age of 10. I was always on the outside — a bit eccentric and in my own world. So, I identified with the Cinderella story that way — being an outsider and trying to figure out how I was going to fit in. By college, I worked it out. And, then with Alice, I was always fascinated with adventure and wanting to see the world and travel. I really identified with her sense of adventure — going down the rabbit hole and not knowing what was behind each door. I [have] my own desires to see the world and have all of these travels in my life."
rexusa_2108085cPHOTO: REX USA.
You're staying really active in the film world these days. Tell us about some of your current projects.
"In the upcoming movie The List, I play the girlfriend of Patrick Fugit. We have been dating for a little bit, and we both kind of come from two different worlds. I am trying to make my family mix with his world, so I give him a list of things that would make it possible for us to be married someday. It was hard for me sometimes because I would never do that to someone — but my character does it with good intentions. Another film I worked on while on hiatus from Once Upon A Time is called Locked In. It's the next Amityville Horror movie. I play Jennifer Jason Leigh's stepsister. She's so awesome. It was a really cool experience to work with another actor who I love and admire."

Right now you're filming 6 Miranda Drive with Kevin Bacon. How is it working with him since you were just a kid in Stir of Echoes, your last movie together?
"It was so great! I was so excited to get to do this. The crazy thing is that he looks exactly the same as he did 15 years ago when we shot that movie. He looks great. He’s just one of those people who, to me, is like a living icon. And, he’s just such a lovely guy. He and Kira — from what I can tell and by the way he talks about her — are just such a great couple. He’s lovely to be around, and he creates a great environment on set. There’s just nothing this guy can’t do. He’s so talented. You go back and look at his movies, and there just all so, so good. Yeah, but we definitely had a little reunion. He’s like 'I can’t believe you were the little girl that was dead in the wall!' And, now his character has a little flirtation with mine in the movie, so it was definitely funny."

You obviously have an affinity for Bacon, but who is your ultimate heartthrob from any era?
"I would say Paul Newman. I don’t know. I just don’t think it gets any better than that. He is a good guy, he's good to his wife, all the charities he gave to, he's an incredible actor. And, he’s good looking. He’s the whole package."

What surprises can we expect from the next season of OUAT since Princess Elsa from Disney's Frozen is on the scene?
"I honestly have no idea! We always respectfully keep our distance from the writers over the hiatus and let them do their thing and plan the next season. I’ve been given no hints yet. I am going to dinner next week with a couple of members of the team, so maybe I can sneak some info. But, as of now, I literally only know what the viewers know!"