By paige wiser | February 27, 2012 | People
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Jennifer Morrison has been tasked with saving a magical town in Maine. But with a little luck, she just might end up saving network drama, too.
One fall TV season not too long ago, there were not one but two new shows based on fairy tales unleashed on the public. The people did not rejoice. Fairy-tale drama is a tough sell to the masses who are accustomed to watching youngsters screeching at British judges and trophy wives clawing at each other’s fake eyelashes.
But a hero emerged. ABC’s Once Upon a Time slew its nemesis, NBC’s Grimm, and was crowned TV’s highest-rated drama debut of the season.
The reason? Amidst all the amnesiac princesses, evil witches, stumbling princes, and grumbling dwarves stood Morrison’s character, Emma Swan: a decidedly modern, unsentimental former bail “bondsman” and bounty hunter with a red leather jacket and a cool eye.
There’s a lot at stake. At the Golden Globes this year, nearly all the TV honorees were from the cable world—ABC’s Modern Family was the only network show to win a major award. But Once Upon a Time, created by Lost writers Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, with its lush sets, sprawling back stories, and superheroine Emma, has the potential to bring millions of lost sheep back to the network fold.
According to the show’s lore, Emma is the long-lost daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming. If Emma ever gets a fairy-tale nickname, it’s likely to be Snow White-Hot.
“White-hot” is also an apt description for Morrison’s career. She first came to America’s attention as Dr. Allison Cameron on the show House. Gossip magazines took notice when Morrison got engaged in real life to her House love interest, Jesse Spencer. Her publicist must have been thrilled, but Morrison was taken aback by the sudden interest—especially once the engagement fell apart. “We tried to handle it as graciously as possible,” she says. “I just love acting. I’ve never cared about whether or not people care about who I am.”
She followed up her role as a brainy doctor with a role on CBS’s How I Met Your Mother, and for a while fans were obsessed that her character, passionate activist Zoey, would turn out to be the “mother” of the title. (Sorry, no.) Morrison solidified her geek fan base by playing James T. Kirk’s mother in the 2009 movie Star Trek, and then played the wife of a mixed-martial-arts fighter in last summer’s Warrior. Nick Nolte’s recovering alcoholic stole much of the movie, but Morrison took a stock character—the exasperated but supportive wife—and turned her into a dynamic force that could probably hold her own in the ring.
Before returning to TV, Morrison even did a turn on Broadway in 2010, playing the mother to Abigail Breslin’s Helen Keller in the revival of The Miracle Worker.
Morrison credits much of her success to growing up in Arlington Heights, northwest of Chicago, with musicteacher parents. “I wouldn’t want to have started out anywhere else,” she says. “We’d pack snacks in our little purses and go see the high school musicals at Prospect [High School],” she remembers. “It was a big deal.”
In 1992 she modeled for the cover of Sports Illustrated for Kids with Michael Jordan. The editors were looking for a child who was “not shy,” so Morrison slammed the ball and stuck her tongue out at everyone. She may not have been shy, but she was in awe of Jordan. “It’s the most starstruck I’ve been in my life. I didn’t know what to say to him!”
Morrison went on to study theater and English at Loyola University, where she became legendary for bending the class schedule to suit her busy life; she had to miss quite a bit of school in pursuit of her acting career. “I’d go in to my college advisors and explain that we had to restructure my classes,” she said. “I showed them what I wanted to do, and they’d say, ‘We had no idea that was even possible!’ I became very creative when it came to scheduling.” Efficient, too—Morrison earned her degree in just three years.
Dropping out was never a consideration for her. “It’s just a personal thing,” she said. “I never wanted to walk into an audition room and feel desperate. I wanted to know I had every option available to me.”
Morrison had already had a taste of Hollywood—she played the daughter of Richard Gere and Sharon Stone in 1994’s Intersection—but she knew there was no training like the kind she could get at Steppenwolf Theatre. There were master classes with ensemble members, and alums would come back to work scenes with the students.
Morrison’s one regret is that the time she spent in Chicago was during her “starving actor” phase. “People ask me all the time about which amazing restaurants they should go to, and I’ve got nothing. I could tell you to get a great $1.50 slice of pizza at this little place across the street from Loyola, but that’s it.”
There’s not currently a man in Morrison’s life, and there certainly isn’t any pizza. She starts out each day with a vitamin and vegetable breakfast shake, and then has oatmeal and a kale shake for lunch. “The luxury is getting to dinner,” she says. “For dinner I can have whatever I want.”
Working the red carpet means running three times a week, hot yoga four times a week, and boxing. Her personal style sounds a lot like her Once Upon a Time character’s: “Casual comfort with a little bit of an edge.” She says, “I find something that I love and wear it over and over again.” She’s been photographed in Stella McCartney, Calvin Klein, Missoni, 3.1 Phillip Lim, and lately, a lot of Isabel Marant.
Morrison is a bit of a good-luck charm, picking smart projects she can make even better. She’s the kind of person who seems to attract random acts of kindness—recently she was stuck at a metro turnstile, and a stranger gave her a free card swipe.
But luck has little to do with it, insists Morrison. “So often people say, ‘Oh my God, it happened overnight!” she says. “They don’t see the years of hard work. I love the hard-work part.”
Surely, though, there must be some kind of fairy godmother hovering in the background. After all, most actors don’t have scripts like Once Upon a Time fall in their lap. Morrison remembers the day the cast found out the show had been picked up for a full season. “We were on set and heard the news on speaker phone,” she says, “We walked outside and there was this giant rainbow that ended at our trailer. I have pictures of it! We all said, ‘This is ridiculous. We’re doing a show about fairy tales, and we get a rainbow?’ “So maybe there is such a thing as luck,” says Morrison. “Maybe.”
Photography by jack guy. Hair by Shaylee Blatz for Nine Zero One Salon; Makeup by Coleen Campbell-Olwell for Exclusive Artists/Diorshow; Manicure by Beth Fricke using O.P.I for artistsfortimothypriano.com; Fashion styling by Cristina Erlich for margaretmaldonado.com; Styling assistance by Lauren Whalen