NEW YORK — Lana Parrilla, whose dual roles on the fantasy drama "Once Upon a Time" include the fearsome Evil Queen, wasn't satisfied just knowing her character was evil.
"You can also see she's a tortured soul," says Parrilla, "and I made a very conscious choice to reveal the pain underneath."
While she prepped for her audition, she asked herself: What caused that pain?
"So I did a meditation, and I saw a lot of her past and tapped into it," discovering in the process that "a major betrayal and the loss of someone she deeply loves are what caused the darkness to overtake her, and what caused her need to punish everyone in her life. She doesn't want anyone to be happy, because HER happiness was taken from her."
Parrilla shared her epiphany with the show's co-creators, Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, "and they had their own vision which was totally in line with mine. Maybe I tapped into THEIR psyches!"
The ABC freshman hit, which airs Sunday at 8 p.m. EST, has a mind-bending premise ("every time I try to pitch this show," Parrilla laughs, "it sounds like I've just smoked something really strong").
In a nutshell: Thanks to the Evil Queen's curse, a number of fairy-tale characters were transported to the contemporary village of Storybrooke, Maine, where they have forgotten their pasts as well-known storybook characters and, now stranded in the artifice of real life, have been denied every fairy-tale character's birthright: the prospect of a happy ending.
The hard-hearted mayor of Storybrooke is Regina, the other character played by Parrilla (pronounced puh-REE-uh). Also starring on the show are Ginnifer Goodwin, Josh Dallas, Robert Carlyle, Jared Gilmore and Jennifer Morrison.
Parrilla, a beautiful brunette with smoldering eyes and a lively, outgoing manner, counts "Once" as her seventh series, which also included short-termers such as "Miami Medical," ''Swingtown" and "Boomtown."
Longevity isn't a priority for her.
"When the script for 'Once' came my way," she says, "I had the thought that maybe it will last only a season. But I was willing to take that risk. Even if it hadn't gotten picked up as a series, I'm happy to have played this part."
She should have said "parts." She has had to master not one role, but two, "and in the beginning the challenge was finding their voices and how to make them different. I wanted the queen's voice to have a deeper resonance and for her to have a freedom in her body — she's fierce, she's bold. Regina, I think, is much more calculated. She's a politician. She has to keep her emotions in check."
Even now, switching back and forth between the characters can be dizzying.
Literally: Playing the Evil Queen, Parrilla performs in a cavernous studio in Vancouver, British Columbia, with few sets or props, instead dominated by a sprawling green screen.
"After 16 hours on a green-screen stage, your head is literally spinning," she says with a laugh. "Most of the queen's scenes take place in the palace," which is virtual: "No walls. No corridor. No fireplace. It's huge, that stage, with nothing to hold onto."
But it's not as if she doesn't love to play pretend, and always has, even as a child back in Brooklyn.
"I played lots of fantasy games," recalls the 34-year-old actress. "I would create these worlds, and I would believe in them. So it's not that different as an adult. I figure if I did it then, I can do it now. But I hadn't had to use that part of my brain in a long time."
Her active imagination was nurtured by her father, the late Sam Parrilla, a professional baseball player who had a bit of the comedian in him: While on the road (he played briefly for the Philadelphia Phillies, and later became a scout), he created a character named Popito to speak to little Lana on the phone. Lana, of course, never saw Popito, but pictured him as shy, with a stutter, and tiny, living under the couch as her father's traveling companion.
"But he's my oldest friend," she says, almost as if she still believes in him.
Parrilla's special brand of faith has served her well, particularly as she settles happily into a mystical show like "Once Upon a Time."
But when asked about the tattoo of a feather on her wrist's underside, she recalls a painful period that put her belief system to the test.
"I was living in L.A. having a hard time, and I had lost faith," she remembers. "I said, 'Send me a sign. Why am I here?'"
At that moment, she was at a local park. She spied a feather dancing in the wind.
"Over the months, I kept seeing more feathers, especially at moments when I was really down and distraught. You ask for signs in your life, but what you get is more like a confirmation: You are where you need to be. Just take a deep breath."
It was 11 years ago she saw that first telltale feather, but only three years ago did she get the tattoo.
"I took my time. And now when I look at it, it makes me happy," says Parrilla, who sees life, like her show, as a series of once-upon-a-time events. "It's mine."
ABC is owned by The Walt Disney Co.