Audiences know her as Mayor Regina Mills/The Evil Queen on ABC’s hit show, “Once Upon A Time,” but off-screen Lana Parrilla is not like the character she’s played for the past four years. And while she’s now recognized wherever she goes, the actress has been working steadily in the business for over 20 years on numerous hit TV shows.
Born and raised in New York City, the Brooklyn native comes from a large, close-knit family and describes herself as someone who has always been very “family-oriented.”
“Life in Brooklyn was fun,” says Parrilla. “From the people, to the food, the culture, the hustle and bustle, anything goes in NYC.”
After her father passed away, Parrilla left Brooklyn at 17 years old to live with her mother on the west coast. It was there the future actress began to pursue the dream she had since childhood.
“Acting was always something I wanted to do,” says Parrilla. That passion at such a young age came from watching her aunt, actress Candace Azzara. She wanted to be just like her. “I looked up to my aunt as this glamourous, educated, spiritual woman who was like a mother to me.”
Parrilla credits the seasoned Azzara with teaching her some early life lessons when it came to the business. “She taught me at a young age that my craft was something to not only hone but to really learn… [that I should] study the arts and not just get involved in the industry to become famous,” recalls Parilla. “She told me that if this was something I wanted, I had to find my love and passion because it’s a tough industry. You can’t just wing it, you have to really do the work.”
Parrilla took her aunt’s words to heart and at 19 years old left college to join the Beverly Hills Playhouse. While she acted in a few small independent films, Parilla dedicated four years to studying before actively pursuing anything.
Her first big break came at 22 with a role on the hit sitcom, “Spin City,” where she starred for one season. “From this point on I had a series almost every year.” With a steady momentum, the actress then joined the short-lived drama “Boomtown” and guest-starred in other television dramas, including “JAG,” “Six Feet Under,” “NYPD Blue,” and “24,” to name just a few.
“I love when people say to me, ‘You’re an overnight success!’ Actually, I’ve been doing this for 18 years,” exclaims Parrilla.
In 2008, the actress starred in “Swingtown,” a show set in 1970s suburban America that focused on the impact of sexual and social liberation, written and produced by Mike Kelley. Parilla says the role was a breakout one for her. “It showed how a controversial character can be loved. It was an incredible part to play and one of my favorite roles to date.”
Another favorite, the one she currently brings to life each week, is on her seventh hit show, “Once Upon a Time.”
“What I love about [my character] Regina is when we first met her, she was sort of this vengeful, evil queen who possessed so much hatred and revenge and wanted to hurt people who hurt her. Over the years, as we’ve seen and experienced her evolution, she’s become the epitome of change and hope,” says Parrilla. “That’s what I’ve really enjoyed.”
“I think the show is a great representation of hope, love, and family,” says the actress. Within each episode there are moral lessons to be found about betrayal, love, power, and the iconic characters represent light, darkness, heroism, love, truth – all the things that make the show relatable and entertaining to viewers.”
For Parrilla, her “Once” experience also been life-changing. Not only did it entail leaving her friends and family to relocate (the show films in Vancouver), it also introduced her to so many other wonderful people, namely her husband!
“My life has changed on so many levels. I’m a wife and now a real step-mother to three teenage boys, and we have a huge hit that’s changed my public persona in the world and has given me a lot of responsibility that comes along with that.”
Another piece of advice Azzara shared with her that she draws upon often: “Be a good example to the youth and a leader to up-and-coming actors who aspire to follow in your footsteps.” Parrilla takes her role seriously, making sure she is not only a role model but also someone her fans can look up to.
“Being a part of this show has given me such an incredible fan base and I want to be a great example of a strong, successful woman for them.”
In taking on the role of motherhood, Parrilla says it’s been extremely validating. “There have been times when it’s scary and I wonder if I’m doing things right. But then there are times when I know exactly what I’m doing and it’s fantastic. I love this and I love them,” she says.
Parrilla also says she’s grown a lot as an individual these past three years – as a woman, a wife, and a mother, and she commits to keep on growing. Knowing that this is just the beginning, she is excited for the rest of her future with her family.
While she continues her work on “Once Upon a Time,” the actress and her husband are producing some of their own projects. Currently in the works are two reality shows, “Building Inside the Box” and “Tit for Tat.” While Parrilla’s husband is not in the business, she says he is a “super smart guy” who is very creative. “It’s been fun to create and write with my partner.”
In addition to all the actress has going on, she’s also a big supporter of causes and organizations in which she feels a strong connection. As an advocate for the LGBT community, Parrilla is involved with GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network) and the HRC (Human Rights Campaign) in their quest for equal rights.
Also close to her heart: The NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council); the Cine Institute, an organization in Haiti that fosters education and provides students an opportunity to learn the film business; and Face Forward, a non-profit that provides pro-bono plastic surgery to victims of domestic violence.
When talking about beauty, Parrilla says it’s something that comes from within. “It’s honesty, a truth, a love for oneself, and an acceptance of who you are as a human being. Living life by your own code makes your external beauty that much more appealing. Ultimately it’s what’s on the inside that people are drawn to.”