Once Upon A Fan

Magic is Here! 

A Drifter's Golden Dream

Michael Raymond-James Discusses the True Hopes and Dreams 

of his Character Neal/Baelfire on Once Upon a Time

 by Diane J. Reed / @DianeJReed

Lord have mercy—those deep brown eyes that can reveal a fractured soul, that panther-like purr in a voice notorious for making fans melt. How’s a girl to keep her composure in an exclusive phone interview with Michael Raymond-James? The answer: she doesn’t! She simply asks this consummate actor our most burning fan questions and then enjoys the ride. Luckily, Michael Raymond-James couldn’t have been more warm and generous during this interview that was held just before the finale of Season 2, and we’re deeply grateful that he took this time out to spend with us.

Diane: 

Hi Michael! I realize we only have a short amount of time, so I’d love to get your take on Neal/Baelfire’s heart and what he really wants out of life. We know he’s the son of a darkly magical father and a mother who took off and cavorted with pirates. He then was orphaned by going through the portal and became a street kid and a drifter. When we first see him as Neal with Emma, he’s something of a con man and a thief. Yet this is the same character who sacrificed himself for Wendy and later for Emma! How do you reconcile this character who can be a hustler but who also makes these sacrifices? He’s a very complicated guy.


Michael Raymond-James: 

Well I don’t see him as a conman at all. What he’s looking for, and has always been looking for, is a sense of family. Just before his dad let him go through the portal, Baelfire was saying “I just want my dad back!” He wants a sense of family even if it’s only half of what he started out with, considering his mom was gone—she was dead. He’s always been seeking family, and he’s sort of found that in this strange new place in nineteenth-century London. He gets a taste of what that is once again through Wendy and her family—which is why he makes the sacrifice for her so she won’t have to go through what he did and wind up alone. When he makes it to the United States and to Portland and meets Emma, he’s a bit of a drifter, yes—but I see him as more of a rudderless ship. He’s bent on survival like he was as a young boy. He’s always winding up in strange places where he doesn’t know about the customs or the terrain or anything like that. So he does what he needs to do, being really an alien from a different place, to just survive. 


Diane: 

So you see him as really more of a survivor, someone who’s riding the waves of life?


Michael Raymond-James: 

Yeah, I would agree with that, and he sort of found that sense of family with Emma. And when he had to walk away from her again, it really wasn’t easy. But he was told she was the savior and she was destined to break this curse. And you know, he walks into a town full of people that he knew while he was growing up. These weren’t nameless, faceless strangers to him—these are people that he knew. And in the past with August back in that alley, there was a lot more to it than what we saw! Adam and Eddy and I had long discussions about what I would have said to August during that time, things like, “I’ll go to jail—let me go to jail for Emma!” But ultimately that’s a false economy, because although that would separate the two, she still wouldn’t accomplish her destiny because she didn’t know about magic. So they said, “You need to break her heart so she can later come around and realize that magic does exist. She can defeat the curse.” If I’d gone to prison, she probably would have just waited for Neal to get out. So there was a lot of jumping on the grenade there for the greater good. And then once he finds out he has a son, that’s really a pivotal point in his world—that’s what he’s been looking for. His family! He has a son now and he has an opportunity to be the kind of father he wishes he’d had. And so now this rudderless ship has a lot of purpose and direction, and that’s to be the best father he can possibly be. Everything he does is in the interest of Henry. After all he’s been through with Emma, I think Neal’s instinct is to move slowly and cautiously, which is in the best interest of his son. There are some complicated issues in his world, but he doesn’t want to let them jeopardize his relationship with his son. 

Diane: 

So it sounds like you view Neal as a believer in something, even though he’s been a street kid in the past. Is that how he was fooled by Tamara? Because he had a rough background, and it seems like a grifter would recognize another grifter. Do you see Neal as hoping and believing in true love for himself? 


Michael Raymond-James: 

I think he’s a bit of an eternal optimist. There’s been some heavy things that have happened to him, and despite whether he’s been a street kid or a rich kid, I don’t think that has a bearing on a person’s soul. I think Neal proceeded with a heavy heart, but he always held out hope that there would be a happy ending at some point. 


Diane: 

Well speaking of happy endings, do you think he holds any shred of hope at all, prior to falling through the portal, that he could have a relationship with his father? Or is he someone who might be more inclined to not want history to repeat itself and even try to do away with his father? 


Michael Raymond-James: 

I think he’s continuously hurt by his dad. But at the same time, it’s his dad! There are people in our lives that no matter how often or how brutally they hurt us, we’re willing to give it another shot. 


Diane: 

And you think he’s still willing to do that before the portal? Because they’re fighting in that last scene and he walks away…  


Michael Raymond-James: 

It has dug the hole that their relationship is in a little bit deeper. You started to see them attempt to climb out of the hole at one point when Rumpel is on the phone with Belle and my character sees a side of this man that he’s never been exposed to before—this loving, caring, genuine person. And that strikes a chord in Neal, and Rumpelstiltskin even asks if Neal will hold his hand. So I turn and clutch it! And to see that sort of dissipate is hard on Neal, but that doesn’t mean the door is completely shut. I think that there’s an aspect of Neal that would want to see it work out, but the hole is deeper for them now, and it’s going to require a longer timeline and more effort from Neal’s perspective on the part of his dad. 

Diane: 

Do you think Neal seeing Rumpel be so vulnerable with Belle, and then also August being willing to sacrifice himself before he dies—did those events change or shift your character at all? To decide to be more vulnerable? Or has that always been a vein in Neil?


Michael Raymond-James: 

I think that’s always been a vein in his character. Those sorts of moments can inspire a sleeping giant inside people. They allow for something that’s always been there, but has long since been put away in a box for the purpose of self-preservation. The capacity that people have to endure is amazing. But sometimes one must come up with coping mechanisms, and that certainly could be one of Neal’s. But when you see these moments of sacrifice or human tenderness or kindness, it inspires those aspects of ourselves to wake up a little bit. 


Diane: 

Now I know you can’t tell us if your character reappears in Season 3, right… 


Michael Raymond-James: 

Right!


Diane: 

But you can talk about your next project Salvation, which seems like a bad ass western! 


Michael Raymond-James: 

Yeah, I can totally talk about Salvation!


Diane: 

The premise of Salvation reminds me of Bad Day at Black Rock with Spencer Tracy where a man has an agenda to clean up a corrupt town. And you get to play a cowboy, right? Can you tell us about your character?


Michael Raymond-James: 

[Laughs] I can tell you he’s not a very nice person! This is not Neal. 

 

Diane: 

Is he closer to René Lenier, your character from True Blood?


Michael Raymond-James: 

[Laughs] Yeah, closer to René a little bit! The moral center of René, maybe…


Diane: 

René is pretty dark!


Michael Raymond-James: 

Yeah, he is pretty dark. I play an outlaw in Salvation. This is about a period in American history in the 1870s where quite a few places were utterly without law. You had ranchers and miners and people who were literally raping the land. These were hard people. When you combine the mentality of someone who goes to a place like that to do those kinds of things, they weren’t concerned about environmental issues or animal rights or anything like that. There was a sense of utter lawlessness.


Diane: 

And what’s your character’s name and who is he in this story?


Michael Raymond-James: 

My character’s name is Paul, and I play Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s brother and Eva Green plays my wife. That’s probably as much as I can tease on that. 


Diane: 

How is it to go from a fairy tale to a cowboy world? These are both very archetypal realms in the American imagination. Were there any similarities, or was it like going to Mars and a totally different universe?


Michael Raymond-James: 

Well it is a totally different world, but as an actor you prepare to play the reality of it in each case. With Neal, we may talk about a fairy tale, but for him that’s his reality, and you have to play it that way. 

Diane: 

That’s true. And what was it like to go toe to toe with Robert Carlyle? Had you admired him as an actor before? 


Michael Raymond-James: 

Well I’ve always been a huge fan of Robert Carlyle ever since I saw Trainspotting. He’s just such a fucking powerful actor and an incredible performer—and he couldn’t be a nicer person as well. When I first took a meeting with Adam and Eddy when they offered me the show, I went into their offices in Burbank and there was a Once Upon a Time poster of Rumpelstiltskin hanging on the wall among others. And they pointed to it and said, “That’s going to be your dad—who you’re going to go head to head with.”


Diane: 

Did you know who you were going to play when you talked with them? 


Michael Raymond-James: 

Yeah, when I came in they pitched me the idea they had in mind.


Diane: 

Did you know prior to talking to them that it might actually be Baelfire? Because sometimes actors don’t know at all who they’re being considered for.


Michael Raymond-James: 

Well I didn’t audition for this—they called me and said they wanted to offer me a job on the show and so let’s have a meeting and we’ll explain to you who it is. So when I went in there, that’s when they told me the story—they spun this incredible tale that was exciting and fun. And their enthusiasm is incredibly infectious. When they pointed to Bobby Carlyle and said “This is who’s going to play your dad, and you’re going to have to go toe to toe with him,” it was a no brainer at that point!


Diane: 

Had they seen your work in True Blood? Was that how they knew you, or was it your work in other projects? 


Michael Raymond-James: 

They were aware of my work in True Blood and also fans of a show I did called Terriers on FX.

 

Below: Some Of Michael's Best Scenes In 'True Blood'

Diane: 

Now I just have to ask this—I’m dying to know how you nailed that Cajun accent on True Blood! 


Michael Raymond-James: 

Yeah, I worked really hard on it! I actually hired a guy named Errol Guidry who’s from Mermentau, Louisiana, and he’s a Cajun. When I got that job, I called up my management team and explained that I really wanted to hire a dialect coach to get the Cajun speech down. There’s only a million Cajuns left in the United States, and I wanted to do justice to them. I didn’t want them to think, at worst, that I was making fun of their culture, or at best, that I was being apathetic to it. So they said sure, we’ll get you a dialect coach and we’ll put out calls.” But I didn’t want somebody from Harvard who just knew how to make the vowel sounds and change the dipthongs.  I wanted somebody with gumbo in their DNA! And I discovered this guy Errol Guidry in my own research, and he was Michael Jeter’s coach in the movie Green Mile with Tom Hanks. And so I was excited about that because I thought Michael Jeter was just brilliant in that performance, so I gave him a call. We had a meeting in my house and we got along great, so I hired him. As soon as my script came out, he was my personal coach and we would sit around either at my house or his apartment and we would just really attack it. That was one of the exciting things about that job, and working with Alan Ball and the entire cast, was really being able to research and discover what Cajun culture was. That was a really rewarding experience. 


Diane: 

Did you also research sociopaths or serial killers to get into that role? Because René is pretty nasty!


Michael Raymond-James: 

Absolutely. But I’ve played dark guys for a long time! [Laughs] Going all the way back to theater. I have lots of research on sociopaths, and in René’s case, serial killers, that I put a lot of work into. But you know, with serial killers, the only way they can operate is if they don’t seem crazy. Otherwise they just kill one or two people and everyone says, “You know, that guy seems off. Don’t talk to him—he seems weird.” Look at a guy like Ted Bundy—by all accounts he was a charming, good looking guy. He was able to maneuver and operate in the real world without anybody having any inclination that he was up to anything! Yet he was a monster. So that was something that I tried to keep in mind and really work towards with this character. And in conversations with Alan about True Blood he would say things like, “Listen, there are times when we want to foreshadow this, but we really can’t tip our hand.” So you have to play it with enough foreshadowing so that when people go back to watch it a second time, they pick up on things that they maybe missed before. And I think that’s the case with all serial killers. If Ted Bundy’s real life was a movie, you could look back on it after viewing the ending and say, “You know, we should have been worried about this or that.” There are always these red flags that people talk about that they missed. So that was something we were aware of creating in the show. 


Diane: 

Well I know we have to wrap this up soon, and I only get one more question, so I’d like to know what was it like to join an ensemble cast in Once Upon a Time in the second season? Where they are all up and running and you’re the new guy?


Michael Raymond-James:

 Exactly—if anyone says they have no trepidation about that, they’re either incredibly self-confident or just lying! I’m jumping into a show that’s a hit and it’s an ensemble cast where they’ve all been together for a year, so you never know how you’re going to be received. And you want to be aware of how your role fits into a bigger piece of the puzzle. Then you come in and just do your job.


Diane: 

Were the other actors easy to get along with—was it a pretty smooth transition? 


Michael Raymond-James: 

Well that’s the thing—I couldn’t have wound up in a better situation. Everybody was just so great and gracious and very cool. And I made some really great friendships from it. And we’ll all continue to be friends from here on out.


Diane: 

And regarding your next project, when will we be able to see you in your new role in Salvation?


Michael Raymond-James: 

I imagine it will have a theatrical release at some point next year.  


Diane:

Thank you very much for spending time with us!


Michael Raymond-James: 

Cheers—thank you!

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