Raphael Sbarge – “Once Upon A Time” Interview
by Abbie Bernstien
Raphael Sbarge began his acting career at the age of four in his native New York, appearing on several episodes of SESAME STREET. He’s been on Broadway and off-Broadway in a myriad of plays. His first feature film was the independent ABUSE, where he played a minor involved with an adult man. “I was sixteen, in high school,” he recalls.
Since then, Sbarge has been in a host of movies large and small, including RISKY BUSINESS and INDEPENDENCE DAY, starred in the TV series BETTER DAYS and THE GUARDIAN and had guest and recurring roles on a wide range of shows including PROFILER, 24, STAR TREK: VOYAGER, PRISON BREAK and DEXTER.
However, Sbarge has never had a role like his series regular gig on ABC’s ONCE UPON A TIME. Sbarge plays Storybrooke, Maine’s resident psychiatrist, Dr. Archie Hopper – who doesn’t remember his former life in Fairytale Land as Jiminy Cricket, who asked a Blue Fairy to turn him into an insect to atone for the backfiring of a spell he tried to cast on his larcenous con artist parents. Of course, nobody else has had a role like this, either.
ONCE UPON A TIME, created by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, has been a big hit for ABC on Sunday nights at 8 PM and has already been renewed for a second season. The story posits that the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) cast a spell over the entire Fairytale Land kingdom, transporting all its inhabitants to Storybrooke, where everyone has forgotten his or her true identity, except the Queen herself, known to Storybrooke as Mayor Regina Mills, and Mr. Gold, aka Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle). Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), unaware that she’s really the daughter of Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), has the power to break the spell – but she doesn’t believe in it. Emma does believe that Henry (Jared Gilmore), the little boy she gave up when he was born, is being maltreated by his adoptive mother Regina. Henry is certain the fairytales are real. Regina has sent Henry to Sbarge’s character Archie to cure him of his “delusions,” but Archie isn’t so sure that talking Henry out of his beliefs is good for him.
Because ONCE UPON A TIME is produced by Disney Studios, the show is able to reference the Disney versions of classic fairytales. Sbarge, of course, has seen Disney’s animated PINOCCHIO. Did he ever imagine before ONCE UPON A TIME that he’d be playing the conscientious Jiminy Cricket?
“No, never,” Sbarge laughs. He’s at a party thrown by ABC for the Television Critics Association, sounding like he’s still a little amazed at both his role and the series that surrounds it. He believes his cast mates playing legendary figures feel the same way. “I mean, I think everyone feels these are big shoulders that we all get to crawl onto.”
Jiminy Cricket has a particularly delightful musical legacy in the PINOCCHIO film, Sbarge recalls. “I love ‘Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide,’ ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ – I mean, there are so many wonderful things about this guy. They’ve taken a really iconic character and they’ve tried to give him a life and a world. The book PINOCCHIO was written [by Carlo Collodi] in the 1880s, and then was adapted by Walt Disney into a screenplay, and Jiminy was really sort of a ghostlike character in the periphery in the first draft. Walt brought him to the fore, as he wanted him to be more part of the story. In doing that, he hired this guy whose name was Ukulele Ike, who I guess had sold twenty million records during the Depression with that incredible soulful voice – ‘When You Wish Upon a Star.’ And you go back and listen to it – I dare you not to cry. It still has an effect on me. Those are big shoes to fill. But I’m just so happy that they’ve given us great stories to tell.”
The Disney animated fairytales help audiences understand what the show is about, Sbarge adds. “That’s our way in, right? These characters obviously became a part of popular fantasy. That’s obviously what these myths and these stories do, is they give us a way to understand each other.”
How did Sbarge become involved with ONCE UPON A TIME? “I came in and met with [the producers],” Sbarge relates, “and then they just offered it to me. You never know exactly when you come in – ‘Did you want a Jiminy Cricket impersonation, did you want some physicality, did you want a character?’ ‘No, no, no, we just want you to read it.’ And obviously they wanted – I mean, I’m a dad, and they wanted [Sbarge as Archie] to have a very strong bond with this young man [Gilmore as Henry]. And that’s something that you can’t really act, you’ve got to just sort of emanate.”
The onscreen relationship between Archie and Henry requires an almost parental attitude on Sbarge’s part. Fortunately, he feels that he and Gilmore have an easy chemistry between them. Sbarge gave Gilmore a bit of guidance when the younger actor auditioned for the role of Henry. “What’s funny is, I’d say, ‘You know, do you want me giving advice on how to do this thing today?’ And he said,” Sbarge here imitates Gilmore’s offhand tone, “‘No, no.’ ‘Well, mostly what I can say to you is …’ Because I was a child actor, I started at four. So did he. And I said, ‘You know, just don’t give them one-word answers. If they ask, “Do you like Vancouver?” “Yes” is generally not a good idea, so try to see if you can find a way to kind of open up a little bit.’ So he sat down for this interview and he was so self-possessed, so genuinely just himself.”
One of the things Sbarge finds refreshing about working on ONCE UPON A TIME is that it is something he can show to his real-life children – which isn’t true of all of his work. “On TV,” he says, “I do a lot of guest spots, a lot of psycho killers, murderers, rapists, you know, not that I’m going to show them.”
In contrast, the worst thing Archie may do is give somebody bad advice. “Exactly,” Sbarge affirms. “It’s thrilling. And in fact, it’ll be something that they’ll be able to watch and their friends at school will enjoy. The show really has a heart.”
Archie did have one bad action. As shown in the episode “That Still Small Voice,” then-human Jiminy,, desperate to get out from under his parents’ thieving thumbs, made a deal with Rumpelstiltskin that harmed two innocent people and left their young son Geppetto an orphan.
Jiminy’s back story came as a surprise to Sbarge. What came as an even bigger surprise to him was how many people thought this had been part of the legend all along. “The thing that I find so funny is that after it aired, people said, ‘Hey, I didn’t realize that was Jiminy’s back story.’ I think that was a compliment for the writers, that they were able to carry off obviously – I mean, how do you in forty-three minutes essentially tell a story about how someone evolves a conscience and not do it in a way that seems trite? It was just a sad episode. What they’re doing could have been done so badly. A great idea, in less capable hands, could have been a mess. And [the writers are] so smart and so really great at being able to put together a story that is constantly surprising and imaginative and not what you expected. Even the killing of the sheriff [played by Jamie Dornan] – a big, sad kind of moan went out in the female community,” Sbarge notes with a laugh. “‘Oh, my God, he’s gone!’ Jamie’s such a sweetheart and we were all devastated when we found out, truly. What [the writers] have done is set up an element of risk and danger in the town, and we know that anything’s possible.”
The course of the story is very well mapped-out, Sbarge adds. Great care is taken with all of the effects of the curse that transported the characters to Storybrooke while depriving them of their true identities. “The curse, that’s the convention of the show, where we also don’t remember. And there’s a lot of time and energy spent making sure that everything is [in sync] – there’s somewhat of a bible of how things go. [The writers] hold very strict lines. And even in the [descriptions of] action of the script, there are minor details that are followed to the nth degree, because some things are clues and they’re laying track for things that we don’t even know yet. It’s been very, very orchestrated. There’s a lot of structure.”
This doesn’t mean the actors are constrained in their performances, Sbarge notes. “Obviously, you find the emotional life, you find how it goes, you develop the relationships, you bring a rich back story to the words and to the scenarios and hopefully [give it] a simplicity and a clarity.”
Sbarge is enthusiastic about fellow ONCE actor Carlyle. “Robert Carlyle is just dazzling.”
Harry Groener, who plays Jiminy’s father in Fairytale Land, is a real-life old friend of Sbarge’s. “I’ve known him for forty-five years,” Sbarge relates. “Harry is such a class act, an amazing actor,”
Sbarge and Groener work together frequently at the Antaeus Theatre Company in Los Angeles. “I’m one of the founding members of the company,” Sbarge relates. “So when I heard that Harry was cast, I was so happy. Tony Amendola, who plays [the adult] Geppetto, is also now one of the heads of Antaeus, and he also is a dear friend, I’ve also known him for twenty-five years. So it was a fun Antaeus club that we had there on the set. And Caroline Hennesy played [Jiminy's] mom.”
Sbarge also sometimes shares the screen with the canine who plays Archie’s dog. How is that acting relationship? “The dog is the agility champion of Canada. He is really strong. His name is Cinder and I like him, but he has a habit of knocking me over,” Sbarge laughs.
Do Sbarge’s children understand what their dad does for a living? “I don’t think they really get it,” Sbarge replies. “I mean, they do, but they don’t. If people walk up and say, ‘Are you an actor?’ and I say, ‘Yes,’ they notice, but I think it’ll kind of [make more sense] as they get a little older.”
ONCE UPON A TIME is set in Maine, but it is filmed in Vancouver. Sbarge has worked in the Canadian filmmaking center before, and says, “It’s a beautiful city. I’m commuting. I know it rains almost three hundred and twenty-five days a year, it’s tough in the winter, it’s hard being away from [the children], but it is an awfully pretty city.”
Speaking of work, Sbarge has a few other projects going on at present. “I’m in a big videogame called MASS EFFECT 3. I’m producing an Internet series called ON BEGLEY STREET, with Ed Begley, Jr., and I’ve got an environmental non-profit with Ed, called Green Wish – GreenWish.com – we support multiple green charities and it’s a wonderful program. I’m also working on a documentary on the building of a new house, which is going to be the most ecologically advanced, green home in the world. And I teach acting.”
So far, Archie Hopper doesn’t present many cricket mannerisms in human form like, say, unconsciously rubbing his legs together. “Not yet,” Sbarge says. “His name is funny, but no. I’ve got an umbrella that I get to play with. It’s my good luck charm. At this moment, when he’s in his otherworldly [Fairytale Land] form, he’s a CGI character, so [in those scenes] I’m a voice actor.”
As for whether or not people recognize Sbarge on the street, the phenomenon has increased somewhat since ONCE began airing, but he says he’s not worried about it either way. “Notoriety is less important to me than the work, and I’m much more interested in the work.”
Asked if there’s anything else he’d like to say about ONCE UPON A TIME, Sbarge seems absolutely sincere when he replies. “Gee whiz. Just how grateful I am for the show and for the fans who’ve found it and what a joy it is to be part of such an amazing company.”
By Abbie Bernstien
Buzzy Mag Entertainment Reporter