Rebecca Mader Discusses ‘Once Upon a Time’ and Her Approach to Playing the Wicked Witch

Rebecca Mader Once Upon a Time Interview
Rebecca Mader as Zelena/The Wicked Witch in 'Once Upon a Time' (Photo by Jack Rowand © 2014 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.)

By Rebecca Murray

Rebecca Mader is absolutely nothing like her character in the ABC fantasy series Once Upon a Time, which is a good thing as the gorgeous Brit plays the Wicked Witch of the West on season two of the hit series. The Wicked Witch has everyone on edge on the show, but behind the scenes Mader is quick to turn off the ‘mean’ and joke around with her co-stars, and she was hilarious during our interview at the 2014 WonderCon as she demonstrated how she flips back and forth between her naturally bubbly personality and the powerful witch who’s out for revenge. [Check out the video at the bottom of this article to see Mader in action.]

Rebecca Mader Once Upon a Time Interview

Do you view her as an evil character or is it that you can’t go that way with it and you have to play it straight?

Rebecca Mader: “I don’t see her as evil, I see her as pained. I think it’s more about acting out of pain as opposed to, ‘I’m just evil.’ I think the back story is really what built the character for me and I was able to use past experiences on being wronged and feeing jealous or feeling cut out. I was bullied a lot growing up from the age of like 4 to 14. That was some really yummy stuff that I was able to use for this character. It was actually cathartic.”

You were bullied? That’s cruel.

Rebecca Mader: “Yeah, for quite a long time. In England, it’s really not cool to have red hair so I was bullied for my hair. And then I’ve been this height since I was 11. I grew very, very fast. I was the tallest person in my year and then I was heavier and I had really bad acne on like my chest and my back. Some girls would pick on me and sometimes come and get a boy to kick me at lunchtime. I had a really difficult time at school. I’m really grateful for it because I think if I had been a skinny, pretty girl at school, I would have become a different person. So I think I had to develop other aspects of my personality. I worked really hard at school. I developed a sense of humor, and I just became a more well-rounded person and I think it’s made me a better actor.

You meet people that have just like always been gorgeous. It’s not as interesting to me. I like people who’ve got a bit more of a story, and that’s one thing I love about this character is because she’s been through so much I could relate to that. I think a lot of the fans can relate to that, especially some of the kids that are going through stuff.

It’s really cool because at first when I got the part, Adam [Horowitz] and Eddie [Kitsis] were like, ‘Get ready for hate mail.’ I’m like, ‘Oh no, I’m going to get loads of hate mail!’ I was worried because sometimes a lot of actors can feel really bullied on Twitter and I’ve had really kind of the opposite experience. People have been really supportive. I think because they wrote the characters so well and wrote a lot of the back story, people were then able to kind of feel for my character as opposed to like, ‘Oh, what a bitch. Get away from the evil queen.’ Do you know what I mean? It’s just a bit more interesting.”

You’ve done a lot of sci-fi and fantasy. What is it about the genres that appeals to you?

Rebecca Mader: “I don’t know. It’s weird. It’s like moths to a flame, I keep attracting it. I love it. I love watching it. I was a big fan of Fringe and things like that. They ended up giving me a couple of episodes just because I tweeted about it all the time and that was just because of social media. I just love other dimensions, other worlds. I love end of days shit, like we’re all going to die. I just love that stuff. And it’s funny is that I’m a fan of it as a geek person and then I attract it in my career. It’s really cool. I think soon I need to play someone nice otherwise I’m just a perpetual villain.”

A nice romantic comedy or something.

Rebecca Mader: “Yeah, a bit of romcoms, a giggle, be a bit cheeky and smiley as opposed to [being wicked].”

Rebecca Mader Once Upon a Time Interview
Rebecca Mader in 'Once Upon a Time' (Photo by Jack Rowand © 2014 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.)
What do you think Zelena’s end goal is? If she defeats her half-sister, what then? Is she going to be happy?

Rebecca Mader: “I don’t know. I think it’s more about fighting for justice. I’m not really supposed to talk about my end game per se because it would spoil the remainder of the season, but I think it’s probably more about justice because I think she probably feels like no one’s ever fought for her. I don’t think maybe she’s even thought through what’s on the other side or will she find happiness? Will it give her what she wants? I don’t know even know that she’s thought that through. It’s more about just getting it done and then see what happens.”

What’s the difference between evil and wicked?

Rebecca Mader: “Well, I wanted to differentiate the Wicked Witch from the Evil Queen because Lana [Parrilla’s] so good and so strong. To me she’s the Evil Queen, right? I watched all of the episodes before I started, so I watched 53 episodes in about two and a half weeks. I’m like, ‘All right. We’re sisters but I don’t want to be the same.’

In England, wicked is a very popular word and I still use it to this day all the time like, ‘How wicked,’ but wicked also means like [with a wink], ‘Don’t be wicked.’ It’s a bit sort of like a bit naughty and a bit cheeky. I’m going to add that and just be a little bit, not really, just make it a little bit saucy and ‘How’s your father?’ I think that kind of differentiated it. Do you know what I mean? From like the Evil Queen to the Wicked Witch, a bit of a tongue in cheekness to it. That was my own little British hot sauce.”

She does seem to be having a good time.

Rebecca Mader: “My mum’s like, ‘Oh, you’re awful but it’s so good!’ Even that bit when I go and gate-crash a funeral, that’s a bit sick, isn’t it? And I’m like, ‘Oh no, I missed speeches.’ She’s just so sarcastic and awful, so much fun to play.”

Is it all in the script?

Rebecca Mader: “It’s pretty much all there. The writing is definitely there but that’s always true with network television. I mean good luck trying to sort of swing away from it. The longer you’re on the show they do start to write for you a little bit more, especially as a Brit. The American writers start to write a bit more British with vocab and stuff.”

Can you talk about the makeup process for you, because the one episode it looked like it was actually CGI because it sort of went up or down?

Rebecca Mader: “That one was. It was like a yo-yo, ‘You’ve never been born!’ That was done in CGI but all the other stuff where I’m always completely green, that was done in the makeup chair for an hour to an hour and a half. It’s six layers of paint and airbrush, so it’s five different greens, one aubergine-like eggplant color, and then the final is a gold so that as I move the light catches it. I think the gold was the final touch. It’s a long process and then I would wrap and everyone would start going home, I’m like, ‘Ahh!’ All the actors are like, ‘Night,’ and driving off home, I’m like trying to get it off for like half an hour. ‘I want to go home!'”

Are you patient in the makeup chair?

Rebecca Mader: “Very, very patient. I’m really good at just going somewhere else. I just go to my happy place, otherwise I’d lose my mind. I think when I was younger, back in my early 20s when I lost weight and got my stuff together, I became a model and I had to learn how to sit there for a really long time. When you’re a model, you don’t get to have an opinion. No one cares about your feelings so I think I learned how to just kind of be a good girl and sit there and shut up. Whereas as an actor it’s like, ‘Oh, can I get you anything?’ I’m like, ‘Oh, this is new,’ because that’s a different world. I’d learned patience, that’s for sure.”

The executive producers said that they want the Wicked Witch storyline to finish up this season. Assuming you survive this season, is there a chance that you would ever come back to the show?

Rebecca Mader: “I think with a show like this and Lost and things like that, I think anything’s possible. I mean that’s always true with sci-fi. Anything can happen, can’t it?”

Whenever you play a bad guy, you have to feel justified in what you’re doing. But looking at your character from the outside, do you think she’s actually justified?

Rebecca Mader: “Yeah. I think it’s radical but I had to find a way to feel that justification, otherwise I would’ve just felt like I was just mean. But I do actually think she is justified because of, I think, especially in 316 when we saw that she didn’t even know she was adopted and finding out that late is messed up, and then the abuse from her father and the pain. I think that is the catalyst of being… I mean, her life’s been crap to be honest, hasn’t it? You’re given up by your mother and finding all of this out at once, I think instead of getting a therapist and talking about her feelings, it’s like, ‘No. Shut down. I want it,’ and it’s just building and building into revenge because she’s not coping with it correctly. I think I would have had a cup of tea and gotten a therapist but she’s like, ‘Revenge!’ Two different people, two different ways of coping.”

The outtakes must be hysterical with you on set.

Rebecca Mader: [Laughing] “I’m not normal. We definitely have a laugh. We definitely have a laugh. I’m like, ‘Blah, blah, blah,’ rolling, rolling, ‘I don’t know what you mean,’ and cut, ‘Burr, burr, burr.’ My boyfriend came to watch and like, ‘How do you go from being so ridiculous and then they say action and you are just in it.’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know. It’s just like a switch, just flips on and off.’ I don’t need like, ‘Oh, I need a minute to prepare.’ I just go straight into it. It’s so much fun, especially working with Robert Carlyle.”

Were you a fan of the Wizard of Oz itself or the books or Wicked the play?

Rebecca Mader: “Yeah, I love the musical. I’m a huge musical person. I love the original movie although I watched it too young so the Wicked Witch of the West really gave me serious nightmares. I think I watched it when I was like five or something stupid, so I didn’t sleep for a long time. I love the fact that I’d gone from being terrorized of somebody to then paying it forward and terrorizing other people. Probably now I’m giving other children nightmares, like what are the odds? Talk about coming full circle. But, yeah, I was definitely a fan of the franchise.

It’s crazy that I’m playing it. Someone said to me once, ‘Do you realize the gravity of like playing such an iconic character?” I’m like, ‘No, not until like two episodes in.’ ‘It’s a big deal. It’s a really iconic character.’ I’m like, ‘My god it is. What if I’ve messed it up?’ It didn’t really sink in until I’d already established the character. I’m like, ‘Oh my god, this is a really big deal.’ I’m glad I didn’t get in my head about it because I just went in just very free about it. I’m like, ‘I’m just going to create it and it’s going to be great.’ Luckily, I’m happy with how it turned out because I normally hate watching myself. I’m actually pleased with how this has turned out, this character. It’s definitely my favorite character of my career thus far.”

Watch the interview:

Follow Us On:

Stumble It!