In ONCE UPON A TIME, now in its seventh and final season on ABC Friday nights, the action has moved from the enchanted town of Storybrooke, Maine, to the somewhat more modern environs of Seattle, Washington State. Mekia Cox has joined the cast for this last year as aspiring food truck entrepreneur Sabine. Due to a curse, Sabine doesn’t realize that she is really Princess Tiana (the first African-American Disney princess, originally introduced in the animated film THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG), nor that her best friend and business partner Jacinda is really the likewise bewitched Cinderella.
Cox is also a regular on NBC’s CHICAGO MED. Her character Robin Charles was in a coma at the beginning of the season, which helped allow her to schedule her ONCE UPON A TIME work. The actress, born in the U.S. Virgin Islands and raised in Florida, has also been in stage tours of the musicals FAME and SMOKY JOE’S CAFÉ. Cox’s other TV and film credits include 90210, UNDERCOVERS, MOB CITY, KEY & PEELE, CRAZY STUPID LOVE, GOTHAM and SECRETS AND LIES.
Speaking by phone, Cox talks about how her ONCE UPON A TIME gig is in effect a dream come true.
ASSIGNMENT X: When you got cast on ONCE UPON A TIME, did you know that Sabine was going to turn out to be Princess Tiana?
MEKIA COX: By the time I had gotten cast, I knew, but when I went in for the actual audition, I did not know. They just had her written as Sabine. And they gave us dummy sides, so it’s not like I had anything from the actual script. So I really had no idea of what I was going in for. Of course, once I found out, I was just so excited. But I found out during the audition that the role was going to be Tiana. That changed things a little bit for me.
AX: When you were a very little girl, did you think, “I want to be a princess”? I mean, is this fulfilling any sort of childhood fantasy, or is it just like, “Okay, this is new”?
COX: It’s very much fulfilling a fantasy that was very specific to me as a kid. My first professional job in entertainment was dancing as a Kid of the Kingdom at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida. And I was seven at the time, and I thought I had made it [laughs]. I knew that once you turned eighteen, you could come back and you could work at Disney and you could be one of the Disney princesses, so I was always excited, knowing that eventually I would be able to get back there to do that. But then I realized, “Wait a second. There is no actual Disney princess for me to be able to play.” And it wasn’t until 2009, when THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG came out, that I got really excited for some little girl out there who has the same dream that I had, and would actually be able to have it come true. I never thought that that would actually be me. So once I found out I was going to be a specific Disney princess, the first black Disney princess, I was elated to be able to fill those shoes.
AX: Were you a fan of ONCE UPON A TIME, and/or THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG, before you got the role?
COX: I was a fan of the movie, for sure. I did not get to watch the show until I found out about me getting the part. I went back and I saw I was missing out on this whole world of fun and fantasy [laughs]. But it was six seasons that I’ve had to go back and try and watch. I’ve peaked around in a couple of seasons, but I wanted to make sure that I understood what happened in the last couple seasons, because there are a few references back to stuff that’s happened in the past. Of course, some of the stuff that happened in the beginning I understand, but there is some stuff more recently that really ties into what’s happening now on the show, and so I wanted to make sure that I fully understood that. My mom, the first episode we watched, she was like, “Okay, this is great, but I’m confused.” [laughs] Now that she’s watched a few episodes, she’s like, “Okay, I’m in, I understand it, I get it.”
AX: Tiana is one of the few ONCE UPON A TIME characters who doesn’t have parent problems. She has a nice mom who loves her.
COX: That is true. I hadn’t thought about that, but that is true. And Robin [Givens, who plays Tiana’s mother Eudora] is also a wonderful mother to have [laughs]. Yeah, I guess I never thought about it. I love my own mama, so it makes sense.
AX: Do you have more fun playing Sabine or Tiana?
COX: It’s different, because Sabine gets a few of the funnier lines, I guess, but you’re starting to see that in Tiana a little bit more. Sabine is closer to who I am. She’s actually probably one of the closest characters to myself that I’ve ever played. But then you can’t beat getting to put on fancy princess dresses, or getting to put on leather-strapped boots and play with a sword. That part is fun in itself, and to get to these lands that you imagine in your head, you get to see it and then play in them. So I really like both roles, just for different reasons.
AX: Sabine is good with a sword. Had you as an actor had any kind of sword training, maybe back in acting school, or was this a brand-new experience?
COX: This was brand-new, but I have to say, our stunt coordinator on set, the first time I used it, he was like, “You’re kind of handy with a sword” [laughs]. It comes naturally to me. But I’d say that scene in Episode Five where I hold a sword on Dr. Facilier [Daniel Francis] is the first time.
AX: Sabine also kisses a frog in that episode. When you started to read that episode, were you thinking, “Oh, no, am I literally going to have to kiss a frog?”
COX: [laughs] No. I have not had that problem, only because they have a lot of CG and a lot of animatronics. So even if that were the case, I don’t think I would actually have to kiss a frog, but I really liked what [series creators and show runners] Andy [Kitsis] and Adam [Horowitz] ended up doing with that episode. They put a little bit of a twist on it. That was fun. Getting to be around that frog – it was a big frog, and at first, you’re a little bit nervous about it. But eventually it grew on me, and I thought it was a super-cute frog.
AX: So that was actually a live frog.
COX: Well, part of it was. The garden scene was in the gardens up here in Vancouver, and whatever kind of a frog it is, it was not allowed out of the cage. Because if it got out of the cage, it could basically mess up the environment of that garden, so we had to make sure we kept it locked in the cage. I think originally I would have put it in my hand, but because of that [rule], we weren’t allowed to do that, and they ended up doing animatronics. [On set], they give you two different kinds. One looks like a clearly fake green frog, and another one they used to make the CGI. It’s green and it’s gray, and it’s got little markings on it. It tells them where the light is. But there’s no real frog that’s in there. In the end, it looks amazing.
AX: At the same time, you’re still on CHICAGO MED. How are you juggling that?
COX: Oh, there was a lot of juggling. ONCE UPON A TIME started shooting, and then a week later, CHICAGO MED started shooting. So at the beginning of the week, I’d be in Vancouver; halfway through the week, I’d fly to Chicago and shoot there. So of course I was super-happy to be working and grateful that I had a job. However, it was a lot [laughs].
AX: How does it feel going from the hyper-realistic style of CHICAGO MED to the lightly fantasy style of ONCE UPON A TIME’s Seattle to the heavy fantasy of the show’s fairytale realm?
COX: It’s definitely different. This type of show isn’t like anything else I’ve ever done, the amount of times we’ve had to go into what they call Zeus [the Environmental Unification System, or Z.E.U.S.], which is our green screen room. There are times where, outside in the forest, it’s amazing, it’s beautiful, and you don’t have to imagine anything, because it’s all there for you, and then there are other times where we’re literally in a big green room, and you have to imagine everything is there for you [laughs]. So it’s completely different – there’s a little bit of a different skill set that you start to learn and you have to use. One thing I will say, though, is, yes, Chicago is cold, but all of those CHICAGO shows happen to be on one of the nicer sets when it comes to weather, because since it’s a medical show, we are inside the majority of the time, which is nice. For this show, that’s not exactly the case, and Vancouver, although it does not get as cold as Chicago, it is a very wet city during the winter months. We were out until odd hours of the morning in the cold and rain and mud in princess dresses. So that is a little bit different for me.
And then in terms of the roles, it’s funny, I remember I was working on CHICAGO MED, and Michael Watson was directing. He’s also one of the producers, and he tapped me, and he was like, “Can you turn your tone down a little bit?” And I realized, uh-oh, I had slipped into Sabine for a second [laughs]. The tone of my voice switched into the wrong character for a second, and I had to bring it back and remember, “Okay, where is Robin, where does she live, find her tone, and bring her back down.
AX: How is working with Dania Ramirez, because a lot of your scenes in ONCE UPON A TIME are with her?
COX: Dania cracks me up [laughs]. She’s truly been great. She’s a fun soul, she’s a great energy to have on set. I often call her Human Jukebox, because she’ll just come up with the randomest songs and she pulls them out of thin air and she’ll just start singing them, and I’m always there to be her backup dancer. She’s great, she’s a lot of fun to work with, and we really enjoy each other, so we’ve had a good time on set.
AX: You’ve played a lot of different characters in the middle, but when you were a regular on UNDERCOVERS, your character was a caterer, and on ONCE, you’re a baker/food truck owner, so you’ve got a food theme running through here. Did you have to actually learn how to bake anything for Sabine, or look like you know how to bake?
COX: There was more on UNDERCOVERS in terms of learning how to cook stuff, which I’m surprised about, than there has been on this show. It’s funny, though, because I do feel like Sabine has been a bit of a different version of Lizzie [in UNDERCOVERS], but there was more stuff that I learned in terms of cooking on that show. But it’s also different. She’s done a lot more baking on this show than Lizzie did on UNDERCOVERS, but I haven’t had to actually bake that much stuff. In UNDERCOVERS, that was a full working kitchen with stoves. I remember turning those on and firing them up. Now we’re fixing up this food truck and we’ve started to get that going, and maybe you’ll see Sabine cooking a little bit more. But I haven’t had as much of that as I would have thought.
AX: Have you had to learn anything for either Sabine or Tiana, like how to walk in a princess dress without tripping?
COX: Oh, yeah. That is an acquired skill, for sure [laughs]. And how to run. That’s another one. Because I actually had a little bit of a fall. My foot got stuck in the hem of my dress, and I had a little bit of a trip. But that is something you definitely have to learn how to do, and then on top of it, sometimes you have stuff – like I had a lamp in my hand, so I had to pick up my dress with one hand, and these dresses aren’t small. There’s your outer dress, and then there’s the petticoat, and then there’s stuff underneath, so you’ve got to pull everything up to be able to jog in your boots down rocks. So yeah, it’s something that you’ve got to pick up that skill set and get good at that.
AX: Are you getting fan mail, or fan Tweets, about Sabine/Tiana?
COX: I have been. The fan mail has been very sweet. I’ve had a Sabine doll made for me, which is awesome, and I love her. And yeah. The fans have been welcoming and they make me happy. In general, I don’t think they realize how much their words actually mean for us, and how much they help us.
AX: Do you have any other projects going on we should know about?
COX: I have a production company called 42Seven Productions, and we do shows at the W Hotels in L.A. and New York and occasionally in Chicago and London. Every Thursday and Sunday we have a show going on there, Thursday night with our LIVE IN THE LIVING ROOM show, on Sunday, it’s our SUNDAY SOIREE show, and we have up and coming artists come in and perform, and for me, coming from theatre, and musical theatre and the stage, I missed hearing music, and I missed performing, and that is why this company started. Now, we’re just happy to give a platform to others, because there’s so much talent out there, and we want to make sure that it’s seen and heard.
AX: And what would you most like people to know about ONCE UPON A TIME?
COX: To watch every Friday at 8 on ABC. It’s an awesome show, an awesome cast. I really love the people here and I’m having a fun time.
Related: Exclusive Interview: ONCE UPON A TIME co-creator Adam Horowitz on the Season 7 reboot
Related: Exclusive Interview: ONCE UPON A TIME co-creator Edward Kitsis on Season 7 reinvention
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Article: ONCE UPON A TIME: Actress Mekia Cox on playing real-life Tiana – exclusive interview