Once Upon a Time may be saying goodbye to Frozen, but the ABC fairy tale series won’t be void of villains for very long: A trio of evil familiar faces will make their debut in Sunday’s winter finale. EW has the exclusive first look at Maleficent (Kristin Bauer Van Straten), Ursula (Merrin Dungey) and Cruella de Vil (Victoria Smurfit), otherwise known as the Queens of Darkness.
How were these three characters chosen to join the residents of Storybrooke? Executive producers Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis walk us through the process and tease the new foes:
EW: How do you choose the next character you’re going to use?
ADAM HOROWITZ: Well, we have a giant dartboard. No. We have a lot of characters that we want to explore and have been on our wish list ever since the first couple of episodes in season 1. As we developed each season, we looked at who fits into our world, who fits into our mythology, how can we continue to build that out and what characters are the most fun to do that.
EDWARD KITSIS: For this one, we saw in the first half of the season that Regina (Lana Parrilla) was really questioning whether or not villains could get happy endings. So we knew we wanted the second half to be villains in search of their happy endings. We always wanted to bring Maleficent back. We thought, “What is the greatest team of evil we could gather to go up against?” Ursula we teased in the Ariel (Joanna Garcia Swisher) episode last year, and then Cruella, for a while, we just always wanted to bring her on the show and couldn’t figure out how because in the movie, she was kind of ’50s. You always want to put your twist on it. For us, Cruella just fit into this trio of terror.
How much access do you guys have to the Disney catalog? Are there characters that are off limits to you because of rights, or that you have decidedly said wouldn’t fit into the story?
HOROWITZ: Honestly, the process isn’t about going through the Disney catalog and flipping through the pages. The process is us thinking about which characters we’d like to have on the show. We pitch our ideas to the studio and the network and they give their feedback. They’ve been very supportive of all the characters we’ve wanted to bring on.
KITSIS: If there is a rights issue—the only time we ever encountered that was with Neverland, which we worked through.
HOROWITZ: Originally, we wanted to bring in Captain Hook (Colin O’Donoghue) in season 1 and see Neverland earlier, but there was a rights issue that wasn’t cleared up until the end of season 1. Which is why the Hook intro was at the beginning of season 2. When you go back to the pilot, you see a page in the book that flips by with flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz in it. There’s stuff we’ve had in mind from the get go that we just wanted to always get to. As we’ve been lucky enough to continue, we started to get to some of those things.
How soon after Star Wars became a property of Disney and after Frozen came out did you have to start working to get those on the show?
KITSIS: With Star Wars, those were shout outs. That’s no different than Buffy making Batman references.
HOROWITZ: We put a couple of Star Wars references here and there because we’re big Star Wars fans.
KITSIS: That’s just us having fun.
HOROWITZ: We’ve had a couple of Tron references, not because of Disney, but because of our own personal involvement with Tron, which doesn’t necessarily mean those are things we want to bring on. As far as Star Wars goes, it’s not something we want to bring on. We love Star Wars.
KITSIS: Star Wars is our favorite fairy tale. But…
HOROWITZ: As far as Star Wars goes, there are things that would fit into the world of our show, but Star Wars is not something we want to bring into the world of our show. Frozen was a different kind of thing. It felt like a more natural fit into our mythology, which is why we approached the company.
KITSIS: Anna [Elizabeth Lail] and Elsa [Georgina Haig] seemed to be a better fit than Darth Vader and Jabba. We’d love to have Darth Vader and Jabba and turn Granny’s into the Cantina. I think our audience likes the fairy tales. Although we love Star Wars, I’m not sure it’s our show.
Do you have a long term plan or list of characters you want to see on the series?
HOROWITZ: Absolutely. We have a list of characters who we want to get to, even in varying degrees of details. With some, we know very much how they fit into our mythology and how we want them to be apart of the show. Some are like, “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun to meet them for an episode?” type characters.
KITSIS: Kind of like how we did with Little Bo Peep [Robin Weigert].
HOROWITZ: Hook is an example of a character that we knew wanted to be a big part of the show.
KITSIS: Same with Robin Hood [Sean Maguire].
HOROWITZ: They were characters that we waited [to put on]. For Hook, it was a rights issue; with Robin Hood, it was a timing issue. There are other characters that, if we’re lucky enough to keep going, we want to see.
Do you police each other if somebody throws out a random crazy idea?
KITSIS: I’m not sure this is a show where there is an idea too crazy. We had Peter Pan [Robbie Kay] be Rumplestiltskin’s [Robert Carlyle] father. For us, it just has to ring true. Darth Vader just doesn’t really feel like a part of the show, but Anna and Elsa did. Their whole thing was a character who had powers, who didn’t understand them and didn’t like them, who had to come to terms with that, and a curse that was broken from true love between sisters. This is a show that has true love’s curse broken between a mom and a son. You just try to do it. Sometimes it’s just fun, like Blackbeard (Charles Mesure). We just wanted to write Blackbeard and we felt like he fit into the world of pirates. Hook needed a rival. We really started like 12-year-olds playing with toys in the backyard and mashing them up. What’s fun is we’re into our fourth season, and we’re still doing it.
HOROWITZ: On a lot of levels, it’s a gut feeling thing. For example, using the Star Wars thing, there’s something about putting Emma on a spaceship that doesn’t feel right to us. But when you talk about Robin Hood, which is not strictly a fairy tale, there’s something about the forest and the horses and that kind of environment that somehow feels right and apart of our world.
KITSIS: The place we stretched it the most would probably be Frankenstein [David Anders]. A lot of people had opinions on that.
HOROWITZ: Right. You push and you test and see what works and where you can go with things. You just try to figure out the ways you want to bring in these characters and be as sure as you can that the show will accept them and hopefully love them.
So, you’re saying these villains are teaming up to get their happy ending. Isn’t it a catch 22? To get their happy ending, aren’t they inevitably going to do something evil?
HOROWITZ: Happy ending doesn’t necessarily equal redemption, because happy endings are in the eye of the beholder.
KITSIS: Yeah, it’s what makes you happy. For instance, if watching two beloved heroes die makes you happy, well then your happy ending is probably different than the two heroes who want to see the villain die.
These are three very strong and malevolent characters, each a Queen of Darkness in their own right. Can they actually work together?
HOROWITZ: That’s part of the fun—these strong women with slightly aligned agendas, but wanting things for themselves, and watching the sparks fly between them.
KITSIS: You have three leaders who all want to lead. Of course, only one can. For us, what’s interesting is watching villains take a page from the hero playbook. Heroes always work together and never put their ego first. Villains so often put their ego first and lose. These are smarter villains coming back to correct the mistakes from their past.
Let’s talk about Cruella de Vil. Can you say what world she comes from?
KITSIS: We’re kind of taking some liberty there. We’re going to realize that our Cruella may have originated from the Enchanted Forest, and we may find out she has some magic of her own. She’s part villain, part Zelda Fitzgerald. There’s something glamorous and jazz age, but something very deadly about her as well.
HOROWITZ: She’s a fun character for us. We hopefully found a way to spin it and make her different and part of the Once universe while also having plenty of nods of the iconography of Cruella that everybody loves.
KITSIS: The actress playing her, Victoria Smurfit, is just phenomenal. It’s fun to watch.
HOROWITZ: Wait ‘til you see her car.
KITSIS: It was more expensive than Sven.
We’ve only seen a CGI Ursula before, voiced by Yvette Nicole Brown. What can you tell us about this character, and whether it means we’ll see Ariel again?
HOROWITZ: I sure hope so. When you’re in the world of Ursula, you’re also in the world of Ariel. In our story with Ariel in season 3, we saw that it occurred with a faux-Ursula in the form of the Evil Queen. But we introduced the Ursula mythology. What we’re planning to do is explore this Ursula mythology in our show and explore a backstory of who she is and what Ursula is all about.
KITSIS: We’ve always said evil is not born, it’s made. One of the things we’re so excited about with these three villains is showing their origin stories. We’ve never see the origin stories with Maleficent, Ursula or Cruella, so we’re excited about that.
What was it about Merrin Dungey that made you want to cast her as Ursula?
HOROWITZ: When we saw her turn evil on Alias, I think we fell in love with her. We’ve been big fans of hers for a long time. She is an incredibly strong actress who can do such depth and humanity at different levels to all the characters she does. That’s what we were looking for with Ursula—not someone who was straight on evil, but somebody that’s got hopefully surprising depth to her. But also toughness and strength.
Maleficent’s new costume appears to be very similar to the one Angelina Jolie wears in the film that came out this summer, in which Maleficent isn’t necessarily evil. Is the costume change a hint?
KITSIS: It’s [costume designer] Eduardo [Castro] getting creative. [He] loves to change the costumes. If you notice, sometimes Lana will have 20 changes in an episode for no reason other than we can.
HOROWITZ: To be completely honest, Maleficent appeared in the second episode of the show. Now, everyone–the writers and costume designers—have had more time to really develop the character on a character level, a visual level and special effects level.
KITSIS: I would say she’ll probably have a few more dresses before we’re done.
HOROWITZ: As far as the movie Maleficent goes, we were big fans of that movie, but we’re not doing that movie. We’re doing our spin on Maleficent. There may be nods to that movie and the classic Maleficent story—
KITSIS: Definitely nods to the classic. As Adam said, we introduced her in episode 2, so we had already been thinking about her on our own. So like Frozen, we’d stick more towards the movie. This is a case where this half of the season is going to be much more of the Once twist on all of them.
HOROWITZ: One of the things we established very early on with Maleficent in season 2 was that she and Regina had a relationship, so that’s a thread we intend to explore.
With the return of Maleficent, does that signal the return of the Aurora (Sarah Bolger)/Mulan (Jamie Chung) storyline?
KITSIS: We are definitely going to dive into Maleficent story. We will see Aurora. Mulan we love. We love Jamie Chung. We absolutely have hopes to bring Mulan back. Her story is in the laboratory right now. But she’s a great character and we’d love to see her back.
HOROWITZ: We want to continue her story. In the near term, there’s more Aurora to be had.
Regina has made an enemy of both Ursula and Maleficent. Is it safe to say she’s dealing with quite a bit in the second half?
KITSIS: Oh yes. I would say that the second half of the season, we’re really going to test Regina in a way she’s never been tested before.
HOROWITZ: She’s going to have her hands full.
KITSIS: Dragons and tentacles and Dalmatians.
Is heroes vs. villains a fair descriptor for the second half of the season?
KITSIS: Absolutely. That is the title of episode 11.
HOROWITZ: It’s “Heroes and Villains.”
KITSIS: That’s actually named after the Beach Boys song.
It feels like Rumple will fall on the side of villains, but is this a struggle for which side Regina will fall on?
HOROWITZ: I would say that’s always been a struggle for Regina. This is not going to make her struggle any easier.
KITSIS: Especially when they’re all after the same thing.
It seems like Rumple is pretty much going full evil again when we end the first half of the season. Will they be working with him?
KITSIS: The winter finale is going to set that up.
HOROWITZ: I don’t know if Rumple is ever full evil. Full evil implies a loss of humanity, and I think that as dark as Rumple gets, there’s still humanity in him that is struggling with the evil. That’s something we’re going to explore.
KITSIS: Rumple likes to think that the ends justify the means. He’s willing to do things to get what he wants, but most people won’t. In his mind, that doesn’t make him evil. He’s not cruel. He doesn’t destroy people’s lives for no reason. It’s usually because they owe him.
Emma (Jennifer Morrison) finally has her powers under control. As the savior, what role does she play going up against the Queens of Darkness?
KITSIS: The second half of the season is going to be much more psychological than magic versus magic. There’s going to be a lot of agendas at play and mystery. Regina and Emma are going to be working together to try and defeat these three.
HOROWITZ: They’re great together.
Are these three the only villains we’re going to be seeing?
HOROWITZ: Never say never.
KITSIS: This is a show about heroes. What good are heroes if they don’t have villains to fight?
Once Upon a Time airs Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.