NEW YORK - Once upon a time, a beautiful actress won the role of fairy-tale heroine Snow White in an enchanting new series.
Not only that, but the actress scored a parallel role. She also would play schoolteacher Mary Margaret Blanchard, a present-day transformation of Snow White who, thanks to a curse by the Evil Queen, is trapped in the village of Storybrooke, Maine, with fellow fairy-tale folk. All have forgotten their pasts as storybook characters and, now stranded in the artifice of real life, are denied every fairy-tale character's birthright: the promise of a happy ending.
The actress, of course, is Ginnifer Goodwin, whose series, "Once Upon a Time," has emerged as one of the fall season's biggest hits. It airs its second episode Sunday at 8 p.m. Eastern on ABC. Also starring on the show are Josh Dallas, Lana Parrilla, Robert Carlyle, Jared Gilmore and Jennifer Morrison as Emma Swan, a Boston bail bondswoman who is drawn into the mystery of Storybrooke (and who turns out to be Snow White's long-lost daughter).
"Once" has arrived alongside NBC's "Grimm," which, inspired by Grimm's classic fairy tales, pits a homicide detective against mythological creatures living among humans in his hometown, Portland, Oregon. It premieres Friday at 9 p.m. Eastern.
"It seems strange to me that there have been a lot of joint reviews of the two shows," says Goodwin. "The only thing I see we have in common is that we both draw from a certain expansive genre of literature."
She makes a good point. The whimsical abandon of "Once" is its own thing, recalling, if anything, other sui generis shows such as "Pushing Daisies" and "Ugly Betty" and, befitting its creators, Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, the myth-entangled "Lost," on which they both were producers.
"I was addicted to `Lost'! I'm an eekie-geekie fan of theirs!" says Goodwin, by way of explaining why she scarcely paused before joining their new project when she got the invitation.
The 33-year-old Goodwin is best known as the youngest of three sister wives to Bill Paxton on the HBO polygamy drama "Big Love," which concluded its run this year. Her films include "Mona Lisa Smile" and "Walk the Line."
Now she has the dual challenges of playing one role that was created from scratch, Mary Margaret, and one role that everyone has known from infancy, Snow White.
"I thought there might be pressure to live up to such an iconic character as Snow White," she says, but adds emphatically, "There's not. The parts of the story that we're addressing are always things that could have happened off-page. I'm not re-enacting any part of the Snow White story you've read before, or seen in a movie, nor is anybody else re-enacting parts of their stories you're familiar with.
"Besides, we throw all the fairy-tale characters together. Why couldn't Snow White and Cinderella have been friends?
The series opens with Prince Charming awakening the poisoned Snow White with a kiss. That was on last week's premiere (which drew a fantastic 13 million viewers, even up against Fox's baseball World Series and NBC's "Sunday Night Football"). The story goes on from there.
Much to Goodwin's surprise, Mary Margaret (whose pixie haircut is the style Goodwin has sported for years beneath the wigs other characters obliged her to wear) has proved to be far more demanding to play than Snow White is.
"I'm used to building a character based on that character's life experiences," she says. But Mary Margaret's life as Snow White is stripped from her memory, replaced by the curse of the Evil Queen, who, in effect, has reimagined her.
"What would the Evil Queen WANT Snow White to become? If she is vivacious and confident and optimistic in her Snow White form, then, in Mary Margaret form, the Evil Queen would want her to be subservient and insecure and lonely.
"Is she depressed? She is, but it isn't that simple. The Evil Queen wouldn't want her to be able to be self-indulgent in her depression. She would want her to be ALMOST happy, but always have things fall through; to get a taste of love, but have it ripped away, to want to have children but, after teaching other people's children, go home every day to face none of her own."
On a future episode, Mary Margaret confides that she wants marriage, kids and true love, but she sighs, "If true love was easy, we'd all have it." Adventure and romance seem always beyond reach.
"She's always on the verge, but nothing works out."
If it seems Goodwin has subjected this character to exhaustive analysis, so be it, she says, beaming: "That's what makes it fun!"
Now filming her 10th episode, "Once Upon a Time" has been loads of fun for Goodwin, including the action scenes she plays as Snow White - a first for her.
"My favorite day thus far was the day I ended up in the emergency room getting stitches in my face," she reports. That was during production of the third episode, which airs next week. "I'm still wearing a splint on my finger, months later," she adds, exhibiting it proudly.
The scene in question was part of a suspenseful rescue sequence in a forest near Vancouver, British Columbia, (where the series is filmed), complete with swordplay and horses.
"But I collided with a horse," Goodwin says, "and I was on foot. I found out what it's like to fly. I fought to hold my hand up to cover my face, and thank God, because otherwise I think I would have lost an eye. I injured my hand protecting it.
"The first thing that went through my head when I landed was, `Oh, they're not going to let me play Snow White anymore,' because I thought I had broken my face. Then I thought, `Is this the moment my career ends? I've broken my face!'"
Later, after being treated at a hospital, she listened to phone messages from alarmed network and studio executives a thousand miles away in Los Angeles. She smiles.
"I told them, `I only got like three stitches and I'm headed back to work, and I'm stopping by Starbucks on the way.'"
As real life goes, that is a storybook ending.