One of the best things — and one of my favorite things — about Once Upon A Time is the ability the writers have to bring such depth and emotion to the stories we all grew up loving so dearly. Childhood favorites like Snow White and Prince Charming, Belle and Rumpelstiltskin (among others) have been given special and storied histories that are beautifully complex and surprisingly interwoven, which is part of the reason Once has garnered such fervent and dedicated fans. However, one area in which the show — and the fantasy genre in general — could stand to improve is diversity. While people of color have appeared in supporting roles like Ursula, Poseidon, and Mulan over the years, it wasn't until Once Upon A Time Season 5 that there was a non-white actor in main, legendary part. British actor Elliot Knight is the man behind the powerful sorcerer Merlin, and he sat down to chat with Bustle about his experiences as a black actor in the industry and how it feels to bring Merlin to life in a new and exciting way.
"If I think particularly about Merlin, is it a character I would have loved to have played as a kid when I first saw the TV show and movie of him? Of course — what child wouldn't? What child wouldn't be fascinated by magic and fantasy and adventure?" Knight says. "That's not something that defines or is restricted by what race you are, or what color your skin is; that's about your heart and your mind, and most things are universal for all of us."
Knight says that he hopes his casting on Once will pave the way for more shows to follow suit.
"I really appreciate that [Once] has made the choice to go against typical casting for Merlin, because I'm hoping it will be a good example that people shouldn't be afraid of things changing all the time or being not what they expect," he says. "Because how can you know if it's better or worse if you're not open to it in the first place?"
It's an especially valid point considering much of what's known about many Once Upon A Time characters comes from the unknown. Most of our knowledge about fairy tales is based on singular stories or Disney movies we remember from out childhoods, but the characters existed before Hollywood picked them up. They had lives and loves and things that happened to them, good and bad, to inform who they are. If we can accept that, say, Rumpelstiltskin is actually the "Beast" that Belle fell in love with, or that Snow White and Prince Charming had a baby that they sent through a tree portal, then what's so hard to believe that Merlin could be black? Why has Once, and the fantasy genre as a whole, been so hesitant to bring people of color into these classic roles?
"The conversation is definitely an important one, and I have a mix of experiences, if I'm completely honest," he says. "I do have moments where I don't see myself as a black actor and I don't put that label on myself. I see myself as an actor, just like anybody else would, or feel like anybody else should who is any race, wherever they are from."
Still, the actor admits that race often does, unfortunately, play a part in Hollywood's casting decisions.
"With something like Disney, it was so many years ago that most of the characters in the show were established in the original movies. The same level of diversity wasn't going to be reflected in the media because it wasn't the same then as it is now in terms of the racial makeup of society in America," Knight says. "So it's a tough one. I do think that it's something that's changing, in some places slower than other in some places. I've felt at times like it's my race that's in the way of opportunities, on occasions."
But "at the same time," he adds, "I've had some wonderful opportunities, and I've been so fortunate in terms of the things I've been able to do. The industry could definitely be more diverse, but I feel like we're on the right track."
Once has a unique opportunity to include more diversity in every facet, from actors of color to LGBT characters (something else they'll be exploring this season) and more, given that the show is, by nature, inherently imaginative and about seeing what's just beyond the surface. It's this very thing that drew Knight to the role of Merlin to begin with, he says, along with how the show's writers are able to humanize these fairy tale characters in really wonderful ways. Merlin as he exists on Once has heart, and that's what every actor aims for when looking for roles.
"I don't want people to watch the show and think, 'He's in it because he's black,'" Knight says. "I want people to watch the show and think, 'He's in it because he brought something great to the character,' and that goes for any job that I do."
Continues the actor, "What I'm interested in are characters that are written with heart and have a purpose in the story that's being told. The characters that are written just to fill space or some quota, that's all they are — they're hollow characters and a hollow character is never interesting to portray because there's no soul there to work with. I love how they cast Poseidon and Ursula in Once Upon A Time. I thought, 'That's brilliant!' I was happy to see diversity in the casting and I also thought it was a really great casting choice for those characters. I'm definitely happy to be a part of continued diversity in the show and the industry."
Here's hoping Once's decision to have the actor playing Merlin is just the beginning of more diverse castings to come.
Images: ABC (2)