Jennifer Morrison. Photo: Thomas Whiteside.

Jennifer Morrison. Photo: Thomas Whiteside.

ABC’s hit series Once Upon A Time might be on hiatus till the fall, but that doesn’t mean that Jennifer Morrison isn’t keeping busy. Apart from playing our favorite blonde-haired savior, Emma Swan, the 36-year-old actress has been filming scenes for the family fantasy film AlbionRise Of The Danann, all while getting comfortable in the director’s chair with her directorial debut, Warning Labels.

Having premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, the 14-minute short tells the story of two Center for Disease Control workers who meet up for drinks and come to the realization that love is “the most hazardous thing of all.” Starring Karen Gillan (Selfie, Doctor Who), Josh Lawson (House of Lies), Rose McIver (iZombie) and Eric Christian Olsen (NCIS: Los Angeles), this eloquently crafted comedy-drama showcases the often tragic and perilous implications of love, while enunciating the fact that we need to look beyond the surface to see the unique core and foundation of an individual.

During the course of the festival, Morrison was kind enough to answer some of our questions. Read on to find out what she had to say about her experience working behind the camera lens, our basic need to connect, the concept behind Warning Labels, and Emma Swan’s inward struggle and vulnerability as she takes a walk on the dark side.

GALO: Warning Labels is your first directorial debut. Can you tell us a little bit about what that experience was like for you — what did you enjoy most about it? And what was it about the script of this short film that inspired (or rather enthralled) you to pursue it from the director’s chair?

Jennifer Morrison: I loved directing and I will absolutely do more if it. I had an incredible producing team, outstanding actors, and a crew that made my job very easy. I wanted to make a film that was inspired by the directors I love and the movies I love. I wanted to try out the things that I personally like and respond to when I watch a film. The script for Warning Labels had a memorable idea that allowed for a stylized world and a strong undercurrent of thought-provoking ideas. It is real people with real problems in a stylized world.

GALO: Now that you’ve had a taste for being behind the camera, do you have any specific projects in mind or even aspirations in terms of genre and technique? There are instances when actors direct episodes of shows they’re starring in. Is this something you’d enjoy doing if given the opportunity?  

JM: I optioned a script from Warrior writer, Anthony Tambakis, called Sun Dogs. We are in the process of setting up financing so [that] we can hopefully shoot during my hiatus from OUAT in 2016.

GALO: Warning Labels is an incredible story that not only hits on the subject of love and how it can be hazardous to an individual, but also is a statement about knowing the other person and being inclined to find out what’s underneath. Why do you think that we sometimes settle for the wrong person, one that doesn’t truly understand us or takes the time to know us inside and out, like in the case of Karen Gillan’s character? Are we afraid of being alone?

JM: I think love and connection are complicated and never the same for any two people. We all have strengths and weaknesses based on our childhoods and our heartaches from lost love or unrequited love. Those strengths and weaknesses make love an adventure, no matter what your journey is. Sometimes feeling safe is the most important thing for someone, and I refuse to call that a form of “settling.” Sometimes feeling free and adventurous are the most important elements for someone, and I refuse to call that “being lonely.” We all have to find our own path toward connectedness to coincide with a sense of self and self-worth. It is definitely tough in a time when busy schedules and intense technology rule, but we are also in a time where therapy and self-discovery are also celebrated and encouraged. We all enter the forest from a different point. As Joseph Campbell always said, “Follow your bliss.”

GALO: I thought it was a very touching moment when Karen Gillan’s character says, “No one’s ever gotten close enough to read the fine print.” That was definitely a tearjerker moment! It is no mystery that in our current society, it is becoming harder to find time to communicate with others, much less commit to someone. Is this occurrence in the film something that you think most people can relate to at one point in their lives? Why do you think that there are instances when we don’t take the time to get to know someone — are we afraid to find out what’s underneath? And what can people do to prevent this from happening in their lives?     

JM: I think that vulnerability feels scary for most people. We tend to divert closeness in order to self-preserve. The fear of rejection is so powerful, but when you really think about it though, it’s exactly as Gil says to Mindy in that moment, “You don’t need it.” Symbolically, I feel like he is saying that to all of us. We don’t need to be afraid of rejection, or vulnerability, or what other people think. When you really think about it, what does it matter? Why are we so conditioned to care about what other people think? We should be focused on knowing ourselves well enough to think for ourselves. Humans are survivors, and we are incredibly resilient. I’d rather rip the bandage off and deal with it.

GALO: Everyone in the film has their own label, which, of course, can change depending on the circumstances they find themselves in. Imagine for a second that this occurrence happened to everyone in this world. Do you think that this would benefit individuals or open them up to unnecessary hurt? It is almost like the notion of wearing one’s heart on a sleeve, but to an even higher degree. Wouldn’t it take away the mystery of getting to know someone and perhaps even be detrimental to social circumstances, or would communication be easier because one would know who the other person is and what they expect and desire?

JM: I don’t know if labels assigned to us by the universe would help us or not. What I was hoping to express through the labels in the film was that the labels say what we really instinctively know about each other right away, we just don’t trust ourselves or ignore the truth because we are desperate to connect. We need to learn to trust ourselves and our instincts. Then the warning labels wouldn’t matter one way or the other.

GALO: I loved the small cameo you had at the end — a welcome surprise. Your label read, “Always Open.” Care to explain?

JM: Yes, that was my little hat tip to Hitchcock. The label “Always Open” is an inside joke because diners are always open, and [so] it made it very difficult for us to find a diner location that we could afford. It was quite a scouting process.

Actors Karen Gillan and Josh Lawson. Cinematographer: Djordje Arambasic.

Actors Karen Gillan and Josh Lawson. Photo Credit: Cinematographer Djordje Arambasic.

GALO: As mentioned before, Warning Labels definitely hits the mark on the implications of love; the actions one takes and how they affect another individual when people part, the imprint they leave on us. I’m curious, though, what would you like viewers to take away from this short? Is there a certain subject matter you’d like them to think about once the credits start to roll?

JM: My hope is that everyone has their own unique response to the film. I wanted to make a film that gave people space to have their own thoughts and ideas about all of the characters as well as the situation they find themselves in. The hope is that everyone infuses their own desires for connection into the film and examines their thoughts from there.

GALO: Warning Labels was part of the program “Interference” at the Tribeca Film Festival, which spoke to futuristic and fatalistic storylines. Do you feel that this placement was fitting for your short film, and what is the future of this film now that the festival is coming to a close? Will you be releasing it on VOD or continuing to showcase it at other festivals? It would be a shame to not have it seen by a wider audience in my humble opinion.

JM: We have been incredibly fortunate to have a distribution offer that we are currently negotiating. The film will be in theaters for several festivals as well as when it is officially released. It will then have a life on iTunes and other online formats.

GALO: Fans and readers would never forgive me if I did not take a moment to ask at least one or two questions about Once Upon A Time. Therefore, I’d like to take this moment to do just that, if you don’t mind. Recently, we saw Emma cross a line that led to Cruella de Vil’s death. Although she was protecting her son, Henry, how do you think this pivotal moment will affect your character in the long run as well as her relationship with her loved ones? Will there be dire consequences to who Emma is and who she becomes? Is this something she can come back from or will her actions leave a footprint on her mind and heart? I can’t help but think that this moment will somehow bring her and Regina even closer together. (Since this interview took place, we saw Emma become the “Dark One,” which further supports the point of whether this heroic move might have some negative repercussions on her persona.)

JM: I see Emma as having an empty space in her where the darkness was taken out of her in the womb. That emptiness has unknowingly haunted her. She has fought her whole life to rise above the bad things that have happened to her. When she feels betrayed by the lies of her parents — and she feels responsible for the darkness in Lily’s life — I felt that the empty spot started to fill with all of the hurt, anger, rage and pain that she has always pushed down and avoided. A well of darkness that she has avoided begins to pool inside her and starts filling that empty spot. The red in her eyes, her pale skin…it is meant to be the outward manifestation of that pain and rage pooling inside her. We are all capable of great things and we are all capable of terrible things. Emma is stretched so thin. She initially had no break from the struggles of her early life, and recently she has had no break from the pressures of being “the savior.” She is starting to crumble internally because she has had no time to be true to herself or to heal herself. This leaves her vulnerable to bad choices or at least extreme choices. She kills Cruella out of the sheer primal instinct to save her child. She is in the darkest place she has ever been, but with good reason. Her whole life has lead up to this moment. Her family and friends will help her fight to overcome this darkness and she will rise above it, but it does show that she will do whatever it takes to save the people she loves, even at the expense of her own soul.

GALO: This season of OUAT has revolved very much around happy endings. While we still don’t know what will occur in the next few episodes in terms of the characters getting theirs, I was wondering what do you think Emma’s happy ending is, or rather what is the one thing she deserves most in your opinion? And how about yourself, in the story of your life, what is your happy ending (or are you already living it by following your dreams)?

JM: I always feel like happy endings should be called “happy beginnings.” I mean, the real end is death, right? Anyway, I do believe Emma deserves a happy beginning. I also believe that the writers are doing an incredible job showing that sometimes heroes do bad things for good reasons and sometimes villains do good things for bad reasons. As always, it is all very complicated.

I feel like I am very lucky to have many happy beginnings playing out in my life. I also look forward to the surprises that await [me]. Who knows when a happy beginning is just around the corner?

Video courtesy of Joe Talbot Hall.

Keep your eyes and ears peeled for more news about “Warning Labels” on Jennifer Morrison’s Twitter @jenmorrisonlive as well as @WarningLblsFilm. Did you miss the season finale of “Once Upon A Time?” Catch up on all season 4 episodes now via Hulu or iTunes. || Featured image: ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” stars Jennifer Morrison as Emma Swan. Photo: ABC/Bob D’Amico.