Christie Laing’s journey to network success began in the comfortable place where most of us find ourselves at some point on any given day: in front of the TV.
It was there that a prepubescent Laing, seated beside her sisters in their White Rock family home, flipped on the television to watch, well, Flipper.
The television series starred a 14-year-old Jessica Alba. In Alba, Laing saw something that she’d never before seen on television: a reflection of herself.
“Not that Jessica Alba and I have even remotely the same heritage, but it was the first time my sisters and I saw someone who looked like us,” recalls the Vancouver-based actress, who describes herself as mixed race.
But relating to someone on television compelled Laing to open her mind to possibilities that she probably wouldn’t have considered otherwise: the possibility of an enduring career in television; the possibility of immersing herself in the performing arts; the possibility of being an inspiration to others, as Alba had been an inspiration to her.
These days, Laing spends more time onscreen than sitting in front of it. The last couple of years have been particularly busy, with Laing recurring on not one but two hit shows: CW’s Arrow (as Diggle’s relative, Carly), and ABC’s fantasy series Once Upon a Time, where she plays Maid Marian.
Laing first appeared in the third season finale of Once Upon a Time, when (through a series of events that included time travel and realm-jumping) Maid Marian showed up in Storybrooke, seemingly derailing the romance developing between her husband Robin Hood (Sean Maguire) and Regina (Lana Parrilla), the reformed Evil Queen.
“Having a dad who’s black and a mom who’s white, I never thought I’d get to do period pieces. I didn’t think I’d ever get to wear a corset,” says Laing, who returns to Once Upon a Time on April 12 in an episode entitled ‘Heart of Gold.’
“Getting to play Maid Marian, and looking the way I do, and getting to wear those costumes and play that time in that magical land, it’s been, hands down, something I never, ever, ever thought I would get to play, and it’s been the coolest.”
Laing’s numerous appearances on Once Upon a Time have garnered her a dedicated fan base (#Maidens), hundreds of whom she’s met while filming on location in Steveston.
“I can only imagine for myself to, let’s say, be on the set of Flipper and getting to meet Jessica Alba back in the day; I would have lost my mind,” laughs Laing. “It makes you remember that what you’re doing is maybe helping other people get through the day, and exciting them, and that’s what got me interested in it in the first place.”
Laing also derives much pleasure from her scenes with Parrilla, who (according to this biased #EvilRegal columnist) surfs the nuances of her good-girl-gone-evil-gone-good role to maximum impact.
“Lana is definitely one of my favourite people to work with. She’s extremely giving, and almost like an accordion in the way that she works and acts,” says Laing. “I imagine this kind of expansion and compression. I can only imagine how exhausting it is for her.”
It’s not a straight line from Flipper to Once Upon a Time. In high school, Laing studied dance, auditioned for (and booked) commercials and TV series, and wrestled with intense shyness.
“It was weird to be such an introvert and yet feel like I could go to school, and put on an act, and pretend to be someone to get through the day,” says Laing.
Those feelings are largely behind her now.
“I feel authentic,” says Laing, whose lengthy credit list includes Smallville, Supernatural, Scary Movie 4, and Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce. “There’s no pretend, or people pleasing, or any of that kind of stuff. You are who you are.”
Next up for Laing is UnREAL, a fictional behind-the-scenes look at the chaos surrounding the production of a dating competition program.
Laing plays Shamiqua, a show contestant.
“All of the girls on this show are smart and well-educated, but you put all of these people in this scenario, and it’s almost like a return to high school lunch break,” says Laing.
UnREAL screened to rave reviews last month at SXSW 2015, and will premiere on Lifetime beginning June 1.
Laing’s advice for emerging actors is the same that she’d give to a younger version of herself.
“Keep your curiosity, and don’t get so discouraged by trying to be someone you’re not, or trying to be what’s on the page,” says Laing. “Do the work, but be true to yourself, because the minute that you start trying to people please, you’re inauthentic, and nobody wants to be around a people pleaser.”
Once Upon a Time airs Sundays at 7pm on CTV.
MORE FROM CHRISTIE LAING
On what to expect from the April 12 episode of Once Upon a Time: “There’s more coming. I can say that. It’s going to be good. I feel really blessed about the stuff that Adam [Horowitz] and Eddie [Kitsis] have written for the character. I didn’t know I would get to do so much with the character, so I can’t wait for this episode to come out.”
On being friends with other actresses: “When I was younger, and I would sit in audition rooms, and I would think, ‘oh my gosh, she’s prettier than me, she’s better for the role.’ I’d never talk to them. The more you get to know other people, the more you get to realize how different you are, that the way you say things is different, the way you move is different, and that’s why you love your friends is because they are who they are, and you are who you are. Even if you tried to do exactly the same thing, you’re never going to do the exact same thing in the audition room. It frees you from the competition. But if you sit there and you don’t connect with other people, and you don’t even try to get to know them, it’s very easy, I think, to feel competitive. There’s no competition. You’re just working against yourself, and you just want to be your best self. Either you’re right for the project, or you’re not.”
On the challenges she’s faced in her career: “The biggest challenge I’ve faced has been myself: the voice in my head just psyching me out. Or losing momentum every once in a while. I’ve had some big opportunities that I’ve been up for, and lost, and it’s so easy to sink inside your own world and think, ‘you’re never going to succeed, you’re never going to get there.’ Being an actor is more about getting back up when you’ve been knocked down, than staying on top.”
On her friend and mentor, Rebecca Mader, who plays Zelena on Once Upon a Time: “I call her my fairy godmother now, but Rebecca Mader, who played the Wicked Witch on Once Upon a Time, she’s been a huge mentor recently. We’re kind of new friends, but it’s a friendship I value a lot. She has a lot of insight. She’s worked really hard and she’s had a lot of ups and downs in the industry, so it’s just nice to talk to someone else and realize, okay, this is quite a journey.”
On the myth of overnight success: “The most frustrating thing is that a lot of people who are interviewed about being an actor, they say, “Oh, it happened overnight!” They’re an “overnight success.” “I was walking down the street, and someone discovered me.” Although, yes, that might be the case with a handful of people, that just not the case for most people. A lot of people have to work really hard. Even those people [the “overnight successes”] worked really hard.”
On her love of the Housewives franchise: “I’m a Housewife junkie. That’s my disgusting, guilty pleasure. The episodes are so quick, and I can just pop them on and then I can get back to whatever I need to do. I pretty much watch fifteen minutes to a half hour of TV a day. I love the New York one, Beverly Hills, Orange County.