Sinqua Walls Talks About His Breakthrough Role as Lancelot in Once Upon a Time and How He Intends to Portray a Knight Who Shines From the Inside Out by Diane J. Reed.
Please Note: Interview contains discussion and minor spoilers about the direction season two may take with Lancelot's character.
Ever experience that moment when goosebumps skitter down your spine because you suddenly realize you’re in the presence of someone who’s going to be a big star? Of course not! Because generally, most of us don’t stumble across Julia Roberts or Denzel Washington before they hit it big. That is, unless you’re lucky enough to call Sinqua Walls for an exclusive phone interview prior to the airing of Season 2.
With his combination of charisma, discipline, and razor-sharp intelligence, it became clear to me that this is a man who’ll go far. Add to that a rare and endearing humility, and Sinqua will probably have future audiences eating out of his hand. We’re delighted he took the time to chat with us and to give us a glimpse of why Once Upon a Time cast him as the iconic “perfect” knight of the Round Table whose tragic flaws provided us with fascinating fodder for conversation.
Diane: Hey Sinqua! Let’s begin by having you describe your audition process and how you landed the exciting part of Lancelot in Once Upon a Time.
Sinqua: Well, I went in for an audition and read for the producers and talked about the character a bit. Obviously, at the time everything was very hush-hush. So you don’t even know the name of your character—they just give you little pieces of information about how they want you to play him.
Diane: Whoa, let me get this straight - did you know you were auditioning for Lancelot?
Sinqua: No. I had an idea, but I didn’t say, “Is this Lancelot?” because I didn’t want them to turn around and say, “Well, we can’t tell you.”
Diane: Seriously? You were auditioning for a role, and you weren’t even sure who the character really was?? That’s so gutsy!
Sinqua: It happens sometimes with projects that have a lot of notoriety. They have to keep things close knit - they don’t want a lot of spoilers to get out there.
Diane: Gotcha, okay…
Sinqua: So rather than burdening someone with keeping a secret, they’d rather just give you a small amount of information as you go along. Each time I went in and read, I found out more about the character and how he expanded and got involved in the story. So I thought, “Okay, I can tell who this may potentially be.”
Diane: Did you know this character was a knight?
Sinqua: Yes, there were a few bullet points that I got right away that helped me mold the character according to his background. For example, he’s a former knight who was forced to leave his home and who became a sword for hire. At that point, I thought, “Wait a minute, sword for hire? This reminds me of Richard Gere in the film First Knight, which is about Lancelot.” I wasn’t really sure, but that certainly made me wonder about the Lancelot character.
Diane: Had you seen the film First Knight prior to the audition process?
Sinqua: I watched it a really long time ago because I was actually a huge fan of Sean Connery. 007 movies used to air a lot when I was a kid, so I watched them quite often! Then obviously, I watched First Knight again after I knew who my character was when I was doing my research on how many ways people have played Lancelot, so I could begin to hone in on how I wanted to play him.
Diane: And what kind of research did you do for this character?
Sinqua: I watched pretty much every film or television production that has ever featured Lancelot. And I did a lot of reading on his character, Guinevere, and King Arthur. Because it’s not enough to just know your own character — we often define ourselves by how we relate to others, so it’s important to know their stories and perceptions as well. Understanding their interactions has been a lot of my process. And one of the things that stood out for me is that Lancelot was stolen from his parents and raised by the Lady of the Lake, which is why he’s called Lancelot de Lac. This terrible loss really intrigued me, because children can handle a crisis like this in a wide range of ways. One might choose to rely on his or her own strength to overcome adversity and then use that to go on to become president of the United States, while another might end up living on the streets and remain a victim. Lancelot took on this challenge and rose up to be a valiant and chivalrous character, so I became fascinated by what was inside him to make that choice.
Diane: How many times did you actually go in to audition for this role?
Sinqua: I went in twice.
Diane: Wow, you must have been good!
Sinqua: Guess they liked me, right? I mean, I walked in there and said, “You guys have GOT to give me this job.”
Diane: [Bursts out laughing] Aw, did you charm them?
Sinqua: I tried! It must’ve worked!
Diane: So who was there — primarily the writers and producers, or cast members too?
Sinqua: Actually, it was just the casting department, but they were sharing my audition tapes with the others and were in direct communication with them.
Diane: Are you aware of anyone else auditioning for the same role, or do you think they might have had you in mind?
Sinqua: I’m not sure - I didn’t see anyone else when I went in, but as an actor you train yourself not to read anything into that. You just go in and do the best you can. It’s your job to tell your truth. So I didn’t see anyone else, which is always a good sign—it made me feel like was I closing in on the option bank of who they were looking at. But at the same time, you have to psyche yourself up and just let it be what it is so you don’t get too over-zealous about their reactions in the beginning, because you never know.
Diane: Had you ever seen the show, or was this something that your agent recommended?
Sinqua: I’d seen a few episodes, but after I knew I was doing the audition, I definitely watched the rest of the season and studied the writers’ style and plot lines to prepare for the role.
Diane: As far as I’m concerned, this is casting genius of the century that they put you in the role! Because near as I can tell, you’re the first African-American actor to play Lancelot on such a major stage. How do you feel about that? We’re sitting here still within the echo of Gabby Douglas’ fabulous gold medal sweep in Olympic gymnastics. Does this role strike you as that level of achievement? You’re being launched onto network TV now as the archetypal knight.
Sinqua: To a degree, yes, I do feel it. Those barriers have definitely been broken down, and it’s not without a lot of progression in our society and in our casting world. If you think about where we were in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s to where we’ve come today, our current level of diversity is a great sign of the times. I’m very conscious of the magnitude of the role I’ve been given, and I’m also aware that we’re living in a progressive time for all of us and the people of the world. We’re now looking at people solely based on their character and what they bring to the table. Hopefully, as an actor, it’s the quality of my acting that contributes to this new era of casting without barriers. This opportunity motivates me to do the best I can because I know of all the sacrifices by everyone who has come before me—they’ve brought me to this point.
Diane: So talk to me about your opportunities—you’ve appeared in a lot of what people might consider teen programming (Teen Wolf, The Secret Life of the American Teenager) where you were, quite frankly, walking around as some serious eye candy!
Sinqua: [Bursts out laughing] Thank you!
Diane: And so is everyone else who’s been cast in these shows - that’s why they’re hired. But as I watched your work, what really came through to me is that you’re bringing more depth and intelligence than the average teen actor. Do you feel that the role of Lancelot is a step up for you now to a bigger sphere of adult roles with more complexity?
Sinqua: Yes, and I’m very happy about that. I definitely think my sphere has grown, especially since Lancelot has so many nuances to his personality. He has his honor, his courage—but then he also has an affair with Queen Guinevere. In doing my research, I became aware that these are two completely different takes on the same man. In my audition process, I figured out that he definitely leads with honor first, but there’s a chink in his armor that caused him to have that affair. When you get into the psyche of someone like that, you realize he’s a very multi-layered person. In the beginning of his life, the way he lost his family and was raised by the Lady of the Lake — all of these different things had influence on his complexity. He’s a far cry from some of things I’ve done where a lot of my characters had only two or three dimensions. Lancelot has so much more to explore because of his ability to overcome, and I’m really excited about it.
Diane: Well, I gotta tell you that Lancelot, in terms of literature, is on the same level as some of Shakespeare’s greatest characters. He’s one of them most complex and conflicted dramatic characters of all time. That’s why it’s such a thrill to see you in this position. But I’m really curious to hear your perspective on how this character will play out. All I know is what we hear from the media - that you’re going to enter the stage as Lancelot who’s already been banished from Camelot. So you’re in exile. Do you perceive him as a bitter mercenary at this point? Or do you see him as a soul in search of redemption? Or do you regard him as more of an individual who’s lost to himself?
Sinqua: You know, for me it changed over time. Originally, when I went in, with the information I was given, I saw him as a banished character who sincerely had nothing to lose.
Diane: Do you mean “nothing to lose” in a dark and mercenary way, like Clint Eastwood as the Man-With-No-Name in Sergio Leone’s brutal westerns? Or do you mean “nothing to lose” as something of a springboard that could spur him on to even greater honor?
Sinqua: Exactly — the last one. And that’s how Lancelot has morphed for me. Because originally, I did view “nothing to lose” as representing Lancelot’s bitterness and anguish. But as I’ve done more research and was given more material, I now believe he’s after more of a sense of redemption. I think through this next season, you’ll see his quest is not so much to just get back to where he was, but instead to truly turn it around — this time for all the right reasons.
Diane: That’s fascinating...
Sinqua: Yes, because he’s really questing for himself. To display to the world, “I do stand for something. I’m a knight — it’s who I am and it defines me.” But Lancelot did have this one lapse because of love, and now he’s questioning who he is as a person. I think we’ll see him go through a process this season where he’s going to dig down very deep to become who he truly wants to be.
Diane: That’s exciting because I think you’ve got a character who’s going to experience a lot of growth.
Sinqua: Yeah, it’s so exciting - and I’m thankful for it. In my core, playing this character is not just about delivering the lines, it’s about getting into the mental aspect and the soul of Lancelot. Because one, he’s so iconic, and two, when you have a character with so much going on inside and so many variables to his personality, you know this is going to be a lot of fun. And all of these levels are reflected even in his walk and his sword fighting. He’s such an iconic character - it’s going to be a great time.
Diane: Now that you’ve researched Lancelot so much, I’m curious to know why, in your opinion, audiences have loved him so deeply throughout the centuries. He’s a passionate and conflicted ancient hero like King David or Tristan — these characters transgress big time, yet we still love them! Why do you think that is?
Sinqua: At the end of the day, I think it’s because of Lancelot’s honor and integrity. Even when he has to confront his infidelity, he doesn’t run from it - he’s not a guy who tries to be deceitful. We know as humans we’re all flawed, yet most people try to hide those flaws. Because of his honor, Lancelot stands up to who he is as a man. He’s a lot like our favorite superheroes such as Batman and Superman - the ones who are tangible to us are the ones we always love the most. Not the ones who are completely perfect; it’s the ones who are flawed but flecked with greatness that we respond to. We feel that they’re just like us, yet look at what they eventually become.
Diane: I think you nailed it, Sinqua—because if Lancelot had tried to hide what he did and was deceitful, we would hate him.
Sinqua: Yes, we’d hate him! We’d have to hate him because no one wants to be friends with someone you can’t trust. My mom always used to say “A liar is worse than a thief.” As long as I can trust you and know who you are and what you stand for, I can get past the rest because we all make mistakes.
Diane: And think about Lancelot’s mistakes—they’re all for love! They’re not just about creepy personal gain. He loves King Arthur! But he also fell in love with Guinevere, and that’s what’s killing them. It’s probably the greatest love triangle in literature.
Sinqua: That’s the best part about it, and what’s going to be so much fun is that I get to play that complex yet genuine conflict of caring about two people. How do you manage that? How do you have your best friend on the one hand, but then a woman that you love on the other? What I liked in Richard Gere’s film First Knight is that Lancelot met Guinevere first! Then she went off to marry King Arthur, but they had this deep connection that wasn’t allowed to grow and became forbidden because of her role as a monarch. It’s going to be interesting to see how these things play out in Once Upon a Time.
Diane: Do you think we’ll see King Arthur or Guinevere on the show later, or do you think Lancelot will go on a new and completely different kind of quest?
Sinqua: I don’t know yet. Since he’s already been banished, I don’t know if we’ll play around with flashbacks. But since there are multiple realities, and we’re always going between the present and the past, there are many possibilities to explore.
Diane: Lancelot is so fascinating because he’s one of the few knights of the Round Table who actually got to glimpse the Holy Grail, and then later in life he became a priest! So anything could happen to you — you might even end up reuniting with Guinevere in Fairy Tale land.
Sinqua: Those prayers of Henry are awfully powerful - he could lead us anywhere! [Laughs]
Diane: Speaking of Henry, he’s probably met the modern version of your character in his reality in Maine. Do you know your name in Storybrooke? I’m assuming you do… [Insert deliberate fishing here]
Sinqua: Yes, and I can’t tell you that…
Diane: Aw, fair enough! So in order to play the archetypal “perfect” night of the Round Table, I would imagine it’s a requirement for you to be in terrific shape. You’re obviously no stranger to working out, Mister Six-Pack.
Sinqua: [Laughs] Thanks!
Diane: Tell us about your workout routine and how you prepared for this role. Did you have to get pretty beefed up?
Sinqua: I try to stay fit and lean, but to be honest, that’s something I incorporate into my day-to-day life anyway. I’m actually going to play basketball later today with some friends. That’s something I like to use to stay fit because you get to run around and build up your cardio while having a good time. But yeah, I’ve definitely become knowledgeable of how immaculate Lancelot is supposed to be.
Diane: He’s the perfect knight!
Sinqua: Yeah, I gotta keep it up!
Diane: I think you’re being a little humble with us Sinqua, because you have some major sports achievements in your background. You went to college on a basketball scholarship - UC Pamona and then USF. And in high school you were a nominee for All American in basketball and you won Most Valuable Player in track. Do you think you could have considered a pro career?
Sinqua: You know, when you look at the highest level, like in the Olympics, it’s a whole separate ball game. I was fast - I was one of the fastest athletes in my school. But when you’re competing at the world level, it’s going to edge you out to the point where you’re definitely going to fail unless you’re the very best. I’ve been fortunate enough to see some friends go on to play professional basketball or football. And these guys - there’s just an intangible gift within them. They are blessed with an uncanny athleticism that can take them to the highest level. The way they move, the way their bodies recover from a workout is amazing. I was probably good enough to play at some level in professional athletics, but what I worried about as I got older was the recovery process. I had friends who could turn around the next day and be able to do two and three workouts without having to rest or even use ice. So I started to see where my athleticism was going to cap out. Athletics is something I began at ten or eleven years old to have fun and make friends - I played basketball and ran track. I just did it for that reason and I ended up excelling.
Diane: Did you have a natural ability that helped you excel, or were you incredibly disciplined?
Sinqua: I worked hard—it was a combination of the two. I had a mom and a grandma who taught me that talent can only get you so far. Even in my acting career, I think talent is only so much and if you try to rely on only that, it’s kind of lazy. So I definitely worked out two or three times a day when I was playing college ball and dedicated myself to being the best I could be to succeed. But I just knew—I mean, I can dunk and do a couple of moves. But when I saw friends who are lightning quick and have forty-five inch verticals, I thought to myself, “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to compete with them one day! He’s only 5’10” but he can jump OVER the rim, and I’m 6’2” and I’m just jumping AT the rim. There’s an issue here!”
Sinqua: You just have to be very honest with yourself at that point and say “Where’s my future really gonna be?” [Still laughing]
Diane: So when did the acting bug start to kick in for you? Is it something you carried with you your whole life, or is it something that occurred to you during basketball where you were thinking, “Maybe I ought to consider something else?”
Sinqua: No, acting is my love, my passion, and I’m so incredibly thankful that I can call it a career. Ever since I was ten or eleven years old, I had the desire and passion for acting. I did a lot of plays in school and local theater. When I got to college, I studied theater and did plays while at San Francisco playing on basketball scholarship. I majored in film and TV, studying the techniques both in front of and behind the camera—mixing those disciplines. I got to learn camera work, how to set up the shots and shoot from different angles, and then I also learned from the drama department while doing plays, so I expanded my repertoire in both mediums. For me, it was about learning how to see through a producer’s eye and an actor’s eye, which I think helps actors in front of the camera.
Diane: Were you able to graduate, or did you get jobs too quickly?
Sinqua: I got jobs while I was in school, but I did graduate! [Laughs] I have a bachelor’s degree.
Diane: That’s a really great example for kids, because you’re demonstrating that although you have talent, you still need to go on and study in your chosen profession.
Sinqua: I’m a big advocate for that, too. The best experience I ever had was when I came out of a movie theater and there were about twelve girls who recognized me. And they ran up to me to take my picture and said things like, “Oh my god, I want to be an actor!” So I asked them where they intended to study, and it turned out that one was going to NYU, one was going to Columbia, and another one was going to Yale, etc. So they were all going to these cool schools, and I was so happy to hear that because the foundation is an education. When kids tell me, “I want to be like you,” I always let them know that I went to school. Even when I was working two acting jobs and I had to fly to Los Angeles to shoot, I still made it a point to fly back to San Francisco to attend my classes, which were scheduled two days a week, so I could finish up my degree. It was very important for me to complete it so I would always have options.
Diane: Is that something your mother and your grandmother encouraged you to do?
Sinqua: I don’t know if “encourage” is the word! It was more like, “You don’t have an option.”
Diane: [Bursts out laughing] Good mom!
Sinqua: They would say, “You are going to do this, and that’s pretty much all we’re gonna to talk about.” So I would respond, “Okay!” They just knew my capacity before I did. Even in class when a teacher would come up to me and say, “Great job,” my mother would later scowl at me and say, “What did she mean, great job? You got a B! Rewrite that paper and get an A. Don’t be lazy.” My mother knew what I had in me and she didn’t settle for anything less. It all seems so funny to me now, but back then I thought she was mean!
Diane: Well yeah, but one little factoid I know about you is that even though you were so involved in sports, you managed to earn a 4.0 average your senior year in high school.
Sinqua: I didn’t want to get swatted! [Laughs]
Diane: So your mom had a pretty good “influence”, eh?
Sinqua: Aw, she had a great influence! One story I remember about my mom was when I was learning to run my multiplication tables. I just thought they were boring. So later in class, I ended up not passing a test. The teacher came up to my mom afterwards and said “He needs help with these. We could put him in tutoring—maybe it’s too hard for him to grasp.” And my mom told her, “Sinqua will know these multiplication tables by TOMORROW.” And by the time I came back the next day, believe me, I had them down! That’s how my mom was—she just knew I was being lazy.
Diane: She sounds great! Did you tell your mom you wanted to be an actor?
Sinqua: Yeah, I told her when I was really young, like eleven. And my mom’s response, which I’m thankful for now, was “Okay, great. You’re going to finish school, you’re going to college, and then you can be an actor.” I know some parents aren’t as supportive, but when I got done with school, my mom said, “It’s your world now. You get to make your own choices.” And it helped that I was working while I was in school, so she could see for herself that I was going to make this happen.
Diane: So she saw your dedication. When you were little, what do you think inspired your choice to become an actor? Did you have any favorite programs or films?
Sinqua: One of my favorite movies growing up was The Radio Flyer [starring Elijah Wood & Tom Hanks]. It came on HBO several times during the summer while I was home. I watched it and started acting it out, setting up the different scenes in my room. For example, when the characters were at the table, I would sit down and play all the parts. I just knew then that this was what I wanted to do. Most of my friendships were through sports, but my passion was always for the arts. So sometimes my friends would come over and help me out with a scene, and I’d be telling them to be this guy or that guy or pretend to hold the camera, and then they’d say “Uh, can we go outside and play now?”
Diane: Did you feel like the oddball among them?
Sinqua: No, I just felt like everyone has their own thing, and luckily, I didn’t care too much about what other kids thought. And I’m thankful the arts were encouraged in my school and I was never shunned. It’s fortunate that I was good at sports, so I could still fit in.
Diane: Can you tell me what’s been the most inspiring thing about working on the set of Once Upon a Time, since we can’t give away any spoilers about your two upcoming episodes?
Sinqua: One thing that really struck me is how hard everyone works on the set, and yet they continue to have such a pleasant demeanor take after take - that really inspires me, and I hope it continues. Also the fans’ response - it’s really great when people receive your work so well. When you walk into an experience like Once Upon a Time, you never know what’s going to happen. But people have already embraced my character and voiced their excitement about the first African-American Lancelot to be cast, and that’s incredible to be welcomed with opened arms! It’s been the best part of the whole process. The fans are so receptive to changes in the show and the way it’s being molded, and that’s really exciting to me.
Diane: You’ve already gained a lot of fans from your work on Teen Wolf, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, and Shark Night 3D - you have a crazy number of fans on Twitter, right? Over 11,000?
Sinqua: [Laughs] Yeah, I guess so!
Diane: So you’re no stranger to off-the-charts popularity—was that a weird thing to get used to at first? People clamoring for you?
Sinqua: Not really - it’s not something you can wrap your head around. There’s nothing that can fully prepare you for being recognized or having people ask to take your picture. I remember attending the premiere of Shark Night 3D, and when I got out of the car there were three guys who wanted to take their pictures with me. I saw that they already had my pictures in their hands, which was kind of flattering, so I told them “Sure, no problem.” Then as we were walking, we turned around a corner and I suddenly saw about 400 people yelling and running towards me.
Diane: Oh my god - what did you do?
Sinqua: In that moment, I had to stop and go “Whoa!” And for a second I just said to myself, “Okay, who you gonna be now?” So I decided to pause for a moment and take it all in and then say “Hey guys, how y’all doin’?” After that, everything was great. My mom always told me “Just be yourself,” and when I do that, everything turns out fine. So it’s never affected me in a negative way, and I really appreciate all of the positive attention.
Diane: So I’m dying to know, did you have to learn how to water ski before getting struck by the shark in Shark Night 3D?
Sinqua: Wakeboard! And yeah, it was a daunting task! [Laughs]
Diane: Did you have a stunt double do that incredible flip in the air?
Sinqua: When you see me just riding along on the wakeboard, that’s me. But when you see all of those flips and stuff, that’s a guy who’s the number two in the world at that. I wish that was me! But it’s John Palma - he’s amazing. He was my wakeboarding coach as well - such a great, generous guy, and he made me feel like I could one day be a pro, even though there was no chance of that ever coming true! [Laughs] We shot about 55 to 60 percent of that movie in the water, so I was on that wakeboard EVERY DAY.
Diane: Wow, were you starting to feel like the actors on the Titanic?
Sinqua: Yeah, you just have to get your sea legs under you and learn the ways of the water, which I had no experience with. But once you get used to the boat rocking, you’re like, “Okay, we’re cool; I can do 9 more hours of this.”
Diane: You know, every interview I’ve seen of yours, you talk a lot about these behind-the-scenes production moments and the logistics of filming. Do you think directing might be in your future?
Sinqua: If I’m inspired enough and I feel like I can tell the truth of the story, then yes. But I don’t want to have delusions of grandeur. I really admire Christopher Nolan and Jeffrey Elmont—directors who just have that natural knack and talent. They’re so inspiring and they make everything look seamless! So I would never want to go that route of directing just because I have the opportunity, and then create something that doesn’t look credible enough. But writing and producing? Definitely! I will write and I will produce.
Diane: What kind of writing would you like to do? Sinqua: I love it all! I’m a huge fan of romantic comedies—I want to write at least one of those. And I love Harrison Ford movies and also Wesley Snipes in Passenger 57 where it all comes down to “I gotta save my wife!” Diane: [Bursts out laughing] Right on!
Sinqua: [Belly Laughs] Yeah, it’s all about the wife—don’t mess with my wife!
Diane: That’s a big part of Pulp Fiction, too. Throughout all the violence and mayhem, the only thing that really scares the hit men is the guy’s wife coming home! Don’t piss off the wife!
Sinqua: You know what’s funny? I read this article recently about Bruce Willis while I was on the plane, and the article said in Arnold Schwarzenegger and Harrison Ford movies, it’s all about the wife. But for Bruce Willis, it’s always about his kid.
Sinqua: So I want to do those movies!
Diane: You’d be fabulous! Are those your dream roles for the future? Or do you have dream actors and directors who you’d like to work with?
Sinqua: YES! One would be Christopher Nolan and another would be Martin Scorsese. And then there’s that amazing German director Jeffrey Elmont. Those are the three I’d love to work with on a grand scale in a large feature of some sort just because of how incredibly talented they are. They honestly inspire me. When you see it done so well, you just say “That’s it.” You know it when you see it. And I would love to at some point play Jason Bourne. I love those characters who are tired of getting beat up by life, and who stand up and turn around and say “Bring it on!”
Diane: Did you ever see that film with Jamie Foxx as the taxi driver who has does that?
Sinqua: Yeah, Collateral! With Tom Cruise—that’s the movie that came out right before Fox won the Oscar for Ray. I love characters like that, who make that choice. They’re a lot like Lancelot—they tap into their inner sense of honor and courage to take life head on.
Diane: Well that brings us full circle in this interview about your role as Lancelot, Sinqua. Do you have any parting words for your fans? Because you’re going to have a lot more of them now!
Sinqua: My parting words are — tweet me and say hello! And if you see me on the street, don’t be a stranger. I’m a nice guy, so don’t be shy. Thank you so much, and I’ll talk to you guys again soon.
Huge thanks to Sinqua for taking time to chat with Diane. Sinqua will make his debut on Once Upon A Time when the series returns for season two on September 30th on ABC.
You can follow him on Twitter here: Sinqua Walls