Yes, Hallmark Channel’s annual Countdown to Christmas starts tonight at 10 p.m., bringing viewers round-the-clock holiday movies — including 19 new ones filmed for 2016.
Fans who return year after year will be happy to hear that many of their favorite Countdown to Christmas actresses and actors (who frequently appear in other seasonal Hallmark movies as well as Hallmark Movies & Mysteries originals) are back again as well. We caught up with eight of them — Lacey Chabert, Danica McKellar, Lori Loughlin, Alicia Witt, Rachel Boston, Cameron Mathison, Gregory Harrison, and Paul Greene — to dish on why they like to come home to Hallmark for Christmas, the challenges and fun of filming a Christmas movie over two weeks in July, and the skills they’ve picked up along the way.
Why are Hallmark Christmas movies something you enjoy returning to?
Lacey Chabert (2016’s A Wish For Christmas, 2015’s A Christmas Melody, 2015’s Family For Christmas, 2014’s A Royal Christmas): Christmas is my favorite time of year. I count the days. I have no problem with them airing my movie on Halloween weekend this year because I think you can’t start Christmas a day too soon. I love a good Christmas movie, so I’m thrilled to be a part of them.
Rachel Boston (2016’s A Rose for Christmas, 2015’s Ice Sculpture Christmas): Growing up, every year my family would watch It’s a Wonderful Life. For me, it’s making uplifting stories that are filled with hope and faith. I just really enjoy coming back every year and just getting to explore different themes that have that same audience. My whole family can watch. My grandmother can watch. My young cousins can all sit together and watch.
Gregory Harrison (2016’s My Christmas Love, 2014’s The Nine Lives of Christmas): As a father of four kids who are now all adults, that was always the safe bet — you could watch Hallmark. I wouldn’t have to try and calm their nightmares before they’d go to sleep. I loved the idea of doing Hallmark movies because I know how much fun it is during the Christmas season to be able to sit down with the whole family. It’s part of the bonding experience of Christmas.
Lori Loughlin (2016’s Every Christmas Has a Story, 2015’s Northpole: Open for Christmas): I think it’s something that network television sadly has gotten away from, which is that family programming. The networks have written it off, as though people aren’t looking for that anymore, but they are. They’re looking for that good old throwback to the kind of television I grew up on, which is characters that you love and entertaining stories that are fun and heartwarming. I think around the holidays these movies touch many people for many different reasons. You know when you tune in you’re always going to get a happy ending. Around the holidays — which can be a joyous time for so many people but also can be kind of a difficult time, too, for other people — those films can make you feel a little better, get you in the holiday Christmas spirit.
Alicia Witt (star of 2016’s Christmas List, 2015’s I’m Not Ready for Christmas, 2014’s Christmas at Cartwright’s, 2013’s A Very Merry Mix-Up): My favorite thing about them is how happy they make people. Despite how much I love roles that are dark and twisted, there’s something special about these stories that are uplifting, and positive, and joyous, and being a part of people’s holidays in such a big way. The fact that these movies play year after year only makes them more of a Christmas tradition, and it means so much to me when I hear one of these has made someone happy. People will say that a specific movie was a favorite of their entire family’s, or that it helped make family time less stressful at the holidays. What could be better? Plus they’re a blast to film.
Danica McKellar (2016’s My Christmas Dream, 2015’s Crown for Christmas): I had such a great experience the first time around, not only shooting the movie, but also getting to promote it and seeing what kind of effect it has on the fans. People get giddy. There is a particular kind of happy Hallmark fan that I’ll see who’s like, “Oh my gosh! I loved you, and at Christmas you were the governess, and you fell in love with the king, and it was so great!” At Christmas time, you want entertainment that makes you feel warm and fuzzy and reminds you what Christmas is really about, which is family and love, coming together. I started turning on Hallmark last year when I was cooking or wrapping presents, and I was like, “Ah, I’m so glad I’m a part of it,” and I realized I wanted to continue to be a part of it.
Paul Greene (2016’s A Wish For Christmas, 2015’s A Christmas Detour): In our world, it’s just nice to be part a part of Hallmark in general and what they stand for. They’re telling heartfelt stories, the other side of the coin that doesn’t get that much attention in the news and media. The producers come out and they visit the set. They are so involved. It’s a family and a network that I feel super grateful and blessed to be a part of.
Cameron Mathison (2016’s A Christmas to Remember on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, 2013’s Window Wonderland, 2013’s The Christmas Ornament): They’re some of my favorite projects that I’ve ever done on any channel. I think a good indication is my mom and dad try to watch everything that I’m in, and their all-time absolute favorite thing that I’ve ever done is The Christmas Ornament. That says a lot.
What are your some of your favorite memories filming a Hallmark Christmas movie?
Chabert: In A Royal Christmas, I got to wear my real wedding dress. I had just gotten married about six months prior to that, so I was so excited to put it back on. Luckily, it still fit. My best memories will be from [this year’s A Wish for Christmas], because I was six-and-a-half-months pregnant with my daughter, who is almost two months old now. Because of that, you’ll notice in the movie that I’m always holding something in front of my stomach, or there’s a lot of close-up shots, because I was very visibly pregnant. It became a game, like what prop can I hold in front of myself in this scene? And at one point, one of the lovely guys from the camera department, who I really loved, was like, “Maybe you could just suck in a little on this take?” I was like, “Suck in? I’m almost seven months pregnant.” That really made me laugh.
Greene: My fondest memory is working with Lacey. There was this one really sweet moment where it was snowing fake snow, and we were calling Lacey’s baby by her name, Julia. Lacey was like, “Aw, it’s Julia’s first snowfall.”
Chabert: I actually put in my recommendation [to cast Paul opposite me in this movie]. Obviously it’s up to Hallmark, but I had seen him in some of the other films and I just had heard what a nice guy he was, and he truly was. He took extra special good care of me and would constantly bring me snacks and drinks and make sure that I had a chair to sit down on and make sure that I had my flat shoes to change into. My favorite thing about my job, other than I love telling stories and acting, is meeting great people and then holding onto those friendships. I’m so glad that my path crossed with him.
Harrison: One of my favorite things in my life is my cat, named Doobie. I named him Doobie because he’s so chill. You think he smoked a number just before you see him every day. I got him because after Nine Lives of Christmas and playing with that stunt cat that we had, which was very much like that — we had to do take after take with that cat, and hand him off to each other, and nothing bothered him — I fell in love with the idea of having a cat. I went home and we searched high and low through all these shelters, and finally found the cat of our choice and brought him home. Just last night, my wife and I were saying, “This is the best thing that’s happened to us in the last decade, this amazing cat that we have.”
Loughlin: I had the best time doing the Northpole sequel. First of all, I adore Bailee Madison. She’s just a ball of energy and so great to be around. It was a real thrill for me to work with Dermot Mulroney. I was a long time fan, and I think he’s such a phenomenal actor. We just hit it off. Honestly, we’re the same age, we’ve been in the business about the same amount of time, we had so many stories to tell each other reminiscing. I loved every minute of working on that film.
Mathison: I’ve been having a lot of fun on this year’s, A Christmas to Remember. We shot in a really beautiful log cabin out in the outskirts of British Columbia. It was gorgeous. I got to snowmobile. I’m driving up to Whistler right now as we speak to shoot, which is a real highlight. I’m going to try and stretch it out into a little extra day out here so I can enjoy Whistler — that’s a super highlight.
On A Christmas Ornament, [my character] had a Christmas tree lot. There was a scene where we put on the snow machine, and I look up into the snow, and there’s a wide shot from the jib, and I scream out “I love Christmas!” The shot looked really cool, and there was a lot of Cameron in that moment, so I really enjoyed that. We also went out to a real Christmas tree farm, myself and Kellie Martin, and had some really fun scenes having a big snowball fight and rolling around in the snow out there.
Witt: I think the scene where I find out I’ve landed at the wrong family’s home in A Very Merry Mix-Up will always be a personal classic for me. There was just a real magic about that whole experience, and I think it sparkled through in the final movie.
McKellar: I think maybe one of my favorite parts of shooting A Crown for Christmas was the big dance sequence. It had been about a year from when I was on Dancing with the Stars, so it was still relatively fresh and I’d remembered a lot of what I’d learned. So when the choreographer came to set and was teaching me the dance, he was very impressed, and it was a lot of fun. And then when I got this big bulky dress on — because that is a heavy dress! — I knew what to expect because on Dancing with the Stars, when you rehearse, you are wearing yoga clothes, and then dress rehearsal, they put this big heavy dress with all these beads on you, and you’re like, “Oh my gosh! It all feels different! I cannot move! When I turn, the dress is still turning and it hits me in the leg!” You get all thrown off, but I felt extremely prepared for it. And this scene looked so beautiful: huge red dress and a big marble floor, and they had that great overhead shot. It was my Cinderella moment.
And I did get to teach the little girl some math during a scene, and it was actually a scene that I helped to write. Because my character was a governess, I thought, “Well look, I write math books.” I’ve got my first children’s math book coming out in March called Goodnight, Numbers. “Why don’t I put in a scene where I teach her some math?” And I was really thrilled it stayed in the movie. I teach her fractions using Christmas cookies.
Have you learned a new skill for one of these Hallmark Christmas movies?
Mathison: Oh man, that’s the ultimate question. On Christmas Ornament, this is embarrassing for a Canadian to say, but I had to learn how to skate. Not to get into too much detail, but as a kid, I wasn’t able to walk until I was about seven. I had this big contraption on my legs my whole young life. So when I got my leg brace off, all my friends had been skating, because you’re Canadian, right? You start skating young. I was so far behind that my parents taught me how to ski instead. So skiing became my thing. When that movie came around, it was a big deal because I’d always wanted to learn to skate. Once Wayne Gretzky invited me to play in his charity hockey game, and I had to tell Wayne Gretzky that I didn’t know how to skate. His response was, “But aren’t you Canadian?!” So learning to skate for Christmas Ornament was my big retribution. It was my big coming out party.
Boston: We actually got to learn to ice sculpt [for Ice Sculpture Christmas]. That was pretty phenomenal to have a professional ice sculptor on set with us guiding us through the entire film. We had to get wings to stick on an angel. They are both ice, and there is a trick to the temperature, where you keep one of the sculptures warmer and then the other really cool so the ice sticks. We only had one set of wings left. The entire crew was on pins and needles of whether or not this ice would fall off. We started singing calm Christmas carols, and it worked. We thought that might be the Christmas music.
I think the thing that I grew to love the most is the amount of passion that gets poured into making a sculpture. The level of focus that you put into something that does go away. It’s more about the experience. That was a good lesson to me, because I think often we want to make something that is going [to be permanent].
McKellar: For [this year’s] Christmas Dream, I had to learn how to act while on an escalator. [Laughs] We have a lot of escalator scenes — up and down escalators without looking down a lot — and you have to do it over and over again. We were shooting in the middle of the night, by the way, because it was a department store, and the department store had to be open during the day. It couldn’t close. And so every night, the crew would decorate the place for Christmas, we would shoot, and then in the morning, they’d take all the Christmas decorations down, we’d leave, and the store would open. It was really amazing what they were able to pull off. So that’s a new trick — learning how to act awake at four, five, six in the morning after working all night long. We were working until about nine one morning, and I was like, “I’m a zombie!”
Chabert: I actually love a nigh shoot because people get giddy and silly. You know when you’re pregnant you’re exhausted, right? It’s very normal to be overly tired, and there was a couple of night shoots at the end of this shoot, and our sound mixer, lovely guy, felt badly for me that I would have to be up all night being seven months pregnant, so he brought me his zero gravity lawn chair that you could kick back and put your feet up. So during our night shoot, I would put my feet up, because my feet were swelling also from pregnancy, and Paul had his guitar that he was playing.
Greene: I keep that guitar nearby because it helps keep my voice warm. I got a standard bunch of songs I play. There’s some Bon Iver songs, some Coldplay I played for her. Because some of the background artists were singers and loved gospel music, we sang “Amazing Grace,” I think. I think we even did a Christmas song.
Chabert: I’ve never had to learn to do anything that I didn’t do before. I’ve been a baker in a couple of them, and I do bake in real life. I’ve always wanted to have a bakery. I’m from the South and I love baking things for people as gifts, and I just love to eat baked goods also. [Laughs] So, I can relate to that.
Witt: This year [with Christmas List] was the mother lode! I learned to ice skate, I went inner tubing on a glacier, I dressed as an elf, I did a dubious ballet dance, and I got fake snow in my mouth in a giant snow globe.
Loughlin: In Northpole 2, I had to fly a sled with some reindeer… but that was all blue screen. [Laughs]
Harrison: I’m usually playing a dad or a banker or a politician. Those are all things you put on the suit… and then you play it.
Greene: With Lacey in this year’s film… making snowballs out of fake snow. Make them look real and throw them at a pregnant lady, but not look like I don’t know how to throw a snowball but also not hurt her with the snowball. [Laughs] That was a skill that I developed, for sure.
How do you get into the holiday spirit when filming in the spring, summer, or fall?
Boston: Right before this year’s movie filmed in July in Canada, my brother got married, and I was driving to his wedding and I was blasting Christmas music. Every time I would come up to a red light, cars would look at me like something weird was going on. I listened to a lot of Christmas music and then I just focused on the story.
Mathison: Even though you try not to have to rely on the environment, it definitely helps. Sometimes in between takes or on a turnaround or a camera repo, I’d sit in the living room of this log cabin we were in with the lights off, with just the Christmas lights on and the tree and decorations. It’s so pretty. We all know what it’s like. It’s Christmas time. That, in itself, brings it out.
Loughlin: You start to think it’s December. I had that experience this year with Every Christmas Has a Story, which we shot in June. I had to stop myself a couple of times and go, “Oh, right, it’s June, it’s not December.” You just kind of get swept up into the whole thing.
Witt: It’s easy when there’s fake snow and Christmas lights everywhere. If anything, often when real Christmas rolls around I feel like I’ve just celebrated it. Hence my song “I’m Not Ready For Christmas,” which was used as the theme song for my Hallmark movie last year.
McKellar: I love it! It’s like I get two Christmases a year now. Part of it is, you put on the coat. You hope it’s not too hot out. We shot Crown for Christmas in Romania, and I remember wearing this big coat, and it was so hot, and it was humid, too, and we were doing a snowball fight, and I was in a sweat. It was dripping down our backs, and we were trying to pretend to be cold. That was challenging.
This time around, it wasn’t as hot because we were in Vancouver, and so it was a more temperate climate.
Harrison: Every time I shoot a Christmas movie, there’s snow required of course. We always shoot in Vancouver, and they’re always hoping there will be snow and there always isn’t. It’s usually rain. I shot a Christmas movie long ago [1994’s A Christmas Romance for CBS]. It was with Olivia Newton-John. They used mashed potato flakes for snow. They were shaking them off of a big cistern way up above your head, and there’s mash potato flakes floating down. It really looked like snow. Two weeks later, we’re still shooting on the same location, and now the mashed potato flakes have become rancid because they had been getting rained on every day. We couldn’t inhale. We couldn’t breathe. We had to keep shooting. It had become a kind of mashed potato mud.
Chabert: There’s so many different methods for fake snow. There’s the mashed potato flakes. They get really sticky and really gross and are very hard to get out of your hair. And then there’s another snow machine that blows something akin to bubbles. It’s kind of like soapy suds, but they land on your head and then they don’t really just disappear. You have to brush it off during the take if you feel it landing on your head, so that you don’t end up looking like you have a ton of dish soap on your head. There’s blankets of snow that they just lay down that look real. They really do an amazing job of making it look so real. It’s bizarre to see all that snow and it’s a hundred degrees out and you are profusely sweating.
Greene: You’re so hot, and you’ve got these little fans, and you’ve got ice packs everywhere. Snow machines are challenging because of noise. You’ve got to always go back in the studio later and loop dialogue.
Harrison: For [this year’s] My Christmas Love, they were using foam for snow. We were shooting in Park City. It got very warm. Like 80, 85, 90 degrees during the day. And we were wearing Christmas clothes. And of course, they were always giving me dad sweaters and things like that to wear, over a T-shirt with a pair of warm lined jeans and boots. And it’s 90. I didn’t have to throw any snowballs, but it was hot. I was requiring more makeup than the girls, just to wipe down the sweat between takes.
Loughlin: It can be a little brutal. I got lucky with the Northpole sequel. We shot in Montreal in March and it was cold and snowy, which was perfect. Every Christmas Has a Story, we shot in June, but June was an unseasonably cool, cool, month for Vancouver. It wasn’t as bad. For When Calls the Heart [which kicks off its new season with a two-hour Christmas-themed sneak peek], we were also shooting in the summer. You have to try to remember it’s cold out meanwhile it’s 90 degrees. It can be challenging.
Mathison: In the winter time you’re shooting the summer movies so you’re freezing, and in the summer you’re shooting the winter movies so you’re boiling. But I got really lucky this year, too. It’s not cold [in British Columbia], but it’s cold enough, which is nice. Although for my snowmobiling moments, it’s real snow but they had to truck it in.
What’s the can’t-miss scene in your movie this year?
Loughlin: I have to say, my oldest daughter, Isabella, makes her debut as an actress [in Every Christmas Has a Story, premiering Nov. 12], so that’s real special for me. She plays a young girl who lives in the small town who also wants to be a newscaster. She idolizes my character and is a fan. She works behind the desk at the local motel that we stay at. She’s just so giddy and excited that I’m there. She just had the sweetest part.
Chabert: Whenever Santa is in these movies, Hallmark is very careful to always have a magical feel to his presence. I think the scene that I have with Santa in [A Wish for Christmas, premiering Oct. 29] is very sweet. My character’s a web designer. Her idea is stolen, and basically she learns to stand up for herself after she gets her Christmas wish granted from Santa. It’s actually something that I struggled with in my own life — speaking up and having your own opinion and feeling confident in that — and I think it’s an interesting journey that she goes on, learning to speak up and how it can kind of get you in trouble, but it also can be really good.
Greene: I watched it yesterday, and I actually was about to tear up in this beautiful scene that I’m not in. It’s Lacey and my character’s father, and the way that she shares with him this little story about her dad passing and that there is no time to waste over stupid, small differences with family, and just to find a way to get over it and reconnect. … I lost my dad recently, and that could be a part of what made that scene so special, but it was just Lacey’s presence and her delivery and the way she was listening to the man who played my dad that was so touching.
Witt: All of the [scenes in Christmas List, premiering Nov. 25, I mentioned earlier]. Although I haven’t seen it yet. I like to watch for the first time along with the audience and live tweet.
McKellar: The big unveiling of the McDougal’s Christmas display [in My Christmas Dream, premiering Nov. 19] is magical. My character is the manager of the department store. And she has to come up with an amazing Christmas display before Christmas in order to get a big promotion in Paris that she’s going for. She fires David Haydn-Jones’s character a few weeks before the display is due, because he spills paint all over her dress in one of those great early moments in a Hallmark movie where the two main characters clash. And then I’m desperate for his help because he’s actually quite an artist.
There’s also a funny scene where I try to speak French to my boss [played by Deidre Hall] to show her that I speak French. I actually added that, too, because I really do speak some French that I studied in school. I love throwing a little bit of me into these movies.
Mathison: My character [in A Christmas to Remember, premiering Dec. 18 on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries] is a small town veterinarian. A good guy. He’s a widower with three beautiful kids just trying to make it work. He loved Christmas, but his wife that’s passed away was sort of the one who really ran the Christmas show. He’s got this void, but now enter Mira Sorvino’s character [a TV personality who suffers amnesia after a car accident during a blizzard], and she indirectly brings Christmas back to this family and in doing so finds herself at the same time. Some of the best parts of this movie are the ad-libs and what Mira brings to it. She’s so funny and quirky, and she ad-libs a lot, and she surprises us all and keeps us all on our toes. The kids were right there with us. I’m most excited to see how that cuts together and for the audience to see really super fun, genuine moments. There’s a lot of them in this movie. Like a lot. Like even when we’re dancing at the party, it’s all loosey-goosey ad-lib stuff just happening.
Harrison: [In My Christmas Love, premiering Dec. 17], I’m playing the father of a couple of adult daughters, who one is married and one who’s not sure if she’s ever going to find love. I’m the loving father who also has a little advice to give, whether it’s welcomed or not. My character is still grieving the loss of his wife, their mother. This is the first Christmas the family will spend together without her. They’re all worried about me, and they haven’t been around too much over the year, so they don’t know how I’m handling it. They’re helping me cope with loss and I’m helping one of my daughters cope with not having the romance in her life that she’d like, and we’re preparing for the other one’s wedding. I did this movie three weeks after my own oldest daughter got married and I walked her down the aisle.
There’s one scene that was like a big production feat. [The single daughter starts receiving anonymous gifts of the “12 Days of Christmas.”] Every day, a new gift arrives related to that day in the song. On the final day, all of the days are represented in this one event. All of us were flabbergasted at what the wardrobe department and this woman who was a local up there in Utah had put together as choreography. All of these extras… They were shooting us watching it for the first time. You’re seeing us actually react to it, not only in character but in real life. We were just blown away.
Boston: [In A Rose for Christmas, premiering Jan. 1], I play a woman who is an artist and is trying to find the strength to step into her chosen field and really go after it. It’s a story about two people inspiring each other to go after their dreams and live in the more courageous manner. There is a big gala that is actually an art auction that was really fun to shoot. Then also the Rose Parade.
I learned so much making that movie about the process that goes on way behind the scenes in Pasadena long before any of the flowers even come in, the actual building of the foundation of the floats. It’s really extraordinary the amount of work and the amount of people that come in to bring them to life. We had a huge art department. It was just amazing to go home, and then you come back the next day and it’s just covered in even more flowers. We were just surrounded by thousands of roses. The real Rose Parade is going to air on Monday, January 2nd. Our movie is going to be the night before, to get people into that spirit.