Lifetime (3); ABC FAMILY
No one puts more Hart into the holidays than Lifetime. Melissa Joan Hart is back on the cable network to deck the halls with movie merriment and provide escapist joy in a joyless year that everyone wants to escape. She stars as a single podcaster who may find love with a man named, oh yes, Chris Massey (played by Jason Priestley) in the Lifetime Christmas movie Dear Christmas on Nov. 27 at 8 p.m. (Dear Christmas is not to be confused with Lifetime's 2011 Priestley-directed movie Dear Santa, which should not be confused with Lifetime's 2013 movie Dear Secret Santa). Hart also can be found behind the camera, directing Lifetime's new Feliz NaviDAD, which can be seen on Nov. 29 at 10 p.m. and features Mario Lopez, her costar in the 2007 ABC Family classic Holiday in Handcuffs. Her production company, Hartbreak Films, is also a producer on not only Dear Christmas and Feliz NaviDAD, but a third Lifetime flick as well, People Presents: Once Upon a Main Street, which airs Nov. 29 at 8 p.m. Over the years, the Clarissa Explains It All and Sabrina the Teenage Witch alum has become a force in the genre and the face of Lifetime's festive films. So, what do you get a Christmas movie queen for the holidays? Let's start with this sackload of Stupid Questions.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Using only Christmas-movie cliches, how are you being festive today?
MELISSA JOAN HART: I am trying to entertain my children and keep them out of trouble — probably by making gingerbread houses.
In Holiday in Handcuffs, you have a nervous breakdown and kidnap Mario Lopez, and then he falls in love with you. Did you worry that you had peaked in the genre too early?
I mean, unless you're going to do Elf 2, it's hard to beat Holiday in Handcuffs, to be honest. The cast was phenomenal, the story line was hilarious, and my hair was ridiculous. We were allowed to be really, really big and broad and funny back then. They've brought it down to [where] they've realized that the audience wants heart and wants a happy ending. There's a certain recipe now to these movies that has to happen for people to be able to make their cookies and wrap their gifts and hang out with their family with hot cocoa to enjoy these movies and to not have many surprises. But yeah, Holiday in Handcuffs is a tough one to beat. Although we're developing one with a dude ranch next year that I'm really excited about. It involves me doing a lot of horseback riding, which could be pretty dangerous for me. It would require me having a lot of horseback-riding skills — and I learned this summer I don't have those.
What do you think the message of Holiday in Handcuffs was? Love can bloom in the most unexpected places during the holidays, or… it's totally okay and even festive to fall in love with your kidnapper?
Stockholm syndrome can be extra-special this time of year. It reminded me of Dear Christmas, and how she doesn't believe love can happen around the holidays. So, what kind of love blooms over the holidays? Is it with your captor — or is it the guy putting Christmas lights on your house that you went to eighth grade with?
After Holiday in Handcuffs for ABC Family, you filmed Christmas Con for Lifetime, then went over to Hallmark for Broadcasting Christmas, and now you've done a flurry of Lifetime movies over the last four years. What does Hallmark have to do to win you back? Maybe a meet-cute at a Christmas tree farm?
Actually, I think it's more that Hallmark is proprietary with their people. I'm now a Lifetime girl, and I need to stay in my place. There's this division that doesn't let people cross over, necessarily. I would love to do a crossover with Candace [Cameron Bure] or Lacey Chabert or some of these girls that I adore and love. Danica McKellar. But we're zoned — the Jets and the Giants never play against each other because they're in different conferences. It's kinda like that.
Hallmark has such returning stars as Lacey Chabert, Candace Cameron Bure, and Tamera Mowry-Housley. Lifetime has you, Kelly Rowland, and Tiya Sircar. What would happen if the Lifetime Christmas movie queens ran into the Hallmark Christmas movie queens on the street? How would that go down?
Oh, it'd be brutal. I mean, we'd be stabbing them with candy canes and strangling them with some tinsel. I think the Lifetime team could definitely take [Hallmark] — except for Candace. Like, she's jacked. She's always on Instagram posting about her and her trainer doing a crazy workout. If we could take Candace out quickly, we could get the rest of them down. In the old Westerns, you see someone just crack a bottle and use the glass as a weapon. We could do that with some glass ornaments — if we were to get really brutal in a Christmas movie. [Laughs] Lifetime's going to be like, "What are you talking about?"
You reunited with Mario by directing his new movie in which he plays a widowed father. It's called Feliz NaviDAD. Tell me how you all arrived at that name, what the alternate titles were, and spare no detail.
There was no alternate title. That was it. The problem with that is because the title was so good, we had to get the rights to the song, and that song is not cheap! We were tied to that song because of the title. I think the writers came up with the title before they even wrote the script.
As a director, how do you force more holiday cheer out of your actors?
Sometimes you just have to lie to them. Sometimes you just have to tell them you're going to do a run to Starbucks if they can deliver the line a little better. Usually I'll tell Mario, "If you can just wear your winter coat for this one scene, I promise I'll only do it in two takes," or, "I promise I'll send my favorite masseuse to your hotel." Bribes work really well with actors, just like they do with my children. When we do our Christmas card photos, it's not unlike when I'm directing actors on a Christmas movie. It's just mainly bribes.
What's harder: pretending you're freezing your ass off when you're actually filming in July in Georgia, or faking chemistry with a costar you're just not feeling?
I'm really good at faking chemistry, so I will say pretending to be freezing cold. The most uncomfortable I've ever been was on the set of Santa Con. I was directing, but I was in parts of it. I was snuggled up with Jaleel White on a sofa, in an apartment, in the middle of July in Connecticut, a two-story walk-up with no AC. We put garbage bags on the windows to make it look like night. We're sitting next to a fire and we're snuggled up on the couch in leather pants and sweaters. They had to do makeup touch-ups in between every take. The crew and I had ice packs around our necks, and the cast would wear them during a break, and we'd flip them to the crew and then we'd shoot and then we'd get them back. We discovered it was hotter than a Bikram yoga class in there. It was like 106 degrees.
In Dear Christmas, you run right into a giant inflatable Santa, which is a high jink that I can't quite remember seeing. Which Christmas movie cliches are you still dying to do? Slip on ice, fall off a ladder, save the town library?
Have I done the slip on the ice? I did two ice skating scenes, one in Holiday in Handcuffs and one in A Very Nutty Christmas. Mario in Holiday in Handcuffs had to slip on the ice when he passed out and I tied him up with pantyhose. What cliché have I not done? I mean, I've made cookies. I've made cocktails. Look, I think I've topped it with the running into the inflatable. Maybe falling off the roof while putting on decorations? A ladder fall would be fun. I know that Vanessa Lachey has a good one in Once Upon a Main Street… In my normal career, I've never played pregnant and I've never died in a project. So those are two things I need to check off my bucket list for acting.
I don't think you'll get to die in a Christmas movie.
Maybe I'll fall off the ladder and die and go to heaven and be an angel. And she has to find love in heaven. I like it!
You and Jason have a bonding scene in Dear Christmas where you do some glass-blowing together and make glass Christmas hearts —
Talk about hot! Try being in a glass-blowing studio in Reno, Nevada, in August. That was fun.
I bet. How many Ghost pottery-making jokes did you have to stifle while shooting that scene?
We try not to go there because you don't want to think that anything that you're doing is not original, of course! But yeah, there was definitely a lot of behind-the-scenes conversation in my own head going on, if you will — a little internal monologue. But I'm kind of hoping some of the audience that's watching this maybe missed that movie way back when or were too young for it?
Jason plays your eighth-grade crush, who you wrote about in your journal — and who you spent time with — but you can't remember him. At all. Does your character have an undiagnosed head injury that we'll find out about in Dear Christmas 2?
This was something that we brought up a few times, like, "Really? She's dying for love, but she can't remember this guy at all?" And he keeps reminding her of how they know each other and she keeps getting it wrong. Like, "Was it the tuba? No? The trumpet? Wait, was it band or orchestra? Was it chorus?" I mean, it's kind of like me. My short-term memory is much better than my long-term memory. So I took a little from my own life.
In 2018, you starred in A Very Nutty Christmas, playing a bakery owner who wakes up on Christmas morning only to find a soldier who might be the Nutcracker Prince in her house. How disappointed were you to find out after you signed on to A Very Nutty Christmas that you wouldn't be playing the owner of an artisanal almond-butter shop who falls for a man with a severe nut allergy?
Well, don't give anything away! That's next year's movie! I mean, we have to keep coming up with concepts. People keep watching these things. It's hard. So, a nut allergy and a baker — it's not far off.
What's one secret about making a Christmas TV movie that you probably shouldn't tell us, but it's slipping out of your mouth right now?
Oh, there's very rarely ever any snow. It's mostly CGI or this batting that we throw on the roof or around the plant, and then later on they fix that in post. So if you were to blow it up and put it on a bigger screen, you'd see it. I don't want to take the magic out of Christmas for anyone, but a lot of what you see is phony. Or is covered in poinsettias. If you don't see snow, you're going to see poinsettias. We have a truck full of poinsettias that cover everything — mask every plant, flower, ugly corner. Whether it's Main Street or the school or the background of the ice cream shop, poinsettias are literally everywhere. It's really a movie about poinsettias, if you look close enough.
How is a a Lifetime Christmas movie fan different than a Sabrina fan? The sweater game is probably one thing.
Last year they started this Christmas Con. Unfortunately this year they had one in L.A. that they had to cancel, and now they just canceled the one that was supposed to be next week in New Jersey. But I've never had more fun at a con, because everyone smelled good, everyone was in matching sweaters, the decorations were beautiful, the music was lovely. There was nothing about superheroes or scary things. At most of the Comic-Cons, it's a lot of Halloween-esque stuff or supernatural. And this was just like moms bringing their daughters! And men bringing their wives to come see all the Christmas people! And everyone smelled like cinnamon. It was a really lovely con. So I will say: The fans of the Christmas movies, they step it up a notch. They'll bring you cookies, they'll bring you ornaments. The Sabrina fans, they tend to be the supernatural ones that want to ask you about witchcraft and ask you to do spells on them.
What I pulled away from your answer is that Lifetime Christmas movie fans smell better than Sabrina fans.
Only because they're bringing cookies! On the set of Sabrina — not at the cons — I worked with so many live cats, we had to have cat food everywhere. So Sabrina memories tend to be surrounded by cat food smells. Whereas Christmas movies are more about the cookie and the cinnamon and the pumpkin lattes.
Should there be categories at the Emmys — or at least the People's Choice Awards — for Best Christmas Movie and Outstanding Lead Actress Tangled up in a Christmas Tree?
Absolutely. There should definitely be an award for something like, um, Nearest Missed Kiss in the Snow or Most Realistic Enjoyment of Christmas Cookies or Hot Cocoa. I'll tell you, I love cookies. I am not shy to eat anything on set, but after having some of the cookies on Dear Christmas, I was so sick. I was like, "I cannot do another take, you guys!" Eating one of those cookies was enough — and eating three ruined my next two meals.
Now that you're Christmas movie royalty, how much pressure is there to deliver at Christmas? Do people expect next-level gifts?
My Tacky Sweater Party has become quite iconic. And in that case, I've had to really live up to this Tacky Sweater Party. And it's really hard, year after year. I mean, how far can you really go with a sweater? There's only so much you can do — so much bedazzling, so many things you can hang off of it, so many funny sayings you can have on it. It's not easy to keep trying to one-up yourself.