Jennifer Aspen & Catherine Bell – Home For Christmas Day
By: Lisa Steinberg
Q) I’m excited that we get to talk about Home For Christmas Day. And, of course Jennifer, you told me a little bit of information about the film but this is like your baby. This is like your other baby. You have a baby, but you have another baby which is a film.
Jennifer: Yeah, creative baby.
Q) And you talked to me a little bit about writing the film in this hotel room while you’re working on another project and I wanted to ask you about kind of constructing the movie and putting it together. Where did the idea spring from and how did you put the pieces of the puzzle together with how you came about the concept?
Jennifer: It just was in my hotel room and emerged in Virginia, as an actor on this movie of the week with Garth Brooks. It was a movie based on one of his songs called Unanswered Prayers. And was born in Richmond, Virginia. It was my first time back in Richmond, Virginia and I was just in a very good creative space. I just was looking out of my hotel window and I just thought, “This would be a very good idea for a movie.” You know what I mean? Just out of nothing, that’s the thing that kept amazing me. I kept saying to Catherine, “This is from nothing.”
Q) It’s your “Seinfeld!”
Catherine: I love that.
Jennifer: It did. And then I had this idea as an actor, “Well gosh, writers just make stuff up.” They just make stuff up out of nothing so I can make something out of nothing. Like I can do the same thing. So, that’s what happened and I put together the outline of the story. I have to say the writing of this script which is so good and it is by David Golden and we worked together definitely to make the script what it is. But I would not have been able to write a full script as well as he did. And Catherine is in another movie that he wrote.
Catherine: Yeah, I did two Christmas movies for Hallmark, back to back. David Golden wrote both of them. The other one comes out in November and it’s called Christmas In The Air. And that is more of a light, romantic comedy. I mean I was amazed by Jen and this is all her story her baby she really broke down the acts and the scenes. David got it. David Golden just got your concept, your vision, the whole feel and when he turned in the script it was like, oh this is good, you know?
Jennifer: His real name isn’t even Golden. That’s how his writing is, it has a warmth to it, right?
Catherine: Yeah it really does. He’s the golden boy at Hallmark right now. He’s writing all their beautiful scripts and it’s a perfect last name.
Jennifer: It was this idea that I brought to Hallmark and pitched them. I don’t even know if they were that interested in having me come in and pitch, but they took the meeting anyway and they really liked this idea. Then sat on it for about a month and you know I’ve known Catherine for 20 years, maybe more. And I knew that she had “The Good Witch coming out.” This was right before “The Good Witch” was about to premiere and I knew that it was going to hit. I absolutely knew it, I just felt it. And I thought, “If she really loves this I know that we can make this movie together and how incredible to make a movie with someone I’ve known so long, that I trust so much and I believe in so much.” Because you know Catherine, she’s amazing.
Catherine: Aww. You know I can hear you, right?
Jennifer: She’s shooting “The Good Witch” in Toronto during the week and flying home every single weekend to be with her family, which is something she does all the time when she’s on location which I think is amazing. See, if I talk about you, it’s really glowing.
Jennifer: You’re not going to say how amazing you are, I’m going to say it. And I said can I pitch this to you and she was like, I don’t really have any time and then what did you see?
Catherine: It went on for a while and it was like I’m not brushing you off, I swear. Jen and her beautiful, not pushy way but just with this clear intention that she knew that I would love this story if I heard it. She would just kind of check in every once in a while, there was one weekend where she said, “Are you going to the airport this weekend.” And I was, I had flown in on Friday and going back on Sunday and she said, “How about I drive you to the airport on Sunday? And I can tell you the story and I get to see you.” I hadn’t seen her in a while and she drove me to LAX, very slowly and carefully I might add. She was telling me her beautiful story which was very beautiful and I still got to the airport in time and I fell in love instantly. The rest is history.
Jennifer: Yeah, but I’m going to also say that Catherine saying that this is the movie I want to do is what made this movie happen. Yes, my idea was great and the story is wonderful and all of those things. But there’s a reason why she’s done so well in our industry and it’s because when she believes in something, she’s all for it, she’s all in and she makes sure it happens right. Once she attached herself, then we really moved and it has been awesome.
Catherine: Such an amazing, awesome ride. So much fun. Developing it, working together, getting it into pre-production and then getting to go up to Vancouver to get together and make this movie was just unreal.
Jennifer: It is so much fun! And it was so last minute too, we didn’t really even have time to celebrate. Like oh my god we’re going to do this in two weeks? Okay. And I think the first time we saw each other in Vancouver she had to rush through a fitting, it was just rushed.
Catherine: We should have gone out and celebrated!
Jennifer: And you wouldn’t have had to wear the gown, or the floor length jacket comforter thing.
Catherine: That’s right.
Q) I was going to ask though, Catherine, I don’t know if you felt more pressure working with a friend and wanting to get the character right?
Catherine: My initial reaction was to say no, just that it was so amazing to work with someone that I love so much and respect as an actress as well as someone who came up with this beautiful story. But then, yeah, I guess a little bit having started in acting class together so long ago there was that moment of I have to do this right, I better really not disappoint because it was such a passion project for Jen. But then once we got there and once we started filming, everything was just so perfect. I can’t stress enough how everything just felt right, the character felt right, the story felt right, all the casting was perfect and everything came together so beautifully. It was really kind of a magical experience, I know for me and from what Jen and David told me.
Jennifer: I have to tell you, Catherine is so great in this movie. Her performance is so moving and I’m going to tell you, my husband who also produced this movie with me, and has known Catherine for twenty years too and we would watch her at the monitor and every take she meant it. Every time! She never phoned this in and to be honest she could have gotten away with phoning it in, not that this is something she would do or does, but she meant it. She meant every word and she meant every moment and we would look at each other and just be like freaking Catherine Bell.
Catherine: Honestly, I didn’t even have to try. It was really so special, the lines and the scenes with my daughter, it reminded me so much of my own life and my own daughter. So many similarities in my life, now dealing with my fourteen year old daughter and changes that we were going through as a mother/daughter relationship. And it just all came to me, I didn’t even have to try. I couldn’t have phoned that in if I wanted to. It was just like emotion would come and feelings and tears and so much. It was so good.
Jennifer: As we were developing this story and I knew that Catherine would be playing this and I promised Catherine at the beginning that I would make sure there was a role for her to play. So, as I developed this character for Catherine, because I know Catherine’s daughter really well. I’m like a huge fan of Gemma’s. I love this child, I think she’s so special. And so I put a lot of what I knew Catherine could speak about honestly into that character. I definitely did that on purpose.
Catherine: Aww. And I didn’t know it would be as good as you said. Like you actually fulfilled that promise, it was really amazing.
Jennifer: Thanks! If I didn’t I would feel so bad.
Catherine: Oh no. It’s a great story and I didn’t know it would be this amazing. You guys went above and beyond.
Q) We’ve talked about the film but we haven’t really discussed the theme or the premise. If you could talk about some of the prevalent themes of the film and where that came from, too.
Jennifer: I would say that from the beginning of it, I was very interested in our Armed Forces and what it means to fall in love with someone from the Armed Forces, I think about those women a lot. And men too, who have a woman or a wife or a partner that’s in the Armed Forces and what that means as a love story. I also really cared about mothers and daughters, this mother and daughter have two different visions of what love and life should be like and can be like and they are very far apart in that idea. And I wanted them to learn from each other and ultimately both be able to love fully again or for the first time in the case of the daughter. Those were the things that were important to me.
Catherine: Beautiful. You said it way better than I could have. But, yeah for me too, figuring out this character and their relationship, I relate so much to wanting things to go so well for your child or your children, having them not be hurt or to not make the same mistakes that you’ve made. You try so hard to give them your lessons that you’ve learned in life, while you can certainly share some of that, they have to go through life. They have to live and learn their own way and certainly love plays a huge part in that, wanting to love again. So, my character allowing her to learn and get hurt in the process or maybe not, that’s going to be her journey. There’s some pretty cool themes there.
Q) I was going to ask where you connected or saw yourself in your character or at least saw some aspects of yourself. Obviously, Jen is writing this and she’s having you as a vision but at the same time creating a brand new character too.
Catherine: Right. Exactly. I connected some ways of course with having my own teenage daughter that I’m dealing with and yet it was a whole different character. She’s lost in her life and she has shut down a big part of herself. And now her daughter is doing her own thing and she’s so not okay with it. How do I come to terms with that?
Q) Do you see some of these things in Gemma and in your kids as well?
Jennifer: Part of Jane, which is Catherine’s character is inspired by my own mother and my relationship with her. We’re very, very different people and you know my mother never found love again from the time I was ten years old, still hasn’t. So, I think part of me making this story is sort of a hope for her. Wow I think I’m going to cry.
Catherine: I know.
Jennifer: I never said that, but I think in looking back at it that there’s some truth there to that. I wanted the daughter in this piece, was inspired by Gemma. And Gemma is an intelligent young woman with thoughts of her own and Matreya Fedor, who plays this character. She’s incredible.
What a find! She beat out so many talented woman. I wanted a girl that that’s kind of thoughtful in that generation, which I think has a special rarity. A young woman as a teenager that is thinking about love as a special thing. Which I don’t see that much of but I know Gemma is that kind of girl, so she definitely inspired this type of young lady for sure.
Catherine: Aww. She’s going to love hearing that. I don’t think she knew that, I’m going to watch it with her this weekend. Wow, that’s beautiful.
Q) We talk about Matreya, Bailee [Madison] and Hallmark now has this great wealth of young actors as well as veteran actors. I wanted to talk to you a little more about the casting of the younger characters. What stood out about these individuals? What it’s like for you seeing these young girls acting alongside you and your thoughts on that?
Catherine: Matreya and Bailee, they are amazing. Hallmark is great because they bring in so many strong women, including the teenagers and the kids, which is so incredible. And both of them very grounded, very smart girls, very down to earth. Bailee has been acting since she’s been very little and she’s got like 1.8 million follows on Instagram. She is someone who when asked if she’s hot and I ask for water and ask if she wants one too, she will actually say “my mother would kill me if someone brought me water.” She’s so appreciative, thankful and grateful. And Matreya is like a double major in college I can’t even imagine something like engineering and architecture.
Jennifer: They are so impressive! We were like, I didn’t even know what that is. I’m not even smart at all. It’s this crazy mechanical engineering thing and I’m like what?
Catherine: She was studying for finals while we were filming, it was incredible. She is really, really impressive to be working with someone like her.
Jennifer: I would say that because Hallmark does all their movies in Canada pretty much and the young women talent that came in to audition for this role were unbelievable. Every single one of them, I was a fan of so many young women after that session and I just thought wow it is smoking up here in Canada. And I’m wondering if places like Hallmark whose really brought up that casting has really challenged that strong female group and boy they are just on fire. On fire.
And we cast Matreya and she was just stupendous, totally forgetting that the character is supposed to sing by the way we were so blown away. Yeah number one, didn’t even check if she could sing. We were besides ourselves, we hire her and a few days later were like, “Did anyone check if Matreya could sing?” We texted her and she sends back this recording. We’re likes, “Is this you?” Beautiful. She says I’ve never sung in pubic before and she sings in this movie. When we recorded this song it was the first time she’s ever done that.
Catherine: That’s amazing. Remarkable.
Q) What have you taken away from your experience being part of the film and what do you hope viewers take away from watching?
Catherine: Certainly everything I’ve said from the beginning, the experience and working with both Jennifer and David. And the script, the story, the characters and the actors. It was just one of the most magical, it’s real magic. I just can’t say enough about it and I’m so excited to share it with people on Sunday. Really, truly and genuinely cannot wait to share it and hope that people are as touched and as moved and as inspired as I have been making it and even going through that experience of looking at all those moments of motherhood and love and not being afraid to live again even if you’ve been hurt no matter what. And hopefully people will go on that journey with us.
Jennifer: I really want everyone to see what you’ve done here so bad, Catherine. I can’t wait for Gemma to see this. It must be uncomfortable for Gemma if she actually knows how much I worship her.
Jennifer: No she loves it, she adores you. She’s great and I’m not just saying that in front of her, I’m telling you she is just she knocked my socks off. I’ve been around the block, I’ve seen a lot of acting and I’ve seen a lot of people on set and sometimes it will take several takes to get right and the performance ends up being great. But I’m telling you every time it was just remarkable, every time it was awesome. She’s been the star of a successful serious for over 20 years in a row.
Q) She has this Hallmark of immense talent, I mean we watched her on “JAG,” “Army Wives” and “The Good Witch.” There is never a show that she doesn’t fully engross you in, and fully embrace. Twenty years of getting to watch and love her.
Jennifer: The way she handles herself, she’s so incredible. She’s an incredible professional and then to top it all of, she is stunningly gorgeous. She’s really got it.
Q) With this film you juggle all these different hats with the writing and the producing every single aspect. What was the most challenging thing you learned or the most challenging part?
Jennifer: I want to be careful to delineate that I was responsible for the story, the writing was David Golden. I wrote all the characters and the outline, but the actual crafting was David Golden. So, my credit is based on a story by, I work the story through each draft and the notes and the solutions with David and the network. But I want to be careful and put the due where it is due.
But I think honestly what I learned the most was it’s okay to not know what you’re doing. Like, when I went in to pitch this I didn’t know what I was doing. When I went to pitch to Catherine while driving over the 405, I had no idea what I was doing, I’ve never done that before. When we went up to Canada, the very first thing I did was go into a casting session as executive producer I didn’t know what I was doing. And I was okay with not knowing the first time because everyone has a first time where they don’t know what they are doing.
I was open about it and I didn’t try to pretend that I knew what I was doing. I would say at these big production meetings with all the departments around this huge conference table, when I introduced myself I said, “This is my first time doing this if I have a blank stare on my face when you’re talking to me. It means I have no idea what is happening, so please call me out on it and explain because I really don’t know.”
Now I feel like I really know what I’m doing because I’ve done it and I did a great job. I feel like we made sure to make a Hallmark movie that doesn’t feel honed in or rushed or any of those things. But being cool with learning is what I learned. And that everybody starts from nothing. This idea started from nothing. And you know what, so did the big masterpieces of all time. They weren’t there and then somebody had an idea out of nothing and then made something.
But really, ideas are incredible and then you do have to push them through and they won’t happen unless you do that first. Unless you’re every day going what do I do to move this ball forward? What has to happen today to get to the next step? And finding out what that is and knowing what it is that you want to do. What is important to you? And what was important to me was to make a quality movie. And I did. It means something. So, I didn’t let myself askew from what I knew was right.
I really think the biggest thing I learned is that it is okay to jump into something even if you don’t have a degree. I don’t have a degree film making or story development. But I know how to tell a story as an actor, that’s how I always approach my work. It’s definitely storytelling and I’m an avid reader and I always have been. It’s just about how the story goes. It’s okay to not know.
Q) Besides the hallmark of Hallmark, the movies that they make has a great balance of romance, heart, and humor in them. I wanted to ask about how working with David about balancing all that or pay homage to Hallmark movies went.
Jennifer: It is definitely in the box and that is why I knew this idea was perfect for them. I don’t know why, but so few people make romance movies anymore. Like be it a romantic comedy which a lot of their channel is or things about love. I’m a sap. I’m like a that person that loves it. I just knew with this idea that there isn’t really anyone else making this kind of stuff. That’s why they are so prolific at it. They understand that sometimes people want to watch a movie and not watch heads roll. And I’m one of those people. I had to stop watching “Game Of Thrones” when I had a young baby because they were killing babies.
So, there’s room for that kind of wonderful charming glowing escapism. Because we are so inundated with bad news all the time, all the time. And so Hallmark has been so great about making this pristine Hallmark bubble where you know you are going to watch something charming and you know someone is going to fall in love and you know you’re going to smile and you will probably cry a little bit. Your heart is going to be moved and so I really respect that. I come from “Party of Five.” We were that heartwarming family that was crying every week kind of show. It’s a similar sensibility. I respect it, I really do.
Q) You talk about the pitch that you made for the network, did they ever give back any notes or feedback? Or were they all in.
Jennifer: Development, that is the constant. So, it’s like I came in with a pitch and Mark Fisher who will always be my first, he’s the executive at Hallmark he was like that’s really, really good. And he was sort of stunned, he didn’t really have anything to say. He didn’t expect it to be good, I guess. And so once we made a deal and attached Catherine into it, we started working with the writer and the outline that is when questions and notes and back and forth. It’s a part of the process.
When I first pitched it, it was a Christmas movie and then they didn’t want it to be a Christmas movie so it wasn’t a Christmas movie for a long time and then it was a Christmas movie again. As you go along, the network’s needs may change and you may need to adjust. So, things that are important for them to see you have to change and I’m cool with that. It’s their movie, they are paying for it. If you want to make a film and have no notes and nobody has any say then raise your own money for the film and make an independent film.
I think because I’m from the world of TV I’m much more used to notes. A lot of notes. It’s like a normal thing. They are doing so much of this movie that I’m not doing: they have the money, they do the advertising, they do the press releases and they market the film. It’s all them. They also have to look after Hallmark and I respect that. So, if they are really firm about something I may say this is why I think it’s important and sometimes I would get my way and other times they are like we are really firm on this point and I just respected that.
Because they have to look out for themselves and they at the end of the day are writing the checks. So, when I’m paying for a meal I want it to be the way I want it. They have the same rights to do that.
Q) Well the film is Home For Christmas Day and we’re watching in July but when we watch Hallmark movies it doesn’t matter the time of year in reality as opposed to when the films are centered around. What makes this sort of a special for you like Christmas in July?
Jennifer: I didn’t know that Christmas in July was a thing until a few months ago and I was so confused when they said it would be airing in July. Christmas in July.
I thought I misheard it because I didn’t know. But oddly enough, I was rewatching something and my character mentioned Christmas in July. That’s how in character I am when I do that, I didn’t even know anything about Christmas in July yet my character talked about it two or three years ago. I didn’t know anything about it and apparently people are getting a Christmas itch at this six month mark and so I guess they’ve done this the last couple of years, Christmas in July. It’s very successful for them. So, kudos. I don’t know where Hallmark movies stream but they must have a lot of Christmas movies.
Q) I don’t know, but they must have the vault!
Jennifer: Yes, the vaults are big! But yeah I don’t know who came up with it but then someone else was telling me that some people actually start like a Christmas in July thing, where people exchange gifts. It’s like a whole counter culture that I know nothing about but I hope I helped you!
Q) I wanted to ask you about the role of Tyler that you said was inspired by the actor that played Pastor Tudor in “GCB.” You talk about how he was in the army and how if you had any questions about the Armed Forces he would really be of great help. Were you working on “GCB” and this character came to you after but constructing him specifically what was that like?
Jennifer: Well, Tyler the person is the actor who plays Pastor Tudor. His name is Tyler. I met him in the makeup trailer. I remember he came in and I hear him talking and I asked if he served and he said “Yes ma’am.” I just said, “Thank you for your service and I know we all say that and we mean it.” The fact that people enlist and they go fight in very far away places and their loved ones are here, holding down the home and not knowing if their loved ones are going to make it through the day, it really is something.
Politics aside, of rightness and wrongness and the I don’t like war, which I don’t. But the Armed Forces are extraordinary people. I’ve never met one I didn’t like. So, Tyler just blew me away. We spent a lot of time together and he was so lovely to work with. He would just laugh at me all day long which makes me feel great.
Part of his charatcer, Tyler is obviously named after him and that great guy is a great guy. He is in his twenties. But a great guy is a great guy and a girl if she finds a great guy she will just snap him up, who cares how old they are. Him as a person, inspired Tyler the character and I told him I’m sorry I can’t cast you because you are in your 30’s.
Any time there was like a technical question that was important to me to get right because I don’t want someone watching this and being like that is not how it works. I didn’t want that to happen. So, he would always answer back right away. He definitely saved me from make a fool of myself in reference to this young solider’s storyline.
Q) When we watch the film this weekend what do you really hope that viewers take away form it?
Jennifer: My original title for this movie was “Love Finds Its Way.” We had to change the title because it’s a Christmas movie. But that was the original title and the reason why I called it that my point in telling the story is that no matter how old you are, whether you’re young or whether you’re old whether it’s the first time whether you never want to experience love again, it’s never too late and its never too early to find true love. That’s what I wanted people to walk away with. It’s an essential part of your life and I have friends that are a bit older and divorced, like my mom who has never found it again. Or a young woman who people say, “Oh, you are too young to fall in love. I don’t believe in that either.” I believe that you can find true love at any time and I want people to be open to that in their lives. This is a thing that you build your foundation of, for your life in that partner. And it’s very lovely. Love. So that’s what I hope people walk away with.
Q) Anything special planned that you have for watching the movie?
Jennifer: I know Catherine is watching it with her daughter Friday night. But myself, my husband, Catherine and a few other people are going to watch it live on the West Coast at Catherine’s house on Sunday night. And we will be live tweeting of course. I just can’t wait for the actors in this movie to see their performance and what they did because they’re all so good. They’re so good!
And I would say, I’m just so grateful for the talent to show the way they did. It is so moving that Catherine, Matreya, Victor [Webster] and Anthony and every single person in this movie showed up and they gave a heartfelt beautiful performance. You know I’m going to be able to tell if you’re not. I’m Jennifer Aspen. I know a little bit about acting and I’m going to be able to tell if you show up with some horse shit. And you know on a movie like that we shoot it really quick, three weeks, we don’t have time to pull a performance out really.
The thing that I’m most grateful for are the artists, the actors in this movie they came to tell my story. To tell this story that means so much to me, they showed up and acted it so beautifully. I could go on and on about all of them. And that’s the thing that means the most to me, that moved me every single day and every day after editing. By the way, producing is much more difficult than acting. It’s a lot more time consuming. It just was thrilling to watch these people do this work. Very moving.
Q) Is there anything else you wanted to mention?
Jennifer: Home On Christmas Day was inspired by Kristin Chenoweth’s Christmas album. That’s how personal this work is for me. A little piece of everybody is in this movie I think. My cousins are named in it. I kill off the name of a high school friend in this movie and I hope she doesn’t see it. It just happened, I was desperate for names and then she dies in the movie. Anyway, it is very personal and I could probably talk about it longer than any of my acting stuff so I appreciate you listening to me give you a novel about this experience.