[Warning: General spoilers ahead.]
Kellie Martin has graced our televisions for most of her life, creating strong characters that include Becca Thatcher on early 90s treasure Life Goes On, the titular Christy, and Lucy Knight on ER. She also launched one of the first Hallmark Movies & Mysteries (then Hallmark Movie Channel) film franchises with Mystery Woman, which spanned an unprecedented 11 films in four years, before transitioning to one-offs for the network and Hallmark Channel.
Last fall, she kicked off a new franchise with Hailey Dean, based on the mystery novels by Nancy Grace. The second film Deadly Estate, airs Sunday night, and I had the chance to chat with Martin this week about the new film, her upcoming TBS comedy, The Guest Book, and her online retail passion project, Romp.
Martin was thrilled to jump into another mystery franchise, and loved the bonus of playing a character with whose agency to participate in investigations was a little more believable. “I do love doing mysteries. Mystery Woman was so much fun to do. When Hallmark started doing new mysteries, I had definitely been looking for one. This one fell into my lap because Nancy Grace requested me,” she says.
“She’s a big Mystery Woman fan. I really liked the idea of playing a former prosecutor. It felt like she could accomplish more with respect to the mystery. I feel like Samantha Kinsey…lots of murders happened, more than should happen. As much as it was so charming, she somehow got people to do favors for her [just as the owner of a bookstore].”
“I feel like Hailey is keyed into a world where they do solve crimes. It’s a legit way for her to be a detective without being a “detective.” For me to come back, I wanted her to accomplish more and be legitimate. She has gut instincts that serve her very well. She’s so tenacious and doesn’t stop. Losing her fiancé changed her DNA. It made her see the world in a completely new way.”
“You’re going to grieve and do nothing or grieve and be proactive, and [Hailey doing the latter] makes me really like her. I don’t know what the endpoint is for that arc. It’s a fun thing to play with. So often in these mysteries, being the detective and the person who solves it, I don’t often get to be emotional and vulnerable so it’s nice to have a storyline where you can see cracks in her exterior and [she can] be more human.”
Martin is an executive producer on the Hailey Dean films, and participates from the inception of each project. “I’m involved from the treatment phase, Hailey’s back story of her fiancé being murdered–[which] each episode is going to reveal more [of]–I’ve had a lot of input in that. The slow reveals are something I’m really excited about and advocate for,” she says. “They consult me with respect to hiring cast and all aspects [but] once I step onto set, I try not to wear my producer hat too much [unless] there’s something to address. I feel like the part is demanding enough. I just want to be the actress.”
The current slate of HMM franchises are spread across films leveraged from novels and original ideas. Hailey Dean is a bit of a mix in that the books won’t be literally translated to film, ” The books give us a jumping off point for the Hailey character, which is semi-autobiographical to Nancy,” Martin explains.
As she did in the first film, Grace appears in a fun cameo, this time as a receptionist who’s a bit of a tattletale. “She’s going to play a different character in each episode unless she gets very attached to the receptionist and we figure out a way to have her in every episode,” Martin says. “She enjoys it and we love having her. She’s so devoted to her children that she flies in and out in a day. ”
Fincher (Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency’s Viv Leacock) was Hailey’s investigator when she was a prosecutor and in both films, he’s her ally and conduit to the police now that she’s moved over to a career as a therapist. His role expands in the second film, due in large part to his onscreen banter with Martin.
“[He’s] my favorite. He and I have so much fun on set and we do a lot of improv-ing and they noticed that from the first episode,” she shares. “I made it no secret that I think he’s fantastic. He’s a great bridge for Hailey to get information because they work so well together.”
Martin also looks forward to exploring Hailey’s relationship with Jonas (Legends of Tomorrow‘s Matthew MacCaull), which is tested in the second movie. “I think it’ll be interesting to see what happens with [them]. In the first one, it’s new and they just met,” she points out. “And in this one, they hit a little but of a rough patch. As we were getting [that arc] on its feet, it seemed rougher. It surprised me [the things about Jonas] that Hailey wouldn’t like.”
Martin has been a fixture in so many varied series that she says she gets recognized based on what people’s preferences are. “It depends on what people like. We only did 20 episodes of Christy and people will stop me on the street,” she says. “I feel like Life Goes On is the most beloved. That was four years and they gave me such juicy stuff to do and they did such important stuff.” She adds that people also come up to her about Mystery Woman now that it’s back in heavy rotation on HMM.
She recently completed filming on The Guest Book, a half-hour comedy from My Name is Earl and Raising Hope creator Greg Garcia. “It’s hilarious…basically Greg unfiltered. He has a wicked sense of humor. It’s about these stories that get written in the guest book at Froggy Cottage, this little cabin in the woods where crazy things happen,” she says.
“Each episode has a guest star like Stockard Channing, Jenna Fischer, and Michael Rappaport [who the episode] centers around. I play the mountain cop. Lots of shady things end up happening, so my character is always called in to investigate. She ends up falling in love with this doctor who’s renting the cottage next door. I’m this tough, stern police officer, but when I’m around Dr. Brown (Garret Dillahunt), I’m like a pile of mush.”
“It’s the first time I’ve done comedy in a really long time. When Greg [approached me], he said, ‘I know you can do it,’ [so I thought], ‘All you have to do is say the words, and not mess with it and it’ll be great.’ Sometimes I bristle at a lot of direction, With respect to this and the world [Greg] was trying to keep, I was like, ‘You tell me exactly how you want me to say this, and what you want me to do, and I’ll do it.'”
“I was so nervous. My ten-year old would tell you I was not a nice person during the two months I was filming. For me to be nervous on set and stretching [after all this time] is not a bad thing. It was like that on Mad Men, too. I wanted to be the best I could be for Matthew Weiner.”
Martin’s offscreen venture is Romp, an online website with toys for children. “I found [it] when I was having trouble getting toys for my older daughter. I have a ‘no batteries, no plastic’ policy. A friend of mine recommended it,” she says. “She told me about this really cool wooden camera. I bought it and then was a very loyal customer. After four or five years, I got an e-mail that they were closing, so I told my husband, ‘They can’t close, where will I get Maggie’s toys from?’ So we bought it.”
“Jenn LaBelle, this fantastic woman, was happy to pass it along to me. The hard thing is it’s my hobby. It needs to be more than a hobby for someone. It’s a business, and when I’m working, it gets neglected. It’s definitely something I believe in. I think our kids learn best when they’re surrounded by quiet things, [can] find the animation in a block, and create things for themselves. That’s where it started. I’m starting to get my head back around doing it again full-on.”
Martin loves being part of the Hallmark family and is hopeful about Hailey Dean. “I love it. I hope they never stop using me. They’ve been very good to me and I’ll continue to always be very good to them. I hope they give Hailey a chance and let the franchise grow and let people find it. The next one is in the treatment phase. I hope [this one] does well. [The movies are a] really nice setup for me for the way my life is right now.”
Deadly Estate finds Hailey pulled into the disappearance of her friend, Pam (The Flash‘s Michelle Harrison), whose sudden decision to bail on a getaway with a new boyfriend seems like something more sinister. The cast is rounded out with folks introduced in the first film, including Giacomo Baessato (Wayward Pines), Lucia Walters (Ties That Bind), Peter Bryant (Riverdale), Cindy Busby (Cedar Cove). Director Terry Ingram and writer Jonathan Greene also return. Jim Thorburn (last month’s Aurora Teagarden, Dead Over Heels) and Gwynyth Walsh (Van Helsing) guest star.