Barbara Niven Talks Chesapeake Shores, Murder She Baked, and More [Exclusive]
[Warning: General spoilers ahead.]
If you’ve spent any (or a lot of) time watching Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, you know Barbara Niven. Over the last few years, she’s been a staple on fan favorite series Cedar Cove, the Murder She Baked movie series, and now, Hallmark Channel’s newest series, Chesapeake Shores, where she plays estranged O’Brien matriarch Megan, who returns home to face her now-grown children when her former mother-in-law falls ill.
It’s a role Niven was thrilled to play, and it came her way via Bill Abbott, the head of Crown Media, Hallmark Channel’s parent company. “[Two years ago], Bill Abbot read [the Chesapeake Shores novel], and when he read it, he said, ‘I see you as Megan.’ He said it was a fantastic book series,” she recalls.
“I immediately ordered it on my Kindle…and from the first moment, I said, ‘I know this woman, Megan. I know what she wants for her kids. I know who she is. I have to play her.’ Whenever I get a hit like that in my gut, and it stirs my soul and I can’t stop thinking about her, I know that is part that I really need to play.”
“It was a journey. It took a couple of years for it all to fall into place.Â Megan is one of the easiest, most complicated characters I’ve ever gotten to play. [I’m] putting so much of me and my story, which is all of our women’s story, [into her]. She comes back home leading with her heart.”
“She’s willing to do whatever it takes. You get to a certain point where you get past blame. You get to where it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the love of a family and putting it back together. When you come back, it’s not black and white. Relationships never are. Somewhere in the middle is the truth. I think in the back of her mind, when you see her [walking back in that house and seeing her family and her ex], her breath is taken away a little bit.”
“I really want to get her story out about why she left. That’s something that I really fought for. OurÂ showrunner, John Tinker, has been a wonderful collaborator. I have gone through and written down, as an actress,Â what she would say to Mick and each of her kids, and [I corrected] him on [her motivations].”
“She was watching her kids suffer because she and Mick were fighting all the time, and she didn’t want her kids to grow up in that atmosphere. When you’re the wife of someone powerful and strong-willed, you lose your gumption and your self-esteem, and you think you can’t do it on your own. When she was making the decision to leave, it was after a big fight. Abby was 17 and just starting her final year of high school and her other kids [had a life] in that wonderful home.”
“She has a dilemma. Is she going to stay andÂ have her kids grow up with angry parents or is she going to try make a better life for herself and make a nest so she can bring her kids? Her intention was always to have her kids follow, and when it came down to it, Mick wouldn’t allow them to do it. That wasn’t mentioned in the script.”
“As viewers watch the season play out, they will learn more of the back story of how and why she left and their relationship then, and hopefully see them heal their relationship [and find] a new level of friendship and respect as well.”
Niven says she’s crafted in her mind, too, that Megan was always present even if her children didn’t know it. “They all still had their family unit. Megan was struggling to start a career and life. I think it was unselfish of her that even though she was starting her new life, she did what was best for the kids,” she explains. “I imagine her sitting in the back row [at Bree’s plays in school and in Chicago] and not tellingÂ her she was there, but she was there. She watched the kids from afar.”
She says the seriesÂ will use the books as a springboard but not follow them exclusively. “[Author] Sherryl Woods is one of the executive producers on the show and we talk all the time. You can’t follow the books exactly because we may run out of storyline,” she points out. “[But], there’s so much in these books and in the family dynamics, I don’t think we’ll ever run out of source material.”
One fun change from the books is that Megan is called Mimi by Abby’s daughters, and that’s what Niven’s grandchildren call her. “I asked John Tinker if he would allow the girls to call me Mimi [and he said yes], so they’ve been calling me Mimi on and off the set,” she laughs.
InÂ the Murder She Baked films, Niven plays Hannah’s sassy, sometimes meddling mom, Delores, and she adores the role, and the movies. “Delores gets to say everything I wish I could say in real life. She’s a force of nature.Â I love this woman,” she says. “I love working with Alison Sweeney. It has gelled from the very beginning.”
“Alison is my inspiration. She’s such a role model for women. She acts in this, she’s executive producer, not in name only. She worries about every word in the scripts,Â the production value, props, and [she’s] directing ADR sessions.Â She’s very hands-on, and she’s writing her novels. While we’re going from our trailer to set, she’s got her laptop in her lap. I could not love this girl more and be more proud to call her my daughter on TV.”
“Our chemistry is off the charts with the comedy we get to play. With Megan, I dissectÂ every word and what her motivation is, and [in] every scene, I chart, ‘Is she getting closer to her kids or did she hit another mine?’ Because she’s walking through a minefield.Â When I play Delores, it’s a gas, and we just go play and have fun.”
Two of the films have aired this year, and Niven hopes, schedules permitting, they’ll get to do another one before the end of the year. “It’s just a vacation to get to do these movies,” she says. “The more fun we have, the more fun the [audience]Â has.”
Niven’s relationship with Hallmark Channel began with Back to You and Me, which still runs in regular rotation. “I got to spend three weeks at a B&B with Rue McClanahan. We’d go down and have wine andÂ dinner, and she’d tell me aboutÂ The Golden Girls. It was a dream job,” she recalls. “You have to know your craft, but you also remember the relationships and the people.”
From there, she did one of the Mystery Woman films with Bruce Boxleitner.Â “When Cedar Cove came up, they called and said they were replacing a couple of actorsÂ from the pilot and they’d already shot three episodes. [They asked] if I would be interested,” she says. “They said they were approaching Bruce Boxleitner, too, and I said, ‘I’m in.'”
Niven is thrilled that she’s so busy, and loves working between films and episodic series. “I just love to work. I love to keep busy. I love doing a series. I’m so grateful to still be working at my age when most actresses buy into the fact that ‘after 40 you can’t work,'” she says.
“Now, I’m working more than I ever have. I’m 63. I want to use it to give hope to other people. Whatever your dream is, you can outcreate your circumstances. You can make your dream happen if you don’t give up five minutes before your miracle.”
Niven practices that mantra with her Dreamers Network and her interactions with people on Twitter and Facebook. “I think social media is the greatest tool every invented to bring people together and create change. It can be negative, but when good people come together for a good cause, we can create something so powerful together,” she shares.
“I am so grateful for the people I have met on Facebook and Twitter. I got a legends award at the Peachtree Village International Film Festival [earlier this month]Â and I had people I’d met online come to Atlanta to celebrate with me. And it was like we were meeting old friends because we already knew each other. We’re all kindred spirits.”
“I finally feel like I’ve stepped into my purpose. Acting for me now is about having a bigger platform to connect people and inspire them and show them that if I can make this crazy acting dream happen, each one of them needs to take the chance, take the leap, and launch themselves into whatever purpose they have. If I can do it, they can do it.”
“WeÂ each have a message and are here for a reason, but maybe we’re afraid to stand up and be seen. It’s all about connecting each other and supporting each other so we can do what we’re meant to do and do great things together.”
Niven’s own journey to acting began when she was a 30-year-old single mother in Portland. “I [didn’t]Â want to wonder, ‘what if’ some day. I decided to declare myself and did everything in my power to make that happen while raising a daughter as a single mother. You find mentors.”
One of those was a local news director who took her on as she began to write news stories. From there, she moved to on-camera and then got her SAG card on the Hallmark Hall of Fame film, Promise, opposite James Garner and James Woods.Â She credits Woods with taking the time to mentor her, too. “He showed me the actor’s creed. He stayed after he was wrapped just to be my eyeline. [It was]Â a great gift to me as a young actor to learn how we support our fellow actors,” she recalls.
“It epitomizes Hallmark. It starts with the value system and the entertainment they create. It starts with Bill Abbott, who is the kindest person I knew, and Michelle Vicary, and on down the line.Â I’m so grateful to be on the network where we can create positive energy and positive entertainment to outcreate what’s going on in the world. It’s a perfect fit for meÂ [and] exactly the mark I want to leave on the world.”
Chesapeake Shores airs Sundays at 9/8c on Hallmark Channel and is also available On Demand. Here’s a sneak peek of the next new episode.
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