Nikki DeLoach and Benjamin Ayres Talk Cranberry Christmas [Exclusive]
[Warning: General spoilers ahead.]
I’m pretty transparent that I gravitate toward the Hallmark films where the characters lean closer to 40 than 30 and have some personal history–they’re fully-formed people with established lives. See: Love, Of Course, The Irresistible Blueberry Farm, and Love on the Air as examples that have done this really well.
This Christmas, or Christmasween, as it happens, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries takes that dynamic of characters with an established history and tweaks it a bit with characters who have an established history with each other. Cranberry Christmas, premiering this Halloween Saturday night, stars Nikki DeLoach and Benjamin Ayres as Dawn and Gabe, co-founders of a rising home goods brand who get the opportunity to showcase their budding business, and their small hometown, on a national stage.
The not-so-tiny wrinkle is that they’re also married and have been semi-amicably separated for a while. The attention of national talk show host Pamela Franks (Marci T. House) puts their business–and relationship–under the microscope during an already awkward Christmas.
What’s unique is that Dawn and Gabe still genuinely care for and want the best for each other, but have lost the thread of communication that’s held their lifelong friendship-turned-romance-turned-decade-long marriage together. As they try to be what Pamela thinks they are, they’re forced to maintain the ruse, and in the process figure out how to put the pieces back together in a way that also works for their individual wants and needs. I really, really liked it, and had the opportunity this week to speak with both actors about the project.
The first Hallmark film directed by longtime former script supervisor Linda-Lisa Hayter and written by Jingle Around the Clock’s Joie Botkin, Cranberry Christmas was actually seeded last year when Ayres was shooting A Blue Ridge Mountain Christmas. “While we were shooting one of the locations, I [saw] a cranberry bog and [thought] it was so interesting. I’ve never seen them harvest cranberries before,” he recalls.
“And I got them to pull over the van and we just walked there for a bit. The producer, Ryan [M. Murphy], who produced Cranberry Christmas, also saw that same one. And he says, ‘Cranberry Christmas. That would be an amazing movie.’ And last year he pitched it, Joie came on board, and that’s the one we filmed.”
This was one of the earliest movies out of the gate mid-pandemic, and that heightened tension–along with the heat and errant mosquitoes–helped the actors find their footing playing the disconnect between Gabe and Dawn. After each realized how funny the other was (seriously, spend some time on their Instagram feeds), the only tension was to try to hold it together onscreen.
“I had never experienced mosquitoes like that. I remember we were in the middle of the first day, we had to shoot the [final] scene, which is always hard enough, but we’re outside, we’re in winter [clothes and] it’s 180 degrees outside,” laughs DeLoach. “And during my closeup, a mosquito lands on my face and is just fighting me. [It felt] like Vietnam. It was so hot.”
“That first week was a little nerve wracking. Not a lot of productions had been back at that point. You’re scared of COVID. It was her first job back since COVID, my first job back. We didn’t know each other. We were both nervous to return to set. And with that came a sense of anxiety,” agrees Ayres.
“We had intimate scenes and we were getting [COVID] tested right before. And I think the fact that there was a real tense energy about being back allowed us to take that into the film and really play it. We didn’t have to go down too far and we allowed that to be the thing [that inspired us].”
During those early days, the duo also worked on the characters and the script to find their throughline for the story and their performances. “We got together before with LL at her place and went through the script scene by scene and really talked it out, beat by beat for hours on hours and talked about our own relationships and stuff, which really allowed us to play on the day,” says Ayres.
“[When there] was any opportunity for us to dig deeper into a scene, we would run the scene…just run it and run it and run it and try to find other things that we could do. We would come back to the director and producer [with our ideas],” shares DeLoach.
“It’s really hard not to look into Nikki’s eyes and just connect and go with whatever [she’s doing]. She gets me. And it was a very beautiful experience to get to do that with her because we really trusted each other and also were the biggest supporters of each other to go further with every scene and every moment and every beat,” explains Ayres.
Once the pair realized each other’s innate sense of humor, they were off to the races. “It wasn’t really til about halfway through the second week that things became a bit looser and it just happened. [And] the location moved to the barn [and] we literally felt like we were in a completely different movie [on] the Hallmark Channel,” Ayres says.
“We couldn’t keep a straight face. We were making jokes in the scene. But then [we realized] that’s a relationship, too. You can laugh and [it’s part of] getting to play the history of a couple, as opposed to having to meet for the first time and do those things.”
“The second it started to cool off, he started with the humor. And we just hit a pocket. We just hit this groove with each other. That is just nothing short of magic. You can’t fake it. You can’t make it happen between people. It just happened. And we laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed,” adds DeLoach.
“The second I learned that he was funny and he had incredible timing, [I thought], ‘This is great!’ because this movie on paper had a lot of weight to it [and] could have been really heavy. And I felt like we needed to add as much levity as we could.”
“And the fact that I love comedy and I’m very comfortable with comedy, [we said], ‘Let’s find every moment that we can to add humor to a scene. Let’s create it.’ We [wanted] the audience to also feel the joy and laugh through this. And I feel like we really captured that tone, and the humor. And I’m really proud of that.”
The film also captures a growing friendship between two successful women, and accurately and empathetically portrays the age-old “have it all” quandary. When Pamela presents Dawn with an extraordinary opportunity, the women actually talk through why it may not be the best choice right now, and each sees the other’s side of it. There is no animosity or bitterness or subterfuge about it, which is wonderfully refreshing. DeLoach credits Botkin and House with creating that dynamic.
“[Botkin] nailed that relationship with her words and the story so wonderfully and beautifully. Marci is a powerhouse of an actor, one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with, not just on the Hallmarks, but period. And it was just such a joy to work with her,” she says. “What a pleasure, what a privilege to be able to do that. Marci brought it to life and in a way that was incredible. I’m so glad they utilize her so much. I think the Pamela Franks show should just be a show that runs throughout all the movies.”
Both actors loved working with director Hayter and spoke highly of her influence on the tone and pace of the film. “Linda Lisa Hayter was the perfect director to do this with. This is her zone. She needs to live in this world and she just knocked it out of the park, so much so that Hallmark put her back to work immediately directing another movie. She is one of the most prepared, most thoughtful, most utilized, most precious directors I’ve ever worked with at Hallmark. I can’t say enough wonderful things about her,” shares DeLoach.
“Even down to the fact that she wanted to keep every scene moving, everyone moving, giving them an action, which is always my biggest thing. I do not like to be planted in a scene. You walk in, you stand there, and you have a scene, and then you walk off. People are active things. We’re usually moving, we’re eating, we’re drinking, we’re walking…There’s movement in our lives, yet it’s so easy to plant actors somewhere and let them have a scene and put a camera here and put a camera there and say, ‘Go.’”
“And she didn’t come out of the gate like that. She came out of the gate with, ‘I want you to start in the kitchen and I want you to move into here. And I want you to lay the food here. And then I want you to go to the tree.’ And there was movement to that [and] when we had more serious things, we could plant ourselves for those and they mattered even more. She just knew things like that, to do that. I just can’t wait to see what she does next. I personally cannot wait to work with her again. I’m so excited to work with her again.”
Ayres seconds that sentiment. “She was so incredible. She was so prepared and so specifically nuanced in her notes to the actors. I can’t even tell you how long it’s been since I’ve worked with a director like her. She cared so much about the performance. These movies [film in] 15 days. There’s not a lot of time. You’re moving through quite quickly and oftentimes the director and the DP are working together, just in scheduling [and usually] as long as we got it on camera, it’s [good enough and we] move on,” he points out.
“And with LL, it was, ‘Let’s make sure we get that [right].’ And then it was really fine-tuned performances and just beautiful little reminders to remember where [our characters are] coming from, where we are going, what just happened [in the previous scene], maybe take a beat and think about this. And at first, it could come across as micromanaging. And that’s kind of how I felt when we first started, only because I hadn’t worked with somebody [like that] and I’m so used to often having to rely on the other actor to discuss performance and work on those [things].”
“By the end of the first [or] second day, I thought, ‘This is amazing. She really cares and wants to tell the story and feels that the story is important to tell from each beat to beat,’ as opposed to just what the shot looks like and if there are enough lights in it. It’s what I absolutely loved the most about working with her. She was a captain of a ship and she did it in such a calm demeanor, and there was never any stress on set. I would work with her again in a heartbeat.”
Both actors banked two movies back to back–DeLoach did this before Sweet Autumn and Ayres is now back on Chronicle Mysteries–and are still going strong with other projects. Next weekend, the Alzheimer’s Association, which DeLoach is closely involved in, will hold their annual walk, except this year it’s a virtual “walk amongst yourselves” affair. She’s also been doing a series of Instagram conversations to promote the cause. “I started [them so] people do not feel like they’re isolated in their pain and then what they’re going through with dementia and Alzheimer’s. And so we’re doing that differently this year,” she says.
“[With the walk], every single year, we’re just trying to raise even more awareness and more money for the foundation. And 2020 has just been a real jerk and everything has been cancelled. And this walk is not cancelled. One of the golden nuggets that we can experience inside of it is that no matter what state you’re in, you can walk with me on November 7th.”
“If you go to the link in my bio on Instagram, sign up and register to walk. I’ve done several of these walks for causes this year. And my family, we get out and walk every day as it is. Why not walk for a cause? It’s great because you get to move your body and feel good about what you put into the world that day. I’m going to be on Instagram live throughout the whole entire walk and you can request to join me. I will be talking to anybody. I’ll have my mask on and we’ll be walking around and just doing it.”
DeLoach is also participating in Operation: Christmas is Not Cancelled, an initiative from several Hallmark folks to raise money for Toys for Tots and the USO. And her Mickey Mouse Club alma mater is donating proceeds from its new Christmas album, “Why? Because It’s Christmas” to COVID relief.
Ayres and the Chronicle Mysteries crew are wrapping up filming on the next installment, which follows our intrepid investigative team as they attend a motivational weekend that’s interrupted by a murder. It’s set to air early in 2021. You can see behind the scenes photos and videos on the film series’ Instagram feed.
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Soooo wonderful being back with the Chronical Mysteries family!! Episode #5 is in the works! Safety first — FaceShields on set til the cameras roll! @hallmarkmovie @chroniclemysteries @alisweeney @benjaminayres @oliviasteelefalconer @fresh_collins @jasonbourque1 @jackielindcasting #wearamask #safetyfirst #chroniclemysteries #episode5
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And you can catch him in the YouTube series, Lost in Isolation, written by Killjoys alumnus Jeremy Boxen and co-starring Rachel Boston, which grew out of his very funny series of pandemic quarantine Instagram stories. “[I] did that first isolation thing where I was in the playhouse and it just got so many responses [that I thought] I should try to maybe do one for day two. And then again, a bunch of responses. And I [thought], wow, maybe I’m just going to commit to doing 14 of these,” he laughs.
“And some days it’s kind of annoying and exhausting and I didn’t know what I was going to do and some random thing would come to my head [and I’d] do that. It gave me something to focus on…moments throughout my day of those 14 days during a very stressful time. It just gave me something to ground myself.”
After connecting with Boxen and Boston through social media, Lost in Isolation was hatched and four episodes are available now on YouTube. “We did a bunch of different takes through Zoom and then I [thought] it should just exist as if it’s a call [between] two people and you’re eavesdropping on this conversation,” Ayres explains. “And that’s kind of how we ended. The first one did really well. And you know, Jeremy is interested in keeping it going and we want to finish it.”
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