[Warning: General spoilers ahead.]
Hallmark Movies & Mysteries premieres its first standalone mystery in a while this Sunday night with To Catch a Spy, directed by Jeff Beesley, written by Rick Garman, and starring Nathalie Kelley, Colin Donnell, and Patti Murin in a murder mystery travelogue set against the gorgeous backdrop of Malta. Last week I jumped on the phone with real-life couple Donnell and Murin about the project, their second together for Hallmark, following last year’s travelogue/romcom, Love on Iceland, which is streaming on Hallmark Movies Now.
In the film, Kelley is Chloe, a travel writer dispatched to a Malta hotel reopening being shepherded by her longtime friend, Luke. Murin plays her BFF and photographer, Sara, and Donnell is Aaron, an FBI agent investigating a theft for the US embassy and a guest of the hotel.
Chloe and Aaron have a meet cute at check in that becomes less cute after she hears what she thinks is someone in the room above her falling over the balcony and summons Aaron to help when she finds the front desk unmanned in the aftermath. As the mystery unfolds, Chloe inches her way into Aaron’s investigation and corrals Sara and their colleagues to help with the recon and occasional hacking as they sort through a growing list of suspects.
Donnell and Murin have been holed up in New York during the pandemic with their daughter, who’s just now coming up on a year old, and supporting a variety of Broadway community resource groups to try to help the actors, actresses, and craftspeople put out of work when Broadway went dark. Both are significant presences in that world, and it was near and dear to them to help. Add to that that Murin contracted and recovered from COVID-19 while she was pregnant.
So, to say the two leapt at the opportunity to get out of town for a stretch was an understatement. “It just happened, luckily I guess, that the two movies that I’ve done have been to these amazing locations. Iceland was such a unique experience to be there in winter and have access to all of the things that we got to do. Everything that I would have wanted to do as a tourist we got to do while working,” Donnell recalls.
“It was just incredible. And then, when they called to offer us the movie in Malta, it was kind of a no-brainer. Like everybody, we’ve been stuck in our home for the entire year and it’s been amazing because we have a brand new baby. I don’t know that I’d necessarily thought of Malta as a destination to go visit before, but getting the chance to go there for work and, and seeing what an amazing country it is and how beautiful it is and experiencing the local flavor and getting to know people that were local to the country…overall, it was an incredible experience.”
Murin was drawn to the country’s history. “It’s so gorgeous. [It has] some of the oldest freestanding buildings in the entire world. While we were there, most of it actually was in a bit of a lockdown, so we didn’t get to go to museums or anything like that, but honestly just being there, seeing it, and experiencing it because of the scenery and the architecture [was extraordinary],” she shares.
“We also got to shoot in some really cool places that we wouldn’t normally have gotten access to, even without lockdowns. And that was really, really cool. It was kind of the same thing as Iceland. It truly is a love letter to, to the country itself. I love that when we shot there, it wasn’t like we were trying to pass it off for a different location. The movie is about being in Malta. I just think that’s really great how they do that. They also did that with Iceland. And so it really is just like a beautiful, beautiful, postcard to say, ‘Come visit me.'”
Donnell appreciated that the film is a whodunnit vs. a “will they or won’t they.” “What makes it especially unique within the Hallmark world is that it really isn’t about romance between the two characters. It’s all about trying to solve this mystery and it’s a bit darker than the normal fare,” he says.
“But it has all the elements that you love about Hallmark movies, the humor, and the fun, and the fact that everybody is really just kind of going along and having a rollicking good time and it also has this really cool, sort of action/thriller aspect to it as well.”
As Sara, Murin is Chloe’s fleeting voice of reason before she, too, gets sucked into the crime-solving. “In the beginning of the case, it’s about investigating a murder, but then, as it starts getting deeper and deeper, she’s [realizing]. ‘This is actually really dangerous.’ It was pretty cool to have it go from [being] a fun mystery [to], ‘Oh, this person is trying to kill you now,” she laughs.
Donnell enjoyed getting to work alongside Murin. “I think one of my favorite scenes…Patti and I don’t have a lot of screen time together, but it’s always fun to be on set with her,” he shares. “I enjoyed being down in the tunnels with her that one day.”
“There’s also a scene that we shot in a place called the Upper Barrakka Gardens that are in Valletta, which is the capital city of Malta. And it’s just the most stunning place that you can imagine. It looks out onto where all the boats are coming in and the gardens themselves are gorgeous. Every which way you look, there’s more beautiful scenery in front of you. There’s something so special about the country itself and to be able to experience it like was so unique and so wonderful.”
“I really loved shooting in the tunnels. These buildings are hundreds and hundreds of years old. It’s just that moment where [you realize] people walked in these tunnels [centuries ago] and I’m here right now. I am standing where ancient people stood,” she marvels..
When considering where to dedicate their efforts during the pandemic, the couple turned to The Actors Fund. “The easy one for us was to do anything that would support The Actors Fund. It’s a wonderful organization that is able to help people across the theater industry. And it’s not just about actors, it’s anybody who’s involved in any industry at all,” Donnell explains.
“Its impact is very wide and huge. We’ve really just tried to do as much as we possibly can. Seth Rudetsky and his husband, James [Wesley], have a wonderful thing that they’ve been doing the “Stars in the House” series that started really right as Broadway was shutting down and they just surpassed over a million dollars raised. It’s incredible what they’ve been able to do and the stamina that they’ve been able to keep up and keep going and get all these people across the industry involved in.”
“Anywhere we can help raise money through [social media] or just our faces, we just wanted to make sure that we were doing our part to help ease things for people,” adds Murin.
Murin has also been teaching masterclasses online. “It’s kind of surprising the things that come up [and you realize], ‘That’s a neat opportunity to do.’ After I recovered from having a baby, I really started jumping into the teaching and the masterclasses and coaching and whatnot, and it’s been really wonderful,” she says.
“I met so many talented people and some that I still do private coaching with. It’s so fun to see the younger generation that’s going to be coming up. I honestly can’t wait for the day when I start rehearsals for a show and someone in the cast [tells me], ‘I went to your virtual masterclass the year of the pandemic.’“
“They’re just amazing. As young as ten and they’re already stars. And so it’s been really wonderful. Instead of being the one that’s doing the performing, I’m getting to be the one that’s actually helping foster, and it’s actually kept me connected to theater, as well, because at heart I’m just a theater nerd and so I like to geek out with the other theater nerds.”
Donnell was getting ready to stand up a stage version of Almost Famous in San Diego when everything shut down and he hopes to return to it. “It was an adaptation of the movie. We don’t have a date certainly or a theater, but you know, the plan is still to open the show at some point in probably the not-too-distant future,” he says.
“But as far as we’re concerned, we’re just really excited to go see a show back on stage and sit in an audience full of healthy people. That’s one of the things that we’ve missed the most throughout all this is being able to go see theater and see this art form that means so much to us. And it’s such a huge part of our lives, a hundred percent.”
With the shift to so much virtual activity, including virtual performances that brought Broadway into our living rooms, Murin would like that to be a permanent option. “I really hope and I know it will actually continue in the future. Before [the pandemic], virtual masterclasses, teaching, and performances didn’t really exist, but now in any given masterclass, there’s ten people [and only] one of them is probably from the New York city adjacent area,” she points out.
“Where before, you used to have to have people come to you, now, you can actually really, truly do it for so many more people. [There are also] shows that have been inspired to do a pro shoot of their shows that they actually released on Netflix or whatnot. It’s generally just made so much theater so much more accessible. And so the hope is that that will continue to grow as well as live theater comes back.”
We couldn’t wrap up without asking Donnell about his run on Arrow, and he loved being part of that world all the way through. “It was awesome. They were so kind over the years to keep bringing Tommy back as much as they possibly could because they knew that it would be a fun treat for the fans. And I was very lucky that, all but one time, I was able to make my schedule work to be able to do it,” he shares..
“And I had such a blast. I love the city of Vancouver, where the show was shot. I loved that entire crew, which throughout the years, all of them remained the same, which is pretty rare for a television show that runs that long. And the cast were such good friends and Stephen [Amell] is a real close buddy of mine and seeing Emily [Bett ] and David [Ramsey] and all those people, it always felt like coming home.”
Over the course of the series, Donnell’s favorite memory is the first season finale. “Shooting the last episode of the first season when Tommy died…it was my first big television job, but it was sad for everybody,” he recalls. “I was moving on to go do some things back in New York. I just remember being struck by how sweet and loving everybody on set was.”
“It really solidified this family that we all had. And then it was the same thing going back to shoot the very last episode of the series. And there were exponentially more people there who had gone through the series over its eight years. And it was so cool to see how big this community had grown and trading stories of our time on the show, whether or not I had worked with people or not. It was just really, really special.”
To Catch a Spy premieres Sunday at 8 pm/7c on Hallmark Movies and Mysteries. Here’s a sneak peek. The couple do plan to live Tweet the film, and you can check out their Insta feeds for more goodies. Donnell also just did a reading of Neil LaBute’s The Mercy Seat for The Actors Fund that’s screening on YouTube until Friday at 7:59 pm/6:59c. It’s free, but donations are encouraged.
Photos and Video Courtesy of Crown Media.
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