[Warning: General spoilers ahead.]
Nikki DeLoach is one of our faves, and she’s back on Hallmark Channel Saturday with Taking the Reins, a brand-new Fall Harvest entry in which she not only stars, but also executive produced. I spoke with her last week about the project, and got a tease of her new holiday movies.
In Taking the Reins, DeLoach plays Sam, a former competitive equestrian who retired years earlier and reinvented herself as a features writer. Assigned to go home and cover a story about an event her family is hosting, she’s forced into close quarters with not just with her estranged dad, Preston (Corbin Bernsen), but also her ex-husband, Luke (Scott Porter), who’s helping her family (which also includes her mom, Bonnie, played by Janine Turner, and sister, Alexandra, played by Eliza Hayes Maher) get ready.
The movie was a labor of love for DeLoach and her writing-producing partner, Megan McNulty. “It was the first one that I produced with [her] for Hallmark. I had done other movies just on my own, but this was the first one that we did together. And the [network] executive, Jennifer Phillips, wanted to really tell a story in this world of dressage and show jumping,” she explains.
“We’ve done a lot of Western horse riding [stories at Hallmark], but we’ve never really done this world. So my writing partner and I went away and came up with a story to pitch to her. And it just developed from there.” Alex Wright wrote the script for the film.
DeLoach captured the story through the lens of a woman seeking to understand herself and reconcile estrangements that she still doesn’t quite understand. “I wanted to explore a character that had just really pursued one thing her whole entire life. I have come up against this as an actor,” she shares. “My brother bumped up against this as a guy who wanted to play professional baseball. Every second and every minute of his life from the time he was three years old was in the pursuit of this thing.”
“And what happens when you do that your whole entire life and then you wake up one day and you think, ‘Am I doing this because I love it or am I doing it because it’s the only thing I know or am I doing it because this is where I get my self worth…?’”
“We wanted to explore that inside of a person and also the unraveling of a marriage, when you get married so young and you don’t know how to fix anything, you don’t have a way to navigate your way through something, but the love is still there.”
“And then also, the father character was really based on my grandfather, who I lost about five years ago. That stubborn, ‘I’m not changing,’ hard on the outside, really soft on the inside, but how do you get to the inside…the one where it’s hard to communicate because it’s either his way or the highway. [He’s] played by Corbin Bernsen, who was my dream for this character. I wanted him so badly. And he is so tremendous, not just as an actor, but as a human being. I just absolutely adore him.”
“I wanted to explore, especially with everything that’s happening in our country in the last, four or five years of politics and social issues, the things that are dividing families. In our movie, we’re not talking about politics [but the estrangements are there].”
For Sam and Preston, who had a relationship built around dressage, losing that tether meant also losing each other for a time. “She suffered a humiliation at a competition at the same time that she went through her divorce. And so she had these two giant heartbreaks and the only way that she knew how to deal with it was just to walk away from everything and start over. After she walked away, it was very hard for her to communicate with her father because he thought that she was making a massive mistake,” says DeLoach.
“We wanted to explore what happens when there’s this misunderstanding. We’re only really thinking about our side of something. We’re not actually putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes to think about what this decision did to the other person [and]] the relationship. We generally only process it through our experience.”
“We [decided] to take what’s happening out in the world and show that these are two people that can’t seem to come to the table and they’ve kind of written each other out of their lives, even though there’s a lot of love still there. How do we bring them back together and show them that the love is so much bigger than any miscommunication or argument that they could ever have?”
DeLoach was thrilled to work with director Clare Niederpruem on the film, and appreciated her care and empathy during filming, which immediately preceded her losing her father to Pick’s Disease, a battle she has openly discussed on her Instagram feed. “She is a revelation. She is so good. Here’s the thing about her that is extraordinary. This is a big movie. The horses are almost in every scene. There are horses throughout all of this,” DeLoach shares.
“We shot in Connecticut. There was so much weather and rain and…you have an idea for a scene [that] the actor will go here and we’ll go here and we’ll shoot in this direction and then you get there on the day and the horses don’t want to be there. So imagine, with every single scene, you’re having to pivot in the moment and do what the horse is going to do. Or, the rain is going to be on top of us in an hour and we have to get this scene before then…how do we shoot that?”
“She was up against all of that. She was so clear. She was so prepared and not just as a director who knows where she wants the camera and knows what she wants the shot to be, but she knew how to talk to actors. She knew how to talk performance. And here’s the thing that meant a lot to me about her—her kindness and her giant heart and her humor and just openness was given to every single person on that set at all times.”
“With everything that she had on her plate and everything that she was up against, I would not have blamed her to just literally lose her mind on set one day and just start throwing props because it was a lot and she was just steady as could be and so kind.”
“And I just appreciated that so much. I was coming into this movie and almost two days before it started, I thought I might have to back out because I knew that we are getting close to the end with my dad. I had the heaviness and the weight of my dad with me the whole time I was in Connecticut. And it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life to do this movie, just emotionally.”
“And Clare just was a container. She would just hold space for [me]. She didn’t know the depths of what I was going through and I didn’t tell her everything that was going on, but she did know that my dad was at the end of his life. And she knew that this was an extremely difficult thing for me and in the mercy and the space that she held for me doing this, I was just so grateful. So I just think the world of her, and I think that she is a star.”
DeLoach’s other rock during filming was her partner, McNulty, who is also onscreen as Sam’s editor’s Amanda, a first for the longtime friends. She was cast after an exhaustive search didn’t turn up the right talent. “I thank God every single day for Meghan McNulty, because she is not just my partner as a writer and a producer. She is my partner in everything,” DeLoach says.
“She coaches me on these movies. Both of us are teachers. She spent her whole life as a teacher and she got her master’s in special education and has a tutoring business. And she’s an acting teacher on top of that, one of the best ones in all of Los Angeles, by the way.”
“We were having a really hard time finding the character of Amanda. We saw great actors, but they missed the [mark of playing] that very type A, very driven, kind of harsh, but also with a heart of gold [character] that’s likable. That’s a very niche thing, and it’s hard. And I kept saying to Megan, ‘You might just have to put yourself on tape for this and send it to the network.’ And she [thought that was] ridiculous.”
“We were days away from shooting and this character films the very first day, so I said, ‘Megan, you’ve got to put yourself on tape. Let’s just do it right now.’ So she goes into her garage, she gets the lights on. I’m on FaceTime and reading the lines from the other side. And she does it one time and puts herself on tape. We don’t say that it’s Megan. We just send it in to casting, who sends it to the network. And the network comes back with, ‘This girl’s amazing. Who’s this girl?’ And we said, ‘That’s your producer.'”
“We didn’t want there to be any pressure to cast her because she’s a producer. We wanted them to just see the tape and pick the best actor. And she just happened to be the best actor. And it’s so awesome to be able to be in a scene together. We met maybe 12 years ago in masterclass together as actors and never could we have ever imagined that one day we would be doing this for real, with cameras, together, it was just so cool. A full circle moment.”
DeLoach has two Christmas projects this season, Christmas for Keeps, which she and McNulty wrote and the currently filming Five More Minutes, based on the Scotty McCreery song, in which she stars opposite David Haydn-Jones for her Cranberry Christmas director, Linda-Lisa Hayter.
“Christmas for Keeps is about a group of kids that are in their late twenties. They’re on the precipice of being 30 and it’s so fun and it’s a true ensemble,” she says about her and McNulty’s first credited script for Hallmark. “It’s very different, and we’re so excited about it. And we’re so grateful to be able to have this opportunity to tell this story. It’s going to air December 18th.”
Five More Minutes came DeLoach’s way just as she lost her dad, right as she needed its message. “I have a big faith and I’m a big believer in God and everybody has different words for that, but for me, it is that God is love and is that energy that connects and binds all of us. It’s how we are created and how we move and all of it. And God never ceases to amaze me,” she explains.
“The night before my dad’s service, I couldn’t sleep. And Hallmark had sent me earlier that day, this script to read. And so I just decided to open it up and just read it. It is a story about grief. It is a story about a woman who has lost the grandfather who raised her. And it’s the first Christmas that they have to get through without him.”
“But the thing about the script that’s so interesting and so beautiful and so mirrors where I am in my own life and why God is so amazing is that she is trying desperately to connect to [her grandfather], to be able to feel him, to connect to him. And so there’s also this level of spirituality and magic and mysticism to the script of how the people who have crossed over find us and the gifts that they leave us and the ways that they try to talk to us and communicate with us along the way.”
“There were these tiny little things in the script…like one of the characters loves pulled pork barbecue sandwiches. Well, that was my dad’s favorite thing to eat, he became obsessed with them. So when you think about that, what are the chances…of all the foods in all the land that this script would be talking about pulled pork barbecue sandwiches. I just kept reading it, thinking, ‘This is not just a script and not just a Christmas movie.’ This is my dad, saying to me, ‘I am never not with you.’”
Taking the Reins airs on Hallmark Channel Saturday, September 25th, at 9 pm/8c. Here’s a sneak peek.
Photos and Video Courtesy of Crown Media.
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