[Warning: General spoilers ahead.]
As someone who is deeply affectionate about Fall Harvest movies, I’m always a bit reluctant to dive into the Christmas and holiday movie lineup before we even get to Halloween, but I can get over it when we’re treated to our favorites. For the second year in a row, that means kicking off the programming with Luke Macfarlane. Last year, he was first out of the gate on Hallmark Channel with Chateau Christmas, and this year, he begins the “Miracles of Christmas” holiday season for Hallmark Movies and Mysteries Saturday night with Christmas in My Heart.
Starring opposite Roswell NM‘s Heather Hemmens, Macfarlane plays country singer Sean, who’s been on a self-imposed, multi-year sabbatical since the death of his wife. Holed up in a sizable estate in his wife’s hometown of Charleston, West Virginia, he’s put his music away to instead devote his energies to raising his tween daughter, Katie (Maria Nash), as a single dad. Thankfully, his mother-in-law, Ruthie (Sheryl Lee Ralph), is local and just a phone call away.
Their story intersects with Hemmens’ character, Beth, who, along with her dad, Tim (Larry Day), is navigating the recent death of her mom. A classical violinist based in New York, she, too, set aside her career to put family first. Her mom was in charge of the music program at Katie’s school, and she and Sean meet cute when he comes into the music shop where she helps out her BFF to look for sheet music to help Katie prepare for a recital.
Katie could also use a tutor; Beth could use the distraction, and after a little tween subterfuge, she’s hired, and soon the two families start to help each other heal. And yes, there’s music–both country and traditional carols–and Macfarlane does sing! I spoke with him earlier this week about the project, and his appearance in the upcoming Netflix romcom, Single All the Way.
Macfarlane loved working with Hemmens, and as a professional cellist (see: Chateau Christmas), gave her props for portraying a violinist. “She’s amazingly poised, warm, and ferociously gifted,” he says. “Being on set with her was easy and fun and we had the perfect amount of laughs to get the job done. I adore her. She also worked her tail off in order to convince everyone she knew how to play the violin, not an easy instrument to fake.”
The film marks the first time we’ve seen Macfarlane play a dad of a tween, and on top of that, a biracial young woman yearning to see others like her in classical music, something Beth represents for her. Macfarlane says Maria Nash was very intuitive in her performance and he was impressed with how she used that intuition to play Katie. “She was excellent. She really, really got it. She’s really smart. I really liked her mom on set,” he says.
“She’s really talented. She also did this thing that sometimes takes a while for young actors to do. She was able to figure out how her character was like her in real life. And she talked about that with me on set, [as a biracial young woman] who lives in a rural part of Ontario. She was already figuring out how her life and the character’s life intertwined. I thought the world of her.”
Sheryl Lee Ralph is a force whenever we get her in a Hallmark project (or anywhere) and before coming on board this film, Macfarlane worked with Michael Mayer, Ralph’s Broadway director on Single All the Way, before starting work on this film, so there was a six degrees of separation thing going on. “She’s fantastic and a legend. She’s a big personality,” he says. “She showed up on set and was the [consummate] professional. And she was on the Tony Awards this year, which is really fun.”
The film isn’t shy about pulling the holiday heartstrings (my alternate suggested title) as two families approach the holidays through a veil of grief that’s still raw for one and perhaps finally emerging from that stage for the other. Macfarlane appreciated the serious tone of the material. “It’s dealing with loss in a way that was very unexpected when I first read the script. Hallmark really [doesn’t like to] kill family members, and we killed a lot of family members,” he explains.
“The pain [for Beth and her dad] is super real. Sean’s journey was different than Beth’s because he did have his daughter there, who was always tethering him back to the world. Sean did have a little bit more light than her. I always felt like he was somehow, still very much grieving, but a little bit farther along than she was.”
The film includes Macfarlane singing and playing guitar, and while he’s proficient in the cello, it took a little work to feel comfortable with the guitar. “They had a really great songwriter who wrote the songs. And I was lucky to be able to talk to him a little bit. I’m not a professional singer, so I had to figure out how to sing that song the best I possibly could,” he shares.
“It was poppy and high in my register. I talked to him before and he ended up lowering it for me to have it sit a little bit better in my register. We actually recorded on the day [we filmed it]. I was just going to sing along to what I had done in the studio. And then I asked to see one live. And that was the one they got to use.”
“I’m sitting there with Heather across from me and the whole crew in this little house. [That version] had more vulnerabilities and newness to it that the studio version that I had done didn’t and I was really glad that our director ended up using that. Faking playing guitar was a little bit of a struggle because I’m a perfectionist. I was going to learn how to play the guitar.”
“I was basically trying to be able to play the guitar and I was almost there to be able to play along [onscreen] but then of course the guy that recorded the guitar part is a real guitar player. So he starts to do fancy picking patterns and intricate strumming and little trills and glissandos and I can’t do that. For the recital at the end, that was definitely me playing.”
Pat Kiely directed the film (written by Liz Storm, Jamie Pachino, and Shari Sharpe), and his background as an actor helped everyone. “He directs performances. I think a lot of directors are [more about the mechanics of where to put] cameras and Pat knew how to say really interesting, fun things which you don’t always get. I adored him. He really cares and he has a lightness to him,” he says.
“Sometimes it’s hard to talk to actors because you never want to give them a result for you [like], ‘…and then on this word, cry.’ Obviously that would be a very bad director, but he would just say something like, ‘Maybe you don’t want to be having a conversation, but you ended up having it anyway.’ He’s just smart [and made us] go a little bit deeper [in our performances].”
In Single All the Way, out on Netflix December 2nd, Macfarlane has a supporting role as a romantic setup for the lead character (Michael Urie), who goes home for Christmas. He enjoyed shooting the film in Montreal, and getting to share space with the legends that are Kathy Najimy and Jennifer Coolidge “I love Montreal. I love the cast. Kathy was so good,” he says. “She was fun to talk to and her husband ended up coming with her. They found a wonderful role for him. She was great. I really liked her so much.”
Macfarlane’s busy year also included shooting the independent feature, Lone Star Bull, where he plays a nightclub bouncer who befriends a young medical student who performs as a drag queen. It’s now in post-production. And his biggest project is the Universal romcom feature, BROS, which is shooting now in New York and set to be released theatrically next summer, an experience he is savoring.
“The interesting thing about working on a comedy is that it’s all about the joke,” he says. “Everybody’s always looking [for], protecting, and analyzing the joke. It really is just about finding the funny. And that’s a beautiful way to spend a day.”
In December, you can catch Macfarlane in person at Christmas Con the weekend of December 10th in New Jersey. Info on that is here.
Christmas in My Heart premieres Saturday at 10 pm/9c (note the time) on Hallmark Movies and Mysteries. Here’s a sneak peek. And all of Macfarlane’s holiday film library is back in rotation beginning this weekend through the end of the year–our coverage for each is at the links below.
- Christmas Land
- The Mistletoe Promise
- Debbie Macomber’s Maggie’s Christmas Miracle
- A Shoes Addict’s Christmas
- Sense, Sensibility, and Snowmen
- Chateau Christmas
[Updated 11/5/21: Christmas in My Heart will premiere in Canada at 8 pm on Friday, November 6th on CTV Drama.]
Photos and video courtesy of Crown Media.
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