[Warning: General spoilers ahead.]
Board games got a new lease during the pandemic so it was only a matter of time before they factored into a romcom, and this Saturday, it arrives on Hallmark Channel in the form of Game of Love. Pairing Kimberley Sustad and Brooks Darnell as game designer Audrey and marketing executive Matthew, the film follows their uneasy partnership as they’re tasked with bringing a game about love to market with lightning speed.
Audrey is an established designer who’s very successfully worked by herself despite designing games for shared experiences. With this new assignment, she bristles at a partner she sees more as overwatch–and unnecessary. And she’s equally closed off to the idea of getting help from two junior staffers played by Christin Park and Edwin Perez. Over the course of the movie, she starts to see the benefits of sharing the load, and finds a friendship and kinship with Matthew that both helps the game and brings her out of her cocoon.
Last week, I jumped on the phone with Sustad to chat about the film and the extraordinary response to Three Wise Men and a Baby, which she co-wrote with writing partner Paul Campbell.
Game of Love filmed last fall before Three Wise Men landed and Sustad says they were actually fighting the Christmas clock of locations around Vancouver trying to get the jump on the season. She enjoyed diving into the world of games, even with its sometimes technical dialogue, and explains that the real-world vibe between her and her co-star helped her play Audrey’s nervousness onscreen.
“I didn’t know any of that language. There were like a thousand million takes trying to say ‘orthogonal’ in one sentence. I don’t even know if I’m saying it right. I couldn’t get it out of my mouth. It was tricky. It is becoming cool again to pick up an actual board game in the tactile sense of the feeling of moving pieces around the board and being present where you are with people. It is a definite community builder or a small group thing,” she explains.
“When I first met Brooks, it was a lot like the movie. He’s so cool and I’m not. He has this really grounded presence about him and he takes up space without trying. I think I take up space, but I try. I’m more like, ‘Like me, like me.’ And he’s like, ‘I’m good.’ He’s figured some things out. And so we automatically kind of came in with that energy and playing off those opposites in our personalities worked for the movie. It’s a bit unnerving working with somebody who is really grounded and has a confidence that you may not have.”
“And I just let the times that I felt nervous live when I showed too many cards of being nervous or I showed too many moments of question or second guessing. I let those happen because when [someone] moves through life with more confidence than you do, it can make you feel extra nervous. And there were times when that happened and it really worked for [playing] Audrey. And so that was the magic with that, I think just us really being those two types of people.”
Audrey goes through an emotional transformation in the film, but Sustad fought for her character, whose aesthetic is skinnies, sneakers, and hoodies, to not have the “aha” makeover reveal [and this sneakers-and-jeans-and-hoodie wearing gal wholly approves]. “I think making games for other people and understanding what they do and the importance of them and the sentimentality of them is the journey that she goes through for herself, realizing she does it for everybody else because she’s too afraid to do it for herself, or to put herself in a position where she might lose people or be disappointed by people,” she shares.
“That’s a very scary thing until she does lose the person that she thinks she’s trying to keep at arm’s length. We’ve gotten really good at coping with those fears that we are not even necessarily aware of until we are made aware of them and then we have a choice to either dive into it, and realize it’s not that scary at all, or to go back and be self-contained.”
“Sometimes it takes a person to come into our life to show us that, or it takes an event, facing that fear that you’ve been fearing all your life and then it’s actually happening to make that decision. But whatever it is, we’re all faced with these things that we try to keep at bay and have to move through them. That’s Audrey’s story distilled down to a moment.”
At one point in the film, we find out Matthew has a personal stylist, and while it was an easy choice to have the stylist turn her attention to Audrey, Sustad pushed back. “At first in the script they did have his stylist involved and Audrey kind of comes around and sees the importance of that. And I said, ‘No, we have to change this because that’s not what she’s fighting for. What’s happening is she’s afraid to let people in and then when they do, they should accept her for all that she is,’” she says.
“Immediately everybody believed in that and we rewrote some aspects, and she no longer had to change her wardrobe, because how many times have we seen the sneaker hoodie wearer turn? She gets that glammed up dress moment where she comes out and everyone [suddenly says], ‘Wow, right now we can see you.’ But I love that we don’t have that in this. She was enough already. She just needed to learn that. We’ve seen it so much that we just want representation of not having to change ourselves.”
“When I first saw myself in the hoodie, I thought, ‘Ugh, tall girls can’t wear hoodies.’ I do in real-life, but on screen [is different]. And then I thought, ‘You know what? Yes we can. Who cares? And we’re not going to change it. We’re not going to get ‘better looking’ throughout the film. We’re going to be as we are, live as we are.'”
“I do fight for that in a lot of the characters that I play. I think you can see a through line of the humanity of these women and not necessarily being the polished one. I’m not in life and I find that I connect with people that aren’t. I don’t think any of us are, but I’m not even good at putting those things on. I think there is this thing where as soon as you turn a camera on, you want to be appealing, right? And you ask, ‘Well what is that?’ And there is this fight at first of whatever you see on the screen, not being it, but understanding who the person is.”
“And it’s fascinating because that’s sort of like what we do deal with in life. You are judging your own self or worried that people may have opinions or say certain things and you just have to get all of that out of your mind and go for the honesty and the beauty [within].”
Sustad loved Audrey’s “otherworldly” competitiveness, and the vulnerable moment where Audrey recognizes the behaviors that haven’t served her well. “I found the confession on the stairs to be one of the more relatable things, when there’s that moment of honesty,” she recalls.
“I think there’s a lot of me realizing that even for myself in that moment [that] it’s better to be together than to be alone, and sometimes you don’t want other people to see your own vulnerabilities, but at the end of the day it’s showing those that allows people in. And I think it impacted me in that moment so that I walked away from that scene [thinking], ‘I really get you Audrey. I really do.'”
Sustad has become a multi hyphenate force for Hallmark as an actress and a writer, something that sparked when she co-starred with Campbell in A Godwink Christmas. “I give Paul that credit. We had such a great time. We laughed so hard on set, but the movie itself was really sentimental. And it was the first time I had met Paul and we both thought, ‘This movie’s great, but it’s such a shame that this isn’t a romcom because we’d do really well in one together.’ And then he said, ‘We should write one.’ And I said, ‘That’s crazy talk,'” she laughs.
“[He asked if I had any ideas], and I said, ‘Well, being a walking nineties romcom encyclopedia, I actually do have one.’ And I pitched him Christmas by Starlight and he said ‘I love it, let’s write it.’ And I thought it’s one of those things that people say they’re going to do, but you know, you get busy with life and you don’t.”
“I think it was five months after we wrapped A Godwink Christmas, he came over with cue cards and a pen and said, ‘Well let’s just see if we can do it.’ And we wrote it on spec, went to Hallmark, and pitched them the idea of the movie. After the pitch, they said, ‘Great. We love that idea. That’d be a great movie for you two to follow up Godwink.’
“And we handed them the script. I don’t think they’d ever seen that before. We just wrote it on spec, which is not their process at all. But when we look back, we laughed that we did that. And then they read it and they thought it was good.”
“They took it and wanted to make it and they let us stay on as writers and that’s how we became writers at first. And then we sort of trucked along through different experiences and then came back together for Three Wise Men and boom.”
Sustad has a fun cameo appearance in the film and was on set for production, with a front row seat to watch it all come together. “It was so good. I was there a lot, wrangling babies. We had twins who played the babies. It was everything and more than I anticipated and we couldn’t have had a better cast. It was such a pleasure to write for them. That was the best part because we knew Tyler [Hynes] and Andrew [Walker] and Paul were going to do it. So it was so fun to play off [that],” she says.
“And I know them all. It was so fun to bring characteristics of them and then make them play opposites of them, as well, and just hear the way that we know how they’re going say it. There was a lot of weaving to do because the cast was so big, but the whole process was so much fun. And I think that is why the movie itself was fun, as well.”
“It just came together. The dynamics of the personalities and the challenges that were brought for each of them when we started that movie, I wanted each character to already have significant challenges that we’re also going to impede. I love as a writer playing with life or death circumstances. So at any time, if there’s a way, if you’re kind of halfway there, [like when] he loses the baby, let’s make it even bigger. He totally forgets the baby and the cops have to return him. Let’s try to bring it to a level just where I don’t know if we can get away with that, but we will [try].”
“I wrote Tyler’s deep knee bends in because the only thing that would calm my baby at first when they were little. And then they got deeper and deeper and your back and legs were on fire by the time you could get my kid to stop screaming. And it was so fun as a mom to write for three men to sit around and talk a lot about what we moms talk about. Putting them in the driver’s seat of that was so fun.”
The film went on to become the number one movie on any cable network in 2022, a massive feat in a time of so much content, so many channels, and a few hundred holiday movies. Sustad was thrilled, most especially for what it meant for the network. “I was really proud of Hallmark. I’ve always been really proud of them. And of the family that I’m a part of and love the community. It’s one of the best networks to be at,” she shares.
“And when we write these movies or when we’re in them, I always try to make them as relatable or the best that they can be. And having the opportunity to write them and work with them to make these movies and bring an even greater audience to Hallmark was a dream come true because I think they have a lot to offer.”
“I think the community has a lot to offer and people that haven’t experienced them, that’s a great one for them to [dip a toe in and realize] ‘These little movies that people make all year round actually are really great and really do have an impact. And wow I’m going to give Hallmark a chance.’ Those that are in it know it. And so I was so proud that other people that broke into a larger audience base got to experience the magic of what Hallmark movies do.”
Game of Love premieres Saturday at 8 pm/7c on Hallmark Channel and Peacock in the US and W Network in Canada. Christmas by Starlight repeats Friday night at 8 pm/7c on Hallmark Channel. Three Wise Men and a Baby repeats on Hallmark Channel on March 24th at 8 pm/7c.
Here are a couple of sneak peeks of Game of Love.
Photos and video courtesy of Hallmark Media.
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