[Warning: General spoilers ahead.]
Sunday night on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, Erica Durance and Michael Rady star in Unexpected Grace, an exploration of grief and recovery after the loss of a child. Durance plays Noelle, a university professor, who, with her teenage daughter, Toni (Sophia Powers), writes a wish on a balloon that’s undiscovered until two years later when teenager Grace (Erica Tremblay) finds it.
Grace reaches out and Noelle responds, initially not clarifying her identity. Soon, she comes clean, and explains the well-intentioned ruse was to cover the fact that her daughter passed away. Rather than turn away from each other, Grace and her widowed single father, Jack (Rady), find a kindred spirit in Noelle. Linda-Lisa Hayter directs a script by Eugenia Zukerman and Mark Hefti from a story by Zukerman.
Earlier this week, I chatted with Durance, fresh off a Canadian Screen Award nomination for last year’s Color My World with Love, about the new film, which is also a family story and a love story.
“[It was important to] approach this kind of a material with as much sensitivity as possible. I’ve never had that specific type of loss or grief, but I do know what it is to grieve and to lose things that you thought were always going to be there and people that you thought were always going to be there,” she shares.
“Grief is a very funny beast of a thing that becomes a constant companion. And I just really liked in this story how it spoke to the fact that not only should we not judge ourselves through our process, but to be open to whatever could come our way, and that there’s always something positive and beautiful that can come out of our suffering.”
“And sometimes that’s a connection with another person that is experiencing it and our ability to understand and be there and witness and help each other. And so using those experiences and turning them around and have it be something that is a form of healing and a connection to another person is part of the human experience and is so beautiful.”
Noelle has a sounding board in her colleague and friend, Chris (Vincent Gale), and Durance appreciated having someone in the mix of the story who was skilled and knew what tools could help her process her loss. “It was important to me that that was part of the storytelling and one of the characters,” she explains.
“I think we often will focus primarily on the person that is grieving and and it can be very isolating and you see it from that personal perspective. To be able to draw in all of those people that are in our community, are our family, our friends, our made family that stand by us and journey with us in it and share with us from their beautiful gifts, and the way they think and see the world and are able to join with us and help us along the way was really interesting to have it reflected in that kind of relationship that was a little bit different. That friendship has no judgment.”
When Noelle explains herself to Jack, there’s an opportunity for him to respond in anger or to empathize, and he takes the latter road in a very quiet, heartfelt scene. Durance credits Rady with setting that tone. “That speaks a lot to Michael and his ability to show such compassion and empathy for another human being,” she shares.
“Throughout the movie, I watched him take little aspects of moments here and there or tweak little bits even in the script, just minor moments. But he made it a very human moment and he made it full of compassion and empathy instead of just somebody that shares with you, that gives advice or listens to you and they give you that information without any compassion.”
“I heard him speak a lot with the director [about pulling] from his character’s pain and grief and what he went through to give him that understanding, that moment, that pause in the dialogue, which could immediately have been deflected or defensive or protective or very judgmental of this woman that’s made a couple of questionable choices, let’s be honest. It was such a cool way that he played it.”
“We all have these things that we carry with us. Some are obvious, some we keep to ourselves, but they can be used as tools to help other people and to understand other people and understand some of these mistakes we make along our way while we’re grieving. And it helps us feel less alone.”
“I had a scene that I shot with Michael on the porch and it was kind of a culmination of the entire movie coming together to this one moment of a bit of conflict, of Noelle really letting down her guard and just having that conversation.”.
“That scene worked so beautifully. And ironically, we were so rushed for time, so we shot half of it one night and the next half the next night with very limited amount of time. And I just watched Michael turn this thing on, he had almost no time and his performance was beautiful. We did it in about two takes and it was done. He’s so good.”
Durance loved working for the first time with Hayter. “She runs a very gracious, generous, smooth set and the way she can get in and speak with an actor and just find a minor nuance here and there to pull out of someone. She just really knows. I watched her speak ‘a different language’ to each actor, depending on how that person responds,” she shares
“And that takes such skill to be able to observe [and decide how] to talk to them to get the performance I need. And she just was so calm and gracious and just as a human being, she and I bonded over our motherhood and all sorts of various things going on in our lives. And she just showed so much empathy and compassion to me through the course of this shoot. I think the world of her. I think she’s awesome.”
Nine years ago, Durance dipped a toe in the mystery movies with A Wedding Planner Mystery opposite Andrew Walker, and she’d loved to get another opportunity to do a procedural for Hallmark “I love the hijinks of detectives. I love watching detective shows and that sort of thing. And what I like about what they do on Hallmark is it’s still fun, it’s light, it’s a really juicy kind of way to watch a mystery,” she says.
“Although we all love the dark, gritty stuff too, I do really enjoy that kind of mystery telling. And originally I was shooting Saving Hope, so we couldn’t explore that. But I’m certainly open to getting able to do something like that. That would be right in my wheelhouse.”
Two decades ago, Durance was Smallville‘s Lois Lane, and she’s joined the cast on the convention circuit to meet the fans, who she says are now in their third generation. “I love it. We’re blessed every time we go out. We have such a great time and I get these wonderful people coming up to me with cool stories,” she shares.
“It gives those of us that never get to see each other a chance to come together and check in on each other’s lives. We’re really all getting enjoying this little spin around the circuit. We can’t get enough of it and we’re really grateful.”
Unexpected Grace premieres Sunday at 7 pm/6c on Hallmark Movies and Mysteries and Peacock. Here are a few sneak peeks.
Photos and videos courtesy of Hallmark Media.
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