[Warning: General spoilers ahead.
We’re well underway with baseball season, and Hallmark Channel gets a swing and hit with Hearts in the Game, which pairs Hallmark favorite Erin Cahill and Marco Grazzini (Virgin River) as former high school sweethearts thrown together in the present when she’s hired to help him rehab his reputation.
Cahill plays Hazel Miller, a top New York publicist still angling for a substantive cover story pitch that will win over Morgan (Bethany Brown), a feature writer at a national glossy magazine, and Grazzini is Diego Vasquez, a household name MLB pitcher who froze during Game 7 of the World Series. Initially reluctant to reopen the old wounds of how they parted all those years ago, Hazel finds herself agreeing, at the request of Mark (Jason Schombing), Diego’s agent, to help Diego mount a comeback.
It doesn’t hurt when Hazel’s assistant, Jax (Donia Kash), pragmatically makes her realize this could be her elusive cover story. Handshake deal in place, Hazel, Diego, and Jax head home to Ohio to craft the feel-good hometown story that Morgan wants. Stacey N. Harding directs a script by Shelby Blake Bartelstein.
Last week, I caught up with Cahill to chat about the film, her second project with Harding. “Stacey Harding is magnificent and I love this woman. She’s golden. I had just worked with her on something I can’t talk about yet. When I got the offer, I saw that she was already attached to direct, and I texted her,” she recalls.
“I think she’s made of superhuman material. She comes on set and she lights up a room. She loves her job. She’s so creative. She’s so kind. She’s so thoughtful. She really picks a path at every script and she wants to make sure that everything comes from the heart and that all the characters are serviced and that each story is serviced. She’s really an amazing person. I’ve learned so much from her.”
“I knew that if she was attached it was gonna be a great project and that I would like the script. I basically would have done this movie anyway, even though I completely fell in love with the script and the important messages in the movie.”
The script delves into matters of mental health, and admitting vulnerability, and even more extraordinarily, they’re part of Diego’s arc and related to sports. The timing is great, too, because May is Mental Health Month, and the film humanizes a sports hero who is supposed to be infallible, something more athletes have started doing in the real world, too.
“When I read the script, I was so impressed with how inclusive it is. It had beautiful moments, but also real depth, talking about mental health and loss and grieving. I was so impressed with the vulnerability of this story. And, to me, vulnerability is strength,” Cahill explains.
As the story progresses, it’s exactly that vulnerability and fragility that bring Diego and Hazel back together, and make Hazel look at her own choices, such as separating from her BFF, Karlee (Sarah Smyth). “I think she realized that she had driven herself so hard in her career that she had sacrificed other things in life. Which is something that a lot of people can relate to, and I know I certainly can,” Cahill shares.
“What I love is that both [Hazel and Diego’s] careers are thriving at the end and they can do that together. I love that they didn’t move anywhere for each other. In this one, it’s a little different. They got to blend their lives. I think it takes two individuals to make a unit, to make a team, not to have to make a whole. For me, that’s my favorite kind of relationship. They come to each other as fully formed individuals to make a team. And I just thought that was a beautiful aspect of the story. And her arc in realizing that was so fun.”
Cahill loved working with Kash (The Secrets Of Bella Vista), the first openly agender performer on Hallmark, as Hazel’s assistant, Jax, who has their own fun arc hanging out with Hazel’s parents after they land in her hometown. Bonus — the film is probably the first Hallmark title to say out loud why the lead character hadn’t been back home in so many years, attributing it to bringing her parents to her to visit.
“I loved Donia Kash, and that that character was written in the script. Jax is my favorite character. And I just think Donia did an amazing job of bringing them to life. I thought [the explanation about not coming home] was honest. Life moves so fast, especially if you’re in a career that moves that fast,” she says.
“It was very plausible and very real and I love that. And I think that’s something that our wonderful, awesome female team — female writer, director, producers [Kim Arnott, Suzanne Arnott, and Kate Gajdosik] — there’s amazing power in that. They were really insistent that we were grounded in reality.”
Cahill is familiar with the convention circuit from her Power Ranger days, and has loved doing the Christmas Con circuit with her onscreen and offscreen Hallmark family. “It’s a familiar kind of feeling, but the events are completely different. I can’t say one’s more special than the other because they’re both special experiences,” she says.
“It’s just the most loving environment. What Hallmark has done that I think is so incredibly special is they’ve made it all a family, and not just us actors, who are truly like a family. These are my sisters, these are my boys. Like ride or die. And that is all Hallmark. There’s no other network in the world that has done that. And so when we get together, it’s like we’re family with the fans, too. These conventions are so fun and special because it just feels like daily hanging out.”
Cahill’s other labor of love is the work she and her husband do with the nonprofit organization buildOn. “These are my babies. My husband and I are not having kids, we’re having schools, which is what we like to say whenever people ask if we’re having kids. buildOn is the most incredible organization. They’ve been around for over 30 years and their mission statement was to combat global poverty from the base group of education,” she explains.
“They go into the most indigent communities in the world and offer them education, and then they also work with kids here in America, which for me, has been a really important aspect. I think doing work internationally is so important, but also our kids here need us.”
“It’s about helping kids all over the world, but not just kids. [Statistically], when you educate a community, the number of children young women have is exponentially smaller and therefore there’s more of a survival rate and therefore there’s less poverty…it just expounds upon itself when you teach someone even just how to read.”
“In the Western world, you don’t think about it. But a lot of these women [who have to travel from] villages to a store however many miles away, if they change the label on the milk, they don’t know what they’re buying. I’m so passionate about it.”
“We’ve done a school in Malawi, a school in Nepal. We sent ten kids from the Bronx to go build a school in Malawi. And then we just finished the school in Guatemala. So now we’re fundraising to build a school in Senegal. We’re just starting.” To learn more about the organization, visit buildon.org, and the buildOn story highlights on Cahill’s Instagram feed.
Hearts in the Game premieres Saturday, April 29th, on Hallmark Channel and streaming on Peacock in the US and on W Network in Canada. Here are a few sneak peeks.
Photos courtesy of Allister Foster and Craig Minielly, Hallmark Media.
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