[Warning: General spoiler ahead.]
Thursday night, Hallmark closes out its 2023 holiday season with the final Miracles of Christmas premiere, the DaySpring original, MIracle in Bethlehem, PA, starring Laura Vandervoort and Benjamin Ayres alongside a rich ensemble that includes frequent Hallmarkies Teryl Rothery, Amy Groening, and Kate Trotter. Last week, I spoke with Ayres as he closes out a very busy 2023 [more on that here] with his second Hallmark film of the year after this fall’s Field Day. And then he’s right back at it with premieres in January and February. Settle in for the fun long read, friends.
The film is a modern twist on Mary and Joseph and no room at the inn. Vandervoort is Mary Ann, a newly adoptive mom who finds herself stranded in a storm with a newborn baby girl in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania for Christmas. The movie, directed by Jeff Beesley and written by Laura Kampo Lennon, filmed in Winnipeg late this fall.
“Jeff reached out to me and said they were considering you for this movie. The year was almost over, the strike had yet to lift. We weren’t sure if any more movies were gonna be done. All of a sudden, the next day, the deal got done. I got sent a script and Laura came on board and I was very excited because I hadn’t worked with Laura,” Ayres shares.
“But what was most interesting when I got the script was that there were some religious elements almost right out of the gate. Then I was told it was a DaySpring collaboration. Nikki [DeLoach] and Brennan Elliott were in one of them last year. We were out for brunch when they were just starting theirs and they were explaining it to me. And theirs was very much more faith-based in a way of surviving through a lot of grief. It was a much heavier, dramatic piece. And DaySpring wanted to try to go more in a comedic way, so this one is much more comedic than the poster is letting on.”
“It’s not a full-blown comedy. There’s still gonna be a lot of heart. You’re still dealing with a woman who was unable to have children and a husband who left her because of it. And then she’s on a path of trying to adopt, [which] isn’t easy and can take a long time. She’s got a nursery all set up in her place and she’s been waiting for this phone call. And then on Christmas Eve she gets a phone call and there’s a baby in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, but she’s gotta drive there right away to get her.”
“There’s a huge snow storm and she gets caught there with this baby. And she’s not really equipped. That’s the interesting thing about the adoption process. Sometimes it can happen so quickly. And what’s great is Laura is not a mother and she’s not that comfortable holding a baby. So it was actually on camera, she felt very nervous holding this baby, which I understand, it takes a while. It’s different when they’re one year old and they can hold their head up. But when they’re just a bag of bones, you’re just trying to support their neck.”
“She meets my character, Joe, who used to be a rock star. His father had passed away and owned this auto body shop. And my character felt like it’s lonely out on the road and my family’s back home and look at what I’ve missed. He comes back home, and that’s where they meet. And in the process, he might get re-inspired to play music again.”
Ayres credits Beesley with finding a creative way to elevate the comedic elements, and give the actors creative freedom to find those moments on the fly. “The beauty of this film and the way that we shot it was that Jeff really wanted to find the comedy. And there was a lot in the script, but we wanted to find a lot more,” he explains.
“He did a thing called cross shooting. I’ve done that for a scene here or there within a movie. But I would say 95% of this entire film was cross shot. And what that means is you have two cameras shooting the actors at the same time and you’re both lit, as opposed to lighting one actor with one camera. You film their side of the scene, then it takes 45 minutes to turn all the lights around or an hour and you go eat a banana and chat for a bit and do all your things, and then you come back and then it takes a sec to get the whole thing going again.”
“It’s hard to improvise within that because if I make something up, we’ve already shot her side, and you can’t go back and shoot that. So you have to stick to what you already did. This allows you to find a lot of freedom. We would do one take that’s the script and then we would do many other takes that were sort of, ‘Let’s just go for it.’ We improvised entire scenes. There are dance sequences that weren’t in it. We had a lot of fun.”
“Jeff would just throw stuff out and we had the freedom to do it because we cross shot it. And that was very imperative to do in order to infuse more comedy. And that said, [create] more wonderful dramatic moments. I think everybody is going to really love this movie and it’s going to have a very organic feel performance-wise.”
“There was a day, it was probably day three. Jeff will tell you … we’re really good buddies now, but on the day I resisted him a little bit. I was unsure of the energy he was bringing to my character in particular. And I felt like it was just a little too broad. That just wasn’t where I saw it going, until l I leaned into it.”
“I had my ideas of this character, a rockstar guy back in town, and how I wanted to play him. It’s not like he’s Johnny just sitting around a campfire playing major chords. He was a traveling rockstar, he filled stadiums. So I can’t just be kind of good. I said, ‘We’re gonna need somebody to come in and dub over.’ I got around it in a way that I think I needed to and it will just be me singing and I’m a little self-conscious about it, but we’ll see how it goes. I put myself out there. That’s the job.”
Ayres says Beesley’s freewheeling style led to the scene in the preview clip below. “[In the script], Laura’s character wakes up and the baby’s not in the crib. She comes downstairs, kind of freaked out. And I have the baby strapped to me and we’re sitting there, I’m supposed to be singing and we have this beautiful moment where she looks up and sees me and I’m by the tree and the baby’s asleep,” he says.
“So he’s like, ‘I have this idea … full Risky Business. You come sliding out in your socks and you’re dancing with the baby.’ And I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ That just seems like too much. My instinct is obviously I desperately want to do that because I love big, broad stuff, but I was still at that point somewhat protecting the character.”
“I didn’t see him like that. When I was going through the wardrobe, I didn’t want it to look like really nice new clothes. He’s a mechanic. It’s older t-shirts, older things. And I’m always fighting for that. I always wear my own boots. I try to wear a lot of my own stuff just because it looks more worn in. Or I make sure it’s my jacket. But they did a really good job and the network loved it. And it’s a little more vintage-inspired clothing. But for this scene, I wore a little white tank top. And I feel like it’s a big deal that you even see my arms.”
While Ayres had a recurring arc on Vanedervoort’s Syfy series, Bitten, the two didn’t share any scenes, so he was glad to finally work with her. “We’ve known each other somewhat socially, but for us to really come together in this way has been such a beautiful experience for both of us, and me in particular to get to work with her because I think she brought a lot to this character,” he says.
He also loved Winnipeg, which was a much more streamlined location to film. “It’s one of the best crews I’ve ever worked with. I loved working with Jeff. It was a great production company. We could shoot in Winnipeg proper, so transportation every morning was quick,” he points out. “When we’re in Vancouver, we have to shuttle out past Langley, so it’s a one-hour drive every morning to and from to get out of the zone for tax purposes. Just being in Winnipeg proper is already the tax credit.”
Next month, on January 12th, Ayres is back on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries in True Justice: Family Ties, which stars Katherine McNamara and Markian Tarasiuk. Ayres and Nikki DeLoach, who co-wrote the script with Megan McNulty, play supporting characters in the mystery about a law student crowdsourcing with her friends to exonerate her imprisoned brother. This is the film he and DeLoach flew to Winnipeg to work on after Christmas Con in Kansas City last summer.
“Nikki called me and said, ‘I’ve got this movie that I wrote that I want you to be in that’s going to shoot next month. Do you want to do it? I’ll send you the script.’ I told her, ‘Nikki, I’m gonna do anything you’re in.’ She said, ‘It’s not the lead. We’re supporting characters,’ and I said, ‘Anything you do, I’m in’ because I love Nikki and she’s amazing.”
Late last week, Ayres was also announced in the upcoming Loveuary lineup of February premieres, which all tie together with a Jane Austen theme. Love & Jane, premiering February 10th on Hallmark Channel, reunites him with his Chronicle Mysteries co-star, Alison Sweeney. “Ali called me up personally and said, ‘I’ve got great news. You’re gonna be in this movie. So Hallmark had okayed it and she wanted to call me first, much like Nikki did. And it’s such an incredible experience for me to be at this point where my favorite actors at the network are calling me up to say, ‘Be in my movie,’” he shares.
“Another thing that was amazing was when we first started filming, I was killing myself laughing, like in the very first scene and I asked Ali, ‘What is this humor that you’re bringing?’ She is so funny, and especially in this role, it just blew my mind. I think it’s a side of her that many of the fans have not seen. She really leaned into some fun, big, broad comedy and she’s very, very good at it.”
“Getting to be reunited with Ali again, except not really in a capacity of our mysteries, but more of a big, fun, romantic comedy was in some ways a really nice full circle thing for our characters from Chronicle Mysteries, but also mostly just for us as actors to get to bring something different to the screen with each other. I’m very grateful for the movie and I think fans are really gonna love it.
When we spoke last month, Ayres was ramping up for his Martini Studios event in Vancouver. You can read about that here. A VIP experience involved fans getting to film scenes on the backlot directed by Peter Benson and starring Antonio Cupo. Ayres put the rehearsal clip on TikTok for giggles and at press time, it’s already garnered 27 million views.
““I was originally gonna have 10 people and divide it into five groups of two and each of them was gonna get a scene. And I started to [realize it’s] actually gonna take a very long time. So then [it doubled to] 20, [and we] needed a script where … they all get featured and have a line. By the time I got to Vancouver, I had yet to even write a script. We all went out for dinner on the Friday night and they [wanted] to go out for a drink, and I [said], ‘I’m out. I’m going home because I have to write the script,’” he laughs.
“So I wrote the script at about nine o’clock Friday night. It was going to be a long oner [single camera shot]. I went the day before and filmed [so I would know] what it would look like. I sent it to Peter, I sent it to our camera operator [so he’d know] I needed the camera to be moving through the entire town. He finds this out and quickly goes and gets the gear.”
“[Saturday], we do our panel, we do all our things, we bring all the VIP fans out. And they laughed afterward that [we] were very serious because we kind of clicked into work mode. But the sun was setting. We didn’t have a long time. We had basically two full rehearsals and we shot it twice.”
“We had everybody there. And we just worked our way back all the way through the town. We placed everybody [and assigned them] a line of dialogue. And then we went to the start and rehearsed it twice. The filming that I did was the filming of one of the rehearsals. So it’s different than the outcome. It was fast moving.”
“The Hallmark Gods just opened up the skies, shone the sun down on us. It was a beautiful day. Two weeks of straight rain. It rained every day leading up. And it rained every day afterwards. I don’t know what happened that day. It was gorgeous. We were so lucky.” Next up, Ayres would like to make a set visit on an actual film happen.
Ayres just attended his third Christmas Con on the heels of his pop-up shop experience for Romance University in Toronto that raised $1,600 for a local charity. He loves the sense of community among all his RU alumni, the Hallmarkies talent, and the fans. “When I recognized the beauty of the community [after Christmas Con last year], I thought I could continue to help that community. Yes, they get to see us and take some photos, but they’re all going out for their dinners, out for drinks, and hanging out and getting the same thing out of it that we are,” he says.
“I love getting to see all the fans, but I love that I get to see all the actors, too. When people ask, ‘What’s your favorite movie?’ they’re experiencing it in a two-hour window. Our experience of the movie is not the outcome, it’s the making of it, which is three and a half weeks. And every one is so unique and so special. Oftentimes, you start that movie not knowing your leading lady and some of the other actors. And then you develop these incredible relationships and you make these incredible friends for life.”
“[That said], the guys don’t know each other well. We know all the women, and they are getting to know each other, too, because they’re not in each other’s movies. Getting to experience these things as a troop is fun. We call ourselves the Care Bears. We have these big hearts and we find ways to direct our love at things and do it as a group. I feel so privileged and honored to surround myself with such wonderful people who have all their different causes and ways to help.”
“After Christmas Con, I literally flew home, dropped all my stuff off at the house, and drove straight down to the grocery store to go support Andrew [at an Envy apples promotion] at Longo’s. He was one of the first ones to support Romance University. And we did the same thing for Nikki and Ashley [Williams]. We flew down [to Nashville for the Dance to End ALZ event] and put ourselves up and just wanted to be there to help.
Miracle in Bethlehem, PA premieres Thursday, December 21st, at 8 pm/7c on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries and streaming on multiple outlets in the U.S. and W Network in Canada. Here are a couple of sneak peeks.
And that’s a wrap on our TV Goodness coverage of the 2023 holiday movie season. ICYMI, you can search our TV Movie Goodness column of over 550 previews and interviews for Hallmark and Lifetime titles, including holiday films, going back to 2014 here. As you find new favorites in the holiday rerun rotation, there’s a good chance we covered it. That’s also where you’ll find our in-depth features and interview for 16 new titles this season. Thank you for reading! Happy holidays!
Photos courtesy of Steve Ackerman for Hallmark Media; video courtesy of Hallmark Media.
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