Hallmark Star Jen Lilley Opens Up About Going Back to Work Two Months After Giving Birth (Exclusive)

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Jen Lilley in Angel Falls: A Novel Holiday
Shane Mahood/Crown Media

Hallmark star Jen Lilley is back for another round of holiday feel-good movies.

The Days of Our Lives alum leads her second Christmas film for Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, Angel Falls: A Novel Holiday, a sequel of sorts to 2017's Christmas in Angel Falls, which starred Rachel Boston, Paul Greene and Beau Bridges. While the titular setting remains the same and a few minor characters return -- the themes of love, loss and starting anew also largely intact -- it features an entirely new cast and story.

In the sequel, Lilley plays Hannah, a book editor who unexpectedly reunites with Ryan (Carlo Marks), a childhood nemesis whose life and career she's quietly envious of. Through a variety of circumstances, Hannah and Ryan -- who recently lost his parents -- are forced to work together to help a potential writer find her way. And during the course of their time spent working alongside each other, guardian angel Anthony (Eric Close) reminds them about the holiday spirit and the value of community. 

For the 35-year-old actress, Angel Falls 2 marked her first project after taking a brief, eight-week maternity leave after giving birth to her daughter, Julie, who came with her to set. As Lilley explained it, she was "stoked to get back in the saddle" and "fortunate" to be working on a production that was accommodating and understanding to a mother's needs. "There was no unsaid tension that I was bringing a baby [to set] and they were being genuine about it."

Ahead of Sunday's movie premiere, ET spoke with Lilley about starring in her latest Hallmark holiday film (Angel Falls 2 is her second!), going back to work less than two months after giving birth and desires to make her movie script -- centered on a foster family -- become a reality. 

ET: You've been in the Hallmark family now for three years. What have you enjoyed about telling these stories on this network? What is it about these stories that has kept you coming back?

Jen Lilley: Gosh, so many elements. I think specifically for Christmas, it's just so amazing to be part of people's traditions. I grew up watching Hallmark Christmas movies, and so many people across our nation, even if they're of a different faith, that's part of their holiday season tradition. And so, I just love that I get to be invited into people's living rooms that I don't know and become part of their memories. I think that's so cute! And an overall sentiment about Hallmark is that it's such comforting stories, and that's why they're popular.

It's so funny because I find that our biggest fan base to be people who have extremely serious jobs. I did jury duty in January and [this woman named] Valerie, her job literally is to oversee all of the D.A.s, make sure that they're following the law and she has the most stressful cases. This woman has a very stressful job load and she's like, "I love Hallmark!" It's my favorite thing, because at the end of the day, that's all people with extremely serious jobs want to watch. They don't want to watch drama, they want to watch comforting movies. They want to eat mac and cheese, and watch the equivalent of mac and cheese on the screen. It's comfort movies. 

Your next Hallmark movie, Angel Falls: A Novel Holiday, is a sequel of sorts, but featuring almost an entirely new cast. Can you set the table?

It's not a sequel in that you need to have seen the first one. The only thing that's really [constant] is the town is called Angel Falls and it's the same backdrop that we had in the first one. Other than that, the only other characters that are the same are the pastor, and then Gloria and Dolores. In this movie, I play Hannah, and she is a junior book editor for a book company. She's a workaholic in the best way. She is at the town hall where they're doing the annual Christmas tree lighting, and the pastor asks for a volunteer to light the Christmas tree. Everybody raises their hands and, of course, he calls on Ryan, her childhood friend-turned-nemesis. What Ryan doesn't know is that Hannah has really been having... there's a quote, I think it's Theodore Roosevelt, "Comparison is the thief of joy." 

So she really hates him because she covets his life. He won class president, he was captain of the basketball team, he was Mr. Popular and he got her dream job. It's all unbeknownst to him, so he's still friendly with her and she just wants to get rid of him, but can't. He shows up at the book editing company that her parents run and they hire him as a special consultant for the holidays. It's just really funny because there's great witty banter, which I find is such a beautiful through line of Samantha Herman's writing. She also wrote Mingle All the Way, the movie I starred in last year.

What sets this holiday film apart from the rest?

Every single Hallmark movie I've done, you're always needing the guy. But in this one, there's a rich history between the two characters. It's fun to watch their relationship evolve and watch the misconceptions be shattered, and unearthed, and the truth coming to the surface, and seeing these characters have that classic Harry Met Sally, "It had to be you" moment, where you're like, "Oh man, it's been you all along, and I didn't know it because of my pride."

Angel Falls: A Novel Holiday
Shane Mahood/Crown Media

Holidays are hard for people. We all have people that we've lost, and, thank God I haven't lost my parents, you know? But I know that day will come, and that's going to be a hard holiday. I just like that the town of Angel Falls in this movie does not shy away from the fact that, yes, Christmas is amazing and it's warm and it's magical, but at the same time, it's really hard. There is a through line of the community rallying and supporting each other and not letting yourself be isolated when that's the easiest thing to do. 

You had just given birth to your daughter weeks before filming started on this movie. How was the transition for you?

I don't know that I could have done it if Julie, our daughter, had been my first baby. She's my first biological, but because I already had two babies before her [one through adoption and the other currently being fostered], I was used to the way a child just turns your life upside down and adapting. So, I don't know that I could have done it. But I was like, she was just born and I have this six-week recovery, which every woman goes through... Then I was stoked to get back in the saddle. I was very lucky and fortunate, because I had worked for these producers before. I knew how accommodating and honest they are. There was no unsaid tension that I was bringing a baby [to set] and they were being genuine about it.

Did you have a trick to making it through the day?

Lots of coffee. I'm sure they have to color-correct my teeth from the coffee from the beginning of the movie. (Laughs.) I'm sure my teeth are like three shades below... These Hallmark movies, sponsored by espresso beans and under-eye concealer!

You mentioned this movie has a tree lighting ceremony. What other patented Hallmark moments that you, as a fan of these movies, are like, "These are must-haves."

I always liked it when there is some sort of caroling or Christmas singing. I'm a singer, I always hope for the holiday music, but I love all the tropes. You're always drinking hot chocolate, or making hot chocolate, or going to get hot chocolate. There's almost always mistletoe. There's town parties, Christmas tree lightings. This one has wreath decorating, which I have not done yet. Of course, there's baking, there's always baking. It's fun, because it's all the things that we all do or we try to cram in. From whenever you put up the tree until you take it down, you're just trying to cram in all things in the holiday season. I mean, at least I do. I remember last year, I literally made the milk and cookies and gingerbread cookies on Christmas Eve.

Earlier this year, you and your husband, Jason Wayne, formally adopted your son, Caden, and you're currently fostering to adopt his younger brother...

Correct. There is still an adoption clause, but it's going toward adoption, so that should be finalized... probably summer of next year, which is fantastic.

Are you interested in telling a story that revolves around foster families for Hallmark?

I sent them a pilot two, three years ago, and it's sitting on Michelle Vicary's desk there, and I literally talked to Michelle Vicary, who's the head of development there, at the Christmas party, and I just said to her, "Hey, look, I know that right now is the Super Bowl of Hallmark, and I know that you guys are doing 40 of these films, and it's bananas... Let me know when you come up for air, what season you're taking pitches on." And she said, "We're taking pitches. That's year-round." That's one of the things I want to circle back with them about is I don't think they even know that this pilot I wrote two years ago, I have a whole story bible. It has to do with foster care. I think it really fits the Hallmark wheelhouse and the Hallmark audience. The exact type of person who would be a wonderful foster family.

I was excited because, in Christmas Under the Stars with Autumn Reeser and Jesse Metcalfe, she's a foster-to-adopt parent. That's brilliant. I'm sure they've touched on it before, but to my knowledge, Hallmark doesn't really address the foster care issue. So, I'm always looking for things that have that, and I know When Hope Calls deals with two sisters in an orphanage. So I think they're getting there. Foster care, you know, it's emotional but any way you have a kid is emotional. It's a beautiful way to bring children into your loving home and give them permanency, and then also have a child if people want one. 

Aside from this film, what else can we expect from you?

I'm not sure. I have four different production companies right now pitching things to me because I also want to produce. I really want to learn producing, so that as my face falls, my younger sister can just step in for me because she looks like me. (Laughs.) She's totally a walking Hallmark ad! I want to get into producing so, hopefully, they'll let me do that. But I love Hallmark. I love the network. I love everything that they stand for, and I love their movies. So hopefully, I'll be moving more into a producer, but we'll see. You never know.

Angel Falls: A Novel Holiday premieres Sunday, Dec. 15 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries.

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