Sarah Drew is channeling her real-life love story for the small screen.
The Grey's Anatomy star stars in Lifetime's latest original holiday movie, Christmas Pen Pals, which follows dating app founder Hannah Morris (Drew) as she returns home following an ill-timed breakup and runs into her high school beau, Sam (Niall Matter). Reluctantly, Hannah makes a deal with her dad to sign up for the town’s Christmas Cupid, an anonymous holiday pen pal service. Slowly but surely, she begins to fall in love with her pen pal, whose true identity may force her to come face to face with the last person she ever expected.
Drew, who got the part about a week after meeting with Lifetime after her time on Grey's Anatomy ended, connected with the premise almost immediately, mainly because the origin of her own relationship with her husband, Peter Lanfer, was borne out of the romantic art of letter writing.
"I am a sucker for the art of handwritten letters, just because that’s how my relationship with my husband started," the 38-year-old actress told ET (watch an exclusive sneak peek of Christmas Pen Pals above). "It’s continued in the tradition of our lives together. We write each other letters every Christmas, every birthday, every Valentine’s Day."
"There's something really profound about communicating that way because it takes time. There’s no instant gratification," Drew added. "You’re not swiping right or left based on somebody’s physical appearance. You’re taking the time to write down who you are on a piece of paper, send it off and then wait to see how you’ll be received, and then read a letter and pore over the letter over and over and over again when you get a new one. There’s an eager anticipation and a beauty that exists in letter writing."
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Drew recently went back through their old letters, all compiled into a "big ol' book" (Drew's wedding present to Lanfer), which served as a nostalgic time capsule of the progression of their relationship -- from their innocent early dates to their wedding day.
"It’s really lovely going back and revisiting those letters because I love looking at the youthful Sarah and the things that she was crazy passionate about and the fire with which she spoke about stuff. As we get older, some of the fire changes. It morphs into something very different than when you’re 18, 19, 20," she recalled. "What I kept seeing in my husband’s letters is a consistency, which has always been true in our relationship. I am up and down, emotionally all over the place and I’m taking crazy rides on waves, and my husband is just a steady true north all the time -- and was even at 22 years old. You can read that tone in his letters where you knew he would be a faithful, loving friend forever. You knew that once you had him in your corner, you’d never lose him. It’s just so true to who we are; it’s fun to see the younger versions of it on the page."
But putting pen to paper isn't exclusively reserved for her husband, Drew says. She puts her thoughts down on paper for her closest friends and co-workers, too.
"If I’m doing wrap gifts, I almost always write a letter to the people that I’ve gotten close to just to tell them why I love them and why they mean so much to me," she said, adding that another reason she was drawn to the story was her character's relatable romantic hardship. "I also really loved that we were dealing with some real grief. Hannah Morris lost her mom nine years ago during the time of this movie and that grief has caused her to shut off from the rest of the world. I was interested in telling a love story that had some depth to it. She has an obstacle to get through in order to be able to open her heart to love again."
Coincidentally, Drew's character in Christmas Pen Pals is the same as her character on Everwood. When asked about the similar namesakes, Drew had a good laugh.
"I didn’t name her and I think that if I had turned the job down, someone else would be playing her. I’m not sure it had anything to do with Everwood," she admitted. "My daughter’s name is also Hannah, so it was sweet to be able to tell her, 'I’m playing a character who has your name and everybody’s calling me by your name!' She got a little kick out of that."
A self-proclaimed Christmas lover ("I'm nutty for Christmas," she confessed at one point), Drew rolled off holiday classics like Elf, A Christmas Story, Love Actually, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and While You Were Sleeping ("Not really a Christmas movie but it takes place around Christmas so it feels like a Christmas movie to me!") as essential viewing in her household. With her two children, 6-year-old son Micah and 4-year-old daughter Hannah, getting to the age where they can embrace the holiday season, Drew is excited to take part in their yearly traditions.
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"Christmas became so much more exciting once our kids came along and as they’re getting older, it’s more and more fun with them. One of our traditions that we’ve been doing for the last few years and are going to do again this year...," Drew shared. "On our block, our kids have a lot of friends and we all gather with the little kids, decorate cookies and treats, and we put the treat bags together. The next night, we decorate a little red wagon that my neighbor has and everybody dresses up as elves. My son always dresses up as Santa and my daughter always dresses up as Mrs. Claus. We go around the block and we deliver our treats as a huge group. It’s sort of like reverse Halloween, which is so fun and it’s become a fun tradition for all of us."
Though she's no longer on Grey's, Drew expressed optimism that she'll get together with some of her pals for the holidays. "I don’t have any plans yet but I’m sure some will start. I’m sure they will happen," she said.
Looking ahead to the new year, Drew -- who cut her teeth as a director and producer this year via Grey's Anatomy: B-Team and Indivisible, respectively -- has her sights set on her next project.
"I'm excited to dive into, hopefully, a new series," she said. "I’m hoping to do more producing and more directing, and I have a couple irons in the fire, in terms of development projects that I’m working on and meeting with people about. So we’ll see! I honestly feel like the world is wide open right now and I don’t know what’s coming next. As much as I loved getting into producing and directing, the priority will always be acting for me. I want to find that next project to act in and then maybe get to do a little more behind the camera once I’m settled in a new gig."