'Law & Order: SVU' Alum Jamie Gray Hyder on Her Abrupt Exit and New Hallmark Christmas Movie (Exclusive)

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Law & Order: SVU alum Jamie Gray Hyder is putting on her ballet shoes for her new Hallmark holiday film, Sugar Plum Twist. Dropping Thursday on the network's streaming service, Hallmark Movies Now, the latest Christmas movie follows Vivíana Serrano (Laura Rosguer), an aspiring ballerina who -- after failing to get the coveted role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in the year's production of The Nutcracker -- joins forces with Natalia (Hyder), a retiree from the New York Ballet, to create a surprise reprise of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy ... with a Latin twist.

For Hyder, who was coming off two years of SVU when the script for Sugar Plum Twist fell into her lap, switching gears to lighter, family-friendly fare was a welcomed change of pace.

"I've just come off of working two years on SVU and dealing with such dark and heavy subject matter that the idea of doing something lighter and more uplifting really appeals to me and my brain. So, I said yes," the actress told ET during a phone interview in November. "We talked about things that were important to me, as far as my character goes, using my ethnicity for the character. They were all ears and super accommodating and we found a place that we both liked and decided to work together."

Ahead of the film's premiere, Hyder discusses making her Hallmark debut, what compelled her to take on the role and her thoughts on her unexpected departure as Kat from SVU.

ET: What can you tell us about Sugar Plum Twist? What drew you into the story in the first place?

Jamie Gray Hyder: My character, Natalia Haddad, is a former professional dancer who comes back to her hometown of Richmond, Virginia, to choreograph the local Nutcracker. And where she gets into trouble is when she wants to put a twist on the Sugar Plum Fairy dance and on The Nutcracker in general, she finds herself at odds with the more classically aligned theater director. So for my character, it's about taking classics and making room for new styles and room for new types of dance. That's what's important to her. As far as Sugar Plum Twist goes, the twist that we're talking about is her attempting to modernize and fix up The Nutcracker classic.

Since this is a ballet-focused movie, you're naturally going to find yourself deeply ingrained in that world. Do you have a dance background? How did that all work with the ballet aspect of the story?

I have no formal dance training and I said it probably a hundred times on the phone to the producers and casting director. I said, "Just a reminder, I'm not a ballerina," because I wanted to make sure that was very clear. But there are a few instances in the film where Natalia does dance. So I did a week of ballet intensives with our two ballet choreographers and with our salsa choreographer. My co-star, Laura, she is an experienced ballet dancer and she dances all styles. She came in and really picked it up quickly. But for me, I had to work with them a little bit longer because I wanted to make sure that I was doing the part justice, but also I didn't want too many ballerinas to cringe while watching my performance. Fingers crossed everybody likes it.

What was the ballet boot camp experience like? 

That's one thing that attracted me to this project was the ballet aspect because I'm a very physical person. I do different martial arts and boxing. I always love learning a new skill and I've always known how difficult ballet is, so I wanted the challenge. Upon doing it, you realize it's even more of a challenge than you could ever imagine. To me, the most incredible skill that a dancer has is their ability to make it look easy. Something as simple as holding your arms out. I've got two different people making three adjustments on my arms and I'm trying to hold it where they're telling me to hold it. My arms are shaking and I'm like, How do people do this and make it look graceful? I'm over here falling apart!

With the ballet training, is there something from this movie in the prep work for it or filming it that you remember vividly?

One fond memory for me, especially regarding the ballet training, was I did do one of my dances and they didn't actually have the double come in and redo it. That was very exciting for me. I do a majority of what you'll see. And then I have a double who came in and did some of the footwork just to make it a little bit more authentic, but I'm hoping that what I did suffices enough that really you won't notice a difference. I was flattered that someone found my skill to be efficient at that point!

Switching gears if we can to SVU for a moment, how did you feel about the way things ended for Kat? Have you had some time away to think about that?

The No. 1 thing you have to learn, if you want to go into show business, is that a majority of decisions that are made that impact you usually have nothing to do with you. It's a hard reality, but one that you're serving yourself better the sooner you can get that in your head. So for me, my time on SVU was so incredibly educational and really built my confidence. I have great relationships with the cast. I love the crew. The saddest part about leaving was not being able to spend every day with those people that you formed these relationships with. My ending came a little bit more abruptly than I would've anticipated, but SVU has been doing it that way for a long time. I think it keeps the fans on their toes. Do I wish there was a different outcome? Of course, but I leave that experience with such a surplus of knowledge and experience that I'm grateful that it happened at all.

How do you feel about your time on the show and what you got to do as Kat in those seasons that you were featured?

I think Kat really was chock-full of representation and of speaking for voices that maybe have not been as prominently represented on the show in the past. I take great pride in what she provided to not only the show, but to the fanbase. She had more of a progressive voice, which I think resonated with some people. And for me personally, getting to represent my Lebanese heritage as a part of who I am in this character that has nothing to do with my heritage. That, for me, is a huge win.

Kat will always stand out in terms of bringing much-needed LGBTQ inclusion to the unit. Have you heard from SVU fans about the impact that she's had on them or the show? 

One of the best parts of SVU is the fanbase. They're vocal. Whether it's good or bad, they're vocal, they're involved, they're interacting. And I think for a lot of the fans who hadn't previously had representation on the show, my character made it even more enjoyable for them to be a part of the fanbase. That's one of the most rewarding parts of SVU is hearing from the fans, especially those who've experienced traumatic situations that we discuss on the show. To be an ear for those people is a privilege. It's a bit surreal to know that something that you're doing in a fictional world is having a positive impact on somebody in the real world. That's not something I'm sure I'll ever get used to, but I know for many, many, many fans, they felt comforted by Kat's presence on the show and that's something that feels like the ultimate win for me.

Given that we have seen other detectives come back, most recently with Danny Pino as Nick, does the door remain open for appearances down the road?

Well, she's not dead! So that's a good thing. It's always an option, I think, for characters to come back on SVU, so long as you exit alive.

Circling back to this Hallmark movie, what do you want fans or people who will be tuning in to know? 

I think that our film is a great example of taking classic traditions and really adapting them to you and your family and your culture. I think it's also a great representation of a melding of cultures. You're going to learn a little bit about different Latin traditions and you're going to learn a little bit about Middle Eastern traditions. The point of the film is to really express diversity within this classic structure.

Do you think that this is the start of a long relationship with Hallmark? Are you open to doing more films down the line? 

Hallmark forms really strong relationships with the people that they work with and I hope that my relationship lasts with them as well.

Sugar Plum Twist drops Thursday, Dec. 2 on Hallmark Movies Now. The movie will have an encore presentation Friday, Dec. 17 on Hallmark Channel, with additional airings Dec. 18 through Dec. 22. For more on Hallmark, watch below.

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