Why the Stars of Lifetime's First Gay Holiday Movie Hope It's a 'Conversation Starter' (Exclusive)
By Philiana Ng
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The Christmas Setup is Lifetime's first holiday film entirely centered around a gay couple falling in love during Christmastime. Starring real-life married couple Ben Lewis (Arrow) and Blake Lee (Parks and Recreation), the romantic comedy -- filmed during the pandemic -- is history-making for the network, a step forward as Lifetime continues to charge ahead in its goal of expanding the breadth of its inclusive storytelling.
"We're really hopeful that if the traditional Lifetime audience tunes in and embraces this movie, that's just going to embolden and further deepen the representation in years to come for queer people of color and trans people and gender nonbinary people," Lewis, who plays Hugo, tells ET, "because everybody deserves this kind of escapism and this type of representation."
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Fran Drescher on Being a Part of Lifetime’s First Same-Sex Couple Christmas Movie (Exclusive)
And The Christmas Setup is not alone in centering LGBTQ romances in holiday-themed films. "Being one of the movies that are being represented this year, like Happiest Season -- and there's five or six of them -- it's not at all a competition. Any representation is so huge for our community," Lee, who plays Hugo's former classmate, Patrick, tells ET of this year's swath of inclusive movies. "We just feel very, very proud, and so many of the other actors and filmmakers from the other films have reached out to Ben and I, and we've reached out to them. We're all supporting each other's movies because it's a great moment for the queer community."
The Christmas Setup, which co-stars Fran Drescher (as Hugo's mom) and Ellen Wong (as Hugo's BFF), follows many of the typical, tried-and-true tropes of the holiday movie genre, only it's two men experiencing the ups and downs of an unexpected holiday romance. Admittedly, Lewis and Lee were self-professed novices to the feel-good movies that dominate this time of year, but were intrigued at the prospect of leaving a mark when it came to representing the LGBTQ community in a positive light. Though there was some initial hesitation about bringing their off-screen romance onscreen, those nerves quickly dissipated once they stepped onto set. "It was really nice that we didn't feel like we had to manufacture chemistry," Lewis says.
Ahead of Saturday's premiere, Lewis and Lee open up about how they unexpectedly came to star in Lifetime's first gay holiday film; what they hope viewers (and in Lee's case, some family members) take away from Hugo and Patrick's love story; working with Lewis' birthday twin, Drescher; and why they were hesitant, at first, to bring their real-life relationship to TV.
Ben Lewis: We had first heard about it when Lifetime made the announcement that they were going to do their first LGBTQ+ holiday film, and also their first Asian American holiday film. At the time we thought it was great that they were doing it, but it was never on our radar, something that we would potentially be asked to do. We didn't know they would be looking for a real-life couple to star in the movie, but also, even if they were, we know so many gay actor couples. We didn't expect it and it was a pleasant, exciting surprise.
What does it mean to be part of this moment?
Blake Lee: It feels incredible. The weight of it all didn't hit us until recently. When we got cast in it, we were just so excited to be a part of the story, but then we were so quickly thrown into shooting the movie that we didn't really have time to think about the significance and the weight of it all. Since we've wrapped and we've been doing press, it's really hit us. And I think it's incredible. We feel very lucky to be representing gay people in this movie, and I think that it is hopefully the beginning of more representation being shown in these films. I hope that more hearts of the LGBTQ community get seen in these films. So yeah, it definitely feels like it's a huge step, but I think it's a step.
Was there some reservations about putting your hat in the ring, so to speak, as a real-life couple? What were the conversations you had when it became a possibility that you could be doing this film?
Lee: We were home during the pandemic in quarantine. Then we got a call from our agents being like, "How do you guys feel about going back to work? What do you guys feel about working together?" It's not something that we had necessarily thought we would do, let alone, it actually happened the way it did and at a time when it did. We took about three days to decide if we wanted to do it and if it was going to be good for our relationship. Once we read the script, we realized we loved how much the movie didn't steer away from the classic Lifetime formula. And we loved that the only difference was that it was two men falling in love. We felt like that was a huge step for queer people. Once we realized that we were like, "Yeah, let's do this." The fact that it was the first made us want to do it even more. We also were like, "We need to get out of the house because we've been in it for five months."
Are you similar to the characters you play? In what ways are you different?
Lewis: It's funny, when they offered the movie to us, they said, "We have Ben in mind for the role of Hugo, and we have Blake in mind for the role of Patrick. But if you guys read the script and you feel like we got it wrong, then you guys can swap." Obviously never been in a situation like that before where you had that sort of power, or responsibility, or freedom. Luckily, when we both read it, we naturally gravitated towards the roles that they had intended for us. Blake actually said to me at one point, "I'm so glad you're playing Hugo because he has to do all the really embarrassing stuff," which is absolutely true and was really fun for me. That's actually what attracted me to the part because in real life, we're both funny people, but Blake is definitely the funny one. For him to be playing the straight man, for lack of a better term, in this, and the fact that I got to be the goofy, neurotic one was fun for me. I don't think we would have had it any other way.
Did you bring any personal touches or experiences to flesh out your characters more?
Lee: Danielle von Zerneck, our producer, and Pat Mills, the director, were open to us giving ideas and input and making it a more collaborative environment. Ben and I had a few ideas sparked by reading the script. When we had that initial conversation with them, we were like, "Can we email you guys some thoughts or ideas we have? Maybe things to make it a little bit more personal to make the queer community in this movie a little bit more real and have more depth?" They were so open to the idea, and they sent all of our suggestions to Michael Murray, the writer, and he was so wonderful and implemented all of them into the script. During the entire filming, every time we started a scene, whether it was me and Ben in the scene or if it was me and Ben and Fran, we would get together with Danielle and Pat and go, "OK, what is the meat of this scene? What are we really trying to say?" Especially in the scenes when we're talking about the LGBTQ community, that was important to Ben and I to represent queer people in the best way that we could.
A romantic comedy lives or dies by the chemistry between the two leads. Obviously that isn't an issue in real life. But was it tricky for you to make sure that real-life connection translated onscreen?
Lee: (Laughs.) We both have a few things to say. I remember we had to quarantine before we started filming for two weeks, and Ben and I were getting nervous. We were like, "What if we have horrible chemistry? What if this doesn't translate onto the screen?" We've been together for 10 years and married for almost five. When you've been together with someone that long, you're so comfortable. So Pat Mills, our director, was great about reversing that and going, "We need to go back to when these two people didn't know each other at all." Because when you're with someone for 10 years, sometimes I don't even realize my hand is on Ben's leg. We're so comfortable with each other. He made us less comfortable with each other so that we could fall in love again for the first time.
Lewis: What Blake said about walking back our natural comfortability with each other was a big part of it, but it was really nice that we didn't feel like we had to manufacture chemistry, not just with each other, but with the other actors in the core cast of the movie. The actress who plays my best friend in the movie, Ellen Wong, she is somebody who I've known for, like, 11 years. We were in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World together. The actor who plays my brother, Chad Connell, I've know him for even longer than that. The only person we didn't know already was Fran, but anybody who grew up watching The Nanny, you feel like you know Fran. She's such a genuine person and such a genuine performer. We, thankfully, clicked right away. Particularly for me, the mother-son chemistry that we had was effortless.
What was your experience like working with Fran?
Lewis: She truly is everything you want her to be and more. When we were quarantining at my family's cottage in Canada for two weeks before we went to Ottawa to shoot the movie, my sister had the first two seasons of The Nanny on DVD. Blake wasn't sure that we should watch it. I was like, "Come on, we got to watch it. We got to watch at least one." But he was worried that if we watched too much of it, that we would be weird and starstruck when we met her. I was like, "I'm going to be weird and starstruck regardless. So we might as well enjoy this, you know?" Anyway, we ended up binging the first two seasons, but luckily the thing about Fran is that she's so comfortable and proud of who she is and what her legacy is. She loves to hear that people love The Nanny and she wants to talk about that experience. She's an incredibly open, generous person. She's going to give you everything you want from the Fran Drescher experience, you know what I mean? You're not going to meet Fran and be disappointed.
There's a lovely scene in the movie where you're all playing trivia, which seemed to capture the holidays perfectly.
Lee: In that scene specifically, Fran had a bell whenever someone got a right or wrong answer. I couldn't stop laughing that entire night because she was so just bell happy and it was so funny. And her improv during that scene, I literally, I feel like I'm probably not in that scene a lot because I was just laughing the entire time. She's so funny, and she is so warm and she elevates what is on the page so much. She brings so much of the Fran that the audience wants. She works her a** off. It's pretty incredible. She's in a lot of scenes in this movie, and every single one, she was just so professional. She knew her character so well, but she also brought so much more because she would improvise and she just wanted to talk about the backstories and to deepen the relationships between her and Ben, and her and my character.
What was your favorite scene to film?
Lee: I liked the group scenes because it was so much fun to shoot with everyone. Ben and I, one of our first scenes that we shot together was when I'm delivering the Christmas tree. That was the first time we were seeing what each other was doing with these characters. Like, I remember after our first take, Pat, the director, yelled cut, Ben and I were like, "OK, this is what you're doing. OK." And I felt very excited after that first day to continue the rest of the shoot because I was like, "Oh, this is going to be fun." The scene where we go out and we're looking at the Northern Lights, that was just fun because we really were in the middle of nowhere and it was in the middle of the night and it was beautiful. We got paid to make out with each other.
Lewis: Some of my fondest memories from shooting the movie were on my birthday, which was also Fran's birthday. Everybody has their celebrity birthday twin who you share a birthday with, and Fran has always been that for me. When they first said that Fran was their first choice to play my mom, I was like, "It's never going to happen. It's too good to be true," because I knew our birthdays fell right in the middle of shooting, and the idea of celebrating my birthday on set with Fran Drescher was just too much to hope for. But then it happened. We were in the train station that day. I was shooting my climactic, emotional speech at the train station about the diversity in the community and about the hope that my character is feeling for the future. And it was a really beautiful moment for me to be celebrating my birthday. It was reflective to be celebrating my birthday, starring in a movie opposite my husband, opposite an icon like Fran, surrounded by more queer actors and queer creatives and allies than I ever had been. It was a really great life moment for me. I'll always remember the scenes that we shot that day, very fondly.
What kinds of stories within the community do you want to see more of, that you're interested in and hopeful you'll get a chance to tell at some point?
Lewis: We were doing an interview and the writer we were speaking to, he was saying traditionally, white cisgender gay men are always the first ones invited to the party when it comes to representation. We're grateful for the platform that this movie is giving us and we feel a responsibility to go, "OK, next time there's a party, we have to make sure that queer people of color and trans people and gender nonbinary people are invited." We've been talking about this movie as an LGBTQ+ holiday movie, but between the holiday movies that are coming out this year, it's only the L and the G that are being represented. And I don't think that that's necessarily accurate representation of the community. It's not accurate representation of the community as a whole. When we get to the place where we're telling stories, where the L, the G, the B, the T, the Q and the plus are all intermingling, then I think that's the goal. Those are the types of movies and projects we want to be part of going forward.
Lee: Like Ben said, there's so much. We want to accurately represent our community. If we were to do a sequel of this, it's important to have more representation in our film. I want to see the entire community represented in their own films. It would be amazing to have Indya Moore or Trace Lysette or Mj Rodriguez or Angelica Ross. There are so many trans actresses out there that should be the leading ladies in these films. And there are so many stories to tell. Like Ben said, we're just opening the door. The door has now been opened by these films this year and I hope that the rest of the community is represented. I hope that the stories are told because every single person deserves to see themselves represented.
It sounds like you're open to starring in another Lifetime movie or doing more holiday movies in the future, maybe even a sequel to this one. Is that something you're both open to?
Lee: Yeah, we would be interested in seeing where the characters that we played, where their story goes. As long as it is the same group of people and adding in more parts of the LGBTQ community to make it more progressive. There's a conversation being had about it. Nothing's set in stone yet, but yes, we're both definitely interested because it was such a fun experience and it's such a happy genre.
Lewis: I have to be honest. We weren't super familiar with Lifetime holiday movies before this, but we've really fallen in love with the genre. We've realized how much potential there is within the genre's own myriad of different stories.
What do you hope people take away from this movie?
Lewis: My biggest hope for this movie, beyond what we said about opening the door for more representation, is the queer kid out there who might not be out to their families yet, but might watch this movie with their families and might be looking to their family's reaction to this movie as an indication of how they'll be received. I think that's really meaningful for me because when I was growing up, before I was out to my family, I was constantly looking for those types of [stories] -- not only for representation -- but for indicators of how my family felt about the LGBTQ+ community. As wonderful and as liberal as my family is, it was never a topic of conversation. So I suppose what I hope people take away from it is I hope it will be a positive conversation starter.
Lee: Like what Ben said, it being a conversation starter. It's so important for it to be a conversation starter in homes with gay people and gay youth. But I also feel like it's a huge opportunity for families, where it's a heterosexual family. I grew up in a home that was extremely accepting. My uncle is gay. It was never a conversation, but later in my life, now in my 30s, my sister and her husband have chosen to go in the opposite direction and they won't talk to their kids about Ben and I's marriage and about gay marriage and gay people. My nephew is 11 and my niece is 8, so it's been a really heartbreaking last few years where my sister and I don't have a relationship anymore because of it. So, one of the reasons I wanted to do this movie was to have this movie to show my niece and nephew that love is love and it really is. Ben and I's love is no different than their parents. I think it's to tell this story to not just my niece and nephew, but for other families like them, where maybe they don't know that they have a gay uncle or a gay cousin or gay neighbor. It's really important because it's that conversation starter. This movie can change so many people's views towards the LGBTQ community. I'm hopeful that it will.
What's next for the both of you?
Lee: I'm doing a TV show for Freeform called Cruel Summer. I actually went right from The Christmas Setup, literally straight from Canada to Dallas. So it's been an interesting year of working in the pandemic. I feel very lucky, but it's been such a learning experience.
Lewis: And I will be joining him in Dallas. We're actually in L.A. right now because he had a couple of weeks off, but we'll be in Dallas for the holidays. It's funny because I've sort of fallen in love with the holiday genre to the point where -- because I write and direct as well -- I've been working on an outline for my own gay holiday movie. Who knows what'll happen with that, but it's definitely gotten me... I'm definitely in the spirit. I'm definitely in a a festive state of mind.