Holly Robinson Peete On Diversifying Holiday Films And Art Imitating Life In Her Hallmark Film 'Our Christmas Journey'
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Television , Interviews

Holly Robinson Peete On Diversifying Holiday Films And Art Imitating Life In Her Hallmark Film 'Our Christmas Journey'

Holly Robinson Peete has been a staple on the Hallmark Channel for nearly a decade. In addition to having her own family reality series, viewers love her work during the Christmas movie lineup and programming. This season, Robinson Peete is sharing a personal story in a new film Our Christmas Journey.

The film chronicles a divorcee and single mom struggling to balance life and motherhood with an autistic son. In real life, Robinson Peete’s son is also autistic. Our Christmas Journey follows as they come to terms in their own ways with letting their loved one transition from boyhood to adulthood, despite his autism.

It’s a story that’s never been told before and one Robinson Peete is proud of. The movie is also her baby and a passion project - one she created specifically for the network. 

In a recent interview with Shadow and Act, Robinson Peete spoke about her work with Hallmark, how the network has diversified over the years and what Our Christmas Journey means to her. 

We watched your latest movie on Hallmark, Our Christmas Journey, which we loved. It was extremely heartfelt, and you've been a staple on the Hallmark Channel for years now. What keeps bringing you back to the network, specifically for holiday films? 

Well, A, my name is Holly, so I'm already locked. I was born loving Christmas. And so I feel like that's been part of my just brand as a little girl, my whole life just loving Christmas, celebrating Christmas. And so when I had the opportunity to come to Hallmark Channel and do some work, do some movies for them, probably about seven years ago, I jumped at it. I was so excited. I love the content. I love the programming. I was happy to bring a little flavor to the network and bring a little diversity. I thought that was really cool because I thought diversity was needed, You got to have that in TV. 

And a lot of my friends were over there. I had a lot of friends from the nineties, my nineties TV friends were doing movies and projects there. And they were like, ‘You should come over there. You should do that.’ And there's something about like, it feels like almost like a little studio, so they're very good to the people who work with them and they sort of nurture us and take care of us. And I have had a long career, over 35 years coming up on 40 years. And I really appreciate the opportunity to work and to make content that I'm proud of that's positive. It feels like a good time right now to be on this network. 

You touched on it briefly about bringing some color to the network. And obviously, as a viewer of Hallmark, I've noticed in recent years that there has been a huge shift in casting. And it's been great to see people of color in more prominent roles in the films. Ten years ago, the Black cast member was always the person checking you in at the end, in the small town, or they were the best friend

The best friend with no backstory. Like we don't know how he got here. That's changed. Thank God! That's changed. 

So were there any active conversations about diversity with the network that cast and crew members were a part of that you can speak to? Or was it just something that you just noticed gradually took place? 

No, there was a proactive effort on behalf of the Hallmark Channel to bring way more diversity and inclusion, and they did that. They didn't just talk about it. They did it. And not only that, but even I've executive produced several of my projects. So I feel like I'm not just an actor in front of the camera, but I'm also someone who can control some of the content and be a part of that part of it, which is really important. It's one thing to see Black and brown faces, but it's another thing to see that we are behind the scenes were involved in more than just being on camera, but were involved in the content and choosing the content. 

And so for instance, with Our Christmas Journey, I was soup to nuts over all over that one. Obviously, it was about autism. So I wanted to highlight that. We've never seen an actor with autism on TV and a scripted part like this in a major role. So that was key, but the network has been very supportive and open to almost all of my ideas. They have a new CEO, Wonya Lucas, who is laser-like focused on diversity and inclusion, just expanding all the Hallmark brands and making it a place for content for everybody. They've been trying to do that for, I think around the time I came along. And again, you hear people sometimes say it out loud, but they don't always execute it. And I think like you said, you can really see the shift on camera with these projects. And it's fun to be a part of. 

Obviously with diversity in casting comes diversity in storylines. Even though we love the movies, there have been complaints for years about sort of this monotonous story that's being told over and over again on these network movies around this time. With this movie that you did drawing in parallels from your own experience and being a family who's dealt with a child or a loved one who has autism and the work that you've done within that whole realm of really bringing awareness to this. You mentioned there's never been an actor in a lead role like this who's had autism. So is that one of the reasons why you were attracted to this particular story, but the stories that you're doing moving forward, you're making sure that you have more inclusion of more diversity in as far as the storylines? 

I wasn't drawn to this project. We brought them this project. So this was a project that wasn't written like, ‘Oh, and, oh, wouldn't you be perfect to be the mom of a kid with autism.’ No, no, no. We brought them this project. We pitched them the project. We created the storyline. We found the writers. So I'm very involved. My production partner and I, we're here for all of it. And the network has been super open in anything. I mean, really the notes have been minimal. They've been like ‘Just tell the story. We trust you to tell the story.’ So excited about that. And yeah, we're just seeing more of it. So we're seeing the inclusion of Black and brown people and different religions, different cultures, you're seeing a lot more mixed couples and you're just it's getting in there, you seeing a lot of it. And it's not really that hard to come up with storylines like that.

But like you said, the formulaic version of some of the Christmas movies, people go, ‘It’s the same little thing.’ But you can find ways to still keep that formula because it's very successful. If it wasn't, we wouldn't even be having this conversation right now. People like that familiarity. They like to know that it's going to end well, they like that, but they're also looking for some diversity in storytelling. So I think that's what makes Our Christmas Journey so special. Because it had the whole formula. The exes get back together in the end. It had the love, the Christmas, the cookie making, and all the stuff that you come to know for these movies. But it also had a real storyline that has not been told before.

It told the story of a young man becoming an adult, having autism, going away to stay at a facility where he can find independence and the mom letting go. We have not seen that. We haven't seen that anywhere. Forget the Hallmark Channel. We haven't seen that anywhere. So that's what I'm seeing that I'm really excited about the diversity and storytelling. Certain things you still got to have in these movies. But the fact that they are so open to telling stories differently is what's making me feel creatively stimulated, and that's important. 

Outside of your personal connection to the storyline, what inspired you to tell this story? Why center it around the Christmas season? And how long did it take for this project to come to fruition for you guys? 

These projects move really fast. So from the time we pitched it to the time we got in front of the cameras, it was like maybe four or five months. We pitched it, we got a writer, we started going through drafts and then we got into casting. Then we got up to get it and put it up on its feet. So it's a pretty quick process and turnaround. Then we shot it in October and it’s already aired. So it's a quick turnaround once you get on set. I have been really fortunate to just be able to have direct contact with a really great relationship with the network. 

And even before this movie, though, we had a show on the network called Meet the Peetes. It was a family docu-drama. It really did focus a lot on autism, and the network is very supportive of autism causes and certainly of our foundation. So, they always sort of been about telling these stories. They just needed someone with a drive and ambition like me to come in and say, "Hey, here's a great story. Let's tell it." And then again, the diversity in the way they tell stories now really lent itself, nicely and married up nicely with what we were trying to tell and the story we were trying to put out there. And then, of course, a lot of people know that I have a son he's 24 now. He has autism. When he was three, he got diagnosed, he was told he would never do so many things.

And that's one of the reasons why we wanted to document his journey for other parents and families that are out there that don't have hope or feel like their kids have possibilities in life. I mean, every child with autism is going to have a different journey. And I think that's one of the hardest parts about telling the story of Our Christmas Journey, because I know a lot of families that autism families never get to see themselves or their stories represented especially on scripted television. So I was trying to tell a little message to everybody. I mean, because all of our journeys are so different. But in the end, this was a love letter to my son, and to all autism families out there who've been on the journey. My son's journey's been a couple of decades, and we wanted to focus on when he was turning 18 and really figuring out how he was going to move forward in this world. So that was pretty much the origin of Our Christmas Journey

The reviews from the audience have been very positive. Viewers have been receptive to the film. A lot of people were surprised by the film because the description didn’t give much away.

Yeah, that was deliberate. When we were talking back and forth with publicists about ‘What's our one line, what are we saying? It's a mother's journey, it's a single mom does this.’ And then with her son, you really don't, you're right. It really doesn't tell the whole story, which was deliberate because I was like, ‘Oh, maybe we should put that the journey is going to this autism center.’ Then she was like, "Mmmm, no, we need to let them find out what it's about." And they're so clever at Hallmark Channel at promoting their movies. They know how to do that better than me. So I was like, "OK, OK." But you're right, people were pleasantly surprised because I think we had a little thing.

We had something for everybody. We had three or four storylines going at once, and that's very challenging to put such heavy storylines going. We had the son and the mother struggling with letting go. You had the sister, and her struggles being a sibling of someone with autism and feeling unseen. You had the mother and her ex-husband trying to get their groove back. You had the other lady in the house with her daughter at the center, but she was also missing her mom for the first time. There were so many storylines, and I just thought they were a handle. So, well, I had to call my director after I watched it again on Saturday to say, ‘Wow, we did that.’ We were made sure to get a little something in for everybody. That's always hard because every child or every family dealing with autism deals with it differently, on different levels, on different areas of the spectrum. So we worked very hard to try to tell a very complete, but layered story, you know?

Your fans and viewers who are familiar with you love your dedication to family and how you've used your own story to help others in such an uplifting and impactful way. And the fact that you continue to do that, it's very selfless. And you've done it while still using your entertainment platform. What are you hoping that viewers take away from this film? And one of the things I love about Christmas movies is that they're timeless. So it'll be played over and over and over again.

That's what I want. I'm already pumping up for the replay because I want people to see it. And not just because I want people to watch me act and but I want people to see this message of family, love, acceptance of autism, autism love, and all these things that you just do not get to see. Having the character who plays my mom and her sort of trying to get Lena's, my character's life back in order and that relationship.

So there are just so many different ways that we're talking about autism. Then we're also doing it in such a diverse way. Because in the end, having Nik Sanchez, this young man with autism who acted his butt off in this movie basically set us apart from any other movie or any other show, that's tried to do something like this. There are some pretty good shows out there that are scripted shows where they're very talented actors, portraying characters with autism, but you just don't ever get to see people with autism doing that their own, and really representing themselves. All you need is just a director who has some compassion, a little patience. And there were moments where Nik had some issues on set, and we just, you know, mama was there, meaning me, and his mom between the two of us, autism moms.

We were like, okay, "We are shutting it down right now for a minute." We took over and that was good, but that's all you need. And then when he was ready, when he figured it out and got through his sensory overload, then, we picked it up and we kept it moving, but that doesn't happen on every set. So there's a level of compassion that you have to have in order to bring these authentic actors into these positions. And I was just so grateful to sort of being the boss on the set, be number one on the call sheet, and be able to use that platform and that power to make sure everybody was OK, especially Nik.

And because this story is so close to home, did you ever think about asking your son if this was something that he wanted to participate in?

Let me tell you something: He wanted to play this role because he knew there was a paycheck involved. He likes his little coins, so he wanted to play this role so badly, but he is too old. I was like, ‘Oh, well he has a job.’ Thank God. He could not leave his job to come to Canada and shoot it. But I told him, even if he could, he was too old. He's 24, and the character's 18. So he was like, "I'll shave my beard." So he was really trying to get that little part, but he loved the idea, and he got to meet Nik, and they've become friends. And it's just been really a great experience on camera and off. 

You can watch Our Christmas Journey on Hallmark through this holiday season.


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