This year there is a wave of LGBTQ+ inclusive (or centered) holiday films coming out. Of these projects, many are populated by queer creatives as the leading actors, writers, directors, and/or producers. Take The Christmas Setup, which comprises Lifetime's first Christmas film that centers on an LGBTQ+ romance as its lead storyline. The film proves that at Lifetime, Christmas is for everyone.
"We, admittedly, had never seen of these movies before," Ben Lewis, who stars as Hugo, a corporate lawyer, opposite his real-life husband Blake Lee, tells Out of being cast to do the Lifetime project. The film sees Hugo return to his hometown of Milwaukee from New York City to spend the holidays with his mom. While there, as is common with this genre, he finds himself falling back in love with the small town as well as with his old high school crush, played by Lee. The pair were joined by other queer creatives like Pat Mills, the director; Michael J. Murray, the writer; Chad Connell, a Lifetime regular and the straight brother of Hugo in this project; as well as noted ally Fran Drescher, who plays the meddling, matchmaking mother. Lifetime worked closely with GLAAD to ensure the movie represents the LGBTQ+ community sensitively and accurately.
"I don't think either of us in our careers have ever been on a set where a majority of the key creatives were queer or allies," Lewis says. "It was a great sort of inversion of what you normally experience on set."
Here we talk to both Lee and Lewis about what it was like to make the film, be a part of this historical moment, and work with Drescher. The Christmas Setup will debut on Lifetime on December 12 at 8 p.m. ET. The Christmas Setup is one of 34 new holiday movies on Its A Wonderful Lifetime this season. See the full schedule on mylifetime.com.
How did you both get involved with this film? Was it always a joint thing?
BLAKE: So it was like August, so we had been in the middle of the pandemic for quite a few months. We had already passed that part of like we’re never going to work this year. But one day we were having breakfast at our house and my phone rang with my agent calling and sort of asking where we were geographically and where we were with wanting to work. And it was sort of like get me out of this house. So he was sort of saying he just got off the phone with Lifetime and they were thinking of offering the two of us the leads to their first LGBTQ+ led movie and it was such a shock
BEN: I could hear parts of the conversation and so I thought he was getting an offer and I was excited but a little bit jealous. So when he got off the phone and said it was an offer for both of us, we were just completely caught off guard.
Had you worked together before?
BEN: We’ve been together for ten years but we’ve never worked together. When you’ve been together for a decade there aren’t a lot of firsts, you know. So this was really exciting. It was exciting and surreal to be working together for the first time, to be celebrating Christmas in September, and to have Fran Drescher playing my mother.
When you’ve been together for so long you have this shorthand together, so was there a process of undoing those things for the film?
BEN: We have such a natural comfortability with each other so we had to walk that back. Luckily our director Pat was very vigilant about that.
BLAKE: Yeah it was about remembering those first moments of falling in love, To see a guy you think is hot and if his shirt comes up a little you are like lazer focused on it. We’re so used to each other at this point so it was really great to be reminded of those things in this process. It was really nice to fall in love again and to be reminded of how important those things are in a relationship and how you always need to find ways to spice things up.
There were moments where Ben’s character would leave the room and Pat would go on this take really check him out like really look at his ass. You haven’t seen this guy since high school.
Were you guys really cognizant of the ongoing conversations about representation with these types of movies?
BEN: We were certainly aware of and a part of conversations about representation in entertainment but I don't think we were involved in what was happening with this genre specifically. I think if you look at the representation across all of these movies we are seeing this year — the Hulu one, Lifetime one, the Hallmark one, the Paramount one — I think we're really hopeful that this is going to just open a door to more diverse representation.
BLAKE: We are very aware that we are just one story, we are just one version of the LGBTQ+ community. We know that and if we were to do another one of these with them, we've voiced how important it is to be inclusive of the entire community to have trans representation, nonbinary, LGBTQ+ people of color ... we are literally just one story. We happen to be one of the first and hopefully, it continues and becomes more diverse.
Did you guys get to have input on the script?
BLAKE: You know that was something we talked about before we took the roles. We asked if they would be open to our point of view if there was a scene that we could make it more specific, and they said absolutely. It ended up being this really collaborative experience. It was important for us to be really specific about the time.
You know this at first the town just happened to be this really happy town but Ben and I wanted to be specific about what the town was doing. So there couldn't just happen to be this drag bar, like there needed to be other things. So like let's say there's a queer youth center or whatever other little details that would give a sense of a community.
What was it like working with Fran?
BEN: For me, that was beyond surreal. The beauty of Fran is that whatever is on the page she's going to take it and make it her own and elevate it. But we actually share a birthday and the date fell right in the middle of shooting. When they told me that they were looking at Fran I just thought "it's never going to happen because the idea of me celebrating my birthday with Fran Drescher on set" is just too good to be true. So then when they actually got her we were really thrilled.
The thing about Fran is she's everything you want her to be and more.
Do you two have your own holiday traditions?
BEN: Normally we spend Christmas in Canada with my Thanksgiving — last year they came here to LA. This year will be the first time we don't spend it together because of the pandemic. But I think this movie will be a nice gift for them.
BLAKE: I've never thought about this but when we got married and we went on our honeymoon, we got married in LA and our honeymoon was in Big Sur which is like a five-hour drive up the coast. We didn't even set out to do this but we stopped at all these amazing antique shops along the way. One of the things that we did was we started to build this collection of vintage Christmas ornaments. They are like these 1950s beautiful ornaments that last year we were able to finally put up on our own tree.
It's kind of weird that we started our marriage with something Christmas related.
Lifetime has new holiday movies, 24/7 through Christmas Day. Watch The Christmas Setup on December 12 at 8 p.m./7 p.m CT on Lifetime.