Exclusive Interview: Patricia Heaton on Wearing the Producer Hat for the New Hallmark Movie The Christmas Heart

November 30, 2012

Most of us know Patricia Heaton for her leading roles in Everybody Loves Raymond and The Middle. In this exclusive interview, she tells us about working behind the camera with brother Michael Heaton and husband David Hunt, on a project that has been brewing for over a decade. The Christmas Heart revolves around a couple who live in a tight-knit community. When their oldest son is in a sudden need of a heart transplant, the most unexpected characters come to the rescue.

The Christmas Heart, starring Teri Polo, Paul Essiembre, and Tess Harper, premieres Sunday, December 2, at 8 p.m. on the Hallmark Channel.

I understand The Christmas Heart was an idea conceived years ago. How does it feel to finally see it come to life?
PH: We had the story lying around for a long time. It’s kind of the way showbiz works. I’m always encouraged when I read a review about a movie that just came out, it’s a big hit, and you find out the writer or the director or actor has been trying to make it happen for years. That encourages me. I think to myself, “Maybe it’s not time to give up,” and I’m really glad we didn’t give up on The Christmas Heart because I think it turned out so well. This movie has a little more emotional depth than a lot of Christmas movies have. And a lot of the greatness has to do with Teri Polo, Paul Essiembre, Tess Harper. I mean they’re all terrific.

I remember I was not able to go up to Winnipeg, where we shot it, because I was filming, and my husband was working too, trying to juggle the kids, so the president of our film company, Four Boy Films, went up there and my brother, who wrote the script, was up there. They were our ears and eyes. They sent us the dailies that we watched every day, and I was so impressed by what they were doing. And the whole thing was shot in 18 days!

PH: I know, it’s unbelievable. The Canadian crew was just fantastic, as was the director.

And to top it off it was winter. Wasn’t it hard to film in those conditions?
PH: It was February, but it was a rather warm winter. One of the reasons we went to Winnipeg was because we thought it was so far north that they were definitely going to have snow. Of course, when we got there, the snow was almost gone. So the crew was running around, they found some snow in a parking lot, put it in a truck and brought it to the set. That combined with cornstarch is how you make snow. It’s amazing what you can make happen and it looks so beautiful!

Teri Polo, Paul Essiembre, and Tess Harper are simply flawless in this movie. It seems like the cast is a healthy mix of seasoned actors and new and young talents. What do you think about The Christmas Heart ensemble?
PH: I think they were just amazing. Teri is well known for the Focker movies [Meet the Parents, starring Robert De Niro], and that’s a comedy. I had never seen her in this type of role and I was blown away. And the relationship that she has with Paul, who plays her husband, was so authentic. And then, of course, Tess is an Oscar-nominated actress and we were so honored that she joined us. She is so real. They all look like real people. I think you’re more drawn to the story because it feels like people you might know, and what they were going through. And the couple that played Tess’s son and his girlfriend were so loving. Oh, and the pilots of the plane! It was nice. You have a very dramatic movie with comedic interludes to help balance the whole thing. You work on something for so long, you keep your fingers crossed, and you really hope it turns out. It was even better than what I imagined.

Your brother, Michael Heaton, wrote the screenplay. You and your husband, David Hunt, were executive producers. What are the pros and cons of working with family?
PH: You kind of have to take off the brother and sister hat, the husband and wife hat, and put on your producer hat. Sometimes it can get a little touchy, like when my brother handed the script and there were comments. You have to realize that we’re all in this together to make the best product possible. You have to realize that everything that’s said is to try to create a better movie. And my brother, the journalist, he writes every day, he has editors, so he understands it. In that respect, it’s a little bit easier. My husband and I have also learned. After working together before as actors, now as producers, I think it’s a very bonding experience to be in the trenches together. Although, I could see how, if you’re not careful or the personalities involved are not understanding of the process, that it could actually drive people apart. In our case, it has really drawn us together. We’ve been married for 22 years and I think part of what keeps it going, keeps it alive and fresh, is the fact that we are always working on new things, doing new projects, and we have common goals. That’s a big part of the success of our relationship.

Right, it could go really, really bad or really, really well.
PH: True. It’s risky. But our whole business is very risky, we’re used to risk. We’re used to losing our jobs, not having jobs, working very hard on something, then having a rug pulled out from under you. It happens on a daily basis. By the way, we’re not always optimistic, as I’m sounding now. Every other day I’m saying to him, “Let’s pull the plug on all of this. Why are we spending all our money and the free time we have working on scripts and developing projects? All of our friends go out on the weekends and have dinner, and play tennis and play golf, and we’re always answering emails and having to read a script, etc.” I told him we should just have a normal life, do our jobs—our day jobs. But I don’t know. There is a reason we’re in this business, because we are risk-takers and we like to create, so I think it’s just in our DNA and we’re not going to get away from it. It’s nice to, every once in a while, actually see it succeed.

I like how you call acting your day job, and your producing job your weekend job. How different is being in front of the camera than behind the camera?
PH: It’s very exciting. We’ve known this Christmas story for a long time. We’ve been very close to it. So it’s exciting to finally, finally, see it go from the page to the screen. Not only that, but have it being more wonderful than you thought it was going to be. We knew it was going to be, but you put these actors together and none of them had worked together. We had never worked with them, so you’re really stepping out in faith. When it turns out as well as The Christmas Heart did, then it really pays off. I can’t wait for people to see it and get their response. I’ve watched it five times and I tear up every time I see it. And I know it’s coming! I’ve know what’s coming for 13 years and it still moves me. And it has to do a lot with the actors bringing it to life.

The Christmas Heart is a holiday movie about the tight bonds that keep a family together in spite of adversity. What do you expect viewers to feel at the end of the film, you know, when the credits are rolling?
PH: I just think that it’s a story about hope and that even from tragedy can come new life. It’s a story about faith. Not to say that everything is always roses or that everything turns out the way you want it to, but there’s always a reason and there’s something else happening. It’s about seeing the bigger picture in life.

What was Christmas like growing up? Did the Heatons have any particular traditions?
PH: Well, the one tradition that really drove us crazy was that we weren’t allowed to open presents until we had gone to mass. We would get dressed, come downstairs, see all the wrapped presents under the tree and then leave the house to go to mass. Now, growing up, the kids usually go to church Saturday night, so that Sunday morning… my husband’s a real stickler and nobody is allowed downstairs until he lights a fire, puts a CD on of Festival of Carols from King’s College, Cambridge University, and then people are allowed to come down. He gives out the gifts in a particular order, from least to biggest. The kids know they’re not allowed to go downstairs until everybody is up.

That sounds like an agenda!
PH: It is. Well, we haven’t had a Christmas in England in a long time. So it’s particularly important for him, if we’re in Los Angeles for Christmas, that he makes it as Christmassy as possible. It’s a little hard to feel Christmas in L.A. when it’s all sunshine and palm trees. We try to either be in Ohio or England for Christmas, and last year and this year we’re going to Montana! That’s a new thing for us because I just learned how to ski last year. Never say never! So that’s what we’re doing this year.

What is your favorite holiday movie of all time?
PH: I think Elf is my favorite. It’s a Wonderful Life, of course, is a great traditional one. But Elf and Planes, Trains and Automobiles. And then, my favorite Christmas TV show is a very old Truman Capote story from 1966 called A Christmas Memory, and I remember being very moved by that. It’s a very old, black and white, but I remember being very touched.

2012 has been a very busy year. Between producing the film and being Mrs. Heck in The Middle, dusting your Emmy for Everybody Loves Raymond, and being a mom of four, how do you juggle it all?
PH: Well you don’t, really. I’m a little like Frankie Heck in that I either get too involved and try to manage and control everything, which never works, or I throw up my hands and I let it go and then everything falls apart. Like you just heard where my son just texted me from L.A. to New York to find a book that he needs today. It’s really hard. I think the main thing is that we’re a result-oriented society. I know I am and have to do a lot of different things. I have to be disciplined about my diet. I have to be at work at 6 a.m. We work 10-12 hours a day. One son’s in college. I’m trying to get the next one into another college. And so you’re trying to control your career and guide your kids and they don’t always do what you know they should be doing. They have to learn for themselves. It’s one of the hardest things, just knowing that people have to find their own task in their own time and as much you’d like to tell them, “If you just do what I’m trying to tell you, everything would be so much easier!” You have to let it go. The biggest thing I practice is letting things go responsibly. Finding that balance. Sometimes it’s trial and error. When it’s an error, you can’t beat yourself up. In the long run, you know it’s going to be ok. Sometimes situations like Hurricane Sandy or people start getting cancer, it puts things in perspective. What would this particular event look like 50 years down the road? Would it be that important? Maybe that’s the way to handle it.

People know you mostly for your mom roles in Everybody Loves Raymond and The Middle. Is there another role that you would like to play, perhaps something totally different?
PH: Yes, I hate to admit it, I’m obsessed with true crime shows. I watch every show on the I.D. Channel (Investigation Discovery). I used to think, if I had to be something other than an actor, what would that be? Oh, I’d love to be a concierge at a hotel. I love how organized they are and how they can solve problems. The part, for me, that tilts me as far as crime goes, is that I would love to solve those problems too! I mean, a concierge helps you get theater tickets but private investigators or detectives help solve crime problems. So I think I would love to be a detective. So obviously, I can’t start now, become a cop and work my way up to detective! So the next role, what I would love to do next, is a series where I could be a detective and make it really interesting. I like the idea of moms being detectives. Moms have to be like that anyway in their lives. You have to discover what your kids are hiding, if they’re lying, how they’re manipulating you, all that kind of stuff. So all those traits that moms learn could be really effective in being a detective.

Well, you should pitch something and make it happen!
PH: Yes! I have to wait until The Middle is done. We have a few more years on The Middle.

The Middle is a great show. How different has the experience been from Everybody Loves Raymond?
PH: It’s different in the sense that we shoot at single camera, so on Raymond we rehearsed four days and then we shot at multiple cameras in front of an audience on the fifth day. With The Middle, there is no audience. You just film every day like a movie. It’s very different in that aspect. And this is a good thing for me to learn. I wanted to learn how to work that way. And the cast is wonderful, the writing is amazing. Like Raymond, it sort of has the same trajectory: you start out very quietly, and you get a critical review. Your audience slowly grows. It’s a consistently funny show. We’re really clear about the characters. They are very evolving. The actors are getting to know the characters and the writers are getting to know the actors. It keeps getting stronger and stronger. It’s a lot of fun.