Jonathan Bennett has a lot to cheer about this winter.
Set to premiere on W Network on Dec. 5, the holly jolly movie is not only part of Hallmark’s “Countdown to Christmas” programming block on W, but features its first same-sex couple as the lead characters. Bennett, who is openly gay, says this eye towards inclusion makes him “feel like I am part of progress.”
“I imagine what this would have meant to younger me, to see two men who are in a loving relationship, going through the process of adopting a baby to start a family of their own… that is such a great story of unconditional love,” Bennett tells ET Canada. “And they are doing it with their family, which is so important to me. I wish I had a movie like this to watch when I was younger. I’m hoping all the young Jonathans, sitting there watching this with their family and parents, they might feel a little more seen and they are going to feel a little less scared this Christmas.”
“It was really important for me to play this role because I have played so many different parts on Hallmark Channel,” he continues. “I’ve been in a ton of movies. I’ve been part of the Hallmark family for years. But, this year, I get to play something that’s more authentic to me individually. All we are doing is making the Hallmark holiday table that much bigger this Christmas.”
“The Christmas House” finds Bennett’s character Brandon, and his husband Jake [Brad Harder], coming home for the holidays. The two join Brandon’s brother, Mike [Robert Buckley] and his parents Phylis [Sharon Lawrence] and Bill [Treat Williams] for a holiday tradition. Together, they will transform their abode into an extravagant Christmas house one last time. That involves turning the place into an over-the-top wonderland. As it turns out, a Christmas co-star suggested the feel-good element.
“Robert Buckley is the one who wrote this and came up with this script, because it’s based on his real-life family and their actual Christmas house,” Bennett reports. “My character comes home with his husband and we are excited to help the family put the Christmas house together. But at the same time, we are under so much stress because we are waiting to see if the adoption papers clear and if we are able to start our own family.”
Such hopes and dreams are universal. They’re the stuff of movies… and everyday life. But the long adoption proceedings can definitely take its toll on expecting parents. For Bennett, who currently has no children, the narrative definitely opened his eyes and heart to the possibilities.
“What’s extra special is the fact that Brad, in real life, he and his husband had one kid already,” explains Bennett. “Right before we started filming, they found out their surrogate was pregnant with their second. Watching the joy on his face, when he would call his husband and talk about their family and the new baby, I really saw firsthand what it was like for someone going through this process, even though it’s different because it’s a surrogate versus adoption. It’s all the same thing. They are building their own family.”
Adding, “While filming this movie, it made me want to have a family of my own with my partner Jaymes [Vaughan]. Whatever our family looks like, we will figure it out as we go along. It definitely reminded me of the importance of family, and I think that’s exactly what Hallmark Channel movies do.”
And, no surprise, Buckley and Harder figured prominently in Bennett’s favourite scenes. “A Christmas House” only filmed recently this fall in Vancouver, but in a short period, the 39-year-old Ohio native developed an undeniable chemistry and bond with both.
“From the moment Buckley and I met, we teased each other and got along just how real brothers do,” Bennett says. “It really comes across on screen. What I’m hoping is this will turn into is a story we do on Hallmark for years. This family reminds me of the Griswold family of Hallmark. They are a little bit funnier, and a little bit quirkier, than most families on the network.
“My other memorable scene to shoot was between me and my husband outside the house, where my character is really dealing with the pressures of adopting a baby,” he continues. “Brandon’s husband comforts me and stands besides me in a way that a couple does. It’s such a real moment and you see two people in love, taking care of each other in a relationship, and that’s what a relationship is all about.
“Then we kiss,” he adds. “When the director yelled cut, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. So many crew members came up to me and said, ‘Thank you so much for doing this and being a representation of what love is our community.’ I just felt so proud to be an actor in that moment.”
Many people might view “The Christmas House” as a breakthrough for Hollywood in general and Hallmark specifically.
“I’m concerned about making sure the people who do watch this see a story of what it means to be a family and have unconditional love for each other in 2020,” Bennett explains. “Representation is important. To me, it’s not a movie about a straight couple or a gay couple. It’s just a story about family and Christmas.”
Besides “The Christmas House”, Bennett has another huge reason to celebrate. Despite the world experiencing COVID fatigue, Bennett seized the opportunity to buy a house together with his partner, Vaughan.
“I think I’m one of the fortunate people that has a career and a job where we don’t have to go to work every single day,” Bennett says. “Because of that, I feel I’ve been blessed to be able to spend time with my family and slow down. Between hosting all my Food Network shows and shooting all my movies, I don’t get any downtime during the year. If anything, COVID was a time for me to stop for a second, re-evaluate my life, look at what it is that I want to be doing and what it is that I am doing.”
“One of the coolest parts of that was I was exactly where I wanted to be,” he concludes. “I was with the person that I love. I had started a small family, even though it’s just us and a dog, but it’s still a family. It’s really been a blessed time for me. And we bought our first home together. With all the stuff going on, at least something good came out of all of this.”