The holiday season doesn’t just mean snow, decorations, and cookies. For many people, it’s also the highly anticipated time of year to watch a slate of new TV Christmas movies.
This year, Lifetime will air 30 new Christmas films. Among them will be the network’s first-ever LBGTQ+ centered holiday film. Starring married couple Ben Lewis and Blake Lee, "The Christmas Setup" follows the story of New York lawyer Hugo (played by Lewis) as he goes home to Milwaukee for the holidays. Although the film is set in Milwaukee, it was filmed in Canada.
Hugo's mom Kate, portrayed by none other than Fran Drescher, hopes to play matchmaker. Kate makes sure that Hugo will run into his high school friend and past crush Patrick (played by Lee), who has recently returned to Milwaukee after some success in Silicon Valley.
"The Christmas Setup" is filled with holiday festivities that surround Hugo and Patrick's growing relationship, but whether or not Hugo will take a new career opportunity away from home hangs in the balance.
Lifetime is known for it's classic holiday film formula, but the fact that "The Christmas Setup" is the first centered on a gay romance is momentous. But Lewis admits, he didn't quiet understand how great of an impact it would have until after they were done shooting the film.
"It was definitely something we did talk about. The fact that it is the first [made] us want to do it even more because it is this moment," Lewis says. "And to be a part of that – we felt very special. But it's definitely hitting us more now."
As actors, both Lewis and Lee had accepted the fact that they would most likely not work for some time during the coronavirus pandemic. This made getting a call offering them the roles all the more of a surprise.
"To actually get the call to do it and then before you know it, we’re in Canada celebrating Christmas in September, acting alongside each other and, you know, Fran Drescher is playing my mother. I was like, ‘What did I do to deserve this?’" says Lewis.
After the initial excitement passed, the couple said they needed to have a serious conversation about what it would be like to work together. Lee and Lewis have been together for a decade, but "The Christmas Setup" was the first film they acted alongside one another.
Lee notes they were nervous to work together at first because they know each other so well, and "you're not afraid to show [your emotions on set.]"
"That was part of the conversation – was is it going to be good for us?" Lee says. "And then it was instantly such a good experience. We felt after shooting our first or second scene – we looked at each other and we were just like, 'this is so fun, we can't believe we get to do this for three more weeks.'"
This movie also gave the actors an opportunity to work with their friends, Ellen Wong, who plays Hugo's best friend Madelyn, and Chad Connell, who plays Hugo's brother. But both Lewis and Lee agree that the icing on the cake was being able to work with Drescher.
"You feel like you know her," says Lewis. "I think a lot of people in our generation feel like they grew up with her and she's just like everything you want her to be and more."
Despite now being part of the Lifetime holiday movie canon, Lee admits that he and Lewis didn't watch any of these movies regularly.
"I mean you'd have to be from another planet that you didn't know that it was an institution, that these films mean so much to so many people and that it's this annual tradition that families look forward to," he says. "So we were aware of that. But we ourserlves weren't fans of the genre, but I mean, we are now!"
Both actors hope that "The Christmas Setup" will attract both the traditional audience of Lifetime holiday films as well as new viewers.
"Although it does sort of follow very much the sort of traditional mold and structure of these Lifetime holiday movies, I really do think that it has a fresh energy of it's own," says Lewis. "So I hope that it's the best of both worlds."
"The fact that Lifetime did stay in that structure of their films is a statement in itself," says Lee. "It's love is love. This is a love story between two men — that's the only difference about our film."
"It's very nice to have a film where you can just escape into an accepting community and a happy ending, no-trauma world," Lee adds. "And in a time like this year, 2020, we are all yearning for that escape – for that two hours of happiness."