Was there a convention where TV and film executives decided that this was the year to make the Yuletide gay? There have been a raft of queer-centred movies this season, including the heartwarming The Christmas Setup, Lifetime’s first LGBTQ holiday romance, starring the adorable real life couple Ben Lewis and Blake Lee. The film, which premiered on Lifetime on December 12th and will air again on Christmas Day, is directed by Pat Mills from a script by Michael J. Murray, who are also both gay. The Christmas Setup follows a New York lawyer, Hugo (Ben Lewis), as he heads to small-town Milwaukee to spend the holidays with his mother Kate (Fran Drescher on fabulous form). Ever the matchmaker, Kate arranges for Hugo to run into his old high school friend and secret crush, Patrick (Blake Lee), who has recently returned to the town after a successful stint in Silicon Valley. As the men enjoy the town’s many local Christmas traditions together, it looks as though Kate’s matchmaking has been a success, but will a transatlantic job promotion put an end to this burgeoning romance? You’ll have to tune in to find out.
The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with husbands Ben Lewis and Blake Lee about reactions to the film so far, hoping that their real life chemistry would translate on screen, navigating the entertainment industry as openly gay actors, working with gay icon Fran Drescher, the importance of LGBTQ representation, and seeing the movie as a love letter to mothers of gay sons and a Christmas gift to their own moms.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: It was really fun getting to watch something where you know that nothing bad is going happen, it’s heartwarming and romantic and sweet, and it made me well up a few times. The Christmas Setup is the first ever Christmas movie to centre an LGBTQ romance on Lifetime, what did it mean to each of you to be part of that milestone in representation?
Blake Lee: “Well, when we initially got the call I think we were just shocked to be offered a job during a pandemic. So I think the weight of it being this milestone or this part of television history—it feels so weird to say that as a person who is a part of it—didn’t immediately dawn on us. It started to sink in for us during filming when Fran Drescher, who plays Ben’s mom in the film, said in the first few days of the shoot, ‘This is going to mean so much to so many people. This is a really big deal.’ That made us think about it, but now people have seen it and it’s being talked about as being part of this moment in history where all of these LGBTQ+ films are being made for the holidays we feel so honoured to be part of that. It’s an overwhelming feeling, but it’s all so positive. Now that the movie has aired we’re getting all these messages from people on Instagram and Twitter and it’s been beyond our wildest expectations, because the messages have been so kind. There have been a lot of older gay men that have said, ‘I watched this with my partner and cried the whole time because I never thought I would see a Lifetime movie that represented my love’. So it’s been really wonderful. All of these queer firsts, we wish that they had come sooner, but the fact that they’re coming now is incredible and I feel lucky to be a queer person today and to be part of the change.”
Ben Lewis: “When we made the movie I think we were really proud of it and we felt like we were making the best version of this movie that we could, but I don’t think we ever expected the response to be as uniformly positive as it has been. Even some of the most hardened cynics have been won over by this movie! We also acknowledge that we have a lot of privilege being cis white gay men and we’re very hopeful that we’re just opening a door and that in the coming years we see holiday movies with trans people and non binary people and queer people of colour because this is just the beginning.”
Even people who haven’t seen the movie yet will be able to guess from the title that there’s a romantic setup involved, and I wondered how you two met each other in real life and whether there was a setup involved?
Ben: “Well, that’s sort of up for debate!”
Blake: “Yeah, at least three people want to take credit for the setup, but actually we just met at a place where a lot of our friends happened to be, which was at the premiere for a movie that Ben was in. It was just this serendipitous moment, we happened to be in the men’s room at the same time and we struck up a conversation and then the rest is history, we started dating about five days later.”
Ben: “The premiere was for Scott Pilgrim vs the World and I was in that movie with Aubrey Plaza who is Blake’s good friend and she was responsible for him being there that night, so she’s one of the three that takes credit for us being together. I was in that movie with Ellen Wong, who is now playing my best friend Madelyn in The Christmas Setup. Ellen was actually there and hung out with us on the night that we first met 10 years ago, so to have her playing my best friend in this really feels like a full circle moment. Somebody who would never take credit for playing a role in our love story, but really did, is Edgar Wright who directed Scott Pilgrim. I mean, that was an incredible movie to be a part of for a number of reasons, but obviously the biggest one is that had I not been cast in that movie I never would have met my husband and have the life that I have now. So I’m very grateful to Edgar on a multitude of levels.”
One of the things that struck me about The Christmas Setup is that the drama doesn’t come from either one of the guys having to come out to their families or feeling uncomfortable about being gay at home, and in fact there’s a lot of familial acceptance. Have some of the comments that you’ve been receiving from people who’ve seen it been about that and what did you make of that aspect of the screenplay yourselves?
Blake: “Yeah, so many of the comments have been about how refreshing that is to see and how it was such a nice thing to escape into this story where you didn’t have to even for one moment think about any sort of trauma, so when we read it that absolutely came through. The writer, Michael J. Murray, is a gay man and he has written a lot of holiday films, so he knows the genre well and I think what really drew us to it was that it fell in line with the classic structure of Lifetime films and that the only difference was that the two lovers were men. I love that they didn’t try to make a gay movie, they made a holiday movie and cast two men in the leads. So I think that was really special, and I love that the biggest obstacle that we have in the movie is Ben’s character getting a job in London.”
Ben: “And saving the train station, lest we forget! I have to be honest, I’m not super familiar with the holiday TV movie genre and when I first got the script I was trying to figure out how I was going to give the character some sort of an edge. I was trying to find the angst in it, because I think dramatically that’s usually what I look for, which was challenging with this material when seemingly the stakes are so low. But now in retrospect, I have to say given the way that people are receiving it and how people are so grateful for the positivity and the lack of edge and angst, it’s a good thing that I didn’t hijack the movie with my own personal taste!”
Blake: “Ben and I were also pleasantly surprised when we saw the finished movie by how well the storyline of Edgar Carol, the guy that owned the town’s train station, and that gay love story from the past comes across. People have been really touched by that storyline and we weren’t sure if the stakes felt high enough for that. So all credit to Michael Murray because that storyline has resonated with so many queer people. A lot of people have said that they burst into tears when Ben and I kiss and we’re standing in the same place where 100 years ago the two men couldn’t even hold hands. So I think it’s a very powerful parallel and I’m so happy that that storyline is in there because it just gives the movie more weight. I think it’s a really special part of the film.”
Ben: “Yeah, I think that’s why some people are finding it particularly resonant, because it has that historical LGBTQ element to it.”
What has it been like for each of you to navigate your careers as openly gay actors and what do you make of the current conversation around gay actors playing gay roles?
Blake: “That’s a really hard question because I think it’s something that needs to be considered on a project by project basis. For me though, I was not out publicly when I got my first TV show about eight years ago. I remember doing the press tour and no one said that I had to stay in the closet, but I was playing a straight character and I was the of lead the show who was trying to get the girl, so I felt maybe I shouldn’t say anything about my personal life because then it would keep the mystery up or something. But it really did a disservice to our relationship and put a lot of strain on us as a couple because I would go on a talk shows and they would ask me about dating, and I never said I was straight, but I would be purposely vague. It should have been the happiest time of my life, promoting my first TV series, but it was horrible because I would leave these interviews and go back to my hotel and feel so upset and depressed. I wouldn’t want Ben to see the interviews because it would result in a fight, there was going to be a conversation, and we had many conversations about it where Ben’s feelings were so hurt.”
Ben: “I understood the conflict and what he was going through, but it was extremely hurtful and detrimental to our relationship. I feel lucky that I’ve never been in a position to be in the closet in my professional life. Maybe if I’d had a bigger break at a younger age it’s something that I would have struggled with, but that break didn’t really come for me until I got cast on Arrow when I was 32 and I was playing an openly gay character. I feel like the authenticity with which I live my life and which I have brought to my career and my work has really an asset and I certainly feel that with this movie too. They would not have sought us out had we not been a couple. So I feel really grateful for never having to deal with that aspect of the business, which is not to say that I haven’t dealt with homophobia, probably in more subliminal ways, because I was never in the closet I don’t know how many roles I potentially lost out on over the years.”
Blake: “The following year though, after that press tour, I remember thinking, I can’t do that to us again and so with the next show that I booked I went in and I was so the opposite, I’d go up and introduce myself to the lighting guy and be like, ‘Hi, I’m Blake. I’m gay and I have a husband!” I was like, everyone needs to know and it was received in such a great way. I think that there’s often this fear that you’re never going to get cast as a straight person, but that’s just not the case. I’ve played straight people, I’ve played gay people, I’ve played asexual people. The following show I did when I was like, I want to say it from the start, was on CBS and I was nervous about it, but they were so supportive. On the website for the show there were bios for all of the cast and the one that they’d written for me said, ‘Blake lives in LA with his husband Ben Lewis’. It was so not a big deal and I’ve had way more success after I came out because I didn’t have that weight on my shoulders that I was carrying around, trying to hide some part of me, acting straight. Once I got rid of that I could just focus on the character I was playing. The second I came out I felt better.”
What was it like portraying that burgeoning romance in this movie? As a real life couple were you ever concerned that there might not be any screen chemistry?!
Blake: “Yeah! Actually a lot of our friends were like, ‘What if you guys have horrible chemistry?!’ So it was a thought for sure, because you never know what’s going to come across on screen! But we were hopeful and we had a lot of trust in our director Pat Mills, and after we’d shot the first scene together we were like, ‘Oh, thank God, it’s coming through!'”
Ben: “Our couples’ therapist has often said to us that we play off each other really well and we have great banter and so I was thinking, if we have half as much chemistry on screen as we do in couples’ therapy we’ll be okay!”
Well, I was definitely rooting for your characters to get together! In the town where the film is set there are all kinds of holiday traditions, I know this year will likely be different, but what are your own Christmas traditions?
Ben: “Like for so many people, this year has upended all of our traditions. We’ve spent every year with my family in Toronto, except for last year when my family came to LA to spend it with us which was lovely, because we have a 15 year old dog who can’t handle the cold anymore. This is the very first year ever in my life that I’m not going to spend Christmas with my family because of the pandemic obviously. But we feel like this movie is the best gift that we could possibly give our families, especially our mothers, because it’s really a love letter to mothers in general, but specifically mothers of gay sons. So in lieu of our physical presence, I think having this movie is the next best thing!”
Talking of mothers, Fran Drescher is so great in the film isn’t she and her character reminded me a little bit of my mum actually.
Blake: “I said the same thing about mine! There are moments when she’s so loud and over the top and she’s so funny, but she’s also very nurturing and maternal. Our moms couldn’t be more opposite, Ben and mine, but both of us said that she’s kind of a combination of our mothers, she represents them both in different ways. Fran’s just so wonderful and she really elevated the film so much and we were overjoyed when we found out that she was signing on to do it. Never in a million years did we think that we would do a movie with her, she’s a gay icon and it was just incredible.”
Ben: “We really tried to make this movie the best version of a Lifetime holiday movie that it could be and Fran really brought her A game as well. This was not something she just did for a paycheck, she has such a long history as an ally and as an advocate for the LGBTQ community, and like Blake was saying, she had a stronger sense, even before we did, of the impact that this movie was going to have on the LGBTQ community. She’s really giving you the full Fran Drescher experience in this movie! Also, I think there’s a more nuanced and dramatic side to her performance that people might not have gotten to see before, she’s an incredible actress.”
Blake: “I love the scene where we’re playing that game and she’s being so funny and over the top, then when she finds out that Ben’s character has a job offer in London, just in that turn we see her being like, my baby is going to be living halfway around the world. She sits in that moment and it really gets you. There aren’t any words, but it’s all on her face. She blew me away when we were shooting that scene.”
That moment really touched me as a British person living in America so far away from my mum, especially as we haven’t been able to travel this year! Do you, either individually, or as a couple, have a favourite Christmas movie that gets you in the holiday spirit?
Blake: “We have a new one. Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey on Netflix blew us away! It’s such a beautifully made film and everyone is so good in it.”
Ben: “It’s been a little bit hard for me to wrap my head around how much our movie means to people, because we’re starring in it and it’s difficult to be objective, but I actually had a better understanding of it watching Jingle Jangle. I was thinking, this is going to mean so much to so many Black kids out there, to see this kind of positive representation in a holiday movie and it really moved me and made me realise in a weird way, even though our movie is much scrappier than Jingle Jangle, that it too will hopefully have that sort of positive effect for queer kids.”
Do you each have a favourite LGBTQ+ piece of culture; a movie, TV series, play, book, artwork, music, or a person – someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
Ben: “Going back to what The Christmas Setup will hopefully mean to queer kids who watch it, that sort of touchstone of representation for me was seeing Rupert Everett in My Best Friend’s Wedding when I was 12 years old. He was so funny, so charming, and so handsome, and he just seemed like he was having the best time of anybody in that movie. I remember seeing the movie and then a few days later reading an interview with him where he was talking about being an openly gay actor, which at that time—we’re talking 1997—it completely blew my mind that you could have a career and be out and be your authentic self and just have a really good time. I think that it just goes to show the power of positive representation, because you want to believe that it gets better, you want to believe that you’ll have fun in this life, and he made me believe that at a very young age.”
Blake: “I’ve always been a fan of Keith Haring’s work and on World AIDS Day this year, like a lot of other people, I posted a photo of a piece of art by him and I thought about him that day. Living at a time when gay men were dying all around him, he was this queer artist who was political and an activist and sex positive and he was so smart and so young. He had such a distinctive point of view and he was one of a kind, creating art the way he did that looked the way it did, no one had ever seen anything like it before. Every detail was so specific, nothing was there without a reason, every single line was a story and had meaning. His paintings are filled with so many messages and it’s just so inspiring to look back at those pieces. He did so much for the queer community in a time when life was so hard for queer people.”
By James Kleinmann