It’s the kind of pitch that seems designed to raise eyebrows: Fran Drescher in a Christmas movie? Perhaps that’s why the former Nanny wasted no time during our call before she explained how, exactly, this came to be. The Christmas Setup is Lifetime’s first holiday rom-com to center on a gay couple—and as someone who’s championed gay rights for years, that’s something she wanted to be a part of.
“It’s not just [about] the angst of coming out, and the agony of rejecting parents, or the fear,” Drescher told The Daily Beast during a recent phone interview. “It’s more about just normalizing it as part of the beautiful and diverse human experience, and parents that love and accept their children unconditionally, and want them to live an authentic life… It was a very feel-good movie.”
The Christmas Setup, which premieres on the cable network Saturday, is a delightful, tinsel-covered romp that will feel familiar to anyone who spends the yuletide season bingeing made-for-TV holiday fare. The film follows a neurotic New York-based lawyer, Hugo, as he flies home to Milwaukee for the holidays with his college BFF. Drescher plays his mother, Kate—who is in charge of the town’s Christmas festivities and also happens to be a world class amateur matchmaker. It doesn’t take long for Kate to fix her son up with his high school crush, Patrick.
This year has seen a small wave of holiday movies starring gay characters—a surprising turnaround for a genre that’s usually as relentlessly straight as it is pervasively white. Hallmark debuted The Christmas House, which includes a gay subplot, last month—just days before Hulu released Happiest Season, the popular-yet-slightly controversial comedy from screenwriters Clea DuVall and Mary Holland.
And to all the cynical scrooges out there: The Christmas Setup could charm even this genre’s most devout skeptics. Its leads, Ben Lewis (Hugo) and Blake Lee (Patrick), each play their parts with humor and heart, playing off one another ease. Ellen Wong brings just the right balance of sugar and spice as Hugo’s quick-witted gal pal Madelyn. And Drescher is the joyful, meddlesome glue holding it all together.
The following is a lightly edited and condensed version of The Daily Beast’s conversation with Drescher about the film, the importance of bringing wider representation to films like these, and the chaotic world they help us escape.
So I have to ask, how does a Jewish icon and Buddhist end up in a Christmas movie?
I actually celebrate Christmas, too. I love, Christmas; I love all holidays that become the catalyst for getting together with loved ones and gratitude. That’s all. I don’t have to be part of the structured religion. I’m not really religious, even though I’m Jewish. I don’t really want to be told what to do. And I like the Buddhist philosophy. And so, I’m actually having three of my dearest loved ones over on Saturday for a Hanukkah dinner and a Christmas tree trimming.
I was actually going to ask you how you sort of normally celebrate the holidays, and what you’re planning on doing this year.
Well, normally I always have people over and we have a tree trimming, buffet dinner, and everybody brings an ornament. I mean, it’s a gathering of friends. Now, I have three people coming over… They’re part of my bubble, and I wouldn’t expand it at all.
I’m gonna cook some traditional Hanukkah food, and we’ll take a beach walk, and we’ll trim the Christmas tree and maybe play a round of backgammon, and then we’ll all go home and watch The Christmas Setup in bed!
That all sounds lovely!
I also wanted to say that on the same day, 12/12, my organization, Cancer Schmancer, is launching our 2020 edu-series. So it’s all Fran, all day, and you can go to CancerSchmancer.org and sign up for our newsletter; it’s free and that automatically enrolls you in our edu-series, and you can binge it, you can watch an episode a day; it’s all going to be put up to stream… It’s doctors and some celebrities that share their personal and compelling stories, and some book authors. It’s well worth the watch because you will walk away with information that you may never get anywhere else.
That’s good to know as well. I had also wondered—there’s a stereotype about these movies being super white, but this one was actually pretty diverse. Was that a conscious choice in this movie, as well, or did it just kind of happen?
I think that there was a conscious decision to finally get out of the 20th century and push the needle of representation in a way that is more reflective of real life. I think that might be a silver lining to this last [presidential] administration, because people have now stepped up. Special interest groups have become vocal; complacency is over.
I think even profit-driven networks that have been ruled by the fear of advertisers or viewers are kind of over it, as a reflective response to what felt like a very divided and oppressed four years for a lot of people. And I think that you even see it in advertisements. You see a lot of interracial couples now; you see a lot of, you know, colorblind casting. It’s really refreshing, and it’s a very positive way to use the media as an influencer.
Your character in this movie also has a bit of an activist streak; she’s fighting to save a historic train station, and she even gets arrested in the process. Was that in the script from the beginning?
It was, it was. I was happy to read that. I had just lost a favorite uncle who was also very active in his community on a local level—but he managed to get things done. He passed away and it’s a great loss to our family. And then I read this script and my character is very much like him. Very warm, very friendly, very good energy, very committed to bettering the community, really a wonderful person.
You’ve been pretty outspoken in the past about your political views and your outlook on capitalism. It seems you’re a little more willing to kind of “go there” than some liberal celebrities in Hollywood. Do you see a distinction between your beliefs and practices, and those of the entertainment industry more broadly?
Well, you know, look. I don’t have anything against making money, but not at the expense of all things of true value. So that’s where you have to draw the line, and unfortunately that line has not been drawn by most companies. And what I’m trying to do is elevate the awareness within the general public so that they can use their hard-earned money to influence big business manufacturing with the choices that they make, which becomes their vote, as well as their protests.
If we all stopped drinking Cola today, they’d stop making it tomorrow. It wouldn’t matter who was in the White House. It wouldn’t matter what regulations were legislated. It wouldn’t matter because the bottom line is the bottom line, and we’re largest consumers on the planet. So if greed is a systemic malignancy, through all the woes of the world, and we are the largest consumers, then we have to change our consumer behavior, or we remain enablers and part of the problem, not the solution.
It’s only a sociopath that thinks you can keep on plastic—you can keep these open-ended systems and polluting everywhere—and that it’s never going to come back to bite you on the ass.
I wonder, where does that sense of conviction come from for you? And how has it guided you through the last couple years—especially this year?
You know, bad things happen to good people, and I’ve learned that with firsthand experience. So I think as a Buddhist and as a person who’s been through some stuff, life offers us opportunities to grow. And when things happen, you have to pivot your thinking. It’s not like you’re not gonna kick and scream and say, “Why me?” But eventually you’ve got to say, “Why is this thing being presented to me, and what do I need to learn from this experience?”
I believe that there are a lot of people that are looking at this pandemic, COVID crisis, as an opportunity to start start looking at how we are living. How we are living is why it happened. It didn’t come out of nowhere.
There is no conversation on the national broadcast about industrial farmed animals, or the vivisection of lab animals, or the trafficking of exotic animals. That’s where it comes from… That is only because it may cut into someone’s profit margin and no one has the balls to talk about it.
And by the same token, there’s a noticeable absence of conversation on the national broadcasts about how to bolster your immune system so that you aren’t leveled by this virus, which doesn’t have to be as critical as it is for some people who have health issues and compromised immune systems. Nobody’s talking about that. Why? Because 80 percent of the ad dollars on TV is big pharma. So they are controlling the conversation.
If I were in a real leadership position—you know, like president—I would have sent out to every single American a first aid kit that had a big bottle of Vitamin C, D3, Zinc… big bottle of rubbing alcohol (65 percent or more), and a big brochure to teach you how to detox your home the Cancer Schamncer way.
Speaking of having real power—I remember you had sort of toyed with the idea, I think about 10 years ago, of running for Senate. I wonder if that’s something you’ve ever considered lately.
I was so agitated by these last couple of years that I keep vacillating. Because first of all, I don’t want to get another cancer, and the way our Congress has been behaving is enough to give you one.
I feel like my celebrity, and my ability to speak with a certain clarity and communication that many people seem to be able to understand and hear, I might be able to wield greater influence working outside of Capitol Hill. But I haven’t completely closed the door on it. Sometimes I say, “Well, I have an apartment in New York; I could probably win my district.”
But then I think, “OK, you’ve got young women like [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] on Capitol Hill now of all different colors, and they’re doing a damn good job, and maybe it’s time to pass the baton, and I can continue to work the other end of it.
The answer is I don’t really know. Except I do know that I have a certain means to clear things up for people, and let them see what… You know, this planet is like a Shangri-La. It is so gorgeous, and every living creature on it is here for a reason, and it’s not for us to abuse it. Our job is to shepherd it, to protect it, to take care of it all. And somewhere along the line, ego stepped in and that’s when everything went to hell. Then suddenly it’s like, “We’re way more important than anything else on the planet.”
That’s bullshit. We’re not more important; God, just look at little ants. They’re the most incredible little creatures. And when they say the meek shall inherit the Earth, that’s what they’re talking about. They are equipped for everything! It’s incredible, when you study them… You’ve got to respect all life.
And ants are known above all for their team work! I think those were all the questions I had, apart from this: Since you celebrate Christmas, do you have any favorite Christmas movies?
I still love Miracle on 34th Street. I used to watch that as a kid all the time, an all black-and-white movie, and you know It’s a Wonderful Life and those. But I think of the newer movies, I really loved Love, Actually. If I’m surfing the channels and I see that, “Stop! I gotta watch it.” I love it.
Fran Drescher and Lifetime Make History with the Wonderful, Winning “Christmas Setup” Wire Services/ The Daily Beast.