Jonathan Bennett – Making Room at the Hallmark Holiday Table 

Written by | Entertainment, Screen

In the gay Bible, there’s only one acceptable thing that can preempt the nightly schedule of Golden Girls reruns on the Hallmark Channel – the Hallmark holiday movie schedule…and this year, there’s more room at the holiday table.  In the turmoil that has been the social and political atmosphere for the LGBTQ community this last year, one of the most previously conservative channels announced the inclusion of openly gay characters in this year’s line-up of holiday films with the casting of Jonathan Bennett and Brad Harder as a married couple in the ensemble comedy, The Christmas House. One out of 40 new holiday films to be produced by Hallmark this year will feature diversity and inclusion, which the network stated was at the top of their priority list.

Jonathan Bennett’s relationship with Hallmark started ten years ago with the film, Elevator Girl.  Since then a lot has changed for the Mean Girls star, including stints on Dancing with the Stars, Celebrity Big Brother, hosting Cake Wars and Halloween Wars for The Food Network, co-authoring The Burn Cookbook, and personally, coming out.

The call for The Christmas House was to be way out of the ordinary for Bennett.

My agent called me to say I have an offer for another Hallmark movie. I said, “Oh great. Who is my girl? And the response was, ‘Jake’, and my jaw hit the ground. And I think I started crying.”

To be clear, this film is not the “big gay Hallmark film”, Jonathan’s storyline is one of the many stories being told in this family piece that also star Robert Buckley, Treat Williams, and Sharon Lawrence. Jonathan’s character, Brandon, and his brother are called home by his father to share a family Christmas. During their trip, Brandon and his husband await the news of their adoption attempt. The story is told matter-of-factly, not as a spectacle.

The script is an ensemble movie about family and unconditional love. And it is a real family in 2020. That is what made me want to play this part so badly – because it is just a real family that loves each other.  I think every movie has pressure to tell a good story. I just want people to see a beautiful story of what it means to be a family and see firsthand what unconditional love is.  I want people to watch this and see it for what it is – a movie about love and family. That’s it.

This film came with a lot of pressure, both from the network and the LGBTQ community. How was this going to come across? How was it going to be accepted?  Despite the pressures involved, there was a very real moment on the set when the importance of this film came together.

When we filmed our big scene of the movie between my character, Brandon, and his husband, Jake, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.  I am pretty sure I blacked out during the filming because I don’t remember filming it. I just remember everyone clapping and cheering and the scene being over. I think I was so nervous and there was so much pressure on me that it just kind of happened, but the coolest part of that was we had a director who was gay and a huge number of our crew members were LGBTQ. When the scene was over, a group of the crew members that were LGBTQ came up to me and Brad (who plays Jake) and had tears in their eyes. They said, “Thank you for representing us and thank you for doing this part because you’re exactly what we want this moment to be, you guys portrayed it perfectly.”  So, we were proud to play that scene and do well.  There were a lot of tears that day. Happy tears.

Not even the backlash from social media and conservative organizations could take away from the experience of making this film for Bennett.

Whatever they want to say or do is up to them. My job is to tell this story for the little Jonathan that’s 12 years old in Ohio and is watching this Christmas movie with his family and, for the first time, he might feel a little less scared this Christmas. That is what I am focused on. 

Hallmark chose to cast an openly gay, real-life dad, Brad Harder, opposite Jonathan.  Would it have made a difference to Jonathan if they would have cast a straight actor in the role?

It is awesome that the actor that Hallmark chose to play my husband just happened to be a gay dad who had a kid, because our storyline in the movie is about two husbands who are waiting to find out if their adoption papers are going to go through so they can start their own family. I don’t necessarily know if it would have mattered if it was a gay or straight actor, but I am glad that it was Brad playing himself.  He knows what it feels like to be a gay dad and get the call that they are going to be a family.  I talked to him in the scenes. There’s a line when I turn and say, “We’re adopting a baby,” and I asked him how to say it. He said, “It just comes out of your mouth when that moment happens.” So, I literally took a lot of direction from him.

Over his 10-year relationship with Hallmark, Bennett has filmed a handful of projects with the network, co-starring alongside other staple Hallmark actors. From starting his relationship with Hallmark as a closeted actor to being an easily recognizable face of the LGBTQ community with a public, long-term relationship, making Hallmark holiday film history is life full circle for Jonathan.

I absolutely love the Hallmark Channel and their movies. I love what Hallmark makes movies about, which is family and love. Half of the actors on the network are my best friends – Rachel Boston, Lacey Chabert, Danica McKellar, and Sam Page. I grew up in the industry with all these amazingly talented actors and we are family. I think the difference from the first Hallmark movie I did to this movie is that I just am now playing something more authentic to me, individually. We are making the Hallmark holiday table that much bigger this Christmas – all that’s happening is that the table is expanding.

Danica, Rachel, and Lacey have always been my guardian angels on Earth, I feel. They have been there any time something major or dramatic has happened in my life. So, when the holidays come and we are all promoting our movies together, it just really does feel like a big family. Again, for me, the whole reason I did this movie is for the 12-year-old me, that is watching at home, scared out of his mind of not knowing what the future is going to hold.   When I was 12, I never saw anyone that looked like me on television. I didn’t see a gay couple in a Christmas movie. But when I was a kid, I wanted to start my own family, I wanted to get married, I wanted to have kids, but I never had that representation on television. I never saw that. To get to be that person and do it on a channel that is absolutely based on family and love, is just a win-win for me. 

Jonathan’s own, real-life Christmas stories are as colorful as any script.

My late father, who was an ER doctor, was good with patients and bad at home renovation. He decided one Christmas that he wanted to trim the tree, already placed in the living room, because it was misshapen. Instead of taking the tree out to the garage, he brought the chainsaw into the living room and proceeded to trim the side of the tree. Well, the chainsaw went through the wall, hit a water line, and water started squirting out of the walls two weeks before Christmas. One Christmas Eve, he tried to thaw a frozen water pipe with a blowtorch, hit a gas line, and burnt down our farmhouse. He is the real-life Clark Griswold from Christmas Vacation.

That is what I love about the Mitchell family in this movie. This is one of the first ensemble, funny families on Hallmark. They remind me of the Griswolds – tons of love, but lots of things go wrong and it is fun to watch. 

Jonathan’s real-life partner is Amazing Race contestant and current Celebrity Page host Jaymes Vaughan. They are very public with their relationship on social media and public appearances, and even worked together charming cruise-goers on gay cruise line Vacaya’s maiden voyage. Has this movie inspired them to have the “should we have kids” talk?

We have. There are some steps to that. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Jaymes and the baby carriage. So, we are working on those steps. What was so incredible was to see the journey that Brad Harder went through while we were shooting because he had just adopted a baby and his family had grown. To see that happen firsthand, and then to shoot this movie, lit the fire to want to start my own family with Jaymes. After playing the role for weeks, you start to believe it and feel what it feels like to be that person. And I love what that felt like, it felt so great.

With Jonathan’s involvement in the LGBTQ community and his activism for equality, it is hard to remember when he was not out.  During filming Mean Girls, Jonathan and his co-star, Daniel Franzese, did share private conversations about staying in the closet.  Franzese came out in 2014, Bennett came out in 2017.

I don’t think there’s a rule for anyone to come out or not to come out. If you don’t feel safe to come out and it’s not the right time for you, that’s okay. It was not safe or the right time for me for a long time. If something inside of you says, this is what you want to do, then go for it and know that when you do you’re going to be supported and loved by an entire community. But, even if you are not out, you are still supported and loved by an entire community. We are here waiting for you, whether you just came out, or you are not yet ready.  

When I was in Mean Girls, I was not ready to come out. Every single person back in 2004 would tell you not to come out – that is just how it was. It was a different time. I think it is great that there is a new generation that is completely woke and doing their thing and living out loud and proud. There is also a generation that came before them, that was a different time. I think the hardest thing for people my age is that we did not have the level of social media and positivity that is happening in the world right now. The kids nowadays are like, “I’m gay!” and I’m like, “You’re in eighth grade!” I couldn’t imagine what it would be like in eighth grade to come out, I would have been beat up so hard. But now these kids are taking care of each other. 

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Boys and girls have been swooning over Bennett as Aaron Samuels for over 15 years. The role and the Mean Girls phenomenon are not something that Jonathan has tried to forget or remove himself from. He posts Mean Girls memes on his social media, takes part in reunions, and even co-wrote The Burn Cookbook based on the film.

It makes people happy. Try to shy away from Mean Girls. It’s impossible! You can’t do it.

Did you know that before he was a heartthrob in Mean Girls that he was heartthrob on All My Children? His biggest takeaways from being on a soap opera?

Learn your lines! Learn your lines so when you get to set you have the freedom to play. I also learned to not be afraid to try new things because, if it was bad, it didn’t matter. It would just be a new episode the next day. Don’t be afraid to take risks.

Jonathan’s 2021 New Year’s resolution?

To be nice to myself. There are plenty of people out there that are going to tell you that you are not good enough and that you’re not strong enough and you’re not hot enough and you’re not successful enough. Do not be one of those people. Talk kindly to yourself.

The Christmas House premiered on Hallmark on Nov 22nd.

 

Photos credit: Collin Stark

Last modified: November 22, 2020