How Clea DuVall’s Lesbian Christmas Movie, Starring Kristen Stewart, Radicalizes a Conventional Genre

Clea DuVall grew up loving Christmas movies. And having lived in Los Angeles her whole life, the 43-year-old actor-turned-writer/director would look forward to how Christmastime made the city seem different for once. “It feels like the closest thing L.A. has to a season, and that’s something that I always looked forward to as a kid,” DuVall says. “Because God, does it get monotonous.”

DuVall had been a ubiquitous actor in movies and on television for years — in dramas such as “Girl, Interrupted,” “Argo” and “Carnivàle,” and comedies like “But I’m a Cheerleader” and “Veep” — when she got the idea for “Happiest Season,” a holiday romantic comedy with a lesbian couple at its center. “I had never seen a movie that really represented my experience,” she says. “Any LGBTQ+ characters were, if they were there at all, side characters.”

That is definitely not the case in “Happiest Season,” DuVall’s second feature as a director after 2016’s Sundance dramedy “The Intervention.” In it, Kristen Stewart (Abby) and Mackenzie Davis (Harper) play a couple on the verge of engagement — until Harper invites Abby home for Christmas during a moment so joyous that she has somehow forgotten she’s closeted to her family. Harper then must enlist a totally bummed, but still game, Abby to keep her secret, promising she’ll come out to her parents (Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen) after the holidays. (“They also think that I’m straight,” Abby tells her best friend, John — played by Daniel Levy — on the phone. An incredulous John asks, “Have they met a lesbian?”)

In “Happiest Season” — written by DuVall and Mary Holland (who also plays Harper’s oddball sister, Jane) — misunderstandings abound, feelings are hurt and the relationship is under threat. Sort of: As Stewart puts it, “The audience should be afraid that they might not get together, but it’s a rom-com — they’re going to get back together!”

It’s delightfully conventional, all while being completely subversive because of the movie’s queer spin on the genre. And if everything goes well for “Happiest Season,” Abby and Harper should take their place alongside the couples of “Love Actually” and “The Family Stone,” ensconced forever in cozy holiday viewing.

It’s been 15 years since “Brokeback Mountain,” which grossed $178 million worldwide — and proved that a movie about LGBTQ people could be a success with audiences. There have certainly been queer boutique films such as “Carol,” “Call Me by Your Name” and “The Favourite,” perhaps giving the appearance of abundance. But other than 2018’s “Love, Simon,” from the now-defunct Fox 2000, and a forthcoming Billy Eichner-Nicholas Stoller gay rom-com from Universal (the production is on hold because of the coronavirus), the landscape for queer fare from studios has been barren.

Which made it all the more significant that “Happiest Season” was backed by Sony’s Tri-Star Pictures from the start. Before the pandemic scuttled its theatrical release, it was to be the first LGBTQ movie from a Hollywood studio produced as a broad commercial vehicle — and the first queer Christmas rom-com from any studio. Add in the openly gay DuVall as co-writer/director, and the out Stewart as its star, and the milestones multiply.

“I was so pleased to have been invited onto something that was, for lack of a better term, hiding the vegetables,” Stewart says. “At the same time, it’s just presented in a way that is conversely different to something that feels afraid or angry. It feels forward and open.

“I mean, it doesn’t have to be this overwrought thing in order to be politicized!”

But since it’s 2020, and we can’t have nice things, it became clear that “Happiest Season” couldn’t possibly be released in the United States — not with the domestic theatrical business in its current calamitous state. Accordingly, in October, Sony, while retaining international distribution rights, announced that it had sold “Happiest Season” to Hulu. The movie will premiere on Nov. 25, timed to Thanksgiving weekend.

It’s disappointing, but “in the world that we live in, it really feels like the best-case scenario,” DuVall says. As she finished the film, she wrestled with the ethics of releasing a movie theatrically as COVID continues to kill thousands across the country. DuVall says Sony included her in discussions about what to do, and once Hulu became the solution, she felt “relief.”

DuVall really wants people to see “Happiest Season,” of course: “But I don’t want them to risk the most important thing they have to see it.”

DuVall was 13 when she started taking acting classes, and she graduated from the L.A. County High School for the Arts. She began auditioning at 18 and quickly booked guest parts on hit TV shows (“ER,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), followed by bigger roles in movies (“Can’t Hardly Wait,” “The Faculty”). Though she’d been out in her life since she was a teenage barista at Buzz Coffee in West Hollywood, she was deeply closeted publicly — especially as she became more recognizable as an actor.

So DuVall, more than anyone, is surprised to find herself here — an openly gay filmmaker touting her lesbian holiday rom-com. To illustrate her amazement, she mentions Jamie Babbit’s cult classic “But I’m a Cheerleader” (2000), part of a ’90s boom of gay and lesbian indie movies, to use the terminology of the time, which along with television’s “The Real World,” “Ellen” and “Will & Grace” was the beginning of queer people’s lives finally being represented on-screen.

In “But I’m a Cheerleader,” DuVall plays Graham, a lesbian teen from a rich family sent to a camp designed to “cure” homosexuality. There, she falls for Megan (Natasha Lyonne), who isn’t fine with faking being straight like Graham is — and wants to proclaim their love to the world. 

DuVall says: “If you had told me when we were making ‘But I’m a Cheerleader’ that I would be this out and making a gay movie, and talking about that I was gay, and that my gay experiences informed anything, I would’ve said you were crazy — for the amount of fear I felt then, and how much I wanted to hide. And how much I did hide.”

Babbit, DuVall’s friend (and mine as well) says she based Graham on DuVall, including the determination to remain half in the closet. Promoting the movie was a balancing act. “I was trying to respect her boundaries, but also convincing her to be on every float in every Gay Pride for press,” Babbit says with a laugh. “There is no easy way to be closeted. You will always make your gay family feel shitty.”

And so it was for DuVall for years, even as her androgynous persona and caustic affect in a movie like “Cheerleader” would eventually launch an infinite number of worshipful Tumblr GIFs.

The turning point came when she sat down in 2012 to write “The Intervention,” her directorial debut. It was a “Big Chill”-like story about a group of friends in early middle age, convening for a weekend of confrontation and revelations — and a personal one as well, since DuVall had recently gotten sober. When she approached writing the character whom she would play, she remembers thinking, “Well, maybe my character has a boyfriend!”

But wait, she’d wanted to create a character close to herself — so DuVall checked her straightwashing impulses, ritualized after so many years. “I was like, What are you doing? Just fucking write it!” she says.

Her character, Jessie, ended up being a commitment-phobic lesbian, who, after the enlightening weekend, is willing to give up her player ways to move in with her girlfriend, Sarah (played by Lyonne, one of DuVall’s best friends). “The Intervention” did well at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, where it was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize, and Melanie Lynskey (DuVall’s other best friend) won a Special Jury Award for acting. It sold out of the festival to Paramount Home Media for a release that August. 

Most important, the movie gave DuVall the opportunity to come out publicly with ease. “It’s not like I did a big campaign, or a ‘Yep, I’m Gay’ cover, or anything like that,” DuVall says. “I just started living my life — getting photographed with my partner, and not being cagey about pronouns in interviews.”

If “The Intervention” was DuVall’s starter movie — made in 18 days for $450,000 — “Happiest Season” was a much larger enterprise. DuVall already had the script outlined when she met Holland on “Veep” during Season 6, on which DuVall played the impassive Secret Service agent Marjorie Palmiotti, and Holland had a recurring role as the scheming Shawnee Tanz. They hit it off. “Writing is so lonely, especially writing comedy,” DuVall says. “She was basically a stranger, and I was like, ‘Hey, do you want to work on this thing with me?’”

After finishing the script, they began working with producer Isaac Klausner at Temple Hill (“Love, Simon”), and sought a studio for the film. They met with “several,” DuVall says, but “Sony was the place that saw the movie in the same way I did.”

DuVall set about casting the leads, “and Kristen just felt like the only choice for Abby.” After sending her the script, DuVall flew to Germany, where Stewart was filming the 2019 reboot of “Charlie’s Angels.” “The script made me really curious about her,” Stewart recounts, noting DuVall’s bent for dramatic acting (“Veep” and “Cheerleader” being exceptions). “I was kind of shocked that she’s so good at comedy, at writing something funny. I’ve taken her very seriously my whole life, you know what I mean?”

As DuVall built the rest of the cast, she and Stewart talked about who should play the closeted Harper, which DuVall says “is the hardest part in the whole movie.” When Davis (“Halt and Catch Fire”) won the role, that felt right to Stewart: The character has to be so winning, Stewart says, that the audience will believe “that I wouldn’t halfway through the movie be like, ‘All right, I’m f—ing out of here!’” As for Davis herself, “she has this open, extremely kind, aware, delightful nature,” Stewart adds. “I can’t get mad at that person.”

Instead of starting the Pittsburgh production in spring of 2019, when everything was in place with Sony, DuVall waited to shoot in the winter. “The quality of the light is different, and I just wanted it to feel real,” she says. In the interim, she, Stewart and Davis were able to just hang out: “We did spend a lot of time talking about the script, and talking about the scenes, and finding little things for them as a couple. It was a very collaborative experience that I think really comes across on-screen.”

Audiences will see soon enough — perhaps arguing over Thanksgiving about who steals the movie the most. (Aubrey Plaza as Harper’s high school girlfriend, Holland as the mistreated Jane and Levy, in his first role since “Schitt’s Creek,” are all solid bets.)

And though, unlike with “The Intervention,” DuVall didn’t cast herself this time around, she’s still acting in other people’s productions. Though she doesn’t know yet whether she’ll be on the next season of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” she’s a voice actor, co-creator and executive producer of Fox’s upcoming animated series “Housebroken,” about a dog that runs a therapy group for neighborhood animals. (DuVall plays Elsa the corgi.) Her next project is developing “High School,” an adaptation of Tegan and Sara Quin’s 2019 memoir. Working with Plan B and Amazon Studios for IMDb TV, DuVall has written the pilot, and also will direct it.

Citing Céline Sciamma and Denis Villeneuve as directors she admires, DuVall says she’d love to emulate the eclectic career of Danny Boyle: “The movies he makes are sort of all over the map, where you’re just like, ‘Wait. You made this movie, and you made that movie?’

“As an actor, I’ve really enjoyed playing in all different genres. And I plan to do that as a director as well.”

Stewart, for one, is excited to watch DuVall flourish. “I can’t wait to see what she makes in the future,” Stewart says. “She’s really gentle in coaxing everyone to understand exactly what her plan is, which makes her really powerful as a director. And her interests are so vast.

“So cool, you made a gay Christmas movie — what the fuck are you gonna do next?”

Share your love