In Clea DuVall’s “Happiest Season,” Kristen Stewart plays Abby, an art history Ph.D. student whose girlfriend, Harper (Mackenzie Davis), has invited her home for Christmas. Though she’s at first reluctant to go, Abby then decides she’ll actually propose to Harper, assuming that meeting the family goes well — but Harper tells Abby she hasn’t yet come out to her parents, and they both have to pretend to be straight. It’s a romcom with a queer twist, and a conventional Christmas comedy made radical merely by centering the story on a lesbian couple.
Since her “Twilight” years, Stewart has made eclectic career decisions that have veered from indies such as “Clouds of Sils Maria” and “Seberg” to more mainstream fare like the 2019 “Charlie’s Angels” reboot — but she’s never been especially associated with romantic comedies. Yet writer-director DuVall wanted an actor who could do both comedy and drama, and so when she was putting “Happiest Season” together, she flew to the “Charlie’s Angels” set in Germany to meet with Stewart. “I already wanted her before,” DuVall told Variety about those initial conversations with Stewart. “But after meeting with her, I couldn’t imagine making the movie with anybody else.”
“Happiest Season” was backed by Sony’s Tri-Star Pictures from the start, and was poised to be first LGBTQ movie from a major Hollywood studio to be produced as a broad commercial vehicle. But with the theatrical business in its current nearly non-existent state, Sony had to bow to the realities of the coronavirus pandemic and sell “Happiest Season” to Hulu — where it will premiere on the streaming service on Nov. 25. In a recent interview, Stewart talked about building the Abby-Harper relationship with Davis and DuVall, how working with Daniel Levy made her raise her game and the thorny question of whether only gay actors should play gay characters.
I found “Happiest Season” to be a delight. How did it come to you?
Clea sent it over to see if I wanted to partner up with her to find the rest of the cast, and start early in terms of defining the character and making it something between the two of us. I thought that was a really generous offer because when I read the script, it felt so completely personal — like a story that she’d been waiting to tell for a long time.
We had a meeting early on, and I knew immediately that we were going in this together, and that it was going to be something that reflected both of us. And I’ve always loved her — 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? The script made me really curious about her.
Did you build the character of Abby together?
Abby is so completely Clea. Obviously, she understands both of these characters very well. But Abby is absolutely her, like all of her idiosyncrasies. Every time I needed to find Abby again, and stop just playing myself — which was easy to do in this case — there is a pragmatism and a straightforward earnestness to Clea that is not like me, that I really loved pulling into this person’s repertoire. Whatever a queer female couple is to the masses, who aren’t necessarily accustomed to that living in their homes for Christmas, I really wanted these people to feel completely lived in and self-realized. Even though the story is about someone coming to terms with their identity, I still think that these girls in a vacuum know themselves implicitly. And they’re not confused — it’s other people that are having a harder time accepting them.
I wanted to have these people fully fledged before we started because the movie starts so quickly. That would be a sort of amalgamation between myself and Clea, and both of our experiences involving coming out and having relationships and being romantic idealists. And then also people that are kind of awkward weirdos, and not very good in a new family scenario — to highlight the comedy in that.
And so basically, to make a very simple answer very complicated, she is very much that character, and I was allowed to bring aspects of myself. I definitely took a lot of inspiration from her tonal quality — she expresses herself very directly. She’ll be like, “Hello, how are you? I’ve been thinking about you.” I’m a more sideways sort of communicator.
I wanted to be proud of the couple. I wanted to be like, I like these people. You know?
I do! Have you ever played someone bumbling and charming before? I couldn’t think of another time.
No, I don’t think so. I mean, maybe in my real life — like, bumbling for sure. Charming, always trying. But no. Not in a movie.
What kinds of conversations did you, Clea and Mackenzie Davis have about what the relationship should be like?
We found Mackenzie to be such an ace up our sleeve. I couldn’t really imagine somebody that I wouldn’t halfway through the movie be like, “All right, I’m fucking out of here!” She has this open, extremely kind, aware, delightful nature. I can’t get mad at that person! Like, I really, really like her.
She’s introduced in the beginning of the film as somebody who feels like my encourager. And then suddenly she becomes this person who really lacks that assurance and is really not being honest, and it does not even remotely reflect who Abby thought she was in the beginning. It’s such a jarring reveal. Sure, the audience should be afraid that they might not get together, but it’s a romcom — they’re going to get back together!
My thing is, I never wanted to lose affection for her. I never wanted people to be, like, “Honestly, she needs to get her shit together sooner — like, fuck her!” I was constantly telling Clea, “Don’t you think I would go over and be like, ‘Hey, babe, are you OK?’” And she was like, “No! You’re angry at her!” We did go through really carefully and with a lot of consideration of the relationship being so solid that it could actually withstand something this traumatic. Because if you boil down the story to what it’s actually about, it’s a full-grown woman, like a 31-year-old woman, coming out to her family. I mean, generationally speaking, that is remarkable. And it is so unremarkable in terms of how accelerated that growth has occurred — we didn’t have a movie like this just a couple years ago. And now, if you were to tell somebody who’s 10 years younger than me that we’re making a movie about a girl coming out to her parents when she was 30, they’d be like, “What? That’s insane.”
That these people always felt like they were in a real relationship, and that they earned getting back together — it just felt more important because of the queerness of it.
You and Dan Levy together — pure gold. How did you guys establish that dynamic?
Hats off to Clea for seeing the potential of that dynamic, and then also to Dan’s energy being something that’s easy to be uplifted by. I have a tendency to be slow, emotionally speaking. I don’t know if it’s because I’m nervous — or who the fuck knows — but I sometimes will bog things down a little bit. In a comedy, that is just no good. And I couldn’t do that with him! I just felt like I wanted to keep up.
The moment he looks at me and describes his coming out story and encourages me to see how hard it can be from a different perspective — it feels historical. I’m like, we’re in a movie, but also fuck the movie! We’re in 2020, and watching him say that in that scene just feels like so different and cool. I feel so lucky to have been around him. In that moment, it’s like a rare opportunity to feel like — shit, we definitely put a little flag in there.
Totally. It’s such a smart movie, because it is so conventional, in terms of being a romantic comedy and a holiday comedy. But just the mere fact of it being a lesbian holiday movie, it becomes political and important. Was there a sense of that as you were filming it?
Absolutely. I really do admire Clea for not being defiant, and not being reactive to the world — and doing something that is welcoming. I was so pleased to have been invited onto something that was, for lack of a better term, hiding the vegetables. Because I don’t think we’re hiding shit; it’s pretty clear what we’re saying.
At the same time, it’s just presented in a way that is very conversely different to something that feels afraid or angry. It feels forward and open. I mean, it doesn’t have to be like this overwrought thing in order to be politicized!
It feels very true, and very in the moment. I love a little bit of defiance and anger, and real passionate raw exposure. But in this case — the fact that you got on the phone and say that it was a “delight,” I’m so glad to hear that. Because that was the goal.
There are a lot of people who feel it’s important that gay actors play gay characters, after so many years of that not being the case. What’s your stance on that?
I think about this all the time. Being somebody who has had so much access to work, I’ve just lived with such a creative abundance. You know, a young white girl who was straight and only really was gay later and is, like, skinny — do you know what I’m saying? I so acknowledge that I’ve just gotten to work.
I would never want to tell a story that really should be told by somebody who’s lived that experience. Having said that, it’s a slippery slope conversation because that means I could never play another straight character if I’m going to hold everyone to the letter of this particular law. I think it’s such a gray area. There are ways for men to tell women’s stories, or ways for women to tell men’s stories. But we need to have our finger on the pulse and actually have to care. You kind of know where you’re allowed. I mean, if you’re telling a story about a community and they’re not welcoming to you, then fuck off. But if they are, and you’re becoming an ally and a part of it and there’s something that drove you there in the first place that makes you uniquely endowed with a perspective that might be worthwhile, there’s nothing wrong with learning about each other. And therefore helping each other tell stories. So I don’t have a sure-shot answer for that.
I will say, Mackenzie is not somebody who identifies as a lesbian. She was the only person in my mind that could have played this with me. Sometimes, artfully speaking, you’re just drawn to a certain group of people. I could defend that, but I’m sure that somebody with a different perspective could make me feel bad about that — and then make me renege on everything I’ve just said. I acknowledge the world that we live in. And I absolutely would never want to traipse on someone else’s opportunity to do that — I would feel terrible about that.
So my answer is fucking think about what you’re doing! And don’t be an asshole.