SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square,” streaming now on Netflix.
Christine Baranski grew up watching “White Christmas” with her family when she was a little girl, and that is a tradition she has kept, now watching it year after year with her own grandchildren. But over those years she has also starred in quite a few holiday films, from the satirical “The Ref” to the modern classic adaptation of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” the holiday-themed sequel to “Bad Moms” and now the Netflix musical “Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square.”
“It matters to me how they see me,” Baranski tells Variety about her grandchildren. But, she admits, when it came to deciding to sign onto “Christmas on the Square” she was not thinking about her grandchildren being able to watch the project with her. Instead, it was all about Parton.
“I got an offer to do this and I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, I get to hang out with Dolly Parton!? She’s going to be my personal Christmas angel? Where do I sign the papers?’ I practically didn’t have to read the script,” Baranski says.
When she did read the script, though, she found herself “very taken” with her character, a successful businesswoman named Regina who comes back to her small hometown just ahead of the Christmas holiday — to serve the townspeople eviction papers because she sold it to a mall developer. Baranski may call her “Bad Moms Christmas” character “the mother from hell,” but in “Christmas on the Square” she is playing “the Christmas grinch,” she says.
Of course, there is much more to Regina than meets the eye — namely, her heart is not cold, she just has walls up around it after a traumatic time in her childhood. Her memories of living in that town became shrouded in darkness when she got pregnant and her father made her give the baby up out of fear that the townspeople would never accept her as a young, unwed mother.
In the beginning of the film, Baranski notes, Regina “has zero sentimentality; it’s like she has completely cut off any feeling for her past. But as you continue watching that story, you realize what she was hiding, what she had to give up, what her father gave up. Every grinch is different — every bad guy has a different journey — and my journey in this, I really related to this woman’s pain.”
At times, Baranski got to play the straight woman to a heightened ensemble of characters that included a couple of actual angels (one played by Parton, as aforementioned, and one played by Jeanine Mason) and a larger-than-life world that often saw its characters bursting into song. Striking the right tone was all about collaborating with executive producer and director Debbie Allen.
“Debbie had a really good sense of what felt right. I find with material like this it’s best not to over-act it, to keep it simple or it will tilt to being too emotional or to ooey gooey, and that was something I kept saying to Debbie: ‘We’ve got to try to avoid overcoating with sentimentality; it doesn’t need it,’” Baranski recalls.
The ironic thing for Baranski is that her interest in the holiday genre comes from the “unabashed sentimentality” of it and because the stories told are always “reminders that life can be really quite joyous,” she says. “I think people during the holiday season think, ‘Why don’t we live like this more often? Why aren’t we celebrating the fact that we’re together? Why do we wait for Christmas?’”
For “Christmas on the Square,” the challenge was both going to “some very dark, painful places to play the role,” as well as finding the rhythms for the musical moments. The first song, during which she is talking more than singing but also having to hit specific marks as she walks around the square handing out eviction notices was complicated, she admits, but so was simply having to record every track before filming even began.
“My character had such an emotional journey, so to sing the song that I sing in the church about ‘Forgive me’ and I didn’t have any experience of doing those scenes [was hard],” she says. “We recorded it and it was a very emotional take, and then we re-recorded it and it was less emotional and more just concentrating on the song as written without too much acting of it, and we tried to balance that out. Once you’ve got that stuff recorded, then you’ve got the ear wig in your ear and you’re singing along with yourself. When you’re actually doing it on film, it’s important to not just mouth the words — you have to sing the song full-out so it feels like the energy is coming at the level at which you recorded it.”
The thrill of the project, on the other hand, was in the collaboration — with Allen, to her fellow performers such as Parton, Selah Kimbro Jones and Josh Segarra, who played Christian, the pastor who was revealed to be her son.
“I think my favorite scene was with that adorable little girl in the bar,” Baranski says of working with Jones. “[Regina] just learns so much about herself and about this little girl. There’s genuine affection there and appreciation and it just says a lot. She’s horrified that this little girl is thinking of blaming herself for her mother’s death, so Regina says, ‘No no, you’re not to blame.’”
That is something of a turning point for the character, but so, too, is learning that her father made sure her son was well-cared for and close enough to keep an eye on his entire life.
“It’s so shocking to Regina when she realizes who her son really is and what her father did for her and all. I think she’s almost relieved and happy to redeem herself,” she says. “I must say I find the most moving part of it when he talks about this young woman who became pregnant and that’s what Christmas is, a celebration of a young woman who was with child, and that’s [her] story.”
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