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Eric Mabius Interview: "Ugly Betty" Star Talks Hallmark's "Welcome to Christmas"

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Image attributed to Hallmark Channel

Eric Mabius

Eric Mabius gained widespread recognition for his role as Daniel Meade in the ABC comedy-drama Ugly Betty (2006-2010). Other TV appearances include The L Word, Scandal, Blue Bloods and Chicago Fire. In 2013, he was cast as the lead in Hallmark Channel’s Signed, Sealed, Delivered TV series and subsequent movies of the same name.

This holiday season, Mabius stars as Sheriff Gage McBride in the Hallmark Channel original movie Welcome to Christmas, premiering December 9, 2018, and also starring Jennifer Finnigan, Sarah Edmondson and James Kirk.

“Well, what’s great about the Hallmark tradition is that they’re continuing to diversify what that tradition is because in real life, we lose people that we love, and the definition of family has to alter with the changing circumstances.”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Eric, tell me about your character, Gage McBride, in Welcome to Christmas.

Eric Mabius: I play a small town sheriff whose name is Gage McBride. It’s based upon a book series, and the author actually came to visit us on set, which was a lot of fun. It was also a fun book to adapt because you generally have to throw out certain things to adjust depending on the audience. But I think where we ended up was a balance of heart and humor, which was really fantastic.

Gage is someone who’s in a different position. He’s kind of the glue that holds the small town together. He’s there to make sure everyone is as content as can be, yet they’re facing what many small towns are facing across the country. No big malls move in, and people leave the towns for bigger cities.

Gage has two young daughters, one’s a teenager, and one’s an eight-year-old. We don’t dwell on those things, but the teenager is going through some things, and then the holidays come along. There’s a woman that comes to town. Her name is Madison Lane (played by Jennifer Finnigan), and she’s there just to cross this town off the list of potential ski resort developments for her company.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And romance follows in the Hallmark tradition?

Eric Mabius: Well, what’s great about the Hallmark tradition is that they’re continuing to diversify what that tradition is because in real life, we lose people that we love, and the definition of family has to alter with the changing circumstances. That’s what was really important with this that there wasn’t just a buttoned-up perfect ending. I feel like the audience earns the relationship, and that it’s not apparent right away. They really want to have very little to do with one another at the beginning, and only largely through seeing how she is with Gage’s kids does the door open up a little bit. It comes from a different source. It’s not the sort of like, “Aw, shucks. Isn’t she beautiful? Why don’t we fall in love?” It really doesn’t unfold that way, and that’s what I really love about the script and why I enjoyed playing the character.

The loss of his wife is still present, and he’s in some ways married to the town and all the things that are there. His aunt moves in to help out with the girls when Gage loses his wife. So she becomes essentially a mother figure to Gage, but he’s also there to take care of her. I forget the number of Christmas movies, but they keep trying to find new ways of telling the story that checks off all the boxes but does it in a way that’s realistic, and that’s what is great. The show is grounded in reality. That was something we really kept an eye on while we were developing the script.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What are your Christmas family traditions?

Eric Mabius: Actually, that’s really funny. This one sounds a little too on the nose, but the retired town sheriff has always had a Christmas tree farm. Usually the week after Thanksgiving, we go and pick out a tree. We take it home, and I find a five-gallon bucket. The boys pick out river rocks, and we throw them in there with water and dress the bottom with a tree skirt. The boys pull out their favorite ornaments, hang up lights in the house and hang certain things on the tree. We have the music on that I loved growing up that we’ve come to enjoy listening to like Burl Ives, Johnny Mathis, Rosemary Clooney, Nat King Cole, all that great stuff.

It really just brings me back to the place when I was a child, but at the same time, I have these memories of my sons, which is really a wonderful thing. I guess it’s harkening the rewinding of tradition but also creating it in its new form.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you realize from an early age that you wanted to act?

Eric Mabius: You know, nobody in my family has done anything like that, and I attribute it to my parents bringing me to drive-in movies when I was a little boy. It would always be a double feature, and both my brother and I would be asleep by the second movie. It was usually the PG movie first and the R rated one second. But I think that experience was magical, just sitting in a car with surround sound in front of a theater, sitting in the dark with this massive screen lighting up the night. Also my mom took us to plays, even local ones.

Once in a while, we’d drive in to New York and see a Broadway show. They brought back The King and I for a limited run before Yul Brynner passed away. I got to see that at the Winter Garden, and that made a really significant impression upon me. Growing up in the 70s, the whole new wave of realistic cinema was hitting the states. It was Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson. There was a lot of violence in those movies, but it was a new kind of cinema. It was Coppola and Scorsese and those guys. I had a real passion for film because of my father as well.

I was living in New York and went to visit Los Angeles because I had my first film at Sundance. My car was snowed in on the street in New York for two weeks. I couldn’t get it out. I went out to LA, and the grass was like golf course grass. It was breezy and 78, and I just couldn’t believe people could live like that in the summer. I just decided to stay out there. I only had the bags on my back.

I think I was seven films in when someone asked me what I did for a living. I wouldn’t admit that I was an actor because I didn’t want to fail like so many people do. I also didn’t want to say I was an actor if I wasn’t really doing it. So it was something I was excited about, but I had no idea. I actually thought I was going to teach writing in a college somewhere. I really had no idea. But the first time at Sundance definitely boosted me and certainly open the door a little wider for me.

I loved plays and found that getting to change my words was really important. I enjoyed the evolution of the character. I know that playing the same character in the same play, you can evolve as you deepen your understanding of that character. I really enjoyed working in television. I feel like Ugly Betty was an amazing experience. I feel like a lot of the series I’ve been able to do have all added to my overall experience.

Working with Martha Williamson on Signed, Sealed, Delivered really was one of those special jobs. She’s such a formidable creative force in the world. There aren’t many people like her left, I think. It was a real joy. Because of her experience and ability, she has attracted all of these relationships in entertainment, and she had them to call upon for the show. I got to work with Carol Burnett, Valerie Bertinelli, Valerie Harper, Gregory Harrison played my father. Because of that, it recaptured my joy of growing up in the 70s and 80s with shows like M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore, Rhoda, Taxi and Too Close for Comfort. These are shows that were really groundbreaking in so many ways, and to be trading lines with them in front of a camera is a magical thing. I got to reaffirm my spark, my intent and my appreciation for entertainment.

In this process of pitching this story idea, and Hallmark saying, “Yes,” I got to develop that and go through that process and bring it all the way to the screen. Now that it’s going to air on Sunday, it tickles me and makes me feel like a little kid in some way.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Like it’s Christmas morning? (laughs)

Eric Mabius: Exactly right, yes.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your have been rather busy with Signed, Sealed, Delivered movies over the past few years. Are there more to come?

Eric Mabius: I honestly don’t know. The fans have sent tweets and emails to the executives to make sure the show continues, but I haven’t heard anything. I would love to keep working on that show, but that decision isn’t mine.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you or America (Ferrera) ever expect what a success Ugly Betty would turn out to be?

Eric Mabius: You know, you project into the future and hope that thing you care so much about will hit the people in the right way or the way it has moved you so much. We didn’t know for sure, but by the time we finished the pilot, I think we all had an idea. I think Betty premiered with something like 17 million people. It was a phenomenal time.

The caliber of talent on that show was really unparalleled especially when we moved to New York. We had access to all the stage actors, and the finest Broadway actors in the world wanted to be a part of the show. It was such a vibrant, exciting experience with so many cast members from so many walks of life.

So, no, we didn’t know it was going to be that big, but we did have to pinch ourselves while standing on the podium at the UN shooting an episode of the show, imploding on a boat in front of the Statue of Liberty doing a dinner scene with Vanessa Williams or standing in the middle of Times Square with America or in the final episode sitting on the steps of Trafalgar Square at the fountain. These are amazing moments in one’s life to have been a part of that show. Even in the retelling of it, it sounds romantic, but even as you’re experiencing it, it is that amazing.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There are always rumors of an Ugly Betty reunion movie.

Eric Mabius: We had a fantastic reunion at the Austin television festival two summers ago. It felt like a big groundswell and a lot of talk about a movie. The fact is that there’s a dozen of us, and we are at a dozen corners of the earth. Trying to get schedules together for something like that, I don’t even know if it’s possible. Ana Ortiz is shooting a series right now, I think, in Croatia. I’m not exaggerating to say that we are scattered in the odd ends of the earth. Trying to pull everyone together for a period of time is not impossible, but that would seem to be the biggest obstacle in my mind.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Would there be a different vibe since the cast members are a little older?

Eric Mabius: I think it would be even more electric, and we’d fall right back in step. Michael Urie is headlining on Broadway right now with Mercedes Ruehl playing his mother. He’s living a journey right now of his own. Everyone has continued to do have such wonderful success. America has had such success in producing and acting in her own films and being the lead on that hit NBC show. Everyone’s living a full and happy life, but it would be fun to all come together again. America was just so perfect in her role and so good at it. That relationship between Betty and Daniel was really something special that we don’t see much in television. 

The fans of Signed, Sealed, Delivered are called postables, and they’re all over the earth in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, just everywhere. It’s funny those people are now discovering a show like Ugly Betty only through seeing these shows on Hallmark, which I love. It’s like this wonderful loop that keeps coming back around.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I enjoyed your episode arc on Chicago Fire, by the way.

Eric Mabius: (laughs) It was so much fun. I really like Jesse Spencer a lot. He’s such a solid guy. I had gotten to know him over the years a little bit, so it was really nice to work together on that. It’s a really great group, and they work so hard. It’s unbelievable the hours they keep. I feel like they work 12 months of the year. That’s not true exactly, but it seems that way.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have other projects coming up?

Eric Mabius: No. In the new year, we’re going to pitch a new idea for a book series. I have an independent film I shot called Inside Game, which was really fun. It’s a true story about a disgraced NBA rep who was caught fixing games for the Gambino family. It’s about three friends who grew up outside of Philadelphia. It happened about eight or nine years ago. But it was a great script written and directed by a friend of mine, Randall Batinkoff. That will come out next year. Michael O’Keefe plays my father. It’s a phenomenal cast and was just fun to do, a really great independent film in the New York area. I just keep jumping around doing different things. It really keeps the juices flowing.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And I assume you will continue working with Hallmark. You touched on the Hallmark “tradition” earlier, but has it changed over the last couple of years as the country has become more divided politically?

Eric Mabius: That’s the thing I love about Hallmark, that it really has nothing to do with blue or red, but it does unify people in that they all want to feel comforted, and they all want to have a happy ending even to find one on television if they can. No one really talks about that, but it would be a good little essay about bipartisanship in a network. It brings people together because we are all really the same even though we’re in such a divisive phase of our nation. It’s terrifying in so many ways. I just think that Hallmark has been able to stay the course and continue to broaden their audiences. It’s a very tricky thing to pull off, but they are experts at it.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do your kids watch your Hallmark movies?

Eric Mabius: They do. We actually had a little screening of Welcome to Christmas at Thanksgiving. They really enjoyed that. It’s still kind of magical to my nine-year-old. He looks at the screen and looks over at me, looks at the screen at me and looks over at me. I’m not kidding. He said three times over the course of the movie, “It really makes you smile, doesn’t it, daddy?” (laughs) I can think of no higher compliment coming from anyone really.

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