When the global pandemic hit, real-life couple Ben Lewis and Blake Lee pretty much wrote off the rest of the year, in terms of work. So over the summer, it was quite a surprise when they found out that Lifetime was interested in having them star together in The Christmas Setup—the network's first ever holiday movie with an LGBTQ+ lead storyline.
In this interview, Lewis and Lee talk about key moments from shooting, the story of how they first met, the significance of this movie and what it means for representation.
What do you think about The Christmas Setup being Lifetime's first holiday romance with an LGBTQ+ lead storyline?
Lee: To see a movie that celebrates gay love, and a love story like ours—it is so wonderful that it's being broadcast to millions of people in their homes when the world is just so divided. It's really great to have that representation.
What challenges did you face working on a movie in 2020?
Lewis: Obviously we never forgot that we were shooting in a pandemic, but the set was run so well that it did feel weirdly normalized very quickly. That's just a testament to how great the crew was. They were wearing masks at all times, and we were masked from the time we got picked up in the morning until the time we got to the hair-and-makeup trailer.
Everybody was, I think, grateful to be working, and really dedicated to making this as safe an experience as possible. It never felt like we were slowed down or impeded in any way.
Lee: Anytime we had questions or concerns, there was always someone to ask: What do we do in this situation? We worked for three weeks and no one got sick, so it was done very well.
Lewis: For the most part, the movie was entirely conceived during COVID, so I think it happened accordingly, with a small cast. And that made it that much more of an intimate experience. Beyond [our own] relationship, I’ve known Ellen Wong, who plays my best friend in the movie, for 11 years. I know Chad Connell, who plays my brother, for even longer than that. I’ve known Pat, the director, for six years. So it was just a very pleasant experience.
What was it like to work with Fran Drescher?
Lee: It was the best. Right off the bat, she's everything you want her to be. Ben and I kept joking about it, because we kept saying the first few days, ''She is so funny!' She's a comedic legend.
But on top of that, she is very maternal, and immediately, she was like, ''I'm the mom, you guys, come to my room, here's the key; I'm making you guys dinner.' She could have done her own thing, but it was like, ''I have an open-door policy—come on in if you need to borrow a cup of sugar—there's the cabinet.' She was such a lovely, warm person, and it made the experience a million times better.
Lewis: She was the only actor from the core cast that we didn't know ahead of time, but you feel like you know her, because you grew up watching her.
Lee: She also listens, and she gave people the time that they want with her. We were shooting in these really small towns in Ottawa, and people would hear that the 'Nanny' was there and they would line up on the street to get a glimpse of her. She would walk over at a social distance, with a mask, and talk to them until she had given everyone their moment.
How are you each similar to or different from your respective characters in the movie?
Lewis: Hugo, my character, is definitely the more neurotic, goofy one. Patrick is the more confident, suave one. I feel like on any given day [in real life] we sort of flip-flop those roles.
I would say our relationship is obviously different because these are characters who haven't seen each other in probably 15 or 20 years, whereas we are people who have been together and partners for 10 years.
The relationship dynamics between Hugo and his mom, and Hugo and his best female friend, and Hugo and his brother were sort of easier for me to relate to, and it was very easy to slip into those character dynamics with Fran and Ellen and Chad. Whereas Blake and I sort of had to remind each other—or Pat, the director, would remind us—that those characters are not as comfortable with each other as we are [with one another].
Lee: Patrick, my character, is far more relaxed than I am. He's just cool, nothing would bother him. I'm not that. I stress out. I feel like they tried to make him look like this effortless, attractive guy that got up in the morning and his hair fell perfectly, and I'm wearing a hat right now because that's not the case!
How do you celebrate the holidays?
Lee: After Ben and I started dating, I went to his family's home for Christmas in Toronto and it was like, 'I'm never going anywhere else.' Christmas is so important to his family, and his mom, and the house is decorated beautifully. It's just become this tradition—we've spent Christmas with Ben's family every year [since]. It's wonderful. I grew up in Miami, so to have a white Christmas, it makes it so much more real.
Lewis: The way that Fran's character goes above and beyond at Christmas, and the way that her son—my character—takes a lot of it for granted, definitely felt authentic. Actually last year was the first time we ever spent Christmas in L.A. We had my family come to us because our dog, Todd, can't realty handle the cold weather anymore. It was the first time we ever had a tree of our own. And we both are, but Blake is very aesthetically particular, so we were scouring vintage stores and [online] for vintage ornaments. It was nice and we were really proud of it. When it was done, we were like, 'This tree really represents us.'
Tell me about how you two met.
Lee: Ben was in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and so was one of my best friends, Aubrey Plaza. I went to the premiere with her and a few of our other friends at Grauman's Chinese Theatre. Right before the movie started, I said, "I'm gonna run downstairs and go to the bathroom.' [In the bathroom,] there were like 50 sinks, and one of them is being used—by Ben. And I see him in the mirror, and I'm like, That guy is not ugly. He's very handsome. So I picked the sink right next to him, obviously, instead of the 48 others, and I washed my hands.
He said, 'Is your name Blake?'
I said, 'Yes, it is.'
He said, 'I think we have some mutual friends.' So we talked for a minute, and he introduced himself and he was like, 'I'm in the movie, I'm visiting from Canada.' What I later found out was that he had stalked me on the internet, so that's how he knew who I was.
[Back at my seat,] I leaned over to [my friend] Jill, and I was like, 'I just met my husband.' That night we ended up seeing each other on the way to the after-party, and we hung out the whole night. Ben was in L.A. just for a week, for the premiere, and we ended up hanging out I think every single day after that. And literally, 10 years later, we're married and still here.
How do you feel about The Christmas Setup, from a personal standpoint?
Lee: I think this movie is a wonderful thing for people to watch right now. It feels important and it feels needed.
It's so nice that gay people have a Lifetime Christmas movie now, and we feel very lucky and very grateful to be the first, [and] to be representing the LGBTQ+ community. I hope this is just the beginning of many movies of representation in our queer community that Lifetime will do.
What I love about this film is that they didn't try to make it specifically a gay movie. They made a classic Lifetime Christmas movie, and it just so happens that the two people who fall in love are two men. It's just a love story. It just shows love is love.
Lewis: The fact that it's so unremarkable, in the context of the movie, that it is two men, is actually more progressive in its own way. We hope this is just opening a door for even more diverse representation, for queer people of color, trans people, nonbinary people. Because we only represent a portion of the LGBTQ+ factor, and everybody deserves to see themselves represented.Explore more holiday movies on It's a Wonderful Lifetime.