The Christmas Train star Dermot Mulroney shares the Hallmark secret for success
The Christmas Train pulls into the Hallmark station Saturday with Dermot Mulroney, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Danny Glover, and Joan Cusack on board.
The film, based on the novel by David Baldacci,follows journalist Tom Langdon (Mulroney) on his festive voyage as he travels from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles in time for Christmas. Of course, there are a few surprises along the way: a long-lost love interest just happens to be on board, a snowstorm threatens the timeliness of the trip, and some unexpected characters, including the wise Agnes (Cusack) and big-shot movie producer Max (Glover) help make it quite the memorable journey.
With the Hallmark’s Countdown to Christmas well under way, EW caught up with Mulroney to figure out the secret behind the network’s holiday domination, if there are any surprises in store that’ll derail The Christmas Train, and to learn his prime pop culture picks at this time of year.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Hallmark goes all-out every year when it comes to holiday programming. Did you jump at the opportunity to be part of that?
DERMOT MULRONEY: I had such a rewarding experience that first time that when they called me again, it would’ve been self-destructive behavior if I haven’t taken this job, for real. They’ve had three weekends of programming for Christmas so far this year and they’ve already had 40 million viewers. It’s a real gargantuan situation that just operates around that season, in its own place and its own area and they just knock it out of the park every time.
What do you think makes it so crazy popular?
What I realized when I did North Pole: Open For Christmas was how important this product is in the entertainment market. It’s overlooked and even ridiculed or takes on a different class of entertainment, but until you do one, you don’t realize how big it is.
How did your second Hallmark experience differ?
Making The Christmas Train was just through the roof. The first person they cast was Joan Cusack and I just knew we were on the right track. It was only subsequent to my casting that they cast Danny Glover — I was floored. I couldn’t believe that it just took that leap in quality. Hallmark is doing this deliberately. They’re upping their game; they want to make bigger and better entertainment even though they don’t need to because they’ve got the market cornered anyway. So it says something about what they care about which, quite honestly, is hard to find in other places in Hollywood. They have this admiration for the product. I talked to Joan about this; she could not come up with a reason not to do the movie. Good work is good work wherever you can find it and actors more than ever want it and need it. I know they’re coming further and further forward in the way that they cast the Christmas movies and so they’re becoming a little more in the forefront, but, by the same token, I think the Hallmark Channel really likes where they sit. They know that people come to them and they’re dependable and it’s a go-to thing.
Do you think there’s an even greater need for these genuine, feel-good movies right now?
Yes, I’d argue that our society needs it. It’s so complicated and raw out there, especially right now, it’s just an obvious antidote. Last year, between the “Countdown for Christmas” — starting in late October through New Year’s — they had 85 million viewers which far surpasses any other broadcast venue. This year they expect they might surpass 100 million viewers which tells you something. There’s another 15 percent growth out there. You begin to wonder why that is, and I think the answer is that people don’t just want it, but right now, they actually need it. It’s real medicine.
So what goes down on this Christmas train? There’s no murder like on the Orient Express, right?
Of course, we get stuck in the snow at one point. There’s even some action; there’s a mystery thriller on the train — who’s stealing the sunglasses and the notebook? No, there’s no murder and no one’s doing it with each other, but maybe, just maybe, two old flames who really had real love back in the day, maybe, just maybe, they’ll kiss.
I mean it’s Christmas — they HAVE to!
Fine! Spoiler alert: They kiss and Christmas is on! They get to their destination on time. I hate to ruin the ending for you, but everyone gets home in time for Christmas. That being said, there is an ending written into The Christmas Train that is completely unexpected — you can look for that and I will not spoil that part. Everyone is fooled. So that’s the mystery within the mystery. Like a lot of Hallmark’s fare, it’s just a little more than you give it credit for.
Let’s go through your favorite holiday movies, music, etc. Do you have a favorite movie you revisit during the festive season?
Some of the answers I’m going to give you might be a little self-centered, but my favorite Christmas movie — and I’m not alone — is The Family Stone. It’s a great movie. It was great when I read it. It has a fantastic director. Obviously, the cast is off the charts, and it’s got shelf life. People start stopping me on the street at Thanksgiving and say, “My family always watches Family Stone, I sit down with my mom and grandmother…” Can you imagine — this was 12 years ago we made it — the kind of reward I get from doing something like that and it’s still like it happened yesterday? Obviously, there’s such sadness and loss in that story and family conflict but it’s also incredibly funny. Truth be told, of the more than 75 feature movies that I’ve done, only about eight or 10 of them will actually last and Family Stone has that staying power. The longer it goes, the more pride I have in that group of people coming together in that moment to make a beautiful story like that.
Favorite Christmas music?
My favorite Christmas song is called “Christmas Train.” I wrote it and I sang it and it’s in the background soundtrack of Christmas Train the movie. They paid me a tiny little licensing fee to use it, but I’m allowed to do whatever I want with it. It’s a fantastic, super catchy, really palatable country classic Christmas tune. If you want to do my kids a favor and make Christmas Train the brand new, break out classic country Christmas song, you can buy it for just 99 cents! It’s also an experiment in commerce for me because it’s cost me, so far, about $700 of studio time, then $24 to put it up online. So I’m running a budget around a grand — if you add in transportation and gas and a per diem. I’m just trying to break even by selling a song at 99 cents. We’ll check back in in January and see if we made a thousand dollars. You don’t even have to wait for the movie — it’s instant gratification time. This is 2017!
The Christmas Train premieres Saturday, Nov. 25 at 8 p.m. ET on the Hallmark Channel.