There's no middle ground to Patricia Heaton's newest television effort: She's very happy to be a producer.
As she continues starring in ABC's Wednesday sitcom "The Middle," now in its fourth season, the two-time Emmy winner for "Everybody Loves Raymond" also is behind a project that's a family matter in several ways. Debuting Sunday, Dec. 2, the Hallmark Channel movie "The Christmas Heart" was written by Heaton's brother Michael, a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer -- as was their late father, Chuck, a noted sportswriter.
"I think Michael's passion for his other writing comes from his being able do these kinds of stories," Heaton tells Zap2it. "As a journalist, you pretty much report facts, so to be able to spin this wonderful tale out of your imagination is sort of a nice outlet. We've had this story around for a long time; I talked about it in a meeting with Hallmark, and they pretty much bought it right away. That was really exciting."
"The Christmas Heart" was inspired by some of the Heaton family's Ohio neighbors, whose tradition of lining their street with holiday luminaries factors strongly into the script. The fictional characters may abandon that long-standing practice to help a teenager (played by Ty Wood) who needs a heart transplant. His parents ( Teri Polo, Paul Essiembre) ultimately get unexpected and meaningful support from their neighbors, as weather conditions threaten an aerial mission to deliver a donor heart.
Tess Harper ( "Tender Mercies") also stars in the drama, and Heaton says it's "just so exciting to see something that you've worked on for so long come alive. And in particular, these actors are amazing in these roles. It's slightly heavier subject matter than you would think for a Christmas movie, and we were really appreciative that Hallmark wasn't afraid to go there. The payoff is just huge at the end."
Because of her shooting schedule on "The Middle," Heaton didn't have much time to visit the Winnipeg filming location of "The Christmas Heart," but she regularly received footage to look at.
"I know how good it is," she maintains, "because I was watching the actors do the same scenes a couple of times, seeing them just standing there right before starting ... and still, it was really moving. I've probably seen the finished film five times now, and I've still teared up every time. It's really a cut above some of the fluffier Christmas movies."
As an actor who had to choose other actors for the project, Heaton admits, "I wasn't completely familiar with Teri Polo's work. I hadn't seen the 'Meet the Parents' movies, but she had done some work for Hallmark, and they really love her. And when I saw the dailies, I thought, 'This girl is phenomenal.' She's an amazing actress, and she needs to have her huge feature film.
"And, of course, Tess Harper was nominated for an Academy Award (for 'Crimes of the Heart'). She's just very real and vulnerable, and she did a lovely job."
Winnipeg wasn't randomly chosen for the production. "It was an unseasonably warm winter, so we knew we'd have to go all the way there to find snow," the good-humored Heaton explains. "And there wasn't even that much snow there. My brother told me he could hear the assistant directors on their walkie-talkies saying, 'We found snow in this church parking lot! We're throwing it in the back of the truck and bringing it over!' We only had 15 days to shoot this, and the people in Canada really know their stuff."
Being far removed from the actual shooting was a little tricky for Heaton.
"I'd go to work on 'The Middle,' and you usually get 10 or 15 minutes between setups," she says, "so I'd be emailing and watching the dailies [of the movie] while also reviewing my lines for the next scene I going to be in. But as a mom, you're used to multitasking and doing a number of things at once, so I guess I'm kind of used to it.
"When I started 'Raymond,' I had two boys aged 5 and 4, and I was pregnant with my third. There's never a time when I've been working these last years that I haven't also been a full-time mom, and now that the boys are a little more independent, it's almost like I have to keep doing things to fill the time. I have two speeds, 'workaholic' and 'sloth.' If I'm not booked all the time, I'm sitting in bed, eating cheese popcorn and watching reality TV ... so it's much better to be busy."
Heaton knows the effect and the longevity a seasonal TV movie can have, since she starred in one herself: "A Town Without Christmas," made for CBS in 2001 and being repeated by Hallmark Channel on Monday, Dec. 3. "There's nothing more fun to do than a Christmas movie," she says. "You can be full-out sentimental and get away with it. And these movies don't die. If you do a Christmas movie, you'd better be sure you don't mind it running for the next 100 years."
"The Christmas Heart" could be the start of an ongoing relationship between Heaton and Hallmark, and healthy ratings for the picture could only help seal that deal.
"They're sort of a year ahead," she reports. "I think they've booked their 2013 schedule for movies, so we're looking at 2014. We have some projects in to them, and we're hoping to get the green light ... so, fingers crossed. And they're also starting to make series now. We're really thrilled to be in business with them."
Heaton is amusingly candid about her reason for moving toward a producer's chair now.
"I'm sort of hedging my bets here," she explains. "I'm not getting any younger, and at some point, there's not going to be anything left for the doctors to nip and tuck; I'll have to find some other way to make a living.
"As a producer, I love finding all these different and talented people and bringing them together," Heaton notes. "And I also love characters and stories. It's a joy to throw in all these ingredients and see what comes out of the oven."
Photo/Video credit: Hallmark