Hilarie Burton Reveals Story Behind 'One Tree Hill' 'Christmas Contract' Reunion
The actress also opens up about how the #MeToo movement gave her and her former colleagues "permission" to come forward with sexual harassment allegations against showrunner Mark Schwahn.
Hilarie Burton is no stranger to Christmas films.
The One Tree Hill star made her debut in the holiday genre when she starred in Hallmark's 2012 film Naughty or Nice. Burton later appeared in Lifetime's 2013 film Christmas on the Bayou and the 2015 film Last Chance for Christmas. She will next star in The Christmas Contract, which debuts on Lifetime on Thursday, Nov. 22.
Burton's former One Tree Hill co-stars Robert Buckley, Danneel Ackles and Antwon Tanner also star in The Christmas Contract. The holiday movie follows recently single graphic designer Jolie (Burton) after her best friend Naomi (Ackles) orchestrates a plan for her brother Jack (Buckley) to accompany Jolie home to Louisiana for the holidays to face her ex-boyfriend, who is bringing home his new girlfriend. In return, Jolie must design a website to help promote Jack's struggling career as a novelist.
"Hilarity ensues and we fall in love. That's what happens at the holidays. You fall in love," Burton told The Hollywood Reporter about the movie.
Burton spoke to THR about how the One Tree Hill reunion came about, why she loves acting in Christmas movies and reflected on going public with sexual harassment allegations against the WB-turned-CW series' creator and showrunner Mark Schwahn.
What made you want to be part of The Christmas Contract and what attracted you to the role of Jolie?
What really attracted me to this script, in particular, is that I'm no stranger to Christmas movies. I love doing this kind of programming because it's family-friendly, and I think it's female-friendly. The main problem I had with these jobs in the past is that they were designed with the female lead having major flaws. Either she's a shrew that's obsessed with work and can't have a personal life or she's a frazzled single mother or she's negligent in her life in some fashion. Jolie was such a well rounded woman. She's great at her job. She's a great friend. She's a great daughter and sister. She's fun. She's not a nag. What's great about this is that we saw a really likable female lead that's a believable woman and it's the guy that has to sort himself out and figure out, 'Oh, I don't want to lose this.' I think that's important in telling these stories. I think that we have vilified women for a really long time and this is a great opportunity for us to create women that we recognize.
What is it that you like so much about the Christmas genre?
I started off doing [movies in this genre] as a joke and as a dare. I was at dinner with our friends Julie and Paul Rudd, who are Jewish, but they love Christmas movies. The offer came in. My phone beeped and I saw. "Hey guy, I just got offered this Christmas movie." We had a nice little laugh about it, but they insisted, "No, you're gonna do it. You have to do it." And so I did my first Christmas movie and Danneel's actually in it with me and it was such a good experience, particularly given the background I've had in television. I didn't have to take my clothes off. I didn't have to do anything inappropriate. It was much more similar to the movies that I liked growing up. When I was younger, I wanted to be Sandra Bullock. I wanted to make Hope Floats. I wanted to make Practical Magic. That was my goal and so these movies, with their family-friendly tone, really fit that for me. And as a mother, they film in three weeks. From a practical standpoint, I can still be a full-time mom and go do these fun jobs that feel like summer camp. I can bring my kids along for the ride.
The Christmas Contract also stars Robert Buckley, Danneel Ackles and Antwon Tanner and includes an appearance by Tyler Hilton, who all starred on One Tree Hill with you.
And Elisabeth Harnois, who played Shelley the Clean Teen on One Tree Hill. She was randomly in town shooting a totally different Christmas movie and she snuck over from her set one day and we improvised this scene where she plays my cousin, Lilly. So keep your eyes peeled. We racked up as many One Tree Hill kids as we could down there.
How did it come about that you all ended up working on this project together?
The producer, Daniel Lewis, and I had worked together years ago on Christmas on the Bayou with Tyler Hilton and we really hit it off. He's become a close friend of mine and he had texted me when I was pregnant with my daughter and asked me to come down to Louisiana and do a different movie. I said, "Let me have my baby and then give me three months and I'll come back to work for you." And he held me to it. Three months to the day of my daughter being born, he was like, "Okay, kid. Here's your start date. You got to get to Louisiana. We're gonna start in June." I had a little bit of time leading up to the project where he and I could really confer and decide, "You know, this is my first job back since having a baby. Who can we surround me with who's really comfortable and helpful?" Robert Buckley and I had been trying to do a Christmas movie together for five years. There was a different production in Vancouver years ago where he was on hiatus from iZombie and he was gonna work for less money. We were trying to get around the Canadian tax incentive and that studio just would not break the rules. It's almost better that it worked out this way because not only did Robert and I finally get to work together, but we got to bring all of our friends along, as well.
While Robert Buckley starred on One Tree Hill, he didn't come onto the show until your character left. How did you both connect before this film and what was it like working with him?
Actually, it's very similar to the movie. Danneel went back to One Tree Hill after I left to do a couple of episodes and she called me while I was pregnant with Gus and she was like, "Oh, I'm over here at the Wilmingtonian hanging out with some of the new castmembers. There's this kid here that you would really get along with. He's wimpy like you." And I was like, "Put him on the phone." Rob Buckley is very, very quick. He's very clever and smart and funny, and he's a great person to verbally spar with. We hit it off, but then we never spoke again. I wasn't on the show. I went off and became a mom. He was down in Wilmington. And so we met years later at a One Tree Hill convention in Paris and there we quickly realized, "Wow, we're gonna be best friends." That world brought us together and we would've been chaos on One Tree Hill. But now we're a few years older and a few years wiser. We had a lovely time on The Christmas Contract.
Besides your co-stars in The Christmas Contract, which other One Tree Hill costar would you like to collaborate with on a future project?
I think it's really important that Sophia [Bush], Joy [Lenz] and I do something together in the future. The true love story of One Tree Hill is that friendship-love story and in holiday programming, so much of the emphasis is put on the relationship between a woman and a man and I think that friendship love is something that I would like to profile in the future. So I want to work with my girls.
Last year, you and other members of the One Tree Hill cast and crew came forward to accuse Mark Schwahn of sexual harassment. The women from his other show The Royals also came forward about their own experiences. Why was it important for you to speak out about your experience?
There had been a number of conversations in the 10 years leading up to this where a couple of us would pair off every once in a while and say, "Should we say something?" I had been very vocal with the people in my world. Everyone in my world knew why I left. Subsequent jobs I worked, whether it was White Collar or Forever, they all knew what the deal was on One Tree Hill. It wasn't a secret that things were not good there. The climate of the #MeToo movement gave us permission to vocalize our concern and the flood of women coming forward really helped ease that fear of repercussion. When I left One Tree Hill, it had been pointed out to me that Nicollette Sheridan had spoken up against her boss at Desperate Housewives and she was never gonna work again and if I didn't want that to happen to me, I should just keep my mouth shut. That fear 10 years later had really kind of dissolved. I'm in a different place. I don't live in Los Angeles. So coming forward felt like a no-brainer. If anything, a number of us felt very guilty that we hadn't said anything before and that the girls on The Royals were experiencing what they were experiencing as a result of us staying silent. Having spoken up then, perhaps they could have avoided some of their interactions. It's a powerful lesson in speaking up because you never know who's going to suffer down the road because of your silence. A number of us carried guilt about that, and we still do. However, what I will say is that we have been forged in fire and we are a united front — not only publicly, but privately — and when anything happens in any of our lives, we have a text thread, we are in constant communication with each other. Those are my touchstones. Those are the people I go to, and I hope they consider me the same.
How was working on The Christmas Contract with the cast different than when you worked together on One Tree Hill, which has been described as a toxic environment?
This was a really light-hearted, fun set. Our director, Monika Mitchell, was such a great person to bring into our fold because she is really, really good at her job. She's quick on her feet. She's incredibly smart. She's so capable and she understood our dynamic and really celebrated it. There never was a wall built up around the One Tree Hill kids. She just jumped right in and was part of the club and is one of my favorite people to work with. What was great is that the other castmembers Daniel brought aboard added so much. Cheryl Ladd playing my mother and her daughter Jordan Ladd playing my sister, what an awesome experience. They were fantastic. And Bruce Boxleitner playing my father, with that deep voice that's so iconic. It was fun for me to meet people that I looked up to growing up, and that's another wonderful thing about this genre is that I usually get to work with people that I idolized as a little kid. So getting to work with them was such a delight and I think everyone could feel the family reunion vibes and particularly when you're doing a holiday film, that just makes going to work so much easier and more fun.
Are you surprised by how popular One Tree Hill still is 15 years after it premiered?
Yes. Had I known when I was 20 years old that the thing I was working on then was going to affect the rest of my life, I probably would have made different hair choices. I would've maybe fought for certain storylines more, although we did fight quite a bit. I just would've felt a deeper responsibility, and so I'm glad that the fan base has found it. I'm glad that they found the humanity in it because we fought pretty hard for that. I'm glad that they support the projects we've done after that. They are dedicated and we're dedicated to them and that's why we do conventions. We like seeing everybody.