Clea DuVall is having one of the biggest years of her career, even amid a pandemic. The out actor-director is gearing up for the digital release of Happiest Season, the star-studded queer Christmas movie she developed, co-wrote, and directed.
As a director, the film is DuVall’s sophomore feature and her first mainstream movie from a major studio. Happiest Season is also shattering one of Hollywood’s many lavender ceilings: It’s the first holiday-themed rom-com of its kind to center on a lesbian couple (Kristen Stewart’s Abby and Mackenzie Davis’s Harper).
NewNowNext caught up with DuVall via Zoom to chat about casting queer talent in queer roles, paying homage to a now-shuttered L.A. gay bar, and tapping two RuPaul’s Drag Race alumni for a very special cameo in Happiest Season.
This movie is everything you want from a Christmas movie, but I have to admit, I’m bummed I won’t get to see it in theaters! What has it been like promoting the film during a pandemic?
I actually really have been enjoying doing Zoom interviews. Everybody in their own homes, it makes it feel more intimate and personal. So that aspect of it is really nice, but I am also sad that this movie isn’t getting the theatrical release that we all hoped for. But then 2020 happened, you know? I feel so much better about people being able to watch this movie safely from their homes than taking any risk and going to a movie theater. It’s just, I wouldn’t go to a movie theater and I would never encourage someone else to go. So I think this is really, in the world we’re in, the best-case scenario.
Coming out to your family during the holidays is kind of a thing, myself included. Was that something you considered when writing the script?
It’s funny, I actually had completely forgotten that I came out to my mother on Christmas Day in a very dramatic way.
Oh my god!
Completely forgot — I think detached [myself] from that. And it wasn’t until we started doing press where I was like, “Hang on a second, I had a dramatic Christmas coming out myself!” So maybe it was my subconscious’ way of giving me some ideas. But, this movie was really born out of being such a fan of the genre of Christmas movies and romantic comedies but not feeling that I had ever seen myself really represented. So Happiest Season was really this incredible opportunity to tell a universal story that is warm and familiar from a new perspective.
There are so many incredible LGBTQ actors in this film — Kristen Stewart, Dan Levy, Aubrey Plaza, Victor Garber. Was it important to you to cast queer people in this movie, or were they just the right people for the roles?
It was both. I absolutely wanted to have queer actors in the film, and playing queer characters. But I’m an actor who has played a lot of straight roles and played gay roles, and I really also believe that you need to cast the right people for the parts. In the case of Mackenzie [Davis, who plays Harper], I didn’t know anything about her personally. I only really knew her work and she has played, some really iconic queer roles. She was the kind of actor that felt like the right person to play opposite Kristen and to inhabit this role of Harper that is a very complicated part. It’s by far the hardest part in the movie, and she’s such an incredible talent that I knew she would kill it.
This film contains so many unique relationship dynamics to watch as a viewer. What was your favorite to explore as a writer-director? I personally really loved Abby and Riley (Aubrey Plaza) — Harper’s current girlfriend and ex-GF, respectively — bonding.
Oh yeah. I really love their relationship because I do think there is this weird code. It’s that queer code where you’re in a place that is very, very straight, and then there’s one other queer person and you’re like… [Laughs, nods to camera]
And you give each other that “look.”
Yeah, exactly! But I haven’t really seen that very much on screen. So it felt like a great way into Harper’s life but also this queer experience of [seeing] someone who is like me and gravitating towards that person when the rest of the world is feeling…not as welcoming. Like, having someone there who you can get some comfort from.
Abby and Riley have this incredible heart-to-heart in a gay bar, which brought me so much joy and also made me miss gay bars.
I know. The name of the bar in the movie was actually the Oxwood. I based it on this gay bar in L.A. that’s not there anymore called the Oxwood. It was my favorite gay bar ever. I always went there and had such a wonderful time. And it was this place where I would end up having conversations with people who would tell me how much that place meant to them, and how they would live their lives during the week closeted and look forward to the Saturday night when they could go and be their authentic selves at the Oxwood.
I love that Jinkx Monsoon and BenDeLaCreme make cameos! How did that come about?
Jinkx is a friend of mine, and I met BenDeLaCreme at their holiday show a couple of years ago. I went to see their holiday show in L.A., and it has now become a tradition for my partner and I to go see it. We never miss holiday show, which I think they’re doing now this year virtually. That scene was really different in the initial script. And then, after seeing their show, I’m thinking about, “I would love to have them be a part of this and have them be a part of the scene,” where you could really feel like community — something that felt really, really queer. I wrote these parts for them and asked them both to be in it. And luckily, they said yes because they also… I gave them the songs they were performing, but they did the choreography on their own and came in and had this whole routine. I was like, “Boy, am I lucky.” Because I wouldn’t have known [what to do].
I spoke to Kristen on the set visit of Happiest Season in February, and she called the movie a “coming-out story.” How would you define this film?
What I think it is first and foremost is a Christmas movie, and then it’s a romantic comedy. And the way into that is through this relationship between these two women. I think it’s something that continues, it keeps unfolding as it goes on. And then it is also about this character coming out, and the journey from maybe going home and not being your best self, but being able to let go of those expectations and come into your own identity. You don’t really get to see a lot of uplifting coming-out stories, and to be able to tell a very uplifting, warm, bright movie in this familiar setting that anybody who watches this movie can connect with… it feels nostalgic and familiar, yet it’s a story that people aren’t really used to seeing.
And at the end of the day, it’s a rom-com, so you know, like, “Okay, it’s going to end on a happy note.”
Yes. As queer people, being able to also have a movie with a happy ending — I think it’s huge. There are so many beautiful, tragic love stories where I cry my eyes out, but I’m like, “But at least they had that moment!” But this [movie] is like, “No. As queer people, we deserve a happy ending too.”
Happiest Season premieres November 25 on Hulu.