Clea DuVall and Natasha Lyonne Discuss the Subtle Rebellion of Happiest Season
With her new film, Happiest Season, Clea DuVall has pulled off the tricky artistic feat of making the familiar feel fresh. Particularly in Hollywood, where formula reigns supreme, Duvall’s second film as a writer and director feels like a small miracle. Her goal after the success of her 2016 debut, The Intervention, was “to tell a universal story from a new perspective,” and in Happiest Season, she does so by putting a lesbian couple at the center of a movie that otherwise has all the touchstones of a typical holiday rom-com. Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis star as Abby and Harper, a young couple coasting on the bliss of their relationship, until Harper invites Abby to her family’s home for the holidays. What Abby doesn’t realize is that Harper hasn’t yet come out to her conservative-leaning parents, and, when they arrive, she is introduced to the family as Harper’s roommate. From there, amidst rollicking ice skating set-pieces and uncomfortable family dinners, painful truths emerge. It’s a scenario that DuVall, who is gay, has found herself on both sides of, which allowed her to approach the story with an honesty and insight that elevates the movie beyond pure entertainment (although it is also very much that). Here, DuVall connects with Natasha Lyonne, her longtime friend, fellow actor-turned-filmmaker, and former costar in But I’m a Cheerleader (an iconic addition to the queer film canon), to discuss the movie’s genesis, the chemistry between her leads, and why labelling Happiest Season a “gay rom-com” is complicated. —BEN BARNA
NATASHA LYONNE: Hello, Clea DuVall.
CLEA DUVALL: Hello, Natasha Lyonne.
LYONNE: Huge fan of the movie. Very excited to talk to you about it, and very excited for the world to see it. It really exemplifies your vision for how you want to see the world change, and you did such a beautiful job on it and I’m so proud to be your BFF.
DUVALL: Thank you.
LYONNE: How did you come up with the idea for it?
DUVALL: I’m a huge fan of Christmas movies, but I’ve never seen my experience represented. After The Intervention, which you and I made together, when I started thinking about what I wanted to do next, this film felt like a great opportunity to tell a universal story from a new perspective. I had this idea that was sort of based on my own experiences of going home with people and being the “friend,” or me asking people to be the “friend.” I’ve definitely been on every side of this. The story just unfolded for me and I wrote an outline for it. When I was working on Veep, I met Mary Holland. She and I had this very easy rapport and she made me laugh and she’s such a talented actor and such a great comedian. I asked her if she wanted to work with me on writing the script and she said yes. And then we took my outline and ran with it.
LYONNE: How many years ago did you write that first seed of the idea? I think it’s so helpful for the kids at home to know how long it really takes to bring a dream to life.
DUVALL: I wrote it right after we made our movie, which must have been in 2015.
LYONNE: And now it’s 2027, for context.
LYONNE: Wow, so 12 years, huh?
DUVALL: Yeah, 12 years ago.
LYONNE: That’s really something. So it took you about four years in what we’ll call human math. I’m grateful that you continue to refer to The Intervention as our movie, even though the reader should be aware that it’s strictly Clea’s movie as the writer, director, producer, and star of the film. What tools or knowledge did you bring with you to Happiest Season that you didn’t have when you made your first feature?
DUVALL: What I learned very quickly on The Intervention is that acting and directing is not really something that I want to do. Going into Happiest Season knowing there was never a point where I was going to be in it was very liberating, and allowed me to take any attention off myself and put everything into the film and to be able to support my cast and crew in a way that, on The Intervention, I just didn’t have the bandwidth to do. I’m an actor who really relies on my directors to help make sure I’m on the right track, and to not have that is very destabilizing.
LYONNE: I identify with that. On this Sarah Cooper thing that I just directed [the Netflix special Sarah Cooper: Everything’s Fine], if I had to go from de-masking to being on camera it would have been really scary. To be completely inside any one of those jobs is so all-consuming. Have you had any experiences like the one we see in the film?
DUVALL: I’ve spent the majority of my Christmases with other people’s families. It’s a very odd thing. You really see sides of your partner that you don’t see for the rest of the year.
LYONNE: How did you go about casting Mackenzie [Davis] and Kristen [Stewart], who are both so great in this movie that it feels like, “Are they dating in real life?” What’s so great about them as a couple is that they both are such complicated, incredible women, in addition to being, as respectfully as I could say, incredibly hot women. What a fucking ultimate couple.
DUVALL: Kristen was the first person I cast. Even though this is a romantic comedy and it’s very light and warm, it’s really about something. I wanted to hire actors who could play the complexity of what was happening underneath everything else. Kristen is someone who I really admired and who I think always makes such interesting, bold choices in terms of projects that she takes on. I sent her the script and she was in Germany filming Charlie’s Angels, so I went out there to meet with her and we spent two very late nights going through the script and talking about the movie and the character. I already knew that she was who I wanted, but after sending this to her, she was the only person who could play that part.
LYONNE: I’ve seen you play Mafia with Mackenzie. I know that she really excels at that game, and so do you. Did you guys meet playing Mafia?
DUVALL: I actually had not met Mackenzie before this movie. I remember seeing her for the first time in The Martian, and the second she came on the screen, I was like, “Who is this incredible human being?” I just wanted more of her. Anything she was in, I would watch. She has this incredible ability to create women I’ve never seen before. It’s such an exciting thing when I see an actor who brings a character that represents a completely new kind of human being. I feel like Mackenzie always does that, and Harper is a very difficult part, because she’s asking a lot of Abby and the audience. We’re also meeting her at this turning point in her life where she’s maybe not making the decisions we want her to be making, but they’re necessary and they’re messy. Being able to have an actor who’s able to play all the different layers of that and still maintain their own humanity, I thought that was really beautiful.
LYONNE: I love her, too. She’s so good at crossword puzzles and reading books, and those are the two key components to being an excellent human being. This movie is already been labeled a “gay rom-com” in the press. Do you feel like, “Hey, it’s 2024, why are we still doing this?” Or do you feel like it’s important?
DUVALL: I understand why people do it, but it is a way of othering. This is not something that has been made on the studio level, so it’s complicated. I, as a gay person, need this movie because I want to see a genre of movie that I love reflect my life. I am a gay person, Natasha.
LYONNE: Clea, let’s not do any sort of surprises because I’m just trying to have my day, and now I just feel like you’re dropping bombs. It’s interesting because this movie has never existed before, so it’s worth mentioning so that people feel seen. Representation matters.
DUVALL: I’m very proud that this is a rom-com that centers on the gay couple, and there aren’t that many, so that’s why people do talk about it. I do think in time, telling stories that are not told from the perspective that they have historically been told from just becomes the norm.
LYONNE: But then again, that’s what’s so subversive about your world domination. Typically, when these movies exist, they are sort of othered and they are meant to be seen on a small scale. What you’ve done with the concept of the movie and the execution is so brilliant. You’re like, “No, this is a big movie,” meaning that everybody can enjoy this movie in the same way that we can all enjoy It’s a Wonderful Life. It just so happens that it’s not Tom and Tina, it’s Tina and Tina. You’re inviting everybody in to say, “I think we’re ready for this now, right guys? Can we handle it?” The act of rebellion becomes just subtle enough to have everyone participate in it. It’s just awesome.
DUVALL: I wanted to create a film that anyone would be able to connect with, in the same way that I’ve spent my entire life watching Christmas movies that don’t represent my experience in any way, and yet I watch them every year.
LYONNE: So much of what we talk about is that little girl who’s the outsider. Little us needing to be able to know that we’re not alone and that there’s hope on the other side of those weird, outsider feelings. What do you hope that they get from this movie?
DUVALL: I hope that people feel seen. I think about when you and I had the privilege of making But I’m a Cheerleader. We’ve spent the last 20 years seeing how it’s impacted people’s lives in a positive way. That’s very meaningful to me. It definitely informed the kinds of stories that I want to tell.
LYONNE: What did you feel like when this movie wrapped?
DUVALL: I felt a tremendous amount of relief and accomplishment because we made this movie for less than we thought we were going to, and we had not as many days as we thought we were going to. Every single day of the shoot I would just look at the schedule and go, “I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but we’re going to do it.” I would begin every single day with a pit in my stomach thinking, “Are we going to get what we need to tell the story?” And somehow, miraculously, every day we would, without having to work insane hours. It was a testament to the cast and the crew.
LYONNE: It’s also a testament to you. People may or may not know this about you, but you are just so fucking on top of shit. Clea DuVall does not fuck around in terms of hitting deadlines and budgets. I’m always so in awe of how clean a thinker you are and how efficient and decisive and sure of your vision you are. That extends to us on a road trip. If we’re on a road trip and we’re driving to Vegas, and then I say, “Take a nap, I’ll take the wheel,” we may end up in Arizona. That’s only half the fun. And then all you need to do is wake up and I’ll be like, “Hey, Clea, I don’t think this is Vegas.” And then you’re like, “Hold on, let me drive.” And the next thing you know, we’re in Vegas.
DUVALL: [Laughs] We got there.
LYONNE: How did you get all of these incredible actors? It’s chockablock with movie stars.
DUVALL: Some of the people I knew already, so I reached out to them to see if they wanted to be involved, and luckily they did. Then there were other people I didn’t know who were passionate about the script and what the movie was doing, and it being the first of its kind. I was very moved by the reaction we got when we started sending out the script.
LYONNE: I love Aubrey Plaza in this movie so much. Obviously, she’s such a ridiculously funny person and she’s proven 20 times over in the past few years just how great she is as a solid, multi-leveled actor. It’s really satisfying seeing the truth emanate from somebody and bringing a character to life with such ease.
DUVALL: My very favorite shot in the movie is of her.
LYONNE: Can you describe it?
DUVALL: I kind of don’t want to. I’ve never told anyone that.
LYONNE: Okay. They say secrets are the sauce of pasta.
DUVALL: I just love her. I want to work with her over and over again.
LYONNE: Speaking of excellent acting, obviously you, Clea DuVall, are one of our great actors in shows like Veep, Better Call Saul, and The Handmaid’s Tale. Some of the best shows on TV. You recently announced that you’re co-creating a series with Tegan and Sara, long-time friends and collaborators of yours. Are you excited to go on to actually make one of the best shows on TV?
DUVALL: I am. I loved that book [High School] so much. I had such a visceral reaction reading it, and to be able to tell this kind of story is very, very exciting to me, and I love them. I feel like we bring out great things creatively in each other.
LYONNE: And it’s not your only TV show, is it honey? Tell us about your other show.
DUVALL: It’s called Housebroken and it’s an animated show for Fox. It’s so silly.
LYONNE: You co-created and wrote it with some of the writers from Veep, yeah?
DUVALL: Yeah. With Jen Crittenden and Gabby Allan, who I met while I was working on Veep. We created it together and I write on it and do a voice on it, which is my first time doing voice acting, which is really fun. Our cast is incredible. Getting to work with Lisa Kudrow is just an absolute dream. I think she’s a genius. I’ve never done any kind of animation before, so it’s a really fun thing to write for as well because you don’t have to worry about the sun going down or your budget.
LYONNE: Well, Clea, I know we talk about it in private, but I just want to say that I’m so blown away by you. What an inspiring, life-affirming thing to have, this friendship that’s been a 20-plus-year evolution of getting to be on this ride with you. I love that we get to have all our aggro conversations about post-production.
DUVALL: It’s really inspiring to have you as a sounding board and to be your sounding board. I’m just so proud of us. When we were those little delinquents, who knew?
LYONNE: Who knew!
Happiest Season is available to stream November 25 on Hulu.