Sarah Drew Gives Us An Inside Look At Reindeer Games Homecoming - Exclusive Interview

As Santa begins packing up his sleigh this season, a small town in Indiana is gearing up for its annual community competition in Lifetime's new movie "Reindeer Games Homecoming."

The film follows a woman named Mac, the reigning champion of the Kris Kringle Cup. This year, however, her high school crush, now a Hollywood star, has come to town — and quickly turns into her competition. Mac is willing to do whatever it takes to push her feelings for him aside as she competes to win the same set of Reindeer Games that her father did before he passed away.

"Reindeer Games Homecoming" is a personal story for the film's star, Sarah Drew. Not only is she the leading lady, but she also wrote the script herself. We had the opportunity to sit down with the past "Grey's Anatomy" actress to ask all about what it was like writing her very first film.

In an exclusive interview with The List, Drew shared the real-life inspiration behind her character, Mac, told us what it was like reuniting with actor Justin Bruening for a third project, and discussed if we'll ever get the chance to see her return to "Grey's Anatomy."

The true inspiration behind her Christmas film

What inspired you to write "Reindeer Games Homecoming"?

I was working on another Christmas movie called "Twinkle All the Way," and I had such a blast working with that team of people. While we were on set, we were all talking about, "Wouldn't it be fun to write our own?"

I got home, I came up with this outline, and I pitched it to my producers from "Twinkle All the Way," Stephanie [Slack] and Margaret [H. Huddleston]. I had a very detailed outline and a very clear picture and vision for what I wanted the story to be. I assumed, "We'll just hire a writer." They said, "No. You should go home, buy Final Draft, and write it yourself. You know this story. You know this world. We believe you can do it."

I had my first draft written in three weeks. I had a very clear outline. I'd even written bits of scenes inside of the outline already.

The idea was inspired by ... My husband went to Dartmouth, and they have this thing every winter called the Winter Carnival, where the whole university participates. They have teams, and they compete, and they do things like [a] human dog sled race and [a] polar bear plunge, except they're jumping into a frozen-over pond, into a hole cut out in the middle of a frozen-over pond, which was originally what was scripted for my movie, but we couldn't shoot in the winter. That didn't work out. [Laughs]

How Sarah Drew chose the Reindeer Games we see on screen

There is so much physicality to your role because of the challenges that you were doing. How did you choose which Reindeer Games to include?

I wanted things that felt absurd and fun and high octane. It's not an action movie, but you don't get big action sequences in Christmas movies, usually. I thought it would be really fun.

I've always been a big fan of games. I'm super competitive. The idea of bringing an entire community together to do something that's silly and creative — it's fun to me.

I like the costume elements. That's what I love so much. If you tell me that your party [has] a theme, I will be there. I'm less interested in a non-themed party. [Laughs]

Was there a Reindeer Game that was your favorite to film?

Probably the human dog sled derby. I showed up on set and was so blown away by what an incredible job our production designer [Joey Gunn] did on creating these buggies, these go-karts. We were supposed to shoot in winter, so it was going to be a sled race on snow, [but] we couldn't do that.

I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know how it would all turn out, given that we were not shooting in wintertime. It wound up looking so great, and the details were so fantastic.

Then showing up on set and seeing the tremendous job that our wardrobe designer had done on all the different themed costumes for all the different teams — it made me so happy. It's like being a kid again.

The scene that made Sarah Drew 'nervous'

How cold was that water for the polar bear plunge? You said it wasn't during the winter.

It wasn't during the winter, but it was still very cold. [Laughs] Randomly, on that day, it was 80 degrees, which it had not been, but unbelievably, it turned out to be a really warm, sunny, beautiful day.

There were actually people outside in bathing suits being like, "We have arrived at warm weather here in Canada." [Laughs] So we were trying to block them. I was like, "No, it's winter!"

It was still very cold, and I got really nervous as the moment was approaching because by the time we ran into the water, the sun had gone down. It was a little crazy. It felt a little intense to ... Actually, Justin was like, "You've got this. You've got this." He was doing the opposite of what my character was doing for him. We role-reversed when we were getting ready to leap into the water.

But once I was in there, and we had to go back out and run back in a couple more times and then do some shots, [I realized] it's a mind-over-matter thing. You're like, "Okay, this is my experience now. There's no way I can't do this. I wrote it. I must."

So I did, and I'm like, "Okay, I'm living this reality right now. This is my reality."

Her character, Mac, is modeled after her mother

Another big aspect of the film is the crossword puzzles. How challenging was it to come up with such clever clues and puzzles throughout the movie for Mac to do?

My mom is a huge puzzler, and in fact, Mac is designed in a lot of ways after my mom. She also was my biology and AP biology teacher and is a brilliant scientist who has her PhD. She did scientific research before she started teaching. There was a time in her life when she thought she might go into the medical field. She has a million of those T-shirts that have silly science jokes on them. A lot of Mac is wrapped up in my mom.

We'll be around the table at Christmastime, and my husband and my son now and my mom will sit and puzzle — do crossword puzzles, do word puzzles. They're really into that stuff. I got a lot of help from her, and I got help from my husband as well in coming up with the different clues and things like that.

How being an actress changed her perspective as a writer

Did it help coming from an actor's perspective when you were writing dialogue or any plot points that you knew you'd actually have to depict on screen?

Yeah. For one thing, I wanted to make it as big and fun and quick-moving as a ... I wanted it to be a fun ride. I wanted it to be funny and sexy and moving. I wanted to have all those different colors of the emotional experience in these characters. Finding the paths to take was fun.

When I showed up on set, realizing that I did in fact need to be on screen in a bathing suit jumping into freezing-cold water, did I freak out a little bit? Yes. [Laughs] When I was writing it, I was like, "This will be so cool." I wasn't really putting it together that yes, in fact, that will be me doing that thing. I just wanted to make a fun story, and then I had to deal with the repercussions. [Laughs]

A typical day on set for Sarah Drew

What was your day-to-day [routine] like as the star and the writer and an executive producer of "Reindeer Games Homecoming"?

This is the first time that I've been with a production from the very, very, very beginning. I've produced before, but on the movie I produced before ["Indivisible"], I came in later in the process. This is the one where I had my hands in every single aspect of every creative decision that was being made in every single conversation.

It was a huge education for me. I learned some incredible things about myself, one of which is the greatest lesson I learned, [which is] that I have a really good knack for pivoting without getting too emotional about stuff, which was a lovely thing to discover.

When you're working [with] the budget that we work [with] on these movies, sometimes something in the script has to move [in] another direction because we don't have the budget for this or that. There is a constant ... Even if it's not a budget thing, when you're in the creative leadership process of a project, you are required to constantly be problem-solving. On top of doing the acting job that I'm there to do, I'm also problem-solving, and I'm also coming up with new solutions, and I'm also doing a little rewrite here, a little rewrite there if I need to.

The day-to-day [routine] is that I was activated on all cylinders all the time. There was very little [time to] chill out, rest, relax. I basically slept all weekend for all the times that I was there. I was like, "I'm not going and doing anything, except maybe going out to dinner one night." It's very activating, and I felt very alive.

From a writer's perspective, you can get so attached. That story is your baby. To be able to pivot is an amazing skill to have in this business.

That was the biggest thing I learned. The other thing, [which] I've always known I'm good at, is collaboration. My ego doesn't get in the way often, because I've witnessed enough times when I see ego getting in the way, and then the work suffers, that I'm like, "I'm not going to do that. That's not interesting." 

I want the project to be the best it can be. I'm a very big believer in "best idea wins." If someone's offering something or someone's giving a note, my wheels are immediately turning: "How does this make this work better?" "Do we still need that?" "Actually, I love that idea. Let's do that." But also, "What we need to preserve is this other thing, because of A, B, and C." I'm like, "But yes, what you just said makes it better, so let's do that."

I had moments of little heartbreak here and there for sure, but all in all, it was a very exciting process, learning how to go, "Okay, we can't do that. What are we going to do instead? And how do we make it sing still?"

On reuniting with Justin Bruening

You starred alongside Justin Bruening in this movie. You two have also played love interests in "Grey's Anatomy" and "Indivisible." What was it like to be reunited for "Reindeer Games Homecoming"?

It was so fun. I love Justin. Justin and I have now been working together for a decade. We have a really amazing, immediate chemistry [and a] sort of [short]hand, the way that we can talk about stuff. We are both big talkers about what's going on [with] the character and how the characters' twists and turns are happening, and we're big processors after the fact. Often, we would ride home in the same car together from set, and we would blah, blah, blah, blah, blah about what we had just shot. [Laughs]

He's one of the best. He's such a good human, and he is a tremendous collaborator. He's such a team player. On "Indivisible," I remember, we were running behind. There was a set piece that wasn't immediately done, and we were supposed to start shooting, so he grabbed a drill and started helping. That's him. That is who Justin is.

Knowing that this was a huge movie to shoot in 15 days, I knew that I needed a real team player by my side to be a go-getter, and he absolutely was. We adore working together. It's always a joy.

What's coming up next for Sarah Drew

You popped up in the Season 18 finale of "Grey's Anatomy" earlier this year. Is there a chance we'll see your character, April Kepner, again eventually?

I don't know. Not that I know of. Even for the 400th episode, I was called [about] three weeks before I was on set to shoot. It often happens very quickly, if it does. I always love popping back in there and saying hello. It's always really, really good to see everybody.

You've also talked publicly about wanting a spin-off series about April and Jackson. Is that a possibility? What do you want to see happen in that series?

A lot of people keep asking me about that. I'm not in charge. I know Jesse [Williams, who plays Jackson] and I have both spoken at various different times about how cool we think that series would be and how much fun it would be to do something like that, but it's definitely not in our hands. It's not something I'm interested in diving in[to] and writing myself. [Laughs] It's up to the powers that be.

Jesse and I love working together too, so it would be really fun to do it if it worked out.

Do you want to write another Christmas movie again soon?

Yes, maybe. I'm working on a few other writing projects right now. I do have a Christmas pitch, and I have another movie for Lifetime that I'll be doing next year, but I'm not sure what that movie will be yet, Christmas-wise. Everything is up in the air, but I'm still very much in writer land.

I'm shooting a movie right now, actually. I'm in the middle of shooting a Western that I'm also producing. I had to take a break from brainstorming about writing to do this, and then I'll get back to it in November when I'm home.

"Reindeer Games Homecoming" premieres Saturday, November 12 at 8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT on Lifetime.

This interview has been edited for clarity.