Jessica Szohr And Hilary Farr On Romantic Renovation In Designing Christmas - Exclusive Interview

For serious cinephiles, one of the worst things one can say about a production is that it's formulaic and predictable, but let's be honest: There are times when formulaic and predictable are what we crave. Take Christmas movies: Boy meets girl, boy and girl muddle through a bunch of obstacles, then love finally triumphs — all in a cozy atmosphere of twinkling Christmas lights and red-and-green velvet. There are also home renovation shows — a pair of skilled, charming renovators turn a dumpster file of a house into a showcase worthy of Architectural Digest while staying on schedule and under budget. Both genres guarantee happy endings, and sometimes, that's exactly what a stressed-out soul needs at the end of a hectic day.

This year, HGTV decided to try something a bit different, combining the two popular genres to create the network's first scripted Christmas romance, "Designing Christmas." In the movie, which features "Gossip Girl" star Jessica Szohr and popular HGTV host Hilary Farr, Szohr plays Stella, the designer half of a renovation team at the center of a struggling home-renovation show, while Farr plays Freddy, her professional and personal mentor. When a homeowner backs out of a planned Christmas episode, Stella and her TV partner Pablo end up using Stella's decaying family home as the project house instead — and the pressure of the project brings them closer than either expected or wanted. 

In this exclusive interview, Szohr and Farr discuss what it was like to mix romance and renovation.

The idea of a doing a Christmas movie appealed to both of them

How did the concept of "Designing Christmas" come about and how did you get involved in the project?

Jessica Szohr: I got a call from my agent saying they were shooting a Christmas movie in June in Canada. Would I be interested in reading the script? I'm like, "I almost can tell you right now, I'm probably going to do it before reading it." You have to read the script, but I love Canadians, I love Christmas, and I thought, "How fun would it be to go to shoot a movie where my fiancé's from?" an hour from where we shot.

I read it. I thought the story was super cute and charming, and I liked that it had something to do with a show in a movie. When they said Hilary was potentially going to be doing it and told me the other cast, it was a no-brainer. The story was cute, the producers were great.

It's also amazing to be a part of the Discovery+ world and family now, because it's all these new networks and streaming services and all these umbrellas. There's so much going on, and Discovery is a really great company and place to be a part of and part of the family. It was a no-brainer. Go do this movie, have fun, work with incredible people, and Christmas is my favorite holiday and favorite time of year, so I was super pumped from the beginning.

Hilary Farr: That was an incredibly long answer, and I don't have as much to say. All I'm going to be doing is, she's so good. I'm going to jump in and right back out again.

I was involved because Jane Latman, which is the VP, asked me months before even the script if I would consider doing a Christmas movie. The answer was very similar to Jessica's: "Yes, why not?" Depending on timing, mostly, that was my biggest concern. As soon as I was talking with the production team and the wonderful writer of the script, I knew I wanted to do it. The real kicker and clincher was they said I could bring my dog.

Ah, that's important.

Jessica: Perfect.

Hilary: A big deal.

For Jessica Szohr, Designing Christmas was a chance to experience her girlhood dream job

Jessica, I understand that you wanted to be an interior designer when you were younger, so what was it like for you to play a designer in "Designing Christmas"?

Jessica: It was amazing and awesome. Making the houses that you live in a home was so special because you spend so much time there. It should definitely feel like a place where you're comfortable and a good vibe and good energy and good colors, and it was super exciting. To work with the lovely Hilary was amazing, so it was great. It felt really like we were tearing down walls and putting up wallpaper. It felt like I was a proper interior designer, not just acting as one because we were really doing a lot of the stunts ourselves and putting in this home together, so it was super fun.

Hilary: Yeah, the nice thing about it was that it was not just you taking on the persona of an interior designer. You were taking on the madness that comes with that when you're doing a television show and the deadlines are actually real deadlines.

That's the pressure element that most designers can't even comprehend. That was a nice extra layer to what you had to do and what you were showing in the audience.

Designing Christmas also captured the real-life frenzy of shooting a renovation show

Jessica: It was interesting to see that, because it was a whole other side that you really don't know unless you do it, which I didn't. To see what goes into it is fascinating and insane and it's crazy because it's very intense, hard work, and with a short time, it's almost on the other end of making a movie. There's a lot of work, long hours to be put into a timeframe. It was quite fascinating to see what all goes into it from start to finish.

I know, we only picked the meaty parts to put in the film, so I'm sure you're probably laughing, Hilary, that there's even more that I don't know. It was great. It was really fun, and in the house that we were in, this old Victorian house, that was Stella's family's was beautiful, and the yard was amazing. I've had a really great experience with all of it.

Hilary: I will say this one thing, which it's always important to acknowledge: We had a tremendous team [for] building whatever we needed to be able to make this into a truly convincing, terrifying moment of reveal and the equally terrifying moment of Jessica in her character going into this house with everything boarded up and pulling down drywall.

The team was extraordinary. I have to say, behind the scenes, they were every bit of support that either one of us needed, and kudos to them.

It's clear there's a lot of work that went into this. Hilary, as a designer and TV host yourself, did you have any role in ensuring the script portrayed the interior design world and the TV production world accurately?

Hilary: Yes, and that was one of the reasons that I was speaking with the writer and the team ahead of time, to flag things that I felt were a little bit playing with reality too much or were playing not quite right. He was very informed, I must tell you, and everybody there was in terms of renovations. I did have input.  Actually, Jessica asked me something at one point.

Jessica Szohr valued Hilary Farr's mentorship about the design world

Jessica: I remember we were in the scene, the kitchen, and there was a line, or the way I was moving towards it, I'm like, "Would I check that first or I check this first and am I saying it properly?" because that's very important when you're portraying something, whether it's a nurse or an interior designer, that the dialogue is correct and that you're moving in a way that you would to sell what we're doing.

You helped me and corrected to make sure it was done how you would do [it] in the real situation. It was very helpful, and you're very direct and to the point, because the way you explained it to me, it hit home and was great. It wasn't a long, drawn-out answer or we didn't have to take 45 minutes. You were like, "Say it like this and do it like this, and we got it." I'm like, "Okay, let's move on."

Hilary: Exactly. If you're informed, then you have confidence, and you are fully embracing whatever it is that you have to sell as you say. The other thing is that Jessica's character [is] supposed to be an engineering genius as well. You were being given all sorts of dialogue and information. We've pulled it off. I felt really good, and you know a lot anyway. It was fun. It felt very collaborative in a good way.

There's not much room for romance on real renovation shows

Hillary, the storyline of the movie seemed really meta for HGTV.  I'm curious, is this based in any way on real life events? Does this kind of behind-the-scenes drama ever happen on real-life home improvement shows?

Hilary: It depends on how good-looking the contractor is. Since they usually aren't — sorry, that'll be my contractor who'll get very insulted by that — no, there isn't usually quite that much because there's so much personal angst that is causing so much of the drama [in "Designing Christmas"], which is Jessica trying to retain this home of this grandmother that she loves so much and the memories that she has. It's not just four walls, as it typically would be on a show, so she's already emotionally tied to this house, which is definitely not a layer of any home show, generally.

On top of which, she's got this love triangle thing happening. I don't think we'd get very far with all that going on with any of us. We'd have more fun, possibly, but no is the answer. The drama usually comes from me saying, "No, the tile is in upside down. Despite my giving you instruction, you now have to uninstall it and put it in the right way." That's the sort of drama that I deal with.

Jessica: There's probably more love triangles or things on TV and movie sets. A lot of actors meet on film sets and TV sets [aren't] redoing a home with cameras around, but you never know.

Hilary: With luck, you would know. I don't personally have any connection to any of my contractors in spite of standing out and thinking, "Gosh, he's cute." He's usually got five children and a marriage happening, so he's really just a contractor. That sort of thing doesn't happen, but I will say that [Jessica's relationship] had a slow burn, clearly, for at least one season of doing a show. That is very bonding. It's very realistic, I believe, that there would be a little frisson going on between these two, wherever it leads.

The romance in Designing Christmas felt natural to Jessica Szohr

Jessica: The way they wrote it felt very [realistic] when I was on the page before we even filmed it — very organic. They have this very comfortable dynamic with each other.

They know each other really well, and they don't even realize that they know each other that well. All of a sudden, one night they're sitting after a job after a long day and she's like, "You think you know me?" and he's like, "Well, I'm a contractor and I pay attention to detail," and he knows all these things about me that I never realized and I don't even know if he did. All of a sudden, there's this person that's been in front of me, for years, doing this show, and we're working 15, 16 hours a day.

We never realized that maybe he was the one for me or I'm the one for him. The way I felt the words on the page when I read it, where we filmed it, it felt like the relationship moved organically. Also, given the history that they had that's not in the movie, you can tell the chemistry with them from the beginning is there. You feel right away like, "They've known each other for a long time." The way it played out and was written was very organic for us to play with.

Hilary Farr had no hand in the design choices in Designing Christmas

Both of you have an interest in design, so how much of your own design sensibilities are reflected in the movie?

Hilary: Zero.

Jessica: Hilary's more than mine because the days to film stuff [are] so you can't all of a sudden come on and be like, "We can't use this rug," because it has to be cleared and it has to fit the set and it has to [match] the sweater that Stella's wearing, so there's a lot more that goes into the technical side of us filming than our actual style or opinions. I had nothing.

Hilary: It doesn't, because in reality, it's a very small renovation. There's nothing much that happens in terms of a show. It wouldn't be enough for our average shows to carry a six-minute regular show.

What I do very much like, though, was the aesthetic that got to be shared with an audience, which is you don't strip out old features, you don't necessarily paint over beautiful wood, although that's my instinct to do it. It was a very nice message of restoring and appreciating and designing with the environment in mind, so that you're not throwing everything out and putting in new [material]. I love that this was the design direction that we had to go in, which was coming from an emotional level that Jessica's character was feeling about this home, but it's a good message to share.

There's a lot of things in there I embraced. It's very charming.

The renovations in Designing Christmas weren't what they appeared to be

Jessica: Yeah, it was charming. It's also funny though, because when I walked in the kitchen, I'm taken away and blown away by it. It really did look beautiful and amazing. It's definitely a kitchen I would put in one of my homes, but then you walk in and you open the cupboard and it's plaster. It's not a proper cabinet or cupboard in the kitchen. There's a lot of movie magic happening to make everything look great.

To what Hilary said earlier, everyone working on the film from the design side and the construction and everything, and the DP, they did a brilliant job where it does look amazing. In reality, some of the stuff was taped up there.

Hilary: One of the choices, which was to put in herringbone butcher block countertops, the star of the renovation, wasn't inspired by me. It was a design chitchat with the team where the direction was established between everybody, and then they ran with it, and that's what they came up with. It was quite wonderful.

Making a would-be cheater sympathetic was interesting for Jessica Szohr

Jessica, your character is pretty emotionally complicated, and not everyone's going to be sympathetic to someone who's pretty much on the verge of cheating on her fiancé. How did you navigate that as an actor?

Jessica: I thought the same thing in the beginning too, because it's a love story and in the end, you realize that the person that she really does care for was in front of her the whole time. Stella was trying to do the right thing and ride it out. In the end, had she went forward with her marriage, even though she had feelings for someone else, that would've been the wrong thing to do.

When she kisses Pablo and she goes to tell Freddy and say, "Oh my God, but I kissed him" and she's like, "Shut up!", she knows it's wrong. She knows,. She doesn't want anyone to hear it.

I was trying to tell you the truth of it, that she's going through a lot of emotions. They're bringing back a lot of emotions, going to this house that she grew up in. She doesn't have her father there who she was very close with, and she's in a love triangle with someone that she thinks on paper, and because she's been with for a long time, is the right thing to do.

There's this other person that she connects with and knows her better, and she knows him more on an intellectual real level of who she thinks she didn't realize she should be with. She did the right thing by not going forward and getting married when her feelings were somewhere else.

I could see where people would be like, "Ah, this is tough." When the kiss happened, it caught her off guard, but had that kiss not happened, maybe she would've been married to someone who it wasn't going to work out with in the end.

"Designing Christmas" is now streaming on Discovery+.

This interview has been edited for clarity.