Melissa Joan Hart, Rita Moreno And Emily Kinney Talk Lifetime's Santa Bootcamp - Exclusive Interview

It's a Wonderful Lifetime is back for the holiday season with an impressive slate of original Christmas movies. One such holiday flick is "Santa Bootcamp," directed by TV legend Melissa Joan Hart and starring "West Side Story" icon Rita Moreno alongside "The Walking Dead" star Emily Kinney.

"Santa Bootcamp" follows Emily Strauss (Kinney), who is hired by a shopping mall magnate to plan an impressive Christmas gala, featuring the best Santa Claus she can find. To find the perfect St. Nick, Emily decides to attend Santa Bootcamp, where she meets the enigmatic Belle (Moreno), an expert at training Santa Claus performers for the holiday season. Discussing the new movie, Moreno tells The List, "You know it's going to end well, because that's why people love Lifetime so much. Everything is always filled with hope and affection and love." 

However, "Santa Bootcamp" isn't without its surprises, and this magic is what drew Moreno to the script. "I'm filled with movie lore fascinations," she explains. "I love the way movies are made. I love when little tricks fool us."

In an exclusive interview with The List, "Santa Bootcamp" director Melissa Joan Hart, and stars Rita Moreno and Emily Kinney, discuss their magical Christmas movie, whether "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" and "Clarissa Explains It All" will ever return, and Moreno's experience starring in Steven Spielberg's remake of "West Side Story."

Signing up for Santa Bootcamp

What drew you all to "Santa Bootcamp"?

Rita Moreno: I go first because I'm the oldest. I loved the idea of doing a Christmas movie. I've never done one. I've never been asked before. When I heard that Melissa [Joan Hart] was directing, I thought, "This is good." I saw a lot of female names and I thought, "This is really special. This is going to be special," [and] indeed, it was. I loved playing [Belle], and I especially loved working with Melissa, because she did something that not a lot of directors will allow. She allowed me to improvise little bits and pieces here and there and because I wanted to make the character as me as possible. She allowed the character to be smart, and I loved that. 

Then, there's this beautiful creature [Emily Kinney] with that gorgeous hair and those eyes. She's an absolute joy to be with in the movie. What could be bad? I sound very Jewish.

Melissa Joan Hart: This is 42 years now, married to a Jewish man. It makes sense.

Emily Kinney: I really wanted to work with Rita and Melissa. I'm fans of both of them. That was the first thing. When I read the script — I have never been in a Christmas movie either. I loved how playful it was, and the magical moments and those elements. It was really fun. I liked the challenge of using ASL [American Sign Language] — that was challenging and really satisfying to work on. 

Moreno: It was really amazing how you learned sign language. You made it look like you had been doing it all your life.

Hart: She worked really hard.

Moreno: I have arthritis, so you can't make this finger do what you want it to do. You were fabulous with that. I was so impressed.

Hart: It's so rare to find a movie in this genre these days that hasn't been done. This script was a new fresh story. I love that it's a romance, but it's about these two women. It's a story of one woman teaching the other one about the joy of Christmas. Normally, you see it in the romantic elements of these movies. In this one, it was these two females coming together.

Rita Moreno is 'boy crazy'

Hart: It also had a lot of comedy, which I don't get to do a lot. Emily killed it with the comedy. Rita's [character Belle] is a firecracker. Finding an actress that can walk that line of being funny and sarcastic, but being warm and relatable and likeable is really difficult. Rita is a living legend, and she has this twinkle in her eye, that [lets her] deliver a line. It's like, "Boom." All the time, I would be like, "Drop the mic! There we go."

Moreno: It's so funny. After one particular take, she says, "Drop the mic." I thought, "What happened?"

Hart: I didn't think of the fact that she would take it that way. I was like, "You nailed it," and then Emily with her physical comedy. ... Justin Gaston was wonderful, and Marissa Jaret Winokur is a joy.

Moreno: Justin is not only wonderful, he's gorgeous.

Hart: Rita is as boy crazy as I was at 12.

Moreno: Dirty old lady.

Hart: Let's go with boy crazy, maybe not dirty old lady. My nine-year-old played Jack in the movie, and he fell in love with Rita. It's no wonder she had Elvis [Presley] and Marlon [Brando] fighting over her because she has this charisma and this energy. She's 90 going on 55, sexy as all get out, and funny and sharp. This cast was stellar. To take a script like this, that's super fun and hasn't been told before, and then to put these amazing performances in it was gold. I couldn't be prouder of this movie.

Taking the lead in a Christmas rom-com

Rita and Emily, I wanted to talk about your two characters, because you have such great chemistry on screen. Was it fun filming all of those sarcastic and cheeky moments?

Kinney: Rita, what I loved about doing scenes with you is it was always different. There was this element of spontaneity that kept everything fresh, no matter how much we were doing a certain scene all day, or if we only had an hour to do a scene. She always would bring something new, and that made me also get out of my head and stay in the moment and be with her. It was great.

Moreno: I loved it. Emily touched me a couple of times, really hard. Those beautiful eyes of hers and that demeanor, she really choked me up a couple of times.

Emily, a lot of people know you from "The Walking Dead." What was it like taking the lead in a Christmas rom-com?

Kinney: It was so fun — honestly, dream come true. I've done a lot of stuff where I'm crying all day on set or I'm running from scary things or having really stressful situations, and that's very satisfying and fun as an actor. I haven't gotten to do a lot of comedy, and on "Santa Bootcamp," I got to show that side of me and it was so much fun. Every day, I was so happy to go to set.

Is there going to be a "Santa Bootcamp 2"?

Hart: I think that's why they're airing it early. I hope that we're going to get us a little script written. I would absolutely love it. They don't often do sequels, but for Ms. Rita, they should.

Incorporating sign language into Santa Bootcamp

I love that you incorporated sign language into "Santa Bootcamp" and focused on disability representation. Was that important for you to include in the movie?

Hart: The script was around for a while, for a few years in development, different various stages. When it came to me, it was pretty much in this stage [where] we did a lot of rewrite stuff right before we filmed. I don't think the ladies know that the character of Emily's mom was more of a minor character she goes and sees at home. We decided to incorporate it as they work together. They have a company together so that we could bring more ASL into it, which brought challenges of its own. I'll let Emily speak to what it was like to have those moments on set that were really special.

Deanne Bray, who is a fantastic actress — my in-laws came to the set and as much as they wanted to meet Rita, they were all about Deanna because they know her show ["F.B.Eye"]. My in-laws were like, "We love her show." The little girl, Zira, was incredible, but Emily, you can talk to learning it all.

Kinney: Deanne was so helpful. Having her there to, as much as I wanted help, she was willing to go through scenes with me and help me on the day, and I really trusted her. I also worked with a great coach here in LA, Justin Jefferson, who I met through Deaf West. It was cool to get to know — I didn't know much about that community and, in particular, that theater community here in LA. It's been really cool to be introduced to that, and to have their help and their support was great.

Working with Vin Diesel and Tom Brady

Rita, it's so fun to see you in a Christmas role. Will you be doing more of those? What else do you have coming up?

Moreno: I am going to do something that's pretty fabulous and that comes in about a week and a half. I'm going to be the narrator of "Beauty and the Beast," which I'm doing for Disney and ABC, and boy, I am one excited Puerto Rican. It's going to be a Rita Moreno Fest next month.

Hart: Rita, don't forget about "80 for Brady." You have all these other amazing projects.

Moreno: "80 for Brady," which is the Tom Brady movie. It's his first project after quitting, and what's amusing about that to me, among many other things, is that we had to rewrite the ending when he decided to unquit. [It also features] Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, myself, and Sally Field. It's about four old ladies who are real fans of Tom Brady and the Super Bowl. It's a quasi road movie. They're going to Houston, Texas to try to meet him, which was fun.

Hart: I'm excited for that one. [Don't you] also something with Vin Diesel?

Moreno: Yes, I play his Gram. I'm playing Vin Diesel's Grandma, Abalita, in ["Fast X"]. That was fun. I had to go to London to do that because I didn't know they did ... all the Diesel movies there at Paramount Studios. Anyway, it was freezing cold at that time, and it was just before all of the things that happened with the royal family. There's nothing like being outdoors in the freezing cold [shooting a scene] where it's supposed to be a happy sunny LA day in Grandma's little backyard.

Hart: Kind of like shooting a Christmas movie in the summer in the middle of the August heat wave.

Emily Kinney's music career keeps her busy

Emily, you're also a musician. What are you working on at the moment?

Kinney: I have a new album coming out next year. I just released an album called "The Supporting Character." It came out during the pandemic, so I didn't get a chance to do a lot of live shows. My new album comes out next year; it's called "Swim Team." I have a poetry book that's coming out next year called "Little Earthquakes."

What's it like balancing touring and recording music and acting?

Kinney: It's a lot of scheduling. They feed into each other in certain ways. For ["Santa Bootcamp"], we shot in Nashville and every time I'm in a new place, I meet new people, and it tends to inspire new songs and new music. A lot of times in my songs, you'll hear the places, I'll mention certain cities, so they feed each other in a certain way. Right after "Santa Bootcamp," I stayed in Nashville and played Americana Fest and was able to play a couple shows in Nashville. A lot of times, I try to make them work together. They work together really well. The only thing that's difficult is scheduling.

We need to see you in a musical with Rita next.

Kinney: I would love that. Pitch it. Let's do it.

Moreno: Somebody just pitched an idea for me for a Christmas Lifetime [movie] that is so original and so good. I can't mention it at this moment, but I want to talk to [Melissa] about it.

Hart: All right, you got my number.

Reflecting on Sabrina and Clarissa

Melissa, I grew up watching you in "Sabrina The Teenage Witch" and "Clarissa Explains It All." I'm sure you get asked this all the time, but will we ever see a return from either of those characters?

Hart: We tried. "Sabrina," that ship might have sailed, but "Clarissa," we tried to bring it back and there was an upheaval at Nickelodeon and it didn't come to fruition. I don't know. I like moving forward and I'm loving my directing career, but I am still auditioning and developing. I might be acting in a movie next year. I'll definitely be acting in a Lifetime Christmas movie, but I might be in an actual movie next year, [and] I haven't done one of those in a while. 

I like to mix things up, but I don't necessarily want to go back to doing something I did before. I love those characters dearly, but I need to let them lie, in a way. It's really not up to me. It's  red tape and the bureaucracy of the industry and trying to figure out who owns what and who's going to pay for it and where are we going to put it and who wants it and what's the audience, all that stuff. It's not as easy as like, "Let's do that." Unfortunately, I don't think it's in the cards, but I never say never.

You've directed a lot of TV shows, and so many movies now. What are you hoping to work on next? 

Hart: I have quite a few that are coming up for next year and I don't know how they're going to land. I have a deal with Lifetime to do a bunch more Christmas movies and be in this It's a Wonderful Lifetime genre, which I'm excited about, being able to develop some really fun stuff there, directing and acting. I want to be in a sitcom again, so I'm thinking about that. I miss the days of making people laugh in front of a live audience. It's also great for family life. I'm out there looking for a sitcom. I have two independent films and I have the Lifetime deal, and then I've been auditioning, which is weird. I was like, "I should act again maybe sometime soon."

Moreno: I agree with you so much about making people laugh. There's something so positive about that, to have the ability to make people laugh. It's healing. It completes me. I never realized that about myself, but I really love to make people laugh.

Hart: Oh, you're such a ham. Are you kidding me? She's always coming up with the funny jokes on set and pranks. She's a firecracker. This is the best way to describe you. Rita's my new role model for life now. That's it.

Working with Steven Spielberg

Rita, I loved seeing you return to "West Side Story." What was it like returning to that iconic story?

Moreno: It was an astonishing experience, truly, in every sense of the word. Initially, my agent said, "[Steven] Spielberg wants to talk to you," and I knew that he was going to make a film of ["West Side Story"]. He called, and he told me about the film and I said, "Yes, I've read about it," and I wasn't thrilled. You think you've made the final comment on something and suddenly somebody says, "There's something else to say." He said, "Would you be interested in being a part of it?" I couldn't believe, this because he's been one of my favorite directors for years.

Hart: Until you met me, but go on.

Moreno: I said to him, "I'm so flattered that you asked, but I have to tell you..." I was trying to find my most gentle way of saying this. I said, "but I don't do cameos." I thought, "What a bad idea for my favorite director, a cameo in 'West Side Story.'" He said, "No, oh my God, no, you would have a real part. Tony Kushner wrote this already, just for you." I was thrilled to pieces. When he made me executive director, I couldn't believe my good luck. It was so amazing. 

He did use me in a very good way, in ways that no one else could have helped him out, with respect to not only the original [movie], but how I felt about the business of Puerto Ricans and white skin and dark skin and all that. We had to suffer with that in the original movie. All of us had one color makeup. You have to understand that it was a different time. 

None of us loved those very dark makeups. It kept streaking on me because it was so dark, and I was so light compared to it. I said [to the makeup artist], "I hate this makeup. It's too dark. I don't know why I have to be this shade." He actually said, "What are you racist?" That made me speechless, because he didn't understand that Puerto Ricans come in so many different colors. We are all many different colors. 

Hart: I will say, if Steven Spielberg calls and says he wants me to redo "Sabrina," maybe I'll do it. The way I said it is, that's the reason, it's hard to go back to things. If you do it in the right way, it's brilliant. If you do it in the wrong way, it's trash. What you did, Rita, was amazing, and the way Steven was able to do it.

"Santa Bootcamp" premieres November 19, 2022, at 8:00 p.m. ET/ 7:00 p.m. CT on Lifetime.

This interview has been edited for clarity.