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Exclusive: Danica McKellar talks The Winter Palace for GAC Family

Starring in The Winter Palace, McKellar is now an executive producer and a star for GAC Family. Pic credit: GAC Family

This Saturday, the Winter Palace film on GAC Family may be the perfect antidote to a fractious week of bad news and worse weather. 

The film stars and is produced by Danica McKellar, who signed an exclusive deal with GAC Family to star in and executive-produce four new films, beginning with The Winter Palace.

In Hollywood, some actors transcend their fame with side gigs, and then there are the overachievers. Danica McKellar falls in that elite group of theater-trained stars like actors Peter Weller, who holds a Ph.D. in Italian Renaissance art history from UCLA, and Hedy Lamarr, who invented the Frequency-hopping spread spectrum (FHSS)—not only successful in their cinematic roles but who have accomplished great things.

Under Bill Abbott’s leadership, GAC Family has made a deal with McKellar through 2023 to bring content to their newly rebranded and energized network that is a full-on competition to its closest competitor, Hallmark. 

Fans of McKellar know of her Countdown to Christmas films there, and now they can look forward to the former child actor-turned-mompreneur and math genius who is equal parts beauty and brains to be curating her projects at the family-friendly network where love wins, happy endings are the norm, and familiar faces turn up in new roles to play.

Known worldwide for portraying Winnie Cooper in The Wonder Years’ coming-of-age series, McKellar managed to squeeze in her UCLA degree summa cum laude in mathematics, authored a mathematical theorem, and became a New York Times best-selling author. 

Toned and tanned, in 2014, this mom wowed audiences and delivered jaw-dropping moves on Dancing with the Stars with partner Valentin Chmerkovskiy until she broke a rib

She has appeared on The Big Bang Theory and many other TV series in guest roles and performed on the theatrical stage. She even testified to a Congressional subcommittee about drawing more women into science and math.

McKellar believes in the positive powers of humor and a well-told story as an escape to the stresses that encroach us all and hopes that her perspective and taste in films she plans on producing will inspire and elevate.  

Monsters & Critics spoke to this brainy beauty who is ready to make GAC Family your go-to family viewing channel with her new film, The Winter Palace, premiering this Saturday on GAC Family. It is a funny, romantic yarn set in Colorado about two wildly disparate people who find out they might be better together than apart.

Exclusive interview with Danica McKellar of The Winter Palace

Monsters & Critics: The Winter Palace has a “ripped from the headlines” element. Why did you select it?

Danica McKellar: I just thought it was such a fun premise. The idea that I’m trying to get work done at this chalet, and then it turns out I agreed to work for the Royal family. [laughs] 

I just thought that sounds like so much fun because you want them to be genuinely romantic with these romantic comedies. You also want them to be funny. 

And so I just thought this could be funny. And I had worked with Neal Bledsoe four years prior in a Hallmark movie called Coming Home for Christmas. I was just thrilled that he was available for this [project], and I had a deal [at GAC Family] where I’m executive producing as well. 

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I just felt so much creative collaboration now with GAC, and the most marked difference is that there’s so much more of a sense of community and collaboration. And it’s just been so much fun to create this movie and make it our own and dive into the comedy, and all the actors were so good. All of them are theater trained. We’ve all have had theater experience. And so we were able to improve and work things out. And I think I came up with a solid, fun movie to watch.

M&C: Your character Emily is an accomplished woman. She doesn’t need anything. This story is not the old trope of the pauper lass and the savior prince. Was that an essential element to Emily’s story within this movie to you?

Danica McKellar: Yes. And one of the adjustments that I made was to make it clear that she would be okay regardless. So that last scene where Emily says, ‘You know what, I got one turned in, I’m ready to move forward… Let’s keep it going. I’m on a roll.’ 

And really, so using that energy to move forward. So because there’s a danger in thinking that Emily had to be in love in order to write, because she was in love before with her ex and he left her, and now she can’t write. I wanted to make sure it was clear that she felt she was on a roll and that she would be fine regardless.

M&C: The role of executive producer and having that kind of power over a project, tell us about that. You started as a child actor. Fans still reminisce about Winnie. Kudos to you for staying with your education. 

Danica McKellar: Yes, it’s all so much fun. And my education was really about exploring who I was outside of that girl from the Wonder Years. 

I have a degree in mathematics, and it really grounded me. And I love writing. My other career is writing math books for kids and helping them feel confident in math, and making math fun and accessible. 

In fact, my 11th math book comes out in July. It’s called Double Puppy Trouble. It’s an adorable book that teaches the power of doubling and exponential growth. But with puppies cause puppies, I mean, come on because puppies! 

So it’s been a delight to have that part of my career, but I’ll tell you something. And I tell this to everyone who tells me they want to be an actor and asks, ‘what, what’s your advice?’

My advice is always to have something else, some other skill that you can make money at that you love. And feed that part of your life as well because in acting, nothing is certain, and there’s no stability. There’s so much uncertainty, and it just helps your sanity to have that other thing you have more control over.

M&C: What are you are interested in from the producing side, as well as being in front of the camera?

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Danica McKellar: As a producer, I’ve been a lot more involved in the rewriting process. So the writer will turn in a script, and then we all weigh in on it, and I have all sorts of ideas. Because I’m going to be in it too, it gives me a unique perspective on what I know will work and what could be interesting. 

The danger in these movies is, will they all seem the same? I mean, that’s the criticism that you hear. 

But if, if you’re telling a genuinely authentic story with real dilemmas, even if that type of story has been told before, it’s never told in this way, and you can make it exciting by making it truly authentic and unique in little ways. 

And then also it’s up to the actors, what kind of freshness and chemistry and dynamic can you get on set by creating an environment of collaboration? Something else that I did is ask the other actors, ‘Hey, what do you think [about this] or, Hey, wanna improve this? Let’s experiment? What do you think?’ 

And when you are working with other seasoned actors. They light up at that opportunity, and you get the best stuff. You get the best moments. So many moments in this movie were not in the script. They came out of that spirit of collaboration, and they came up to me afterward and said, thank you so much for making this movie so fun and making it so collaborative.

I have GAC Family to thank for that because they’re the ones who gave me the ability to be this collaborative. And they were so open. I mean, I’m not the only producer on this by a long shot. 

But, there’s such a wonderful group of producers and crew, and the director and everyone just wanted to make it fun and make it come alive.

M&C: Is there another movie that you’re working on right now for GAC Family that you can mention?

Danica McKellar: I’m not going to say anything yet. I’m pretty excited about a couple of them, but we don’t know the order yet, and we don’t know if it’s going to be this year or next year. 

Things happen so far in advance, and we’re talking about my Christmas movie right now, but I can’t tell you anything about it. But, still, I’m excited for when I can because if the one happens that I think it’s going to happen, people will be very excited. But I can’t say anything else.

M&C: Actors you love to work with, is there a list?

Danica McKellar: That would be calling favorites, so I shouldn’t say that. And there are so many excellent actors, and I would love to work with all of them. And all of the actors that have already worked on GAC, they’ve gotten some terrific people who I’ve not worked with yet. 

I’ve worked with Cameron Mathison, who’s fantastic. I hope I get to do a GAC movie with him. There’s so many, Trevor Donovan, just a ton of really fun actors that I look forward to working with at some point on GAC.

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M&C: What was the moment that—when you screened the film—that grabbed your heart?

Danica McKellar: Oh gosh. That scene in the restaurant where the Prince [Neal Bledsoe] told me his dilemma and asked for my help. And he’s sharing so much about what the Winter Palace means to him. 

Prince Henry offers inspiration for writer Emily Miller to finish her new book. Pic credit: GAC Family

I didn’t realize when I read the script, somehow that that was the moment that Emily fell in love with him. But we discovered that when they are shooting it [the scene]. And it absolutely translates. 

I remember how the scene felt, the feeling of it. And I love that moment. But there are a few of them, like when Prince Henry gives his speech at the end. There’s this awestruck feeling that I had that just took over my entire body. It’s just really something when you get into a scene, and you really believe it’s real. It just takes over you. It’s the most amazing ride. 

And there was this moment when in the scene where Emily is carving the owl, and the Prince says, ‘you’re a bit of a…’ and I say, ‘nuisance.’ He says, ‘I was going to say inspiration.’  

There’s another moment that took me by surprise, especially watching it later; I was like, gosh, this is a fantastic moment of connection between these two characters who are really helping each other. 

The beauty of these movies is that it’s always about two people who are precisely the people the other ones need in their lives and didn’t know it. What were your favorite moments in the movie?

M&C: The initial cute-meet, where the Prince was knocking on the door where you were said, ‘no, who are you? And he was trying to get into his own house. Also, the interplay between Fritz and Ms. Tilson was delightful throughout.

Danica McKellar: Right? Well, except that I was messing up ‘schedule,’ and we were laughing. We actually took out some of the words, schedules. There were so many. It started to become a little conspicuous. So we altered some of the lines because this could have turned into a drinking game. [laughs] over the British pronunciation of schedule. 

Yes, the four of us in that particular scene where he knocks on the door and they [Prince Henry, Fritz, Ms. Tilson] enter the chalet in a whirlwind. A lot of that was not on the page. I would say three-quarters of it was on the page, but there was so much that we brought to that in rehearsing. 

Because the four of us just rehearsed all the time when we were setting up the camera, we thought, ‘Oh, wouldn’t be funny if we did this.’ The director was always game to make it even better. We all just had so much fun. Like I said, making it our own. 

That’s my favorite comedic scene, and it pops so well. And then, of course, also the end. I love a good ending, and I loved Prince Henry’s speech at the end.

The Winter Palace premieres Saturday, January 8 at 8/7c on GAC Family.

April is an accredited entertainment writer, interviewer and...read more

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