Exclusive interview: Hallmark’s Holly Robinson Peete on why she will always be an ‘autism advocate’

Holly Robinson Peete in Christmas in Evergreen
Holly Robinson Peete Pic. Credit: Crown Media/Photographer: Allister Foster

Holly Robinson Peete loves her acting career, but there is nothing she is more passionate about than her family. As a result, she works tirelessly to help her oldest son, R.J., who has autism, his peers, and her other children become their best selves.

The Hallmark and prime-time TV star, and her husband Rodney Peete, a radio talk show host/former NFL quarterback, created the HollyRod Foundation to spread the message of autism awareness and raise money for a myriad of programs.

During Autism Awareness Month in April, the foundation’s virtual programs are at the center of helping families, and Peete, a proud autism mom, says because the needs are so great, they will remain at the top of her priority list.

“The virtual thing has been great and I can reach a lot of people, but I really want to reconnect with autism families to rekindle conversations,” Peete recently explained. “I miss those Q and A sessions, where people can tell me a story about their sons or daughters, and we can have a dialogue about what their life is like, talk about available resources, and how things have changed over the years.”

During a recent exclusive interview with Monsters & Critics, Peete spoke about all of the cakes she made for her family during the COVID-19 lockdown, how they subsequently worked out to lose those “cake pounds,” how R.J. and the rest of the family are faring. She also had advice for parents of children and adults with autism, to help them during the school years and in the workplace.

Monsters & Critics: Holly, I know you have done many projects with Hallmark, so what do you have coming up?

Holly Robinson Peete: I just finished shooting Morning Show Mysteries movie number six, which I’m so excited about for many reasons. I was able to work again creatively with my buddy Al Roker. We’ve been friends so many years and now we get to work on these movies together, so it’s just a lot of fun.

M&C: What’s else is going on with you work-wise?

Holly Robinson Peete: The fifth season of my ABC show American Housewife, recently aired and I was thrilled to join that show because it was one of my favorites even before I joined the cast. I have longtime friends on the show – I worked with Katy Mixon on 13 episodes of Mike & Molly and I worked with Diedrich Bader on 21 Jump Street, so he and I go way back. 

M&C: How long were you away from work during the pandemic?

Holly Robinson Peete:  I thought I would be out of work for a long time, but we shut down from March through July, so it was less than six months. I went back to work in the fall (September and October) and shot two movies in Canada.  

I was feeling such a level of gratitude to be able to work. In Canada, COVID wasn’t quite as out of control as it was down here. So, that was enlightening just being up there and I was really glad to be able to get that done.

M&C: The last time we spoke you were making lots of lemon cakes.  How long did that go on?

Holly Robinson Peete:  Ooh, let me tell you. I made so many cakes in 2020. I made the cake everybody made that explodes. I made the lemon cakes for Rodney’s birthday. I made every doggone cake alive. I did every recipe and put on all of the cake pounds.

So, we spent March, April, and May eating everything in sight, and then June, July, and August, I was like, ‘Okay, time to get back on this horse.’ So, as a family, we started working out together, challenging each other, and we tried to make the best of it to get some of those cake pounds off.

The cast of Christmas in Evergreen
Marci T. House, Barbara Niven, Holly Robinson Peete and Rukiya Bernard in Christmas in Evergreen: Bells Are Ringing. Pic. Credit: Crown Media/Photographer: Allister Foster

M&C: Please talk about the fan-favorite Hallmark Evergreen Christmas movies.

Holly Robinson Peete: I loved Evergreen, all four of them. The most recent was Christmas at Evergreen: Bells Are Ringing. I loved all the characters. Hallmark at Christmas is always such a happy place.

M&C: What’s the plan for the 5th installment?

Holly Robinson Peete:  We don’t know about five, we’ve got to figure it out.  Four was very difficult to shoot logistically because we had actors that couldn’t be with us because of COVID protocols. 

Poor Michelle has been waiting to get married for two years now and she couldn’t get married because the actor who plays her guy, Colin Lawrence, had a Netflix show and wasn’t able to hop from set to set. That’s how tight the protocols were back in September.

M&C: Why did you initially go to Hallmark, and why have you stayed for so many years?

Holly Robinson Peete:  I initially went because I had friends who were on the shows and it looked like I could do some good work there. I liked the idea and the format. I absolutely loved the idea that they shot predominantly in Vancouver, which is my old 21 Jump Street stomping grounds. And I have such fond memories about that city, so I wanted to go up there and spend time.

Once they started to engage me as an executive producer, I could be more creative. I feel like they really empowered me to produce and be a content controller.

M&C: What’s happening with your HollyRod Foundation?  What are you doing in April for Autism Awareness Month?

Holly Robinson Peete:  In April, my main focus for our foundation is our projects. We have a project called We’re really excited to be partnering with Special Olympics, Best Buddies, Autism Speaks, and the Entertainment Industry Foundation, which tries try to get jobs for young people on the autism spectrum, Down’s syndrome, all kinds of differently-abled situations.

I’m hoping to start doing some more appearances soon, hopefully during the summer, if it is right for everybody involved. I usually do about 10 to 20 appearances a year because I really like to get out and share our story, and just spread some hope, especially for families that either just got a diagnosis or have kids that are R.J.’s age that are looking for work.

I get out there and I talk to companies and try to encourage them to hire inclusively because it’s a gamechanger. I just see what it’s done for my son and everybody should have that opportunity.

R.J. and Rodney Peete at the baseball
R.J. and Rodney Peete

M&C: How did your son R.J. fare during COVID-19 lockdown?

Holly Robinson Peete: My son was put on leave last year because he didn’t quite make the COVID bubble with the L.A. Dodgers. Of course, that would be the year that they go all the way.  And it was hard for him. His brain needs regulatory action. He needs to have a purpose, and go somewhere and be somewhere at a certain time. It was very hard on his mental health over the last year to not work.

It’s true for so many people with autism that they’re used to having a routine, and when they are out of their routine it’s really hard. The good news is here we are a year later and he just got put back in the bubble, so he is back at work right now and that is great.

M&C: So, how did R.J. get on his exciting path in Major League baseball?

Holly Robinson Peete: Someone just happened to call us from the Dodgers asking, ‘Is he really looking for a job?  Because we think we might have something for him.’ But now, there are resources for our adults with autism. So, you can actually go online and find out what companies in your neighborhood are our kids who are different, special, and process things differently, but are really excellent additions to workplaces.

So, you want to make sure that your workforce is trained, that you have some kind of organization like HollyRod or Best Buddies, that have a really good profile on your child so that he or she can get support in the workplace. Because it’s one thing for our kids to work at Outback Steakhouse now, but we have to be able to follow up with them and be able to know that everyone is on the same page.

After all the red tape, Individualized Education Plans (IEP’s), and filling out all of these forms, all we want is to have a moment when somebody goes, “Oh yeah, your kid’s great? Cool, come on and work here. He’ll get it.” The good news is that now more places than ever are open to giving our kids a shot at finding their place in the workplace.  As moms of children with autism, we know all of those hoops very well.

M&C: What do you say to support families who have gone through this now that we’ve turned a corner and the pandemic may be behind us?

Holly Robinson Peete:  Well, I’m currently watching people go back to school and go back to situations they haven’t been in in a year. Obviously, every state and every city has a different game plan. So, it depends on where you are. I would just say overall, to harness the lessons that you’ve learned over this pandemic.

Holly Robinson Peete and three of her children
Holly Robinson Peete and three of her children in Meet the Peetes/Courtesy of Crown Media

M&C: What were you watching as a family when you were home together those first few months?

Holly Robinson Peete:  Oh, the same old ones. We watched Tiger King, the one show that everybody wants to watch. My husband was like, ‘You are not making me sit through Bridgerton,’ so I watched that with my daughter.

We also watched a lot of Hallmark Channel movies and my kids binged a lot of 21 Jump Street and Hangin’ with Mr. Coopers, and they laughed about a lot of stuff.  They’re like, ‘Mom!  Brad Pitt was in Jump Street?  Wait for a second, what?’ It was just this nostalgic sort of moment.  Your kids never really care about the stuff you do, it’s not cool.  So, they really started to have a nostalgic feel about my body of work, which was quite hilarious.

M&C: I know that your children are of different ages and different stages of life. But what are the life lessons that you and Rodney want them to get?

Holly Robinson Peete:  My big takeaway from last year was teaching my kids mindfulness because you need to give them tools to go within when the world gets crazy. It’s already crazy but last year was a new level. 

You need to give them tools to calm themselves down. Every kid has their own little moment.  If they didn’t have anxiety, some of them have developed it based on this time period. So, I teach my kids mindfulness, how to meditate, how to calm their bodies down, breathing techniques; what I call life tools.

In case you missed it, make sure to read the Monsters & Critics interview with Hallmark’s Danica McKellar. You can find Holly on Instagram at @hollytrpeete, and her son R.J. is on Twitter at @Rjackson1017.

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