Hallmark's Christmas at Dollywood is A Dream Come True for Danica McKellar

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Dolly Parton is all over the place this holiday season, and on Saturday, December 7, she'll be sharing some time with Danica McKellar on Christmas at Dollywood.

Danica is always very giving of her time, and we recently had a chance to chat with her about the film and her love of Dolly.

She also spoke excitedly about being a part of the film universe this fall without having an idea it was coming!

Dolly Parton and Danica McKellar Tall

Earlier this year, we spoke with Danica about her new mystery movies series on Hallmark Movies and Mysteries called Matchmaker Mysteries.

At the time, she was so enthusiastic about the project. As soon as I asked how satisfied she was with fans' reaction about it, another rush of excitement hit her as she related her unexpected brush with Knives Out, a mystery movie in the vein of Clue that landed in theaters last month.

Starring Daniel Craig and Jamie Lee Curtis, the whodunnit is a mystery in the classic sense, so learning her love of mysteries and work with the Hallmark franchise got a nod tickled Danica.

It turns out that she got a dual mention from the Knives Out scribes by way of her name and her Hallmark association. Danica explained that although a fictional title was attributed to her mystery movie, she became a fun side note.

"They make up a fictional name, but it's a mystery," she began. "Knives Out is a mystery movie, and so one of the characters is like, "Oh my gosh, I saw this movie with Danica McKellar on Hallmark, and this woman was being poisoned..."

Festive Colors at Dollywood

Danica laughed, "It's like part of the plot of their movie. It was so surreal, and so that's been on my mind."

As for Christmas at Dollywood, that's a bit of a dream come true for Danica. It started when her mathematics for children book, Goodnight, Numbers got admitted into Dolly Parton's Imagination Library.

"If you're familiar, that's a charity that Dolly Parton has been running for 25 years. She donates books to little kids all around the world, ages zero to five, and she's been doing it, she's done now over 125 million books to kids.

"They make low-cost versions of popular children's books. The authors don't make any money on it, and that's totally a hundred percent fine. These little kids who normally couldn't afford books are getting access to wonderful material that they and their parents can read together and connect over.

Goodnight, Numbers is one of the earliest books in Danica's Math line, and she was incredibly honored when Dolly invited her to be a part of the Imagination Library two years ago.

Dolly Performs

"I still have the letter signed by Dolly Parton letting me know that this book had been accepted into their library. Just the idea that so many little kids are getting that book, it's just the best thing ever," Danica said.

Danica was in Washington, DC last year helping to celebrate Imagination Library landmark of donating 100 million books to kids all over when Michelle Vicary, the vice president of programming and Hallmark publicity, asked her if she had any ideas about locations for upcoming Hallmark Christmas movies.

With Dolly Parton on her mind, she suggested Christmas at Dollywood, and the response was that she should definitely get together a writer and producer to make her dream a reality.

"A month later and here we are, so this is like a dream come true," Danica said. "And the idea of whether we could get Dolly to be in it with her songs, well, it all happened. I mean, it's just so magical, and we had such a great time shooting it.

"We shot in Dollywood when they had all their lights up, so we had a really quick turnaround on this movie because we wanted to shoot when it was actually decorated for Christmas.

Dollywood Trio

"They have six million lights they put up at Christmas time, and they have an incredible light parade called the Parade of Many Colors, and it's just gorgeous. It's really, really special."

And yes, Danica got to take some personal time after filming to get more fully into the spirit of the festivities, too. "After we wrapped, the next day we went on a tour and my mom and my son and I, we were actually like tourists, and we got to experience Dollywood. It was great. It's a wonderful park."

Danica noted that Dolly is everything she ever imagined she would be. "I mean, she's just a delight. I was amazed at her energy coming into a room. She brings this joy with her."

When she was initially in Washington, DC, for the Imagination Library event, the closest Danica got to Dolly was by way of a cardboard cutout, but she later got picked to narrate a documentary about the Imagination Library and got a surprise when she reached the studio.

"It was really funny because I got there to the recording studio and we're about to record and they said, 'By the way, we have a surprise for you.' I thought, 'No way.' I'm like, 'Is she coming here?' They said, 'Yes,' and all I could think of, 'I didn't dress up. Well, I would've worn heels, I would have put more makeup on,' and all these things ran through my head," Danica said.

Making a Snowman

When Dolly "showed up in all her glory," Danica says she wasn't exactly thrilled with how she presented herself telling Dolly that she was disappointed didn't even wear heels for such an auspicious event, to which Dolly replied, "Oh, you're wearing heels, honey."

And when Danica looked at her feet, she saw that she was standing on her toes. Danica laughed, "I was literally standing on toes. I said to her, 'No, I'm standing on my toes, I'm not sure why I'm sending my toes right now.' And then I went into how much I loved her, and she was so gracious and so wonderful."

In the movie, Danica plays Rachel, a widowed mother to her nine-year-old daughter. Although she's from Pigeon Forge, Rachel is working as an event planner in New York but is honored with potentially running the 30th anniversary of Smokey Mountain Christmas at Dollywood, the park she frequented while growing up in Tennessee.

"So, Rachel decides to come back to Tennessee for the Christmas season and plan this event, and she ends up having to work alongside someone named Luke, played by Niall Matter. He has a way of running things. He wants to be the general manager. He's the assistant general manager right now, and he's ready to get that promotion. He wants to do things by the book," Danica explains.

Smiling at Dollywood

Of course, Rachel has a lot of out-of-the-box ideas, and the two clash and hardly get along. "Of course, it's a romantic comedy, so we end up falling in love. But as with most romantic comedies, things start to fall apart near the end, and you can guess who somehow makes it all come together."

If you guessed one Dolly Parton, you'd be correct! And Dolly isn't playing a caricature of herself, either.

"She is playing herself, absolutely herself," Danica said. "Yep, she is Dolly Parton at Dollywood. It's beautiful. I remember emailing the writers saying, 'Can we please put this line in the movie?' Which was me saying to her, 'Everything you've built, the music Dollywood, the Imagination Library, is so inspiring.'

"I got to put that in our biggest scene together. But it's fun to have a nice eloquent way of saying that to her. It wasn't me stumbling over myself, not wearing heels, and being silly. So I got to honor how I actually feel about her in say in an eloquent way and have it be preserved in the movie."

Danica also shared some of her own favorite holiday traditions. "Oh my gosh, I love Christmas. I love decorating the tree. I love turning on the music, putting cinnamon sticks in a pot, making the whole house smell like Christmas. We have a live tree, and I love it. I love making the house sound, smell, and look like Christmas. The more twinkle lights, the better. I love decorating.

"We love playing board games together. I love family coming in from out of town, and this is my year to do Christmas dinner. So I will be doing the whole thing."

Christmas Snowman Photo

It's family, so of course Danica won't be doing it alone, but she's excited that the decisions are ultimately left up to her to entertain and make Christmas special for her family. "I will be making my chocolate Yule log following my mom's recipe. I grew up with it, and it's very complicated to get it just right.

"I'm not a Baker. I love cooking, I like making healthy foods for my family. When it comes to baking, I'm usually a disaster. Do you know what my problem with baking is? I tend to think, 'Well, I know how to make it better. Well, let me just try that. Oh, it'll be better.' Baking is chemistry. You have to follow the directions, or it doesn't work.

"So, she printed up a four-page description of exactly how to make this Yule log dessert, and I've been making it for years now, and I always follow it to the T, to the letter, and then it turns out great.

"Chocolate Yule log is so fun because not only do you make this really yummy dessert, but you get to decorate it because it looks like a log. And so, I make all these little figurines out of marzipan and decorate it with that and the little berries and holly leaves and little candy canes, snowmen, whatever. And Draco helps me with it, but I'm the one who really loves it."

Jovial Rachel

And stringing popcorn is just one of the things Danica loves about decorating her tree. "I just think it's so fun and homey and then you get to eat popcorn, which I also like."

She also uses tinsel and garland and makes homemade ornaments out of pipe cleaners and beads with her son. "It's so fun. I love all that stuff. And the truth is most of the year I'm too busy to do it, but when it comes time for Christmas, it's on. You get that few weeks where you don't really have as many obligations, and you can get in the baking and the decorating and the arts and crafts. I love it."

When they're not decorating and baking, the family shares time watching their holiday favorites. "We'll watch some Hallmark movies, of course, and then we like A Christmas Story, in terms of like classic Christmas movies."

After sharing the holidays with her family and watching other holiday favorites like Elf, Danica will be back to work shooting more Matchmaker Mysteries in January.

Danica will be live-tweeting during the Christmas at Dollywood premiere on December 8 at 8/7c on Hallmark Channel, so be sure to join her and be a part of the fun!

Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Critic's Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.

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