Kimberley Sustad Talks Game of Love, Writing Smash Hallmark Hits with Paul Campbell, and More!

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Loveuary may be over, but Hallmark reminds you that it's always time for romance with Game of Love.

Kimberley Sustad and Brooks Darnell star in this cute Hallmark original about a game designer named Audrey and a project manager named Matthew who have to get past their differences to deliver a new game in record time.

We touched base with Kimberley to get the scoop on the movie, step back in time to discuss a little Christmas magic, and talk about her love of writing and acting.

Please enjoy the interview, which has been edited for content and clarity.

Kimberley Sustad for Game of Love

So before we talk about Game of Love, we have to revisit Christmas to talk about Three Wise Men and a Baby. I had no idea that you and Paul Campbell were writing partners.

Yeah, we are. That was a lot of fun. They're like The Beatles now, those three boys.

Three Wise Men and a Baby

Right. I mean, you must be over the moon about that movie's success.

Yeah, it had a lot of things going for it, and I knew that it would hit Hallmark audiences the way it did. I wasn't expecting it to sort of break the glass ceiling and go into a wider audience space the way that it did.

It's more than you can hope for when you're writing these things or making these movies so that even more people can see them, enjoy them, and celebrate the holidays over them. So that was really great.

How did you get interested in script writing in the first place?

Paul and I did a movie, our very first movie together, which was Godwink Christmas, and it was more of a sentimental movie. And Paul and I are both funny, as I discovered when we were doing this movie. 

Goodwink Christmas Poster

The movie was really sentimental, and we kept saying, oh, I wish we had the chance to do a romcom or something like that to really test this energy that we had. Because when the cameras started rolling, it was joke after joke, and we were laughing hysterically, even though that was not the movie we were filming.

And I think one day he was like, "Have you ever thought about writing one?" And I was like, "Oh, no, no, no, no. But I do have this idea." And I soft pitched him Christmas by Starlight, and he said, "Oh, that's a great idea. Let's write it." I was like, "Are you insane?"

And Paul's one of those guys that, when he says something, he follows through. I think it was five months after we finished wrapping that movie, came over with cue cards, and he was like, "Let's do this thing."

We sort of bumped our way along, and we wrote this script on spec, and we walked into Hallmark when we had some other event to go to. We asked, "Hey, can we come in for a quick meeting before the TCAs?" And we handed them the script and pitched them the movie.

Well, we pitched them the movie, and then we handed them the script, and they were like, "What? You wrote it?" And we were like, "Yeah, yeah. So have a read." And they did and loved it. And that's kind of how we began.

Walking Decoration Lined Streets

It was more everybody's shock. I think a lot of people probably say, "Oh, I'm writing this thing, or I'm working on this thing." We kind of just did it quietly.

I think it took us probably nine months or something like that, a really long time -- I guess not for a lot of movies. I think it was a year later we were shooting it, and that was Christmas by Starlight, and we've kind of just kept going ever since then.

Wow. That's nice to have somebody you enjoy performing with who can also connect with you on the writing level.

Yeah, we have very different skills that work surprisingly well together when making a movie, which I didn't know at the time. I really didn't know a ton about writing, but I did know a ton about story. And then, when we started putting those pieces together, it just sort of was the perfect fit.

Enjoying The Tree Lighting Ceremony

Okay. I have to assume you've got a lot more on the back burner now.

Yes, we do.

I can't wait. I can't wait to see what you come up with next. I think your experience in making these movies goes a long way to making the content precisely what works for the audience.

That's right. And what you find is a lot of the things that I do as an actor when I'm in a role or prepping one or filming one has a lot of elements needed to make a script as well.

Because you'll see gaps or through lines, or I used to get in there, and just kind of negotiate my way around with the director and the producers and come out with a product that I felt was a little clearer, a little more streamlined, or a little funnier or whatever it is that the script may be needing.

The Starlight Cafe Poster

I had no idea I could transfer some of that to writing. I've learned a lot over the last couple of years doing it. Starlight was kind of like a fast Masterclass because what happened was I don't think anyone expected to make that movie as fast as they did. Because once COVID hit, I think material and all these movies got sidelined.

And here we had our little Starlight. Randy Pope at Hallmark was still creatively running that end of things, and he said, "We're going to do Starlight." And we're like, "What?"

Three months away from even having the second draft. And Randy is like, "We're going to make it happen. So what do we got to do?" And we just wrote madly. Even while we were there filming it, finishing things so that there was the gift of COVID that gave us a chance and the lovely people at Hallmark that gave us a chance.

And then Paul and I finally got to do a funny movie together because we wrote it. And then it was all those three things aligned really well. And I think audiences really liked that one a lot.

Attending A Holiday Bazaar

And who knows your strengths better than the two of you? So you could write what you knew would fit the bill.

Well, I'm an encyclopedia of '90s romcoms, moment to moment. I love them so much. I grew up watching those over and over again. Those are more my Disney than Disney was. So I can pull back every detail, every scene of all of them. I'm a big fan, and so I think you're successful at the things that you're a fan of.

I was watching a master class online. I think it might've even been Spielberg. He was saying, and I'm not putting myself on his level whatsoever, but I thought that's a really good point. He said, "When you go in to write something, starting somewhere that you know nothing about isn't usually the place. I write things that I'm a fan of."

And ever since he was eight years old, he was a fan of war. He just had all those little plastic toy soldiers. He would set up these epic landscapes full of them and dramatize the whole thing forever for 20 years doing something to the extent of that.

And I was like, "Yeah, that's so true." Because I've been watching these movies for so long and am such a fan of them, being able to write them and bring them to life now is so fun and pleasurable and a lot easier because I'm a fan of it.

Getting Goofy In The Starlight Cafe

And isn't that why you watch a Masterclass? Because you want to get those nuggets of wisdom that kind of bolster your thoughts.

Yes. How do you do it? How does it work for other people? And you find like, wow, no wonder you're a fan. With the movies he comes up with, I think he's more than just a fan of something.

Well, by now, yes. But it had to start somewhere.

Yeah, you're going to start somewhere. And that, I guess, is where I started and how I started.

Kimberley Sustad For The Starlight Cafe

You're also a prolific actress. You're still acting in other people's work. How do you see writing and acting working together as your career continues?

I really don't find it weird to write the things that I'm in. I think Paul and I are looking at a movie for us to be a couple on screen together. That's a lot of fun being involved with that. And creatively and behind the scenes, it's really satisfying.

I don't have a problem handing it off and letting other people do their jobs with it. I love the collaborative process, and so that's how it really works when I'm working on things that I've written. I also love watching other people bring those characters to life, as well.

That is extraordinarily satisfying and so much fun, especially if a lot of the time you'll have these voices in your head, and then an actor will do it, and you'll go, "Wow, that's way better than it was in my head. That's amazing."

I guess when I'm not writing them, I try to do the same justice to those scripts or people's hard work in terms of writing and dig into more than what's on the page and make a fully rounded character or a fully rounded person, really not a character. And that's kind of how I go at it as well.

Game of Love Poster

So I want to dump this on you because you're a fan of 90s Romcoms. I hope that as Hallmark has been changing up their content quite a bit, you kind of go into the straight Romcom and not just do holiday themes or seasonally-themed movies.

So I think that you and Paul should write one. It's like a traditional rom-com for Hallmark so that we can get that ball rolling. I have faith in you.

Don't you worry. Don't you worry. I think so too.

Good. I like talking to people who can get things done. [laughs]

Three Wise Men rode a fine line. They did a ton of Christmasy things, but it didn't have to do with Christmas. The story itself.

Backpack and Coffee

I agree.

It took place at Christmas. And so we're gradually getting there. And there was a lot of conversation and a bit of worry on the executive side because the departure from that is a scary one, especially when you're dealing with their Christmas, which is their big time of year.

I'll have to hand it to them like, "Okay, Christmas isn't ruling this thing, but the story is, and we're fine with it. We're going to let it go." And I think they saw the power of that.

Right. And now that other networks like Netflix are pulling out those kinds of movies, theirs are far less Christmas driven, but also around Christmas. I think Hallmark can move in that direction and get back some of that audience.

Yeah, a few of them. When you do a story-driven script, it's got to be fully rounded. It's not just the sentimentality of Christmas anymore.

Cutting the Game Board

It's whatever's happening in those people's lives and that story that's front and center. And so it takes a little bit longer and digging into a lot of, "what is this movie about? And what is the story we're trying to tell?" Tricky.

At first, Game of Love seems like a Valentine's type movie, but I don't think that it's just about love any more than Three Wise Men and a Baby was about Christmas.

That's right.

What about that role appealed to you?

What I loved about Audrey was that she's highly competitive to a fault. But we come to find out there's just this need to prove her worth. And I think it's something that we can all relate to.

Making a Game About Love

I think we get a little lost in things, sometimes trying to identify or be identified by something that might give us value, and discovering that you might be enough just as you are, is not only frightening but also relieving.

And so I think people will bumble along with her, fight for that, and see it right away, but also completely relate when that all comes to a head. So she's a very relatable character for all of us.

Well, you know what I related to? Her wearing a hoodie. I was like, I've never seen anybody in a Hallmark movie wear my clothes. I'm always in a t-shirt and a hoodie.

Yeah. Converse. I don't really look great in the hoodie because I'm tall. And when I saw that, I was like, oh. [laughs]

Audrey Visits a Friend

You looked so cute.

The petite girls get away with the hoodies. But then I was like, nah, tall girls can wear them too. So here we go.

Yeah. I'm tall. That's my staple if I'm not doing something, just something comfortable I can dart around in and have a pocket.

When I originally read this, they had her kind of amp up her wardrobe toward the end. The stylist ended up helping her. And I didn't have to fight that hard, but I said, "Hey guys, it's 2023. Can we not change the girl to look better so she can get the guy?" Thank you.

Audrey is Surprised

Thank you for that because I noticed.

And they had it in there. And I was like, "Guys, that's not the story." That's not her journey for her to go through this whole thing and then show up having changed the thing she fought for.

Right. Like Sandy from Grease.

She's okay, just as she is. And maybe the more she can accept that, the more she can let go. Right?

Right. And she did. She wore something other than a hoodie, which was still comfortable and well within her style range. It made sense. So you could change on the inside.

Exactly. They were like, "Well, we can't have a hoodie all the way through." I was like, "We'll find it. We'll find it."

Audrey Takes the Lead

Right. And you can change on the inside. She grew and accepted a different side of herself, and that's far more important than changing her clothes.

I had a fun interview with Brooks this holiday season. What was it like working with him?

Oh, he's lovely. When I first met him, I was like, oh, this is going to work because he's so cool, and I'm not. Immediately, he just has this really chill, cool demeanor in life too.

I am a hundred percent more like Audrey. I have no cool factor. So I thought, oh, that will be an interesting energy on screen. And we'll see how that works. I think it works pretty well.

Audrey and Matthew Back to Back

It does. It works out really well.

Great. He didn't have to play cool. He is cool.

I think it's his voice.

He just got this really strong, grounded presence, and he doesn't have to think too long about his words, or he doesn't try too hard. He's not trying to win people all the time. He's very present and grounded. And that can be unnerving sometimes when you're like, "Like me, like me!" More of my energy.

I think you're beyond that now. I think people know you enough to like you just by your movies.

I don't know if that ever changes, though. That's the weird thing. I would love to be more, "yeah, I'm so confident." But it's one of the reasons I've never even gone out to do one of those Christmas conferences because I'm terrified.

Game Dynamics

Oh my gosh. Of all people.

I know. Isn't that crazy?

They are the best people, Hallmark fans. They would embrace you so warmly. I haven't been to one, but I'm like in a Tyler Hines Facebook group, and oh my gosh, they are just over the moon with him and his work. Just so many kind words to say and such caring people. And they all care about each other.

It's not just movies. It is got a bit of a movement towards community that people are finding. I think that is really special. I'm really for that -- people from all over the world.

It's like gamers. They connect with people everywhere and get together on the internet to play these games. And then they get to know each other, take trips together as a group, and all have this one thing.

Getting New Directions

Or you go to Comic-Con. And these people have been building costumes of their favorite game characters for a year. Then they get together. They have this incredible time in San Diego and have the best time of their lives. They're part of something, part of a community.

I think that Hallmark hat is offering that. And that's becoming more, and more of what's transpiring are these people. The fans are connecting and finding a community. And I think that is so beautiful.

What else do you have on your plate at the moment?

Paul and I are writing a script called My Week in Wyoming, which is going to be an amazing tale. It's almost like a City Slickers. And it's not Christmas, but it's really funny.

We're also working on a Christmas movie that we're writing, and I'm not allowed to say anything about that one, but it's also going to, I hope, blow the doors off as well. So we're having a lot of fun doing that simultaneously, actually.

Audrey Points it Out

Well, it couldn't happen to two nicer people. I'm happy for you.

Oh, thank you.

Game of Love premieres on Hallmark on Saturday, March 11 at 8/7c.

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 X and email her here at TV Fanatic.

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