“It’s a gay Christmas movie,” says Kristen Stewart. “And I know that’s an annoying thing to label it right off the bat, but, for me, that is extremely attractive, and sounds like … a huge exhale.”
Quietly and unobtrusively, Happiest Season feels like a big deal. It’s a festive romcom, directed by Clea DuVall, and stars Mackenzie Davis as Harper and Stewart as Abby, a couple who are forced to navigate Harper’s conservative, wealthy family at Christmas. Over five increasingly frantic days, they have to pretend to be friends who just happen to live in the same apartment, for fear of Harper’s parents finding out they are together. While those ingredients could make for a potentially hefty drama, Happiest Season cooks them up into comedy, finding touching moments amid the sharply written silliness and chaos. It’s funny, it’s ambitious and it’s the first mainstream gay Christmas romcom.
“Has there been no romantic comedy that has queer leads?” asks Davis, sounding unsure.
“That’s probably not true,” says Stewart. “But, like, two girls in a Christmas movie? From a studio like Sony? Absolutely not.” She nuh-uhs for emphasis. “I mean, I did not cultivate this experience. I’m not saying: ‘We’re the fucking first!’ I’m more just praising the people that made this up.”
In 2017, Stewart hosted Saturday Night Live, telling the audience that she was “like, so gay, dude”. She says that when she was younger, she didn’t have a film like this. “I didn’t grow up with a movie that had such expansive ambition, that had two female leads at the centre of a love story, and not in this format. Not to say there hasn’t been great queer content made over the years that has been really beautiful, and really important touchstones. But at the same time, it’s not something that I grew up with, and I would have loved to. So it feels good to be a part of it.”
The pair are both speaking from their respective homes in Los Angeles, though Davis is packing up to leave hers. We talked in September, when wildfires were ravaging the area and people were being advised to stay indoors. “Mackenzie is unloading her dishwasher, and I’m just sitting in my boudoir,” says Stewart, as plates clank in the background. “You’re gonna hear a lot of background noise,” warns Davis.
They clearly get on well. “Fuck, Mackenzie, what was that thing you said that I thought was so funny?” says Stewart, at one point.
“I love you, and I’m in love with you?” replies Davis, deadpan.
“Riiiight. So we loved each other, we’re in love with each other, and we made this movie about people loving each other,” jokes Stewart.
Stewart signed up to Happiest Season first, after DuVall flew to Germany, where Stewart was working, to persuade her to get on board. “We talked about who we could possibly find as a partner for Abby, and we talked about throngs of people, until we got to Mackenzie and realised there was absolutely literally no one else. Thankfully she wanted to do it.”
Why did it have to be Davis? “It’s a question that I like answering, because you can’t say these things about yourself,” says Stewart. “She is such a real person. I wanted this couple, and the way that we represented these individuals, to feel really casual, sort of self-assured. And Mackenzie is fun and infectious, and she has a confidence that I find contagious.” Both agree that their chemistry never felt forced. “It was really important for me to show a queer couple feeling cool and comfortable and in their own skin. I can’t watch this movie and be like, it’s kind of bullshit. Anyway, luckily, Mackenzie exists, and there you go.”
They shot Happiest Season in Pittsburgh, in January and February, with the pandemic hovering just out of focus, and managed to get it finished before everything shut down. “We were watching it approach, like absolute idiots,” recalls Davis. “We’re the exact same way about the fires in LA or climate change in general, that if it’s burning on the other side of the city, you’re like: ‘Oh that’s awful.’ But you don’t change your behaviour at all. And then the smoke is in your neighbourhood, and you’re like: ‘I just won’t go outside.’ We have such a delayed reaction to things. It’s shocking.”
Stewart says that this film “is the only movie I wouldn’t feel weird about releasing right now”. She points out that it was made just before the world drastically changed. “So it’s not like” – she does a mock-cheery voice – “‘This is what we’re working on now!’ Because actually, this is coming from such a warm and well-intentioned place. A beautiful Christmas movie about people coming together, a family getting on the other side of a misunderstanding. It doesn’t make me go: why aren’t we having greater conversations right now? Because this is a conversation that’s valid, and it’s relevant.”
She says there are times when she has felt less comfortable about promoting films or work, in the context of what else has been going on in the world. “I had to go on Ellen the day after Trump was elected, and I was emotional and crazy. I’ve had experiences where I’m like, this feels stupid and I don’t want to do it right now. Whereas this, it doesn’t feel stupid to me.”
Over the past year or two, it has been hard not to notice that there are more big films with prominent same-sex female relationships, though it’s worth noting that the previous scarcity would make anything look like a glut. Still, from arthouse to Netflix, LGBTQ+ characters are there, onscreen, in greater numbers than before. Why is that? “I think it’s just evidence of progress and desire,” says Stewart. “You know, it’s one foot in front of the other. It’s pretty obvious to anyone that’s ever engaged with this thought process that the answer would be: because we’re choking for it, obviously, and so there needs to be more.”
Davis adds that, since it takes time for films to get made and then released, “these decisions were probably made three or four years ago. So there’s this weird time delay where we’re celebrating it now.” In 2016, she starred in San Junipero, a rare episode of Black Mirror that was optimistic and sweet, telling the story of two women who meet and fall in love, at first, in the 80s.
“I went into it totally self-interested,” says Davis. “I wanted to work with these people, and I loved this story. I failed to recognise the cultural importance, because I just wasn’t aware of the lack of this type of story in the queer canon.” That is to say, a positive story, with a happy ending.
“It wasn’t until it came out that I was like, oh fuck, people have been screaming for this, and now there’s a positive rendering of a queer relationship, that doesn’t – I mean strangely, you know, spoiler, they’re dead – but it doesn’t end in a tragic death. There’s this sense of a rebirth, which is beautiful.”
She has a theory. “Ugh, this is going to make me sound like such an idiot asshole,” she says, cautiously, but she wonders if San Junipero might have had some part to play in ushering this new wave in. “Maybe it’s just because I was in the media that was being talked about, but it was a conversation I hadn’t been aware of before, and it felt like people were really interested in these stories.” That doesn’t make you sound like an idiot. “I didn’t want to be like, well, it’s because of San Junipero!” she says, laughing. “It’s not at all. I think Charlie [Brooker] is somebody who was doing something before there was a critical and commercial outcry for it. And then I think savvy people in the business recognised that there was a commercial desire for this thing and answered that call. You know what I mean?”
Stewart says that when she saw San Junipero, “it perked my ears up at that time. I was with my first girlfriend, and we were like: ‘Oh, that’s on TV, that’s crazy.’ Like, it was definitely something I noticed. And that’s so cool and weird, and now, I’m here with you doing an interview.”
Happiest Season is flying another flag, too, for romantic comedies, albeit in a spikier format – it is a love story, but it is pleasingly resistant to sentimentality. There is an argument that the romcom has been in decline since its 90s heyday, bumped off by the big superhero franchises. Do we need more romcoms? “I haven’t seen many superhero movies, but just selfishly, I really prefer a romantic comedy,” says Stewart. “Mackenzie, you’ve done both things, you were a fucking superhero.”
Davis played Grace, an “augmented” human soldier, in 2019’s Terminator: Dark Fate, but she opts to offer the non-augmented view. “I will speak about this as an audience member. I’ve been watching a lot of romantic comedies recently, because I like to watch fun digestible movies when I’m doing chores around my house. And you can’t go outside because the smoke is so thick in Los Angeles. I love them. I’m so comforted by them.”
“I was not expecting that answer at all,” says Stewart. “Really? You’ve been watching tons of romantic comedies?”
“Well, yeah. I just watched Plus One, which is that woman from Pen15 [Maya Erskine], she’s so good. And then I watched what I think is one of the best romantic comedies of all time, Sleeping With Other People, by Leslye Headland. But there is this perfect, idealised kind of love that gets communicated through [romantic comedies] that I do find a little bit dangerous,” Davis says. “I think our movie is like, love’s hard. And I like that our movie is romantic, and it’s a comedy and it’s a Christmas movie, but it feels a little less neat than a traditional romantic comedy, or some of the ones that I’ve been frequenting in the last few weeks.”
“It really is,” adds Stewart. “Like, When Harry Met Sally is the messiest, scariest thing ever until they get together, which takes years and years.”
Making a Christmas movie, romantic or otherwise, can be a risky business. Happiest Season pulls it off, but plenty of others have stumbled. What does it take to make a good festive film? “I think a really good Christmas movie just feels lived in,” says Stewart. “It feels like pyjamas. Like, oh God, those people really know each other, to the point that they hate each other, and then it becomes funny again. Usually, a good Christmas movie … are you ready for this?” She puts on a cheesy voice: “It makes you believe in Christmas.”
As for their favourites, Davis says she watched a lot of Home Alone growing up. “And I’ve never been a Love, Actually identifier, but I think I am. Hugh Grant is so talented. If you watch a good four performances in a row, he is just such a brilliant performer. I guess that’s my Christmas movie.”
It’s a divisive one, I say. People either love it or loathe it.
“I think I’ve been right in the middle where I’m like, sure it’s fine, but, it doesn’t mean anything to me, but I think it’s great. Um, why do people hate it?” she asks.
Well, some people think the Andrew Lincoln storyline is creepy.
“Oh, that he steals Keira Knightley from his best friend? But he makes a series of signs!”
Stewart interjects. “I probably shouldn’t mention this, but fuck it. I also felt a little weird about the guy who … Colin Firth is going after someone he’s really never spoken to. And I understand that love transcends language barriers, but at the same time … I probably shouldn’t have said this …”
“You guys,” says Davis, suddenly. “I have to say something.”
“What the fuck?” says Stewart, alarmed.
“I hate Love, Actually. I take back what I said before.”
“Honestly, I felt like I was digging myself this hole!” says Stewart. “And then you just really jumped in and helped me out, like you agree. I don’t have a favourite Christmas movie. I think that’s the base truth of this conversation. But I have seen Love, Actually.”
It took a while, but we got to the truth.
“I know,” says Davis, happily. “There was so much performance going on, and we finally stripped it all down.”
Stewart sounds relieved. “You’re really my all-time favourite person.”
• Happiest Season is available to buy and rent from 26 November