Vanessa Hudgens and Josh Whitehouse are sitting on the floor in the living room of a charming century home in Bracebridge, ON, unwrapping Christmas ornaments. They pull shiny balls of holiday cheer out of a box, smiling coyly at each other while the camera rolls, and laugh uncontrollably between takes of their new Netflix holiday romantic comedy, The Knight Before Christmas. This scene is a quiet portrait of seasonal domesticity. It’s not a running-through-the-airport high-stakes rom-com moment; it’s not an epic make-out under the mistletoe — there’s still time for all that. For now, Hudgens and Whitehouse’s characters are slowly finding their way into each other’s hearts, one Christmas knick-knack at a time.
If that sounds schmaltzy, good. This is a genre that thrives on sentimentality. It’s these kind of slow-build, flirty moments when sparks are ignited that get rom-com lovers like me riled up like, well, a kid on Christmas morning. Imagine how giddy I felt when Refinery29 was invited to the set to witness how that magic is made in real time. It was like taking a peek inside Santa’s workshop.
In The Knight Before Christmas, Hudgens (of High School Musical fame and a consistent scene-stealer of live musicals) and newcomer Whitehouse (best known for his role in BBC’s historical drama Poldark and for being attached to the now-shelved Game of Thrones prequel) play fated lovers from different eras. She’s Brooke, a present-day small-town Ohio science teacher, and he’s a time-travelling medieval knight named Cole — and they fall in love against their better judgment. That’s not a spoiler, just an educated guess based on the countless hours I have spent watching Christmas rom-coms… for research.
The Knight Before Christmas is a delightfully wild addition to the genre, and just as fantastical as Hudgens’ last Netflix project, 2018's surprise holiday hit, The Princess Switch. In Switch, Hudgens transformed into doppelgängers Stacey, a Chicago baker, and Lady Margaret, a royal about to be married to a prince. “I was really excited by the idea of being a staple in people’s homes for the holidays,” Hudgens tells me upstairs in a tiny, creaky room of the house during a quick filming break. “I knew if I was doing another Christmas movie, I needed to make sure that it was completely different."
The two films may be different, but the constants are a reckless abandonment of logic in the name of love, and the likable Hudgens, who, with the uncanny gift of being convincingly earnest and simultaneously cynical and relatable, has emerged as the perfect millennial romantic lead. Hudgens is also producing the movie, as well as the sequel to The Princess Switch called The Princess Switch: Switched Again (which will add another doppelgänger) coming next year.
As a producer, her calm and friendly demeanor sets the tone for what seems like a suspiciously laid-back set. But she doesn’t take credit for it, attributing the relaxed vibe to her secret set-whisperer, her mother, Gina Guangco-Hudgens. “She’s the on-set mom,” says Hudgens, who turns 31 next month. “It’s nice having that energy around. It keeps things a little more light-hearted and I feel supported.” Guangco-Hudgens is also a producer on The Knight Before Christmas, but everyone just calls her Mama G. While Mama G greets people with hugs, and offers fruit to the crew, director Monika Mitchell spends the day in her chair, calmly dishing out camera orders and loudly complimenting her leads. “I just want [the shot] to get up in their faces because they’re so sexy,” she tells a headset-clad crew member after a particularly swoon-worthy take.
The set is exactly what you would expect from a holiday movie. There's fake snow (the crew had been battling to keep the flurries looking fresh during an unseasonably rainy May) and twinkling lights outside. Inside the picturesque home, a breezy heroine and a handsome leading man pretend it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Despite the familiar scenery, if you’re expecting The Knight Before Christmas to be a by-the-numbers holiday romance, Hudgens says this isn’t it.
The commute-through-the-centuries element is a twist, she says. (Although it has been done, most similarly in the 2001 sleeper Kate & Leopold about a duke who time travels, but not at Christmas!) Most importantly, there’s the fact that Brooke isn’t the Christmas rom-com heroine we’re used to. Think: The trope of the overworked city slicker looking for respite in a small town, or the woman running from a bad breakup before she meets the man who makes her forget about her crappy old life. “The character was really appealing to me because she is a strong, logical, intelligent, young woman who is looking for love but isn’t someone who needs to be rescued,” says Hudgens.
“Brooke is not someone who is trying to escape her life,” adds Mitchell during our chat at the cozy inn where the cast and crew are staying. “She loves her job, she loves her family, she loves her home… We wanted to show that you can still really need someone and fall in love with them even if you don’t need to be saved from yourself.”
This shift from romantic damsel-in-distress to empowering lead with agency is one we’ve seen in the rom-com resurgence, spearheaded by Netflix’s many forays into the genre — including the movie that started it all, the runaway hit A Christmas Prince and other fresh takes on the rom-com formula (To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, Always Be My Maybe, Someone Great). But the progress made in these narratives has barely infiltrated the very niche and very traditional world of the Christmas rom-com. “We wanted to strive with every scene, every frame to make this movie stand alone and to make it different,” Mitchell says.
Of course, a good romantic comedy hinges on the chemistry of its leads. One perk of producing your own movie? Getting to choose who you have to fake fall in love with. “Josh reminds me so much of one of my best friends,” Hudgens says of the 29-year-old Brit she hand-picked for the movie. “We are just totally comfortable with each other and we’re very silly.” If this movie succeeds, Whitehouse is on track to become the Noah Centineo of the 2019 holiday season. Mitchell warns: “Josh is very easy to fall in love with. Watch yourselves.”
When we sit down, Whitehouse seems oblivious to his pending heart-throb status. He’s a bit jittery; you can tell he’s new at this. When asked if he likes holiday rom-coms he answers: “I can’t say I’ve watched a lot… Love Actually… that’s a Christmas movie, right?” Like Love Actually (definitely a Christmas movie, Josh), Whitehouse hopes The Knight Before Christmas becomes appointment viewing for families around the holidays for years to come. “People are going to gather around the television as a family and watch it and that’s really lovely,” he says. “To be able to bring extra joy at that time of the year is a really nice thing.”
That “extra joy” is needed during a season that sees a spike in depression and extreme rates of loneliness and anxiety. There’s no room for that kind of darkness in Christmas rom-coms. They are the comfort food of cinema, the turkey dinner of movies, if you will. You know exactly how this will end: with you on the couch feeling full and satisfied, and that predictability is exactly why you keep coming back for seconds. The Knight Before Christmas is Netflix’s latest serving of cinematic stuffing, and Hudgens hopes it will hit the spot.
“It’s a crazy time in the world and everyone could use a bit of light-hearted love,” she says. “If I can be a part of bringing families together at a time that can be difficult and allowing a little escapism or inspiration, I think that’s wonderful and beautiful.”
The Knight Before Christmas drops globally on Netflix on November 21.