We're still promoting Hallmark's latest royal holiday movie, A Christmas Carousel.
Neal Bledsoe plays the royal in question, Prince Wittaker, who discovers there is a lot of love in the world when you get to look beyond the walls of Ancadia.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that Rachel Boston's Lila gets called to the royal republic to help restore the beloved Ancadian carousel.
It's funny that Neal is playing a stodgy Prince when we first meet him in the film because he is as far from that description as you can get.
Our interview started with Neal connecting with me by name, finding something to say about my hometown (Go Steelers!), and joking around about his new royal title.
After we joked about retaining access to the Prince costume for special occasions, such as enriching Christmas with the family, Neal jumped headfirst into A Carousel Christmas, inquiring about my favorite bits before sharing his own.
"Well, I have one definite favorite part at the moment, which is just a line that is at the end. I don't even know if it made it into the final cut because I haven't seen it.
"But it was this perfect moment of synchronicity that Lila and Roy and I, we were improvising with one of the scenes where they were telling me about the wishing horse. I thought they were pulling my leg, so I decided to take the improv just a beat further, and I asked them; I said, 'But, yeah, I got a puppy.'
"I wanted to trip them up, so I just said, 'Yeah. What was the puppy's name?' Both of them looked at each other and, without skipping a beat, said, 'Frank.' I nearly laughed myself off a ladder. I was just tickled by it. So that, and then the scene where I get to come running into the throne room for the first time, I think it was my favorite.
"I had this idea that I really wanted to be responsible, and they were talking about how I was always late; I was never taking any of these things responsibly. So I just thought it would be a funny idea to come sprinting in.
"So, I imagined that it would be a room that I could just sneak in the back and not have to take three or four steps to get up to the throne room.
"What I did not envision was this massive, massive palace room, a ballroom, and that I would have to come sprinting like 50 yards through and then hop up on the throne. So because of the difficulty of the unforeseen little obstacles, that became my favorite scene."
Despite the obvious romantic nature of this holiday movie, Neal doesn't think of himself in terms of a lead, romantic or otherwise.
"I just think about it in terms of character. What I loved about playing Whitaker was his vulnerability, his passion, and his sense of humor. I loved it, and I think, hopefully, people can really identify with Whitaker's journey, as he is really trying to find his own voice in doing what he has to do while also doing what he wants to do.
"Through Lila's instruction and support, he finds a way to be his fullest self. Both of them are these incredibly complementary forces. I was thinking of Whitaker as somebody that was very, very good at ideas and not too good on the practicality and execution. Along comes Lila, who is all practicality and execution. She can do this. They're a yin and yang to each other.
"Where Lila might not necessarily her fullest self is in big picture stuff, in thinking that she can be everything that she wants to be. So in both characters giving that to one another was what I loved playing about Whitaker and what I loved about the meringue of this relationship growing."
If you read our interview with Neal's partner in A Christmas Carousel, then you know she and Neal spent some time getting to know the movie and each other while they were in quarantine before the production in Canada.
That time allowed them to be introspective and connect on a level that they might not ordinarily have been able to. They used their imaginations when it came to the fictional country of Ancadia.
"Because we didn't have a lot of other people we could talk to, we couldn't go outside obviously; we had to be stuck in one place. She and I had built up a tremendous rapport and relationship by talking to each other on the phone every day for like five hours.
"Through all of those conversations and in the conversations we had on set, we were building the world of Ancadia," Neal said. "It's almost like Luxembourg and Lichtenstein were thrust on the British Isles. Sort of a curious mix of mountains and ocean side with a bent towards holiday Christmas markets like you have in Germany."
Neal talked about one of his favorite things about movie-making. "There are these three processes, and every single one of them kind of has to be perfect, and then the mold is smashed, and other people make it.
"That first thing is the script. You can get these great scripts as we have with Christmas Carousel, and you get this thing that everybody else can base all of their choices on, and it inspires all these ideas.
"But everybody who's reading that script, from the director to the art director, to the gaffer, the set deck people, and the makeup people, the actors, and actresses that are every day reading that all have their own idea of what that is. So everybody combines all those ideas of what they think Ancadia is.
"Then it gets to the third phase, which is the editing and putting all that film together. So I remember Rachel and I having those conversations; all of us were having these ideas and talks about like, 'well, what would it be like? What would it be like in this throne room or having to be always wearing these costumes? Always feeling the eyes of everyone is on you?'
"Then, in other scenes, too, we had discussions about princes in coffee shops. We had discussions about, 'well, if I'm really supposed to be this Casanova prince, a lot of what I'm rebelling against is that I don't get to have a private life.'
"So this feeling of a public face versus a private face became something that informed a lot of the conversations that Rachel and I had. I think it's also one of those things that she, as Lila, really she walks away from and thinks, 'oh, I don't know if I want that life.' But that's, I guess, the price of royalty, it's duty."
All of their quarantine discussions make things a lot easier, Neal said. The early rehearsing made it fairly easy for them to get into character when filming began.
"Typically, it's like you could get the script over the weekend and literally be just learning new lines while you're trying to give this fully realized performance. But Rachel and I were both very, very lucky in that we had sat with the script for a couple of weeks with each other.
"Then we would be working on it with other people in the pre-production phase. We had such an ease with it and such a recall that just simply getting the lines on the page onto the screen wasn't our first concern because we knew we had that. It just allowed us to go to the next step.
"I think it gave us a lot of comfortability and a lot of confidence going into it. But one of the things that is really one of my favorite about being an actor on a movie set like that is that you discover things as you go along. So at the end of the shoot is when you really start to discover who the character is."
After my cat, Georgia, embarrassed me with yowling that Neal very kindly and amusingly acknowledged, launching into a discussion about our love of animals, Neal recalled some of his more memorable roles on camera.
He's been on shows that many of you love greatly, so he has a vast breadth of experiences to choose from.
"One of my favorite experiences that I ever had was what was really the first time I ever felt like I'd broke through. I was on Gossip Girl, and I had this role that had a lot of visibility for whatever reason.
"It was like a guest star, and there was really no rhyme or reason to why this particular guest star role would have any more visibility than another, but for whatever reason, this one did. I ended up in Entertainment Weekly for a couple of weeks in a row.
"That then got the ball rolling, and I'm sure as a member of the press, you know, people get heat, have heat, and lose heat for very mysterious reasons. All of a sudden, for the first time in my career, I had heat.
Right after that hot experience, Neal found himself on Models, Inc., on The CW. On paper, it looked like an amazing experience. It still does. Airing a youth-oriented network, the series was about models and starred Mischa Barton, Sara Paxton, Nico Torgella, Ashley Madekew, Elle Macpherson, and Gal Godot! Neal was in wonderful company.
Unfortunately, when he arrived, the show wasn't doing very well. "I think we had less than a million viewers for our pilot episodes," Neal said.
"I was brought in, and I was going to play a Russian mobster on the show because, of course, I was because why not hire the WASPiest person they could to play a Russian mobster? So I was coming in, and I was going to play this character. It was a lot of fun. I just got to be dangerous and cool, and I'm like 26 or whatever. I was like having a hoot.
"I was talking with Sara Paxton. We were having a conversation about our past relationship because we were supposed to play old lovers. We knew that things weren't looking good and that we could get the word that we'd get canceled, but I'll never forget the way that this one was canceled.
"I was talking to Sara Paxton in the makeup room and this very hairy PA ... I don't mean hairy like as in had a lot of hair, I mean hairy in terms of just looked like she had the weight of the world on her shoulders.
"She came in, and she was on the walkie, and she was like, 'Okay, okay, okay. I'll tell them. Okay. I'll tell them, I'll tell them. Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay.' She switches off the walkie-talkie, and she looks at us in that way that PAs can only convey the worst news in the most passive-aggressive tones.
"She says, 'Okay guys, so here's the deal. We're going to finish the shot we're on, and then we're going to break for lunch, and then we have a half-hour to get out of the building.'
"That's how we got the news that we had been canceled. The entire crew just took a day off after that. I think somebody still had the corporate credit card and just declared an open bar, and we had a great time."
From hot to not in such a short span. That sounds devastating. Not so fast! "But my next job, literally the same casting director, same month, my next job is one of those things. It's just like the sky opened up as I was cast on Ugly Betty. I was cast as Judith Light's long lost son."
In his role as Judith's long-lost son and Eric Mabius's long-lost brother, Neal was set to be hot once again. As a major character in the production, he got the royal treatment that has influenced him ever since.
"Judith called me before I was even on set, and for 90 minutes, maybe two hours, she and I had the most wide-ranging, lovely conversation about everything. I mean about making art, about writing poetry in Tuscany, to what it's like to feel like you're growing up somewhere that's too small for you.
"That act of generosity made it so easy, gave me such an easy rapport with her on set that I'll never forget it, and in my mind, it is the best way to treat somebody because Judith is a legend, and she had nothing more to prove. Because she was so generous to me, who was just starting, I think it's really informed how I want to conduct myself."
Neal also worked with Blair Underwood on Ironside, who he considered an incredible captain, as well. And from Blair, Neal has a lovely memory of the last play on Broadway before the COVID shutdown.
"It's funny; I actually just saw Blair in the last play on Broadway. It was the night after all the plays closed. They did his play. He just did one more performance of A Soldier's Play at the American Airlines Theater at Roundabout because they had to do the archival taping for the Lincoln Center.
"I was fortunate enough, he gave me a comp ticket, so I could sit in the mezzanine and watch him give this just dazzling performance. The whole cast had been doing it for months.
"So we literally saw the last play on Broadway to an empty house in one of the Broadway biggest houses.
To see somebody like Blair, that has done everything in this business, and to see that he's still searching for what's next and what's vital and what's going to inspire, is also inspiring to me.
While Neal has never starred on Broadway himself, he was an understudy in a play called Impressionism, written by Michael Jacobs (Charles in Charge and My Two Dads), directed by Jack O'Brien, produced by Bill Haber and starring Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons and Marsha Mason, among others. But despite the heavy hitters, it didn't work.
"I was a week away from walking the boards, and then we unceremoniously canceled. We didn't get canceled, but they told us that the show was going to close. It's okay. Truth be told, I loved understudying more. The reason why is because the show didn't work, it wasn't very good.
"It was surprising to me that it wouldn't be because we had the best talent that we could assemble. It was like watching the 27 Yankees go down. So as a young artist, to just sit with that question, though, like, why isn't this working?
"Because this seemingly has all the components that should make it work. I loved that. When he cheered me up and told me I should play Hamlet during that, I also loved that too."
For now, like so many others, Neal is looking forward to getting in touch with his roots this Christmas with a more laid back and quiet celebration.
"I am not going to be able to go back home for Christmas. So what I'm going to do to make me feel more in touch with those roots, I'm going to find all of the various ethnic strands that I have -- whether that's English or German or Dutch or Swedish or Scotch -- I'm going to find all of those things. I'm going to try to make one dish from each of those cultures to make my Christmas dinner this year."
Then he laughed, "But truth be told, Carissa, I'll probably just get lazy in the Wholefoods and order a pre-made meal. But at least my heart's in the right place with trying to do the right thing."
That's the best that any of us can do this year.
To make your holiday season a little brighter, tune into Neal and Rachel in A Christmas Carousel on Hallmark Channel on Saturday, December 19 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 Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.