Actress, comedian, and writer Mary Holland has spent years building the momentum that’s yielded a rather spectacular 2020, despite the industry’s shuttering from the ongoing pandemic.
Currently starring in Comedy Central’s Robbie opposite Rory Scovel, recurring in the second season of Amazon Prime’s Homecoming, and stealing scenes in Hulu’s holiday romantic comedy Happiest Season, Holland is showcasing a brilliant range as both a performer and writer.
Holland cowrote Happiest Season with director Clea Duvall and the duo have delivered a huge success for Hulu, with the inclusive holiday film becoming the most watched original film debut on the streaming service.
The film follows a lesbian couple, Harper (MacKenzie Davis) and Abby (Kristen Stewart), who are attending Harper’s family holiday party, only for Abby to discover that Harper hasn’t actually come out to her conservative parents.
Holland plays Harper’s sister Jane, an optimistic aspiring fantasy novelist who is misunderstood by her family, but is so true to herself that she is often the envy of her sisters.
Holland spoke with Awards Focus about collaborating with her former Veep co-star Clea Duvall on the script, working with Emmy winner Dan Levy, establishing the dynamic between the sisters in the film and the importance of being truthful when portraying a coming-out story.
Awards Focus: It’s been quite a year for you with the release of Robbie on Comedy Central, Homecoming Season 2 on Amazon Prime and now Happiest Season on Hulu. What has been the highlight for you?
Mary Holland: I’m thrilled to be on all these platforms. What a treat! It’s so wild to think that this was all in one year. I think Happiest Season coming out at this time when we really need a bit of cheer and a bit of joy was a real highlight. To have it be streamed by Hulu and so accessible to people right now was really meaningful to me. I think the movie meant a lot to other people too.
AF: Have you had anyone reach out that meant a lot with the success of the film?
Holland: A lot of friends and family have reached out and some of the most beautiful messages from people that I don’t know who saw the movie and sent a message or tweeted at me, sharing how important it was to them and that they felt seen. It’s the most rewarding thing to hear when you put something out there that you’re able to help people feel represented.
AF: What was the conversation that you and Clea had before deciding to write the film together?
Holland: This movie was inspired by Clea’s experience and as a filmmaker, she really loved holiday movies, as do I, and (she) had never seen her experience represented. So this is a really important story that she wanted to tell.
We met working on Veep and she liked something about me. We barely knew each other at the time, but she invited me to coffee and told me the idea and sent me this outline of the movie and the story she wanted to tell. She just asked if I would write it with her and I was just so honored that she asked me and I thought the story was so important and beautiful. She and I became friends over the course of writing it, so it was a really special process for simple success, I think.
AF: You’ve done a lot of acting work, and you’re also known for sketch and improv. How much freedom did you have in the shooting schedule to try new things and bring some improv to the scenes?
Holland: Clea was so intentional about how she put this cast together. She populated the cast with a lot of people who do a ton of comedy. She also made it clear to us she wanted us to have ownership over these characters and find moments, try things, and bring ideas to the table. It just felt like such a collaborative, safe environment to do that. We had so much fun just making those scenes feel organic and lived in.
AF: Dan Levy was so well cast in the film, what did he bring to the dynamic on set?
Holland: He is an absolute dreamboat. He’s so lovely and warm and friendly and so funny as you can imagine. I had the most fun getting to know him on this. Then he stepped in front of the camera and he’s a movie star, and so compelling. That speech that he gives in the scene with Kristin, it just makes me stop every time.
AF: That speech is actually very important because what his character says is that everyone has a different coming out story. Each one is unique and you can’t force someone to come out when they’re not ready. What were the conversations around individualizing Harper’s coming out experience?
Holland: Well, Clea wrote that speech for John to say. I think she did such an amazing job of handling that. It was like expressing what the experience is like and how every story is different. It was handled with such care and love and grace. As somebody who has not had a coming out experience, I was really grateful to, on the writing side of it, understand from Clea’s perspective what it’s like and how to be honest about that experience. For people to hear that and feel like they are loved and valued no matter where they are in the process.
AF: Most families seem to have a Jane who is so sweet and optimistic, yet clearly misunderstood. At what point in Jane’s development did you pitch playing her to Clea?
Holland: Very early on. I feel like it was as soon as we decided that Harper would have sisters and that one of them, the middle sister, would have a different energy than the rest of the band. I was like, I want to play her!
AF: Did you find it odd giving her characteristics much like your own?
Holland: I don’t know how intentional we were about that. I feel like it just kind of organically happened that she really became so close to me. It just sort of evolved. We were having so much fun writing her because the rest of the family is so restrained and so conscious of what other people think. Jane is just herself and loves herself and we were just having so much fun writing the reactions of the family to Jane. How they’re sort of puzzled by her and jealous of her and how she’s so free.
AF: Toward the end of the film, Jane’s beautiful painting is ruined and it felt like such a sibling moment. In the end it really brings the sister’s closer together. How did you come up with that dynamic and how did it evolve over the course of filming when the roles were cast?
Holland: Well, MacKenzie and Alison are just stunning actors. It feels like we just fell into the dynamic of the three of us so quickly. They really saw each other as the competition and I was just kind of this gnat that was hovering around them trying to get involved. I was just getting in the way of the clear fight between Sloane and Harper, and Jane just wasn’t factoring into it as much as she wanted. It was so fun at the end where she gets involved and she fights with them and they knock the tree over and then Ted’s like, ‘I know you just wanted to be included.’ It was great.
AF: It was also a beautiful moment when Harper apologies to Jane later in the kitchen.
Holland: I know, it meant a lot to me too. It was very satisfying to write that ending for Jane where she was able to take up space and stand up for herself. The thing is also, the choice to make Jane’s painting actually very beautiful and she was really talented and put so much time into things that nobody appreciated. So having everybody listen to her in that moment and give her room to herself was so meaningful. I remember when we were shooting it, there were a few takes. Clea came over to me at one point and was like, ‘Are you okay?’ I was like, ‘I’s so real!’
AF: Were there certain scenes that you wanted to do up front or save for later to develop that dynamic?
Holland: Oh man, I feel like how the schedule was sort of laid out really, really served us in that way. Because the very first day that I was working was the ice skating scene. I think that was the first day Alison was working too. So that, like right away, we were thrust in the heat of the rivalry between Harper and Sloane.
AF: One of the things I found commendable about the film is that Abby and Riley don’t become lovers. Riley, instead, becomes a confidant that Abby can lean her head on, but it never seemed like they would be inclined to push the boundaries because they connected on a much deeper level. What considerations went into their story?
Holland: I’m glad you felt that way because I think that the friendship between them is really special. It’s something that really supports Abby in this difficult time. Clea speaks about how usually in a situation like on set or something, she’s like, I’m the only person there.
When there’s another person, there’s like a coming together of a mutual understanding. And that friendship is so important. We really wanted to give that to Abby, have her have a support system and a friendship like that. It doesn’t necessarily have to be romantic for it to be meaningful and impactful.
AF: Was there another direction that you and Clea were discussing to take Abby’s and Harper’s story, because Harper does spend a lot of time reconnecting with her ex-boyfriend Connor?
MH: We always wanted Abby and Harper to end up together, but I think we’re seeing Harper in a real low point. We’re sort of watching her over the course of the movie regress, like she’s started to dress more and more like Tipper, or like how she did in high school, and she’s falling into these dynamics because they’re safe and she’s terrified to reveal her authentic self to her family because she doesn’t know how she’s going to be received.
So Harper sort of retreats into this teenage version of herself that I feel her interactions with Connor and her other friends, are when it’s really on display. She’s just kind of shrinking but then eventually she grows out of it and is able to break through.
AF: With awards season coming up, if Happiest Season is blessed with nominations for the ceremonies, have you and Clea and the rest of the cast given any consideration to a Happiest Season viewing party?
Holland: Oh my gosh, I would love nothing more. All I want to do is sit in a room with all those people and laugh and enjoy the movie. We may, there hasn’t been talk of it yet, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
AF: You recently had an essay published on backstage.com where you speak about embracing the unknown as an actor, which also extends to being a writer, and the endless possibilities when you detach yourself from the result. Was that an extension of the writing process with Jane and her character?
Holland: I love that you connected those two. Jane, the way she operates in the world and her spirit is so joyful and so present. If someone wants to take up space, she doesn’t mind giving up space. She’s not attached to any result with anything. She’s just very present. So I definitely feel like there’s a parallel there with what I was trying to convey about the acting career lifestyle, and then with Jane in general. I mean, I feel like that’s true of any sort of art to varying degrees. You really just have to let the process guide you, if that makes sense. Lose yourself in the moment with where you’re at and what you’re creating and then you’ll be so surprised and delighted by the end result. Especially now, I have no idea what 2021 will look like in any way. It feels like we just need to completely recover and deal, and go into a new year and be able to return to life.