There’s a Hollywood tradition that most actors follow:
If a producer asks if you can ride a horse, you say “yes!” Then you rush out and try to learn.
That was trickier for Melissa Joan Hart (shown here with Duane Henry), whose “Mistletoe in Montana” debuts Friday on Lifetime. She and her mother produced the film; it’s hard to lie to your mom, harder to lie to yourself.
“I worked all summer on lessons,” Hart said, including “lasso lessons. I knew there was archery involved and square dancing, but I was just like … ‘I just wanna get comfortable on a horse.’”
This isn’t her natural turf. She grew up in Long Island and moved into New York City with her mother as a teen, after her parents’ divorce. She filled her childhood with work – commercials starting when she was 4, then “Clarissa Explains It All” in her teens.
There wasn’t a lot of opportunity for horsemanship. One summer, Hart recalled, she “rode a hose named Sprinkles and just went around a ring.”
Later, she did do some trail rides in California. Then everything clicked, she said, thanks to “my cousin’s real-life experience in Wyoming, going to a dude ranch. She met a wrangler and fell in love.”
Hart went to the wedding and mentioned to her mother that this would be a good movie. “I was like, ‘Well, I wanna be the wrangler, ‘cause I wanna really learn how to be a cowgirl.’”
That left the other role – a city-slicker at a dude ranch. It went to Henry, a British actor who came to the U.S. five years ago and did two “NCIS” seasons.
“Being an outsider (in) America, and just trying to find some sense of this place” helped him relate to the role, Henry said. “Going to the ranch, I guess, is just the same sort of parallel energy.”
The one person familiar with the turf was the director, Kellie Martin. Like Hart, Martin is a former child star; but she’s married to a guy from a Montana town of 5,000. Making her directing debut (except for a couple “Mystery Woman” episodes 15 years ago), she faced quick hurdles.
Filming was in the summer, when even Montana is hot … and when the dude ranches are too busy to make room for movie people. Once they found a spot, Hart said, there was “no wi-fi, no cell phone service. With the shortage of rental cars this year, no one had a rental car.”
Despite precautions, some vaccinated people came down with COVID. The film lost its director of photography and its first assistant director. Actors had to fret about learning to square dance and more.
“We’re in like the mountains of Montana,” Hart said. “Everyone was terrified the first few days of grizzly bears …. Everyone carried their bear mace.”
And then it all worked out. No bears (or actors or square-dance traditions) were harmed in the making of this picture
– “Mistletoe in Montana,” 8 p.m. Friday (Dec. 17), Lifetime, rerunning at midnight
– Also, 6 p.m. Dec. 22; and 10:03 p.m. Dec. 25, rerunning at 2:04 a.m.