Lynn Whitfield's Performance In Hallmark's 'We Need A Little Christmas' Is Inspired By Her Aunt

This is the Emmy-Award winner and Louisiana native’s first Hallmark Christmas movie.

We Need A Little Christmas Lynn Whitfield
Photo: ©2022 Hallmark Media/Hugh Tull

Lynn Whitfield has graced our television screens for decades in shows that are woven into the cultural fabric of this country including Hill Street Blues, Heartbeat, and Greenleaf. She's appeared on the big screen in films such as All Things Fall Apart, The Women, and she won an Emmy Award for her portrayal of Josephine Baker in the 1991 HBO film, The Josephine Baker Story. But there was one thing the Baton Rouge born actress had not done yet–until now.

We Need a Little Christmas kicked off the seasonal programming on Hallmark's Movies & Mysteries network's "Miracles of Christmas" on Saturday, October 22 and it is the first Hallmark Christmas movie for the entertainment veteran. "Most of my career I've done very complex characters and with a bit of an edge. So to see the faces of people light up when I said, 'oh I'm doing a Hallmark Christmas movie?' They are like 'oh my God, we love those!' So I didn't know that it had this sort of cult following. I had not a clue. And everybody, people that I never would have expected, are so excited about their Christmas movies," Whitfield told Southern Living.

In Whitfield's first role for the home of all things merry and bright, she plays Irene, an older woman who has lived on her own for many years when new neighbor Julie and her son Gavin move in next door. Julie is grieving the loss of her husband and business partner. She's struggling to juggle running her business and care for her son. Irene, widowed and retired, keeps very busy volunteering in various ways to help her community. That's just how she forms a special bond with Julie's son. Gavin and Irene strike up a friendship while Irene is helping out at a Christmas themed day camp. While preparing for this role, it was this character's sense of duty to the community where Whitfield found her connection.

"I was having a difficult time figuring out this lady who made sugar cookies for the mail lady and took sweet potato pies, or a fruit cake to the fire station, and at the community center did her magic act because she was a performer at one point. Until I realized that she was so similar to my Aunt Elayne who passed on about 17 years ago." Whitfield elaborated on how Aunt Elayne shared so many qualities with this make believe character. "She was one of those people who would start [decorating] early. And she's one of those people who really reached out into the community and volunteered her time at senior centers and went to school to read books. And I said oh my god I have an opportunity to embody some of the goodness and no matter what else was going on in her life and things weren't always happy, she found great satisfaction in doing stuff for other people."

While working on this festive film, Whitfield was also reminded of her big Southern Christmases growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. " I don't think people know but Southern people, there's a big tradition of crafting in the South," she said with a hearty laugh. She spoke about brightly colored, flocked Christmas trees. "We would make crepe paper flowers, roses with the tiny Christmas balls in it with gold or silver or whatever the designer thing was. My mother was very designer holidays. But the trees were designer but the food was good ol' Southern. I mean my mother makes the best cornbread dressing in the world."

"I'm a child of divorce, the crafting and all of that distracts from all other issues. And we would join together in a common goal to create these beautiful decorations. So that's what it would be like for us." Whitfield also told us about how she's carried one particular creative tradition from her family with her into adulthood. Something inspired by another aunt.

"At 8 years old, and I'm very proud of it, I got Aunt Vi's praline recipe. So that gave me great bargaining chips for everything because I was the only one. And my mother would watch me at the stove because you know you have to stir, and stir and stir. Well I got the recipe for the pralines and the shortbread cookies. Honey, I was a star. And people would line up, you know?"

She went onto say that even when she moved away from the South and was living in New York City, friends would wait all year for her special pralines. She plans to make more this year, at least for her mother. For anyone attempting to make their own pralines this season, she has some advice. "But at the end of the day they are smooth and buttery and that's what they need to be. Don't ever let anybody push off one of those crunchy, sugary, where you see all the grains of sugar? No, that's not real pralines, that's a mess," she said with another laugh. Yes ma'am. Noted!

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