PERFECT HARMONY premieres Sunday, October 16, on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries. The telefilm, a romantic dramedy with music, stars James Denton as retired performer Jack Chandeller. Denton is also one of the film’s producers.
Denton, a two-time Screen Actors Guild Award winner, along with his castmates, for Best Ensemble in a Comedy Series for DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, is originally from Knoxville, Tennessee. He’s had a wide-ranging career on both the large and small screens.
Prior to his eight seasons as James Delfino on DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, Denton was a series regular on THE PRETENDER. Following HOUSEWIVES, Denton costarred for seven seasons as the good doctor Sam Radford on Hallmark’s GOOD WITCH series.
In an exclusive phone interview, Denton discusses how he came to star in and produce PERFECT HARMONY, his early work with directors John Woo and Carl Reiner, and more.
JAMES DENTON: As a part of GOOD WITCH, I had a three-movie deal with Hallmark – I think they wanted me to be in them, I didn’t have to be the lead – but it was mainly for me to produce and do something more creative on top of the show. I did one called FOR LOVE & HONOR, about a military academy six years ago. Last year, I got to do my first Christmas movie, A KISS BEFORE CHRISTMAS with [HOUSEWIVES castmate] Teri Hatcher, which was fantastic. It was the first DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES reunion on camera. We had a ball.
PERFECT HARMONY is the last movie in my deal. Jon Eskenas, the show runner on GOOD WITCH, and I tried to come up with an idea [for a movie] that was different, because it’s hard to be original when Hallmark puts out eighty-five or so movies a year.
Hallmark treats people well, and I owe them for letting me use my son – I don’t know any other network that would have said, sight unseen, “Sure, you can do a movie with your kid.” So, I think Hallmark is unique in that way [laughs]. They let me do it for FOR LOVE & HONOR, which was 2016, and they did it again this time. I like the people. I love producing with them. So, it’s worked out really well. But I had never done anything for them before GOOD WITCH.
I play a little guitar, and I wanted a vehicle for my son [Sheppard Denton], who I think is a brilliant actor. So, we came up with this idea where I play this washed-up pop star, and I’ve got a college-age son, Teddy [played by Sheppard]. In the movie when my wife died, I went into a depression and quit performing and opened up this guitar repair shop, and I’m trying to get by with my son. There’s a lot of original music. It was the most fun I’ve ever had, I think, in my career.
It’s actually premiering on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, which is growing pretty quickly, and what they’re trying to do over there is a little deeper dive, deeper emotional stuff. There’s a lot of conflict. Not negativity, and you know the ending is going to be similar, but you’re able to get a little more emotion and a little more conflict over HMM. I do think it’s going to run on Hallmark Channel after the premiere.
Jack Lenz, our music director, who was also the music director on GOOD WITCH, is a genius. He wrote both of the original songs. There’s one that’s sort of a through-line in this movie called “Oo-Ee-Oo.” It’s a ridiculous song, which people think has no meaning, made me a huge star, and people make fun of it. You find out in the movie it’s got a much deeper meaning, and that’s a kind of interesting twist as well.
AX: What instruments do you play?
DENTON: Primarily guitar and piano, a little harmonica. I’m a very average musician – like most musicians, I’ll say I’m good enough to know I’m not any good [laughs]. But it was fun acoustic stuff, and there’s this one scene where my son and I are jamming. I run a guitar repair shop in the movie, and because he’s a much better player, he’s a fantastic musician, he gets to show me up on camera.
AX: Did you have to learn how to repair guitars for this role?
DENTON: No. If I did, I have a good source – one of my very good friends, Wes Urbaniak, is a fantastic musician and luthier [maker of stringed instruments]. The guitars my son and I play are all handmade by him, and it was very cool for me to get to incorporate those.
AX: This being Hallmark, should we assume that love enters the picture at some point?
DENTON: [laughs] Yes, my best friend is getting married. He asks me to be his best man, and his fiancée asks her best friend, Barrett, played by Sherri Saum, to be the maid of honor. Sherri Saum is a revelation. We got so lucky with her. She’s plays a poetry professor at a university, and happens to be a professor of my son. So, he knows her as well. It’s all tied together that way.
[Barrett and Jack] have never gotten along, and you find out why in the movie. We’re oil and water. We’ve avoided ever having to be in the same place. So, when they get married, we have to work together on this wedding and, through a chain of events where I end up having to get up and perform at the rehearsal dinner, and it goes viral, and I pull her up there with me, and [the bride and groom] get this crazy idea that they want us to perform at their wedding, which we think is a horrible idea, because we can’t stand each other. And we’re forced to plan this wedding, and come up with a song, and try to perform together at the wedding of our best friends, all the while just trying to tolerate each other.
AX: Does your son also join the wedding performance?
DENTON: He doesn’t, no. In the wedding, I’m just up there with an acoustic guitar.
AX: Do you have more scenes with your son than the one in the guitar shop?
DENTON: Oh, yes. It’s a pivotal role. His character is very protective of my character. Teddy is suspicious of this new relationship, and me hanging out with his professor, because he came so close to losing me when his mom died. But then, toward the end, he starts pushing me to come out of my shell a little bit, try to live a little, and deal with some of those old feelings.
Once Hallmark realized how good he was, [they allowed] us to add much more emotional scenes than they usually do. There are a lot of things that we live out in real life at home [laughs], where he calls me out. So, there’s some very good father/son stuff.
AX: How was it working with Sheppard?
DENTON: We’re extremely close. We [Denton, his wife, actor/writer Erin O’Brien Denton, and their children Sheppard and Malin] moved to Minnesota when HOUSEWIVES ended to get the kids out of L.A. So, he didn’t grow up in L.A. We put him in the first movie I did for Hallmark, FOR LOVE & HONOR. He was just twelve. He was funny, and very cute, and he was good at that, but he hadn’t done anything [on camera] since then. He did high school theater, enough that I knew how talented he was.
So, it was a gift from the universe, or God, or whatever you want to call it, to get to do PERFECT HARMONY. We spent a month together in a hotel in Canada, and played a lot of guitar, and it was a great experience. Being across from him in front of the camera is very unusual, when it’s your own child, You’re tempted to help, or what you think is help [laughs], and maybe give them ideas.
He doesn’t know anything about hitting marks, or crossing the line. It’s all new to him. Luckily, he’s very bright and soaked it all up. I kept my mouth shut and let the director, Stefan Scaini, work with him. Stefan was the perfect director for him, because he’s very encouraging and very smart, so they had a good relationship. So, it was unlike anything I’ve ever done, in front of the camera with my son.
AX: Did you shoot in the same general area of Canada as GOOD WITCH?
DENTON: No, GOOD WITCH was Toronto, which is a different province. PERFECT HARMONY was Winnipeg, which is much less expensive. The movie didn’t need to be set in a big city. Winnipeg. We had that problem with A KISS BEFORE CHRISTMAS, we also shot that there, and we were trying to sell it as New York, and it was hard. But PERFECT HARMONY is set in Austin, so it was very easy. If you don’t need huge skyscrapers, it’s a pretty good location, and really affordable.
We weren’t able to use anybody [from GOOD WITCH] except Stefan, who was a director on GOOD WITCH, and then Jon Eskenas and Tim Bradley, his partner, who produced A KISS BEFORE CHRISTMAS as well. And so, all four of us did GOOD WITCH. But everybody else was local Winnipeg people, because of Canadian restrictions [relating to regional employment].
AX: Before your TV series days, you were in FACE/OFF, which was directed by John Woo. How was working with him?
DENTON: It was fantastic. That was another stroke of luck. I’m not sure why I got it. I had no business getting that role. It was a pretty big role, and had only done a couple of guest-star things, on SLIDERS and JAG and DARK SKIES, some of those TV shows from the ‘90s. But I just went in and auditioned. I did it Southern, because I thought, “Well, this is a cop, I’ll just play him this way.” And he just liked me for the role and cast me.
He also wanted to cast Margaret Cho, and there wasn’t a role for her. So, he split my role in half. Margaret Cho and I are actually playing the same character. It’s funny if you know that, because we even finish each other’s sentences in the movie [laughs]. So, I was bummed out when I found out [the role was now smaller], but I enjoyed working with her so much, it didn’t matter.
The role wasn’t huge, but at the end, I get to go up and let John Travolta’s character, played by Nicolas Cage, let him know that we know who he is and we recognize him, so I got a big moment at the end. But we’re throughout the whole movie. John Woo is very nice, very funny, and I owe him just for casting me.
Same with Carl Reiner. Carl Reiner cast me in my first [major studio] movie with Bette Midler, THAT OLD FEELING, and I had no business getting that role. I just got into the audition because somebody canceled, and he decided that he wanted me. He fought for me ‘til the end. I had a big role in a Bette Midler movie, because Carl Reiner made them hire me, and so I owe a lot to Carl Reiner, but also to John Woo.
AX: How was working with Carl Reiner?
DENTON: Exactly as you would hope. You just keep your mouth shut and listen to the stories. Mel Brooks came to visit the set a couple of times. Being behind the camera with Carl and Bette was hilarity every day. When my mom came to visit the set, they treated her like a queen.
Carl was a good guy, and a great director. What I loved about him was, he wasn’t afraid to give a line reading. Directors won’t give a line reading, [telling an actor] “Say it this way,” because it’s taboo. He was funny, and I said, “Please, tell me how to make this funny,” and so he would. There were no rules with Carl. It was the experience of a lifetime. Especially for this big DICK VAN DYKE SHOW [which Reiner created and costarred in] fan growing up, that was great for me.
It was a weird start to a career. My first two years in L.A., I worked with Carl Reiner and John Woo and Mike Nichols. That was in PRIMARY COLORS. We all thought that I was going to be a film guy. And then I got cast in THE PRETENDER. Back in those days, you’d get on a TV series – it’s wildly different now – but you’d get on a TV show, and [film] casting directors would forget about you. So, when I took the job on THE PRETENDER, the movies sort of stopped. But the first three were really very fortunate with those three directors. It was a heck of a fun start.
AX: When you first moved to Minnesota after HOUSEWIVES, you did stage …
DENTON: There are two big Equity houses here, the Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, and one called the Old Log Theatre [in Excelsior], which has been there for a hundred years. I did one big Equity production at each of those big houses, really fun. These two reached out to me. They knew there was some cachet in the fact that DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES had just ended, and obviously, it helped the box office, and the runs were sold out.
It was just the fact that the show had been so popular. I was just a passenger on that DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES train. That’s a little self-deprecating, but a lot of it’s true. I think it’s a healthy perspective. You’re lucky when you get on a show like that. They were using DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES to sell theatre tickets.
AX: Do you still have fans from HOUSEWIVES, do you have fans from GOOD WITCH, and are they the same sort or different sorts of people?
DENTON: The only through-line is that they’re primarily female, because of the nature of the shows. But when I get stopped on the street or at the store, or even on the phone – sometimes somebody will recognize my voice, and ask me if I’m the guy from DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES – I used to always assume it was HOUSEWIVES, because it was so popular.
But GOOD WITCH did over three million viewers a week. We were the Number Two show on basic cable, behind THE WALKING DEAD. But nobody talked about it, because Hallmark isn’t seen as cool, or critics aren’t interested in it for various reasons. So, it’s probably fifty-fifty now. Both shows are luckily pretty popular on streaming platforms, so it’s fun to still be able to talk to people. It’s just fun to know somebody is watching what you do. There are so many shows that nobody watched. It’s fun to be on shows that are actually getting viewership.
AX: Do you have any other projects going on that we should know about?
DENTON: It looks like we’re going to do one more with Hallmark next year, which I’m excited about, that I’ll be able to produce, because they’re just fun. I was a real producer on this, and it’s a ton of work, everything from locations and all the cast, all the crew, props. The next Hallmark movie is technically in preproduction, so we’ve got to get the script finished. We’re hoping to do it in the spring.
So, I’ll probably take it easy, my daughter’s a senior, my son went to college this year, so I’ll do some fathering between these movies. I’m not in a big rush. Luckily, I’m at that stage in my career where I’m not quite as desperate. It’s fun to have something out that I’m excited about doing, so I can enjoy the last years with my kids [at home].
AX: And what would you most like people to know about PERFECT HARMONY?
DENTON: The best compliment we’ve gotten from the editors is, “This feels like a feature.” It’s wildly romantic, it’s pretty smart, and the music is very good. There are some good original songs, there’s a big concert scene, which Hallmark has never tried to do before, and it’s really well-acted, and that has nothing to do with me. Sherri Saum is brilliant. There are scenes in this movie that are some of my favorites that I’ve done in my life. And the kid in it is very good [laughs].
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Article: Exclusive Interview with PERFECT HARMONY actor/producer James Denton