After making supporting appearances in a number of projects, including Prison Break, The Magicians, Chesapeake Shores and The X-Files, actor Antonio Cayonne has landed two major roles. He chatted about playing ‘Elliot’ in Hallmark’s new film Christmas In Evergreen: Bells Are Ringing, as well as his turn in the upcoming Mighty Ducks reboot for Disney+.
Welcome, and thank you for taking the time to do this.
Antonio Cayonne (AC): My pleasure, thank you for having me.
You play ‘Elliot’ in Hallmark’s new film Christmas In Evergreen: Bells Are Ringing. How have you found the experience of working with Hallmark on multiple projects?
AC: Working with Hallmark has been great for me. In fact, I’ve obviously done these two ‘Christmas In Evergreen‘ films but I’ve probably put together 10, 11, 12 Hallmarks in total. I’ve also been really lucky to be on a couple that recur – one of the shows that I’ve done is called Darrow and Darrow, with Kimberly Williams Paisley, Wendie Malick, and Tom Cavanagh as the leads. Beyond the fact that I get to work with the three of them, that’s the joy of all joys, there’s something really beautiful about being part of several instalments.
It gives you space to allow ideas to grow, characters to grow, relationships to go, things get richer. I found that in Darrow and Darrow and I found that in Christmas In Evergreen, most especially. Last year was Christmas In Evergreen 3, the lead story was Paul Greene and Maggie Lawson – Maggie playing someone who just came to Evergreen as a writer to see what this whole town is about, where it’s perpetually Christmas – they fell in love.
Rukiya [Bernard] and I, who play Hannah and Elliot, we were the second love story. That was our first time meeting and getting to know each other/ We had this cool opportunity to play best friends who fall in love. In part 4, we’re tasked with playing out that relationship and seeing how far it goes. It’s different when you’ve just met somebody – both in real life and on-camera – and it’s the first month of a romance. These are people in their 30s who have been friends since they were 5-years-old. They’re navigating a more nuanced type of relationship. It’s been really exciting, from that point of view.
Specifically for Bells Are Ringing, how different or similar is the project to the earlier instalments in the Christmas In Evergreen franchise?
AC: I haven’t seen a final edit of it, so what I perceive is definitely from the inside in regards to the way we’ve been working. It feels like a tonal difference – last year’s director, Sean McNamara, took it in one direction. He had done Part 2, Part 3 and really had a sense of how the world worked, how the characters worked, how people conversed with each other. This one has a new director, Linda Lisa Hayter. Not only is this one of her first two films for Hallmark as a director, she also brings a different perspective by offering a female gaze.
We’re looking through the lens with a new set of eyes. Sean saw it one way, Linda Lisa sees it another. Both are still in the tone of Hallmark, but perhaps there are different things they pull out and bring into focus. I feel like we certainly experienced that on set with Linda Lisa. She was able, I think, to help us dive deeper into the intimacy of the characters and the world, why Evergreen is really this magical place. That was informed also because we’re in COVID, the writers were tasked with not writing scenes that have 40 people in them. They have this new opportunity to write scenes with two people that go maybe further and deeper than they have in the past. I think all of those conspire to make this film hopefully a little bit richer in terms of getting to know the people and falling in love with them.
What most excited you about going back to Elliot, a character you had already played?
AC: That was a real gift. My experience with Hallmark up to this point has always been: “You’re dropped in, it takes 3 weeks to shoot and you never see that character again.” It’s an old sweater – you don’t really have time to take it in. So, getting to go back and find Elliot again – in relation to Hannah. For me, I was able to bring a lot more of my own grounded self to the day-to-day. There were times last year where I felt like I was trying to achieve something. Make this scene work a certain way, check off boxes. This is not a way you ever want to be thinking, but I was just in it for a short period of time and saying: “Oh boy, I hope I do this justice.”
This year, it felt like I had a little bit more room to explore, make mistakes, fail and find new discoveries. It just felt like there was a little bit of room to breathe in it. I think, largely, that’s available by being able to come back and revisit this character. Revisit the qualities of the relationship that Rukiya and I had questions about.
As you mentioned, Van Helsing’s Rukiya Bernard is your co-star in the film. How has your experience of working with her been?
AC: I mean, nothing short of amazing. I couldn’t have gotten luckier, I think. You know, it’s funny, Rukiya and I, we did not know each other growing up. We’re both from Toronto, we had mutual friends, within the same age bracket. In fact, we walked the halls of the exact same theatre school, a couple of years apart and never crossed paths. I think there’s some added magic in meeting your new co-star and finding out that your life is a series of sliding doors, where you’ve just barely missed each other.
Our family structures are very similar, we lived blocks from each other. There’s a lot of synchronicity, a lot of synergy that has gone into getting us to know each other. Rukiya shows up, ready to work – a willingness and excitement to dig and dig and dig. I certainly espouse those same values, so it was really nice to… You know when you go on a run with somebody and you don’t have to keep pace, just let loose and go? That’s kind of what it felt like, working with her.
When you’re cast as a new character, what aspects do you think about first – their personality, backstory, mannerisms?
AC: I have different approaches based on different projects. I’ve certainly used mannerisms and physicality as ways to get into character in the past. I don’t find that I do that right now that much, with the work that I’m looking at. I often look at the “why?” of the character – specifically with Hallmark and a few other television projects that I get to play – you’re not always given a depth of backstory, you get to develop it. You’re not always given a depth of relationship, you get to develop it.
You have these clues left on the page by the writer and these clues offered to you by the director. I say “clues” because I want to believe that they have written them as a treasure map. If I work the map properly, I’ll be able to turn stones and find keys, go on a quest and unlock a door. I’m often trying to figure out why something is written the way it’s written, why, when and how two people speak to each other. I can work backwards and say: “If he has said, this, it mean that he believes this.” What would that look like if he believes in it? If he doesn’t believe in it, what would it look like if that belief gets challenged?
Right now, that’s the approach I play with most frequently. With script and a lot of the other Hallmark that I’m doing, that’s something that really excites me about the writing.
From an acting perspective, are you more drawn to wholesome characters or the darker, villainous type?
AC: Both? I think it depends. I can honestly say that I never saw myself ending up in Hallmark, I didn’t know about it. I had no expectation and didn’t really know what kind of material they put out 5 or 10 years ago. Now that I’m in it, I’m starting to discover things about it – some of the things I love, some I discover and I go: “Oh, I wonder if there’s room for that to be different? I wonder if there’s room for growth in that point of view?” Who would I be if I didn’t have that thought about any project I was on?
From early days, I was always told by acting coaches and mentors: “You’re the nice guy. You walk into a room and people want to like you. Be okay with that.” In my real life, I am the nice guy but I feel actors are always like: “What can I play that’s so different than myself?” I’m an actor, I have that same curiosity to go into the darkness. As a human, I’m a whole human. I have my highs, lows, lights and darks. If I follow the green lights on the roads, they’re leading me towards wholesome, nice guy characters and I’ll take it. It’s nice to show up.
On the television side, you have appeared in shows such as Prison Break, Chesapeake Shores and The X-Files, among others. Were you a fan beforehand of any series you’ve guested in?
AC: What’s interesting about both Prison Break and X-Files is that I got to be a part of it after it had a full, successful run. The X-Files ran for like a decade with [David] Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. It was the best show on television. Years later, they reboot it and I book a role in it. So much fun. I’m splitting my time on set trying not to be a fan and trying to be in it and do my job.
Same thing with Prison Break. When Prison Break first came out, that first season on FOX – Wentworth Miller covered in tattoos, I was in. I loved the mystery of it, it’s pre-Memento, it was so exciting. When they rebooted it years later, it was nice to be a part of it. That one, for me, wasn’t the same. It tracked differently because of the role I had and the story that got told. Once they got out of prison, I kind of fell off it. That first year was captivating to me. It was really exciting to be part of that legacy.
Another project of yours is the upcoming Mighty Ducks reboot for Disney+. How much pressure is there when approaching a project that has a legacy attached to it?
AC: I think in some ways there’s a lot of pressure. I’m lucky with the The Mighty Ducks – it’s a kid’s show. The main stars are 12, 13, 14, 15 year olds and so, the pressure’s on them. The kids they have cast can handle the pressure. In fact, I don’t even think they understand that there is pressure. Partially because they didn’t grow up quacking, saying: “Mighty Ducks Fly Together” and wanting to be on Bombay’s team, that was our generation. For them. they’re coming to this brand new. They bring a fresh perspective to it, for free.
The pressure’s not on me. I’m aged up now, so I get to play the Dad. I have this really cool opportunity to play this Dad who puts a little bit too much pressure on his daughter. I grew up playing sports and my parents certainly weren’t like that. I had friends who I watched crack under the pressure of needing to be great when playing inconsequential games of soccer. It’s been nice to explore why a parent would behave that way. It’s not about their competitive nature, it’s not about being mean, it’s wanting the best for their kids, but not being able to read the room.
If people want to find more information about you or any of your projects, where can they look?
AC: I try to keep my website up-to-date but I have a tendency to write more about where I’m at, day-to-day, and what my life is than I do touting projects. That said, between there and my Instagram, those are the two places where people would be able to find out the most information about me. Like I said, I work as an actor, but it’s a slice of the pie. My full pie is: I have a family, I’m a Dad, I co-own restaurants with a fantastic group of friends so I spend a ton of time doing that. I do a lot of writing, working on writing a TV show with another of my best buds.
I’m also an activist, to some extent. I don’t even know if I can call myself that when I look at people like Kendrick Sampson and he’s an activist. He makes me feel like a bit of a fraud. Certainly, I spend a lot of my time thinking about the world that I want to pass down to the next generation, what my role is and how I can advocate. That’s more so what you’ll find on my Instagram. You’ll see smatterings of: “I’m doing this job.” Healthy doses of each, I think, in order to keep me afloat.
If you could offer a piece of advice to fans of your work or you personally during the pandemic, what would it be?
AC: More than anything, take care of each other. I remember reading pretty early on, there was a photo taken of a mural in New York City when the streets were bare. It looked like an absolute ghost town. Paraphrasing the quote, I can’t remember exactly how it was written. It essentially said: “Wearing a mask is the greatest act of kindness.” I remmeber reading that and immediately taking it to heart. I just thought: “I don’t really care what you believe in. You can believe something’s real, you can believe it’s not.
If there is enough evidence out there in the world and there are enough people asking ‘would you be a little bit uncomfortable to guarantee my comfort and safety?’ I have to believe that I’m a person that would do that. Certainly, as far as the pandemic goes, I have been and will be. When I look around at the people around me and perhaps those who follow me on Instagram/interested in what I have to say, a lot of what I look at is: “How do you show up for the person next to you?”
How do you tend to your own garden and make sure your garden is bountiful and you have fruits that are growing but also how do you look at the person next door and say: “Hey, I have a rake, would you like to borrow it?” I think more than ever that this has highlighted the need to look across an aisle and see a human being that may not be okay.And be willing to do something, with the platform that you have.
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