Melissa Joan Hart has been working on television since she was a kid with “Clarissa Explains It All” and “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”. She is currently starring with Joey Lawrence on ABC Family’s “Melissa & Joey”. Entering it’s second season, Melissa Joan Hart took some time to chat with Media Mikes about what we can expect from the show and about her career.
Mike Smith: In addition to being the star of the show, your Heartbreak Films also produces Melissa & Joey. Could you tell us about your creative vision for this season?
Melissa Joan Hart: That’s up to the writers. We have a writing team, the executive producers/show runners, which is Bob and David, David Kendall and Bob Young, and they are, along with a team of really great writers, they sort of plot out the season along with the network. This second season, I think we started off really strong. I think our first season, which consisted of 30 episodes, but I think our first few even just out of the gate were great. I think that we had a really great crew. We had really great writing staff. We had a great cast. It was able to all gel really well together, and I think that’s kind of rare. If you watch a lot of shows, it takes a while to get the ball rolling. But that being said, I think we came out of the gate pretty strong. But at the same time the second season just gets better, and I think that happens with every show. As the oil in the machine starts to really warm up, you just get the ball rolling and you get these stronger episodes. So in the second season we just have funnier, more solid episodes.
MS: Is there anything you can tell us about any surprises we can look forward to this summer?
MJH: There are some surprises. I don’t know how far I’m allowed to say. Last season, season one, ended with a bathtub falling through the roof. So the beginning of the show starts off with a few episodes about the construction and the family living on top of each other. Mel has a little fling with the cabinetmaker, played by Bren Foster, but then there is some stuff that happens at the end where Joey falls in love with a Russian colleague and there’s quite a little romance that goes on there, and that’s an arc. We have that for a few episodes. So Mel has to put up with this Russian chick in her house. But in between that, there are really just a lot of fun, standalone story lines that happen and some great guest stars. This season it was really about keeping it light. Not having that very special episode. We don’t like to do those. We just want to make people laugh.
MS: Could you tease us some of the other guest stars we’ll be seeing this season?
MJH: Yes. Bren Foster, I think he’s Australian and he’s in one of the episodes; one of the first few episodes, one of the one’s that will air next week. Who else do we have? All the 45 episodes we’ve done kind of run together. So I’m having trouble remembering what people have seen and what they haven’t. Who else do we have? Christine Lakin comes back for a really funny episode. She played my friend in one of the episodes last season. This season she is looking for a sperm donor and happens to want some of Joey’s stuff. That’s one of my favorite episodes; that is my favorite episode of this season coming up, the sperm donor episode. But yes, that’s all I can think of right now. But Debi Mazar plays a great character. She’s like my—I’m thinking about reelection and she is my coach, my reelection campaign manager. So she is—it’s an episode called “The Knockout” and it’s pretty funny. There’s a guy in a movie theater who starts picking a fight with Ryder, my nephew, and I stand up to him after telling Joey not to. I knock him out and it gets on video and it goes viral. And then the whole campaign is around whether or not I should be promoting the fact that I knock him out kind of thing, whether or not that’s a good example for the kids. It’s a really fun episode, and Debi Mazar does a great job in it. And she and I met on the set of Dancing with the Stars. I really like bringing in a lot of these people that I’ve worked with before. That’s one of the fun parts about being Executive Producer is finding talented people all over the place and being able to work with them.
MS: What is it about being a part of Twitter that really helps you with the promotion and connecting with people who are fans of the show?
MJH: Well within two seconds I can correspond with 200,000 people, which is pretty incredible; across the world. And what I really like about it is just seeing the immediate response of things. Like the other night, “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” the first movie, the Showtime movie was on. I don’t know what it was one, but it aired and my timeline was filled with people just talking about it. Being shocked that Ryan Reynolds was in that movie. It was just funny to see how many people were watching it. I think it was actually maybe airing in the U.K. or the U.K. just got Netflix. So they can now watch Melissa & Joey in the U.K., which they’re all very excited about because it’s not airing yet there on a network and they’re all mad at me about that. But it’s fun. It’s like that instant response to of like, you know, just driving people to try products that I like or to know a little something about my family or something that I find funny. I try to be careful not to over use it too much, but to also give everyone like a flavor of everything. Like what it’s like for me being a mom. What it’s like for me being an actress. What it’s like for me being a wife, you know. So like little tidbits of what my inside life is like. But of course it’s an amazing tool to use. To be able to reach fans and get the audience to move, whether it’s for a certain charity reason or to watch the show, that kind of thing. It’s really amazing too to see how many shows this season got picked up because there was a buzz even though the ratings weren’t there. So you know that it can be used to help push different projects through.
MS: Both you and Joey Lawrence are directing this season. How does that affect the way you prepare for the episode?
MJH: It’s just a lot more work. It’s a lot of work. I’m trying to remember what my episode was even about. I’m having such a hard time with this season; getting it so confused with the other season. It’s just so much prep because you’re involved in every step of it along the way, even more so than just being an executive producer. You have the production meeting with the entire crew where you decide what prop will get used for this scene and what effect might be used for this scene or what camera might be used for this scene. And then you’re working with the camera coordinator or DP on lightening and this and that staging. And then you’ve got to get the actors to listen to you, which in this case is really difficult. We all help each other out all the time anyways. It’s a very collaborative effort always, but when you’re the director you get so nervous. It’s like, “What if Joey doesn’t want to listen to me? What if Taylor won’t go where I tell her to? What if they don’t like my ideas? What if they think I’m terrible? What if I annoy them? What if I don’t say enough?” So it’s always hard being an actor and talking to other actors, but I think that other actors kind of respect an actor’s director more so than a camera director because you’ll get help with your acting. You’ll get attention paid to your actual performance as opposed to just, “Go here. Go there. Stay in your light. Get on camera,” because you have different kinds of directors. You have ones that just care about the camera and the lighting and then you have ones that also care about the performance. As an actor I’ve seen that, and it’s difficult sometimes to not have someone paying attention to your performance when you really want that guidance. So luckily we all take great notes and we adjust and we’re very collaborative. So it’s a really fun process, but you just get nervous like, “What if they don’t like my ideas.” So it’s a lot of work. And then you’ve got to do the editing once that episode is done. When you’re acting, it’s Monday to Friday. When you’re directing it’s like a three to four week process.
MS: Have you guys ever shot a scene where you couldn’t stop laughing? Like you just kept doing bloopers?
MJH: Yes. We’ve had a few of those. There have been a few. We use iPhones on the set and sometimes we snap pictures with the iPhones. And then other times we have to be pretending we’re looking at the phone and kind of turning it to each other and saying, “See look. See the message,” or whatever, but there’ll be a stupid picture on the phone and it just makes us giggle and it’s always hard to pull it back. I think there was an episode coming up where Nick had to eat a lot of junk food, junk food from the vending machines at school as a school project for Taylor to write about in her blog. There were snowballs and all this stuff on the set. He was trying to eat but he was just so disgusted by all the food he had to eat. There was a lot spit takes in that one.
MS: What challenges will Mel be facing with the kids this season?
MJH: Well they’re getting older. There’s an episode where Taylor tries to befriend the new girl that she sees at school because she was the new girl last year. So she’s trying to be the good person by bringing this girl into her circle and trying to befriend her, but realizes that not everybody wants to be popular or liked or taken under someone’s wing. There are a few episodes about relationships. Nick has a little girlfriend who we adore on the show. She’s been back and forth a little bit, Holly. She pretty much tortures him. So there are a few episodes with her involved. And Taylor has a few episodes where she’s got a romantic guy with her. The one I directed with her and—what was the actor’s name? Anyway we’ve got these great little teen actors on the show and one of them plays her boyfriend for—for a few episodes—and there’s a nice little story line that happens with her and that relationship and us giving her relationship advice and stuff like that. So the typical teen stuff, but they are getting older and they’re starting to teach us a few things as well.
MS: What do you admire most about Mel?
MJH: She’s really determined. She sets her heart to something. She thinks she’s got the—when she thinks she’s on the right path or she thinks there’s a mission to accomplish she will get to it. She will finish that mission. She is one of those women that is determined and has her convictions and sees things through, but she does it in a really silly, funny way.
MS: How much of those particular episodes or how many of those moments do you actually get input on? Is any of that based on true to life experiences of Melissa or Joey?
MJH: The structure of it’s always there from the writers, but then we like to tweak it within itself, like the episode with climbing out the window and stuff like that. I like to constantly remind the writers, not that they need a lot of reminding, that I don’t know what I’m doing here, that I don’t want to know what I’m doing. I want to make mistakes, as a parent. That’s where a lot of the humor comes from, and that’s true to life, I think, too. We’ve been thrown these teenagers. It’s not like we raised them from scratch. There’s a lot of room for error. What I really like to do is go look at my natural parenting instincts and do the opposite. So a lot of the time if I feel like there’s something that can be the opposite or there’s an episode where we’re kind of lecturing the kids too much we’ll go sit down with the writers and say, “We think it’d be really funny if the kids actually lectured us on this,” or if Lennox and I are both sneaking into the house late at night and have to shush each other because we don’t want to wake up Joey. Both of us don’t want to get in trouble, inappropriate behavior as adults really.
MS: It seems like there are a lot of chances for improvisational on set with your cast.
MJH: We do. That’s what’s great about doing the live show too. We shoot live on Friday nights, which I’ve never really done before, but it does really help because you get to try out different jokes in front of the audience. You do three or four takes and you try out a few different jokes and see which one gets the biggest laugh and then hopefully the editor will use that one. It’s fun to be able to sort of improve that stuff. And sometimes one thing will happen that’s totally authentic and natural and they’ll use it in the episode, which is wonderful.
MS: You have been a successful teen/child actor with Clarissa Explains It All and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. And you made the transition to being an adult actress, which a lot of teen stars find difficult. What has been the secret to your success with that?
MJH: I’m actually in the process of possibly writing a book about that because I don’t really know what that recipe is. I think that a lot of the balance and success in my life comes from my family. It comes from my mom and my dad and my siblings growing up, and now from my husband and my children and putting that always as a priority. Having that as my balance, as my sort of gage of where to go with my life. But as far as my career, I think it’s just been that at a young age growing up on the East Coast in this business I did a lot of auditioning. It was pretty cut throat. There was a lot of competition, and if you weren’t the best one for the job there was someone right behind you to do it. So you had to work really hard. You had to know your lines. You had to hit your mark. You had to have the biggest smile and think those Fruit Loops were the best thing ever. And I think that I learned that if I want longevity I’ve just got to stick it out. I’ve got to work hard, and that’s—I’ve never given up. No matter—this career, in this business you just go up and you go down. There’s no finding that soaring star to hitch onto and carry you off into the galaxy. It’s constant work to reinvent and figure out the next role and keep working upward. I’ve just learned that if I want to stick with it that’s what I’ve got to do. If I want a career in this business and I don’t want to transition and do something else, then I need to stick with it. Keep auditioning. Keep meeting people. Keep reinventing myself, finding great characters to play. And that’s where producing comes in as well. I started producing at the age of 17 because I wanted to have some control over the projects I was putting out there and the characters I was playing. So producing has definitely helped. And then also transitioning to directing because I got a little bit bored with the acting. I wanted to be more creative and found directing. So that’s been a great outlet for me as well just to keep me in the business. I just love being on a set. I don’t necessarily always need to act. I just love being on a set.