INTERVIEW — Cassidy Gifford

Cassidy Gifford
Photo by Stephanie Diani
Cassidy Gifford isn’t a household name — yet. Her parents, Kathie Lee and the late Frank definitely are, but Cassidy is making her own mark in Hollywood. The talented actress is just getting her start, but she is certainly one to watch. On April 15 at 9 p.m. EST/PST, she stars in the Hallmark Channel original movie “Like Cats and Dogs.” Cassidy plays Lara Hale, a dog lover, who through some mix-up is stuck sharing a vacation rental for the summer with Spencer, who is a cat lover. Spencer and Lara could not be more different, and they will have to figure out a way to get along without killing each other. I spoke with Cassidy recently, and she is thrilled to play this role and to star in her first romantic comedy.

Celebrity Extra: Tell me about the role of Lara and what attracted you to her and the movie.

Cassidy Gifford: Lara Hales is a 22-year-old free spirit who has hit a point in her life that I think most of us at this age can relate to: a stagnant existence where we’re not really sure where we want to end up or what we want to do. So she ends up renting a place for spring break to get away from my very, very serious and by-the-book parents, who own an accounting firm that she works at in this sweet little town in Michigan called South Haven. So, it’s kind of an escape for her and her dog Frank —whose name is Billy in real life, and I fell absolutely in love with him.

CE: And then enter Spencer (played by Wyatt Nash) …

CG: Wyatt is just terrific. He plays Spencer Hopkins, who is the seeming antithesis of Lara; he’s very serious and he’s writing his thesis and he’s dating this girl who is very similar to him. He’s very straight-laced, to the point that it’s almost debilitating. Some people are so stuck in their ways, and it can almost be toxic. And I know a lot of people who are actually like that. He ends up booking a place on our version of Airbnb, which is called Go BnB in the movie, and we end up living in the same spot.

CE: Let me guess: This is where the cats and dogs come in?

CG: Yes. He has a cat; he’s a cat person. And I have a dog, and I’m a dog person. Hilarity ensues, as you can imagine, because we end up at the same place and we end up trying to stick it out together, and it’s just a very sweet story. It’s the story of two young people seemingly stuck in their own respective ways and not realizing that is what is getting in their way. It’s a tale of two people who are at different but similar points in their lives, and they don’t realize that what they need is the opposite of what they are getting.

CE: How was the filming process? What was it like to work with the cast and crew?

CG: The movie is really sweet and it’s real, and as actors, we were given the chance to play a little bit. Our director, Ron Oliver, is terrific, and he gave us a lot of freedom to improv, and if it didn’t feel right, he would say, “Try it again until it does.” It was a really cool, collaborative project, and that’s something that I hadn’t had the opportunity to do before, and it was awesome. I fell in love with Vancouver — that’s where we were shooting — and the people there and just everything. I can’t even begin to describe how grateful I am to have had the experience.

CE: You were saying earlier how much you enjoyed filming in Vancouver. Tell me more about that experience.

CG: It was so stunning. We were staying downtown, so our commute to work every day was about an hour, an hour and a half. And I had always thought that California is cool because if you go a couple miles in any direction, you can be at the beach or you can go downtown, a couple hours north and you can be in the mountains, but Vancouver was like, you go 4 miles in any direction and it was almost a different climate. It was crazy! We’d be downtown and it would be raining when we got picked up, and then we would end up where we were filming and it was like Narnia — there was just snow. I’m from the East Coast, so I’m used to snow, but we were filming a spring romantic comedy, and so it was slightly different because we ended up having to shoot around a lot of it.

CE: How did you work your way around it?

CG: The first week we had shot some things on different locations on the water, and we were out on the pier getting a lot of our exterior shots, and then when we moved to the house, it was snowing pretty much every single day for the rest of the shoot. We had to get everything outside that we hadn’t shot, and then one morning it was just stunning — the snow had melted because it had gotten just warm enough, so we completely flipped the schedule around. We were shooting outside all day, even though it was cold; it was warmer than it had been, so we got everything we needed outside. Our director and the entire crew had a good eye for what we needed, and they flipped everything around and made it work, and it ended up being more than we could have ever imagined.

Basically, it was like trying to film a springtime rom-com in Narnia. But it worked out. It made us laugh, and it was funny because we were cold and freezing our butts off, but it was fun because we were all in it together. It definitely made it more interesting, especially with the dog and the cat, who were such good sports about it too. They were just the cutest things in the world, even though the cat wouldn’t listen — he would not listen. He was so stubborn, but it made it funnier.

CE: Speaking of dogs and cats, you said that you are a dog person; what about your co-star Wyatt Nash?

CG: It was so funny because going into it, Wyatt was a cat person, and I am obviously a dog person, but over the course of the movie, I would give him a hard time. It’s not that I don’t like cats; I love animals. But I grew up being allergic to cats. I grew out of it, but I have this intrinsic thing to stay away from them, otherwise I would break out in hives, and so it’s this subconscious thing where I don’t get that close to them because of spending 15 years of my life being afraid of them because I couldn’t breathe or I would break out in hives. As filming went on, Wyatt would come to set every day and go to the dog first, and by the end of the shoot, he was like, “OK, I think I’m a dog person.” So, we started fighting over who loved the dog more, whose name is Billy in real life, but we were fighting over him and who could give him more treats.

Wyatt and I had so much fun. We ended up becoming such good friends, and the fact that he lives in LA ... on the first day, we learned that we went to the same church and went to the same place to work out. His fiancee came to visit, and she was just so sweet, and I ended up being their third wheel for the last week and a half of filming. It was a blast. If I had to choose between the two of them, it would be a tie because they are both so sweet, and we all had so much fun and became like a unit.

Cassidy Gifford
Photo courtesy the Hallmark Channel
CE: Can you tell me in which ways you can relate to your character, Lara?

CG: I wouldn’t say I’m the crazy free spirit. I definitely have structure in my life, but I am very much a go-with-the-flow kind of person. I tend to believe that things are going to work out even when you’re at your crappiest point; there will be a light at the end of the tunnel — to keep throwing clichés at you. I believe that things do end up working out, and there are going to be more pitfalls that you stumble upon because that’s life, but I think that balance is key.

Lara definitely likes junk food, and so do I — much to my dismay. That’s another thing that Spencer and Lara don’t have in common; he’s very healthy and blending his smoothies. I always have Fritos in my bag or a jar of Skippy peanut butter or something that isn’t good for me. I believe that yes, you have to do healthy, of course, but at the same time, if you’re cheating yourself out of every little pleasure in life, that’s no way to live. I think you should be able to work out and eat healthy, and on the weekends you should be allowed to binge a little bit and have some fun. I think that balance is key. That’s something my dad (Frank Gifford) always said growing up: Moderation is the key to life. I think that is a similar quality that Lara and I share as well. It made it a little bit easier to relate to her.

CE: I’ve heard great things about working with the Hallmark Channel. What was the experience like for you?

CG: It is wonderful, and I can’t tell you how much I loved them there. I had been meeting with them for about a year. There was another project that I couldn’t do because of scheduling for another thing I was shooting. But then when they came to me with this about two months ago — I’m a dog person anyway — so when I read the script, I thought, OK, this is something I am definitely interested in. And then our director, Ron Oliver, rewrote a lot of parts about it, and the whole ending he changed, which ended up filtering into the beginning, which ended up changing a lot of things. And when I got the new script, I thought, I have to do this.

The people at Hallmark are so kind and so sweet, and they are trying to bring a little bit of goodness back into this world. Everything from the news — you’re just bombarded and every day — it’s just all bad news. I feel like Hallmark has a really good eye for realizing that there really is an audience who wants to see something that’s endearing but still has family values. And there’s a way to have that wholesome quality without being corny or cliché and over the top. I think with this project, people are going to like it because it’s sweet and it’s fun, but it’s real.

CE: Tell me what it was like filming this movie, with it being your first romantic comedy. A lot of your earlier work has been in horror movies and thrillers, so this must have been a nice change of pace.

CG: There’s a running joke between my family and friends that any time I get cast in something, they’re like, “Oh, are you going to die in it?” Which I don’t think is that funny because I’m the one doing it. The life of an actress is you take the work when you can get it. You hear “no” a lot more than you do “yes.” So I was so excited to play this role because it’s completely different from my previous roles. It’s similar to other movies I’ve done in that you get to know your cast and find your rhythm day in and day out, but this role was so much fun to play.

Wyatt (Nash, who plays Spencer) and I got to know one another after about a week. We got comfortable on the first day — it was so great. And you can’t always expect that, and I feel very fortunate that the people I’ve worked with and the different casts that I’ve been a part of that we’ve gotten along so well. But Wyatt and I had a blast because it was pretty much us and the two animals for a majority of the movie, so it gave us a lot of freedom to play and to improv. It was so much fun because there wasn’t this looming darkness hanging over. You can’t help that if you’re doing a horror or thriller.

I just finished doing an independent thriller this past fall in upstate New York where I play a girl suffering from bipolar disorder, and even though I was learning so much, there is just this lightness of doing a romantic comedy. I love watching romantic comedies, and if you love watching them, then being a part of one is a dream — it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. And to have the freedom to improv, it makes it feel like it’s yours, and you feel like you have more of a stake in it because it allows you to be vulnerable in a completely different way.

Sometimes, being funny is more nerve-wracking than it is to scare someone. It’s easier when you know that’s the extent you’re going to go to, but when you’re doing comedy, there’s a risk in it that’s different. I was kind of nervous going into it, but once I got to know Wyatt, we realized that we have very similar senses of humor and we could poke fun at each other; it just made a world of difference for us. We’d ride to work in the morning and we’d laugh pretty much the entire way, and by the time we got there, it was like, oh, we’re just continuing what we’ve been doing. It doesn’t even feel like work. It was really cool, and it was totally different from anything I’ve ever done. I couldn’t have loved it more.

CE: What do you hope people take away from “Like Cats and Dogs”?

CG: I think we as humans get so easily stuck in ruts of complacency and feeling comfortable and being in our safe space, that even small changes to our daily life can be great as long as we’re open to them. It’s so much easier to just be the way we are, especially when it works — that’s when it’s easiest to do. Even when making smallish changes, we tend to think, I’m going to stay the course because it’s getting me where I need to go. But to just be open to small little lifestyle changes, like making a healthy choice in our diet (which is what Spencer makes Lara do) or just loosening up (which Lara teaches Spencer). Just making little concessions that you don’t realize could actually be good for you. Finding a balance between lightening up and also having structure — it’s worth it to see both ends of the spectrum and to realize that there is a healthy, happy medium.

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