Danny Glover and Mo'Nique head up the dysfunctional, yet lovable clan in 'Almost Christmas.'
A new comedy from writer/director David E. Talbert (Baggage Claim, First Sunday) and producer Will Packer (Think Like a Man and Ride Along franchises, This Christmas), Almost Christmas tells the festive story of beloved patriarch Walter Meyers (Danny Glover), who asks his family for one gift this holiday season––to get along. If they can honor that wish and spend five days under the same roof without killing one another, it will be a Christmas miracle.
The all-star cast is led by a talented ensemble, including those who play Walter’s children — Kimberly Elise (Beloved) as Cheryl, his eldest daughter; Romany Malco (Think Like a Man franchise) as Christian, his eldest son; Gabrielle Union (Bring It On) as youngest daughter Rachel; and Jessie T. Usher (Independence Day: Resurgence) as youngest son Evan.
They are joined by Academy Award® winner Mo’Nique (Precious) as Aunt May, Walter’s no-nonsense sister-in-law; Omar Epps (House) as Malachi, Rachel’s teenage heartbreak; JB Smoove (Top Five) as Lonnie, Cheryl’s philandering husband; Nicole Ari Parker (Boogie Nights) as Sonya, Christian’s much-too-patient wife; John Michael Higgins (Pitch Perfect series) as Alan, Christian’s wily campaign manager; Keri Hilson (Riddick) as Jasmine, Lonnie’s most-recent crush; and DC Young Fly (Hollywood Hearts) as Eric, Evan’s best friend…and the guy with his eye on May.
Describing his character, who is a father of four, Glover says, “Walter Meyers is a successful man who began with a small business, repairing cars, ultimately building into a group of several shops. I would refer to him not as a mechanic but as an automotive engineer. He is well-to-do and had a long, beautiful marriage to Grace.” [Grace is played as a young woman by Rachel Kylian and in her later years as A. Sabrena Farmer].
Walter has to navigate through what each family member brings to the table—figuratively and (later in the film) literally. Glover describes the Meyers family tree as one with many interesting branches.
“Cheryl is my oldest, and I have a special connection to her because she was Daddy’s girl. Christian, the one who has the most direction in his life, is the politician running for Congress. Then there’s Rachel, who’s trying to find herself. Like in many families, there’s the one person who is always searching for something. Plus, she is a third child and feels as if she has to live up to the expectations of the other two.”
“The last one, Evan, is the youngest,” Glover continues. “While the others had grown up so close to their mother, he’s the one who is in most need of her.” Months after the beloved Grace dies, Walter calls the entire family together to have their first Christmas without her. Not known to other members of the family, Walter is struggling with his decision to sell the house, making this the last Christmas at the home where they have all shared so much.
It was important to the filmmakers that the film be just as broad and loud as it was filled with love. That is absolutely punctuated by its all-star cast. The character of Aunt May, Walter’s sister-in-law, had to have all of that––and then some. She is the aunt who everybody loves, sassy but classy, the one you can’t wait to see. Talbert had the perfect person in mind for the role. It was someone with whom he had a special connection: Academy Award® winner Mo’Nique.
“David and my husband, Sidney, were college dorm mates at Morgan State University. David was an amazing playwright, just putting together these little plays, which got bigger and bigger,” Mo’Nique reveals. “One night this brother was in Baltimore doing a major play, and Sidney and I were roommates at the time. I said, ‘Sid, can you babysit Shalon for a couple hours? I’m going to go down and meet David.’ I think I met him for about five minutes. Now let’s fast-forward 20 years later, here comes a telephone call to my husband, who Dave calls ‘Genie.’ He says, ‘Genie, I need your lady, man. I got this movie…’”
In the film, Aunt May is a background singer who has traveled the world for decades and is coming home to check on her sister’s family during the holidays—especially the Meyers daughters. This proved to be a character with whom Mo’Nique could very much relate. “Aunt May and Mo’Nique are really close,” the actress says. “They’re both entertainers, straight shooters and honest to a fault.”
Kimberly Elise plays the oldest of the Meyers daughters, Cheryl. “Kimberly is somebody who I’ve been wanting to work with for a while. I’ve been a fan of her and her work for a long time,” the producer says. “I love that she always has a grounded and dramatic edge to her. She’s also a gorgeous woman, has a great relatability factor and audiences enjoy that in her work.”
Elise describes her character of Cheryl Meyers, as a true alpha female. “Cheryl covers her intensity with a lightness and a smile until her buttons are pushed,” Elise says. No more is this evident than in her growing frustration in her own marriage. “Her husband, Lonnie, is a philandering, retired professional athlete and brings out the worst in her.”
For the role of Lonnie, Talbert turned to comedian and actor JB Smoove. He knew his longtime friend was perfect for the role, saying: “I write it, but when you put it in the hands of JB Smoove, it just soars. JB threw in some ad libs that just had us in stitches throughout the movie.”
Smoove shares a bit about his character’s backstory: “Lonnie’s a guy who’s still trying to find himself. You ever meet somebody who has success in one area of life, and then after his or her successful run they just hit a brick wall? Lonnie was once a big basketball star overseas, but time has passed and he doesn’t have a career, just odd jobs. His wife has become way more successful than him, and things start to go astray. The family does not respect him because they know she’s more successful than he is.”
Cheryl’s younger sister, Rachel, a recent divorcée with a daughter, is played by Gabrielle Union. “Rachel and Cheryl’s relationship is pretty contentious,” reveals Union. “They clearly have not gotten along throughout their lives. There can be a bit of jealousy, a bit of unrequited sister love, when you love someone a little too much…or when looking up to them goes south. That’s the root of the uneven love Cheryl and Rachel’s share as siblings.”
But sibling rivalry isn’t the only issue with Rachel. This is her first holiday home since she’s been divorced and her daughter, Niya (Nadej Bailey), wants her to loosen up. Rachel runs into childhood friend Malachi while home for the holidays, and begins to wonder if he’s the one who got away.
To embody that role, the filmmakers reached out to Omar Epps, who has a terrific onscreen history with Union. “Gabrielle, Omar and Love & Basketball fans will know that putting those two together is a bit of a wink and nostalgia moment,” Packer says. “They’re a perfect pairing because they’re two people who get it and immediately know how to bring it and turn it on. They also have a natural chemistry and magnetism that works really well because you want Rachel to win. You want her to get her guy, and Omar is that perfect guy.”
Union agrees with Packer when it comes to her co-star. “He’s that guy you dreamed about in high school, the one who you wonder what happened to him,” she says. “Apparently, he might have been thinking the same thing about Rachel…”
The oldest son in the Meyers family is Christian, played by Romany Malco, another staple in the Packer troupe and who has made his mark in many films and on the inimitable Showtime series Weeds. Christian is running for Congress, and his campaign is pulling him in numerous directions.
His patient, loving wife Sonya, played by Nicole Ari Parker, wishes he would spend more time with her and their two children Cameron and Dee (played by newcomers Alkoya Brunson and Marley Taylor) during the holidays. Of his character, Malco sums: “We’re playing this cat-and-mouse tug of war so you see this couple that really wants to get back to each other.”
The final member of Christian’s family is his campaign manager, Alan Brooks. Brought along for the holiday, Brooks puts a wrench into the planned family time and insists on traveling with the couple for the holiday. If the Meyers’ campaign doesn’t lose momentum, then Christian has a real shot at getting into office.
Packer reveals how John Michael Higgins, a stalwart of the Christopher Guest films came on the project: “When we brought up the Brooks character, the executives at Universal immediately asked if John Michael was available. I thought it was such a brilliant idea, and I wish I could take credit for it now that I know him. He is so awesome and so cool to work with—comic relief all day—and he brings such unexpected life to every character,” says Packer.
Malco explains that he, too, has been a longtime fan of Higgins’ work. “I didn’t get started in acting until later in life, so I’ve grown up watching John,” the performer says. “We’re the two square guys in the movie, and he and Nicole had me seriously in pain. I was laughing so hard because they were taking very real scenarios and improving so that you didn’t know if it was truth or not. It’s my favorite kind of comedy.”
The youngest child in the Meyers’ household is Evan, a college football star who is recovering from a shoulder injury as he comes home for Christmas. Jessie T. Usher paints a picture of the character he plays. “He is the ‘accident child’ and about 20 years younger than his closest sibling. His parents are a little older so he’s having to deal with the death of his mother in a different way. He feels like he was not around her enough, having her pass away during his early twenties.” In fact, Evan’s hidden grief leads to a potentially deadly secret.
The filmmakers knew that Usher was the best man for the role that would delve into a darker place. “I had been familiar with Jessie from his work on Survivor’s Remorse and he is somebody who has IT,” raves Packer. “He has a magnetism, charm and charisma, and I said when I had a role that was right for him, I was going to call him. Jessie brings Evan to life. He is somebody who, without a doubt, is going to be one of the biggest stars of his generation.”
It is Evan’s former teammate and best friend, Eric, who strives to keep Evan’s spirits high while he is home. Usher introduces us to the character: “Eric is the guy who Evan gets to be crazy with. There’s a great dynamic that you see in contrast to how Evan is when he’s with his family, versus when he gets out with his best friend.
For the role, newcomer DC Young Fly would join the cast as the hilarious Eric, who has dreams that are bigger than the town of Birmingham. “He’s next-level comedy,” lauds Usher. “DC is a natural comedy genius.”
DC Young Fly explains the relationship between the two friends, saying: “Eric is rough around the edges, and Evan is the straight-and-narrow guy. Whatever Evan doesn’t do, you can count on Eric to do.”
Packer had his eye on the young performer and wanted to give him his feature-film debut. “I see something in DC Young Fly that is not unlike some of the great comedians who are out there today; he has a depth beyond his years and beyond his experience,” notes the producer. “All great comedians are able to perform and take joy and energy from pain, and DC is somebody whose comedy comes from his authentic experiences and his realness.”
This character is reflective of the way that Talbert and Packer work with one another. “Eric wasn’t necessarily someone who was written as comic relief, but once I brought DC Young Fly in and put him on Dave’s radar, he started to craft that character around him,” says Packer. “DC is up next. I’m telling you now, he is somebody who we are going to be talking about and laughing with. I haven’t seen that kind of manic, yet organic, energy since Chris Tucker.”
If you’re ready to get in the Christmas spirit with this dysfunctional yet loving family – aren’t they all – then see Almost Christmas in theaters now.