Hallmark's latest Loveuary rom-com, "Love & Jane," is every Janeite's fantasy come to life: Lilly, unlucky in love, wishes to consult her favorite author on matters of the heart, and—poof!—there's Jane Austen in her living room. For Alison Sweeney, the film's star and executive producer, playing gal pals with Austen wasn't exactly a stretch.
"There was this meme that went around at the end of last year. It was like, 'Men think about the fall of the Roman Empire' or whatever. I feel like I think about Jane Austen," Sweeney laughs.
Wide Open Country sat down with Alison Sweeney to talk her lifelong love of Austen (whom she calls the "pinnacle" of romantic storytelling) and how she's channeled her own fandom into "Love & Jane," premiering Saturday, February 10 at 8/7c on Hallmark Channel. Plus, the veteran Hallmark star opens up about the delights and challenges of doing pure comedy again for the first time in nearly 25 years.
"Love & Jane" follows Lilly (Sweeney), an ad executive and aspiring novelist who runs a local Jane Austen book club populated by a bunch of disparate souls — including a male trucker who listens to Austen audiobooks on long-haul trips. Lilly's eclectic Jane Society is a reflection of Austen's broad and enduring allure, says Sweeney:
"Jane Austen appeals to everyone, and Lilly welcomes everyone. Give Jane Austen a chance and you can be in her club."
Sweeney first gave Austen a chance in 1995, after watching the BBC's landmark "Pride and Prejudice" miniseries starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. "I had the VHS tape and I would watch it over and over again," she recalls. That series, along with the other masterpieces from the Austen wave of 1995—"Clueless" and Emma Thompson's "Sense and Sensibility"—inspired her to read all of Austen's novels.
"I felt the way Lilly feels, just wanting to be immersed in those characters and that world that she creates," Sweeney says. "Because Jane Austen's right! She knows people and she knows women. She knows those stories that capture our imagination. So you can only try to recreate that or embody it and honor her stories."
"Love & Jane" was written and directed by Hallmark veteran David Weaver, who most recently directed Sweeney in 2021's "Open by Christmas." It also features two more of Sweeney's former collaborators. Kendra Anderson ("A Zest for Death: A Hannah Swensen Mystery") plays Jane Austen, who magically appears before Lilly in full period-accurate dress.
"Kendra was so good," Sweeney gushes. "She plays the straight man honoring all of Jane — all the manners, rules and etiquette of the era."
Visible only to her, Jane Austen counsels Lilly through love and life challenges. One such thorn in the side? A tech billionaire named Trevor who's just purchased Lilly's favorite bookshop. He's played by Sweeney's "Chronicle Mysteries" co-star Benjamin Ayres. The two share a fast-paced, but easy banter.
Having Ayres as a scene partner in "Love & Jane" was a "comfort" to Sweeney, who last performed pure comedy in a guest-starring role on "Friends" in 2001.
"It was really comforting to me to already know him and have a working relationship so that I could focus on the comedy and finding those beats rather than feeling embarrassed like, 'Oh my gosh, this guy is seeing me figure it out on the fly.' With Ben, I had the comfort of knowing, 'Okay, we can figure it out together.'"
Lilly and Trevor's romantic conflict provides ample fodder for Jane Austen, who flits in and out of Lilly's life with sage advice and a sense of humor about the shortcomings of modern courtship. As it happens, having Jane Austen as an imaginary friend is not unlike reading her witticisms on the page.
Sweeney re-read "Pride and Prejudice" and "Sense and Sensibility" to get into the headspace of Lilly, a woman who knows Austen's works like the back of her hand. "The props department gave me a tiny little pocket version of 'Pride and Prejudice' that I kept with me. It has little gold leaf on the pages."
To some extent, though, Austen is always with Sweeney. She's worked so extensively in romance films (more than 20 titles at Hallmark, most of which are romances) that Austen's contributions to the genre are always visible to her, no matter the shape of the love plot.
You need only look to Sweeney's household to see Austen's enduring appeal. Her 15-year-old daughter, Megan, recently cracked open "Sense and Sensibility." And Sweeney has relished showing her the great adaptations, like "Clueless":
"That was such a big part of my teenage years, and I love that my daughter's generation loves and appreciates it as much as we did."
She adds: "Part of what I hope we communicate in these movies is that the adaptations are appreciated by Austen as well — that she would be honored that she created these stories that women still, at this moment in time, fall in love with."
"Love & Jane" premieres Saturday, February 10 at 8/7c on Hallmark Channel. Check out a sneak peak below:
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