Nadia Hatta (“Away”) and Kristoffer Polaha (Jurassic World Dominion) reach for their goals in “A Winning Team,” a new, original movie premiering Saturday, March 18 (8 p.m. ET/PT), on Hallmark Channel.
After getting fired for lack of sportsmanship, professional soccer player Emily Chen (Hatta) travels home to spend some much-needed downtime with her widowed brother. When she accidentally injures her niece Ava’s coach, Ian Vermette (Polaha), she covers for him and leads Ava’s team into the playoffs. With a shot at the championship at stake, Emily and Ian’s differing coaching styles threaten their objective, but as they begin to warm up to each other on and off the field, they each make strides toward healing old wounds. But when Emily gets an offer from her old coach to return, their romantic relationship is threatened. Can these two get back on the same team before the big game?
Kristoffer Polaha previews A Winning Team
For all the Hallmark movies you’ve done, there aren’t as many non-Christmas rom-coms on the list as I expected. What drew you to this one?
Kristoffer Polaha: Honestly, it was the timing. It was perfect timing for me to get to work. And you’re right, I haven’t done a lot of non-Christmas movies other than the mysteries. I think it was Dater’s Handbook and Pearl in Paradise, right?
Yeah. And I was like, I do want to do more throughout the year. I would love to extend that. I have this fun idea for a June wedding movie. I’d love to tell more stories in the way that they do on Hallmark. So for me it was just a real treat to be able to push into that again.
What stood out to you about the character of Ian?
It’s so funny. I was literally coaching my son’s sixth grade flag football team when I got the script. The school needed dads to step in, and I had the time. So all of a sudden, I was the coach of this little flag football team, and we went from being the Bad News Bears where these kids couldn’t even score. They didn’t know what to do. Truly within two weeks, they started just dominating and my sons and this other dad became this fun little coaching ensemble, and we brought our kids to a pretty good season. They lost their first two games, but they won every one after.
And so I was in the coaching mindset when I got the script, and I don’t know if Liz Yost knew that because I had talked to Liz and I think I kind of mentioned that I was coaching my kids’ flag football team and I don’t know if that kind of helped them see me in that light. But the fact that it was a coach felt right at home in that particular moment.
You were already preparing for the role without even realizing it.
Yeah, I really was. I was honestly already doing research for the role and knew what it felt like to lose and what it felt like to get competitive and start winning and change your mindset. And then of course, the script is really good. Here’s the thing about Hallmark: They’re telling amazing stories and they’re telling ’em in a way that your entire family can sit down and watch. They’re encouraging and really shining a light on positivity and on love and what the positive effects of love in life can do.
When you meet Emily, she’s this soccer star, but everything is kind of like ash and diminished in her life because she’s gotten too competitive and too greedy for the stuff that fame brings, and you got my guy, who is divorced and let that failure kind of shut him down. So she’s winning too much and he’s not winning enough or he’s failing too much.
And when they come together, they strike this balance that mellows her out a little bit and gives him courage and brings that competitive fire back into his life, which he was needing. They find this really beautiful, even balance, and they complement each other in a way I think that is really good to see. It’s that kind of encouragement that speaks life into people who are watching it in a way that is, I think, essential, which is what I love about Hallmark and doing movies for Hallmark. Because some stuff, you watch it and it makes you feel bad, and then there’s the stuff that you watch that makes you feel good, and everything on Hallmark makes you feel good.
Their meet-cute takes a turn.
They meet on a soccer field, in the white-hot heat of competition. He knows who she is because she’s a famous soccer player. She does not know who he is. She joins their little game, and very quickly, he tries to get the ball away from this girl and he’s going to have his moment in the sun and score on a famous soccer player. But she very quickly gets the ball back, and in doing so, she hurts him.
Their different approaches to competition clash, on the field, and at trivia…
His whole deal is, “Have fun. You’re here to have fun, and if you win, great. If you lose, it’s not that big of a deal because it’s about the journey. It’s about the actual playing of the game. And it’s a game. It’s fun.” And her thing is, “No, you’ve got to win. It’s not just a game. It’s something to win or lose. And if you lose, you’re a loser. So you better win.” She’s hyper competitive and he’s a little too lax.
We see Emily do a bit on the rope course while Ian encourages her. Did you do any of it?
I got way up in one of the tall trees on the actual day, and they wanted me to cross it. You’re tethered in. It’s no big deal. And I was going to do it. Then it was so high that it didn’t make any sense to bring Nadia up there. … It made sense to just bring it all down lower. But there was a massive ladder that both of us ended up climbing that was 70 feet off the ground, in the rain and [with] gloves. You have to harness yourself onto the ladder, ‘cause if you fall, you’re falling down a big old tree.
That’s a key moment in their relationship.
Exactly. She learns to trust him, and she learns to just listen to his voice and look at his face and take another step and overcome that fear. It’s hard when we’re humans — we like to stay in our safe zone, we like to be comfortable — to let go of the things that make us comfortable and push into new territory. It’s scary.
How would you do in trivia compared to Ian?
I think that I would kick Ian’s butt. I’m pretty good at trivia, but you know what? I say that and watch. [Laughs] I probably wouldn’t… It depends on what’s scripted.
Which topics would you do best in trivia?
Do you know I have fancy myself a bit as a bit of a polymath. I have the most random vault of information stored away. … I’m good about history, I’m good about pop culture, I’m good about all sorts of random stuff, space.
How about your Hallmark movies? How much do you remember?
I think I remember everything. I would be surprised if I didn’t.
Talk about working with Nadia. Your chemistry is so perfect for this movie.
She’s great. She was so enthusiastic to be a part of a Hallmark movie. It’s her first one. She’s a big, big star in China, and so for her to come to North America and to be introduced to the North American audience in this way was a really big deal for her. I remember her saying when we first started filming, “I’ve been stuck inside away from my family for the whole pandemic.” She got trapped in North America at the beginning of the pandemic and she couldn’t go home for two years. The first time she’d been home was after we filmed that movie, so she hadn’t seen her mom and dad in three years.
And everything that she auditioned for was for Netflix and this, that, and the other. It was all dark, like hypersexual or zombie movie or vampire or death or murder, and she was like, “everything was so depressing and really dark and really sad. And then I auditioned for this Hallmark thing,” and she’s like, “I haven’t wanted something so bad. When I got it, I was just so…” It’s a big deal.
And it kind of made me realize I’ve done a few of these now and I don’t see them from the same vantage point as a young actor who’s never done ’em before might. For her it was like landing a movie at Warner Brothers or something, like a major motion picture, which it should be. I mean, they’re getting seen by more people than most movies are these days. [Laughs] So why not?
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