Faith, Film and Fashion
It’s pretty fair to say that people in show business have the acumen to go-with-the-flow. Script changes, scene set-ups and personality disputes are often part of the territory. So when Risen called Melissa Joan Hart for their preset interview, she graciously kept the appointment in spite of the snow day she was in the midst of with preschoolers at her house. In between her popcorn making and the arrival of her older kids coming home, Hart didn’t miss a beat. She talked with the magazine about her career, her faith and a city-themed children’s clothing line that she and her husband recently launched.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: You have basically been acting since you were a toddler. When did you decide it would be your career, versus something that your family got you involved with that you happened to be talented in?
Melissa Joan Hart: I’m still trying to figure out what I am going to do when I grow up. There were a few crossroads in my career where I asked myself, “Do I want to do this?” or, “Do I do something else?” One big [decision] was deciding whether I should go to college. College was never really a choice growing up. It was more like this-is-what-you-do-after-high-school. My parents didn’t really go to college, but somehow we were raised to think that after high school you go to college and after that you get a job. So I had my heart set on college and there was no way I was not going to go to college. But then I got offered a job where I would have to take a month and go to Florida, right when I was supposed to start my first semester. It was one of those moments where I questioned, “Do I follow this career path that has been started for me?” or, “Do I do the normal thing, which is the next progression of the rite of passage and a part of growing up [and go to college]?” – An experience that most people don’t want to miss. I was afraid if I put off college once, I’d put it off again and again, so I agonized over it for about a week, but ultimately decided that I would go shoot the movie and start [school] in January. And, that is what I did. I didn’t get to continue through school and finish because then Sabrina [the Teenage Witch] came along, but I kept trying. I tried for seven years and I still plan on going back to graduate someday.
It was well aware what I was handed and given. I relished every moment of it and invited friends along for the ride.
RM: In the early 90s you starred in the Nickelodeon show, Clarissa Explains It All as a smart, sarcastic teenage girl that addressed the audience directly. How much of your personality influenced your character, or how much of Clarissa influenced you?
MJH: I think it was a little bit of both. I think I was a lot like the character, but the character definitely influenced my life. At the moment that show came along I was in junior high and just starting to feel like I didn’t fit in. Also, the show came along when my personal life was really interesting. Right in the first season my parents decided to get a divorce. My mom wanted to move to Manhattan so I ended up having to be in a split home. And my home where I lived before the divorce, I was starting to feel like I just didn’t fit in. I was doing great in elementary school, I loved learning, and I had a lot of friends. Then junior high comes along and all your friends leave to go to other groups and cliques and become cheerleaders and stuff and it’s like, “Wait? Where did my friends go?” I was having that experience and not liking it.
So with the show, it was perfect time for me to go to Orlando and work with some adults that didn’t care if I was a cheerleader or if I was popular, because I was working. I really liked the sense of responsibility. I liked the attention I got from the adults and learning from the adult-world about things like directing and camera operating. I really used being on set as an experience. But I think that character really helped because she was so tough, so fearless, and such a non-conformist. I used that to power me with the mindset that, “I am going to be that way too.” I think it was a little bit of both. It is only now as an adult, I see that I think she [Clarissa] gave me permission to be the way I should be. Plus, I was growing up in Manhattan in a time when it was all about women being tough, and told, “You can do anything boys can do, and better.” So I was the first girl on the mountain snowboarding. I don’t know if that was because of me, or Clarissa. She and I were a lot alike. I don’t know who taught who.
RM: You mention you went to college for a little bit, but you spent the majority of your twenties as the Archie comic book character Sabrina, in Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Those years are such a formative time in one’s life especially for developing identity. When you are tied to a character, how does that influence or change your life?
MJH: My life changed drastically with Sabrina. I had always acted, so acting wasn’t new to me. Clarissa was done in Orlando and I was still kind of kept out of the public eye and the show was on cable [Nickelodeon], and all of a sudden I am on a network show and I move to Los Angeles. I am an adult so I move into my own house – my family moves with me, but into their own house. Instead of taking the subway into New York, now I’m driving a BMW convertible onto the Paramount studio lot and being an adult with a real job. We grew up very poor, so this is the first time I’m making real money in my life. Not that I ever spent any money, but I realized I could travel. I could go to Hawaii.
It was just a weird, but awesome transition and I enjoyed every second of it. I felt so blessed and I felt so grateful. I think coming from the roots that I came from, with the family support I had, I was well aware what I was handed and given. I relished every moment of it and invited friends along for the ride. When I bought my first house I had three people live with me. I would constantly let people borrow my car and take friends on trips when they couldn’t afford to because I wanted them there with me. I felt it was my place to take people along for the ride I was on; I didn’t want to experience it alone. I made it a point that when I had to do press junkets in Cancun or Bahamas, or shoot a movie on location, that in my contract I could bring my team so we could all have success together. We had a great time, and are all really close and we are still best friends. When I celebrate my 40th birthday later this year, hopefully they will all come out and play with me again.
RM: Along with television you have done a number of movies and the latest film you star in is God’s Not Dead 2. You play a high school teacher named Grace and your character has a discussion with a student where she talks about how, at some point, every person asks the question or wonders, “Is there more to life?” When did you seek to know more about faith?
MJH: I always have. I took my [studies] very seriously as a young Catholic. It never really got deeper than the lesson and I didn’t really get the answers I needed. I bought the Pope’s book and never read it, I carried my Bible, I was always a praying person and seeking more, but never really finding it or figuring out how to do it. Once I had kids and became a real church member, I became a Presbyterian, my husband is a Baptist, and I wanted to learn more. I look at each experience I have and try to further my relationship with God. I try to educate myself on the Bible and it’s so funny because I memorize lines for a living, but my Bible study ladies make fun of me because I can never remember a Bible verse. It’s so weird, but I think it’s because the language isn’t really language we use today so it doesn’t stay in my brain – it’s the hardest thing for me.
I’ve been doing CBS [Community Bible Study] for a long time, six years now, and once I had kids and moved to Connecticut, I had time to spend three hours on a Wednesday morning and be more part of a church community. Now I’ve studied, Luke and Deuteronomy, and Romans so I’m really understanding and doing cross-referencing and such. Also being on the set of the film was really amazing, because there were all these apologetics’ professors. I think we did nine days in the courtroom and while we were sitting backstage waiting to shoot different testimonies and other camera angles, we were asking every question we could. I feel like I got a Ph.D. in apologetics all of a sudden.
It was amazing and we talked about everything from the shroud, to gay marriage because that had passed when we were there in the courthouse and there were marriages going on downstairs while we were filming. We covered the division of inter-religion like Judaism and Muslim and where the branches go off in different directions. Things I never learned about, or asked, or even had the guts to ask. I found myself asking every question and trying to remember it all too! It was an incredible experience and I feel like I learned a lot.
Prayer is always a big part of my life and I use it to guide my everyday life and my career.
RM: How does your faith influence your personal life and career?
MJH: Prayer is always a big part of my life and I use it to guide my everyday life and my career. I don’t necessarily choose a role because of my religion, but I do pray on it. I want to make sure it is the right project for me, and my family. Whether it has a Christian message or not isn’t really a part of that. It’s more about me relating with the material and determining if I can do something great with the movie. I think flawed characters are really interesting, I mean somebody has to play Judas in the movie. I think anyone in any career that is a believing Christian uses prayer whether it is regarding a new job, a change in boss, unemployment, or whatever it is.
RM: In God’s Not Dead 2, Grace would rather stand with God and be judged by the world, than stand with the world and be judged by God. When have you seen consequences for speaking truth?
MJH: Oh just taking this movie. I had persecution immediately, even from the inside. I expected persecution when I took this film, but I expected it from strangers and social media; I didn’t expect it from within my core group. I struggled with the decision to even take this movie for a long time. I had some people pray with me on it and I even went to our preschool director, who is a wonderful Christian woman and she prays with me on everything. Whether I have to leave town and be away from my kids, or I’m having trouble with friends, she is a big spiritual leader in my life. I went to her with this movie and said, “I don’t know what to do. I feel like I should do it, but I’m getting pullback from people.” But, I did decide to do it and I think it was a great decision. However, I do think I am going to get a lot more persecution coming up. I think doing this movie isn’t exactly a popular thing, but that doesn’t bother me because I think this was the right thing for me and I think it was the right thing to do.
RM: You have been married for more than a decade and have three sons. I loved finding out that you recently launched a fashion line for boys called King of Harts.
MJH: Yes and that is why I have no voice right now, because we did a photoshoot yesterday with 17 kids running around a studio for ten hours! Also we are doing girls now too and launched Queen of Harts.
RM: Excellent. Tell me about the business.
MJH: My husband and I were not happy with our available choices, so we decided to do something about it and start our own line. We were so sick of licensed-character graphic tees and kids end up wearing the same things, so we wanted to give them options that were funky, and cool and artistic. We wanted to start small using our own money and our own resources. Not that we know that much about the fashion industry, and not that we are even that fashionable, but we wanted to see what kind of product we could put out there. We try to keep it largely American made and keep costs down so we can give people a good product – not a disposable product.
I have three boys so my clothes definitely get handed down. I want to make sure these items last, in the wash and such. I didn’t want the price to be expensive, but I also wanted to do the right thing as far as factories and child labor, so we’ve been working really hard on making the line the best it can be. Each line is inspired by a specific U.S. city. So the first line was Montauk, New York. It was an awesome line of sharks and lobsters and very fun vintage New England. The second line was based on our favorite vacation spot, Lake Tahoe, California. We had bears with snow goggles and mountain bikers and really fun double-sleeve stuff. Our spring line is River City, so we did Detroit, Michigan. We have some baseball-themed stuff, we have some rock-n-roll, and we have some car-themed items.
RM: You’ve worked with family before as your mom was an Executive Producer on Sabrina the Teenage Witch and you developed your company Hartbreak Films with her, but what is like starting a business with your husband and being able to have your kids involved in the fashion line?
MJH: The kids don’t like it. [Laugher] They are sick of it. They say, “Do I have to try on more clothes?!” I’m trying different sizes on them and different colors on them and asking all their friends which graphic they like. I’m polling all the kids in town. It’s difficult to work with your husband. Family is difficult to work with, but it is the best too because you get to ride all the waves together, the successes and the lows. My mom and I started our company when I was 17 and we did Sabrina and all our movies together, and Melissa & Joey together, and Hartbreak Films has been up and running for a good twenty years. It gives you a good excuse to talk about something else too. I feel like a lot of times couples go to date night and have nothing to talk about. My husband and I can talk about work. There is always a new thing to talk about.
RM: Between acting, filmmaking, your companies and family, what advice would you give to moms when it comes to raising kids, but who are also still pursuing their dreams?
MJH: That’s the trick. I am a person that likes to stay busy and I am a hard worker. If I’m not acting, I want to be designing and producing clothes, and if I not doing that then I’ll probably start my scrapbooking up again and finish my son’s baby album from eight years ago. I’m always doing something and I’m always busy. No matter what I am doing, whether I’m on the phone or organizing my closet, I have to remember to stop sometimes and go talk to my kids, hang out with them, play with them, take them to the movies, go on a bike ride. The tricky thing is remembering to turn everything off.
This day and age everyone is so accessible. I need to remember to put down the phone, stop organizing the junk drawer or step aside and say, “No” to a project for work and just hang out with my kids. Since I moved to Connecticut, for six years now, I have been working on Melissa & Joey. I have been flying back and forth [to L.A.] and at first I was leaving my kids behind because I thought it was better for them to have a life here with neighbors and school and stay in their own home. When we had our third son, we didn’t want to do that anymore so then the kids started traveling with me.
Now I’m dragging them coast-to-coast, and from school-to-school, half the year here, half the year there. And so, last year I did pray that my show would end so I could spend some time home just being a mom, organizing my house, learning to cook, and just doing things as a family. My show did end last year; my prayer was answered, and now I’m itching to go back to work. [Laughter] I had to remind myself that this is what I wanted; this is what I prayed for. But now I think, “What’s next?!”