It was during a cast table reading in the summer of 2019 in Atlanta when Carol Swarbrick Dries first met legendary singer-actress Dolly Parton.
Swarbrick Dries — a Broadway, television and film actress living in Sequim — said Parton, the legendary singer and actress, was busy meeting or getting reacquainted with her fellow thespians as they prepared to shoot the Netflix film “Christmas on the Square.”
The tall Sequim actress rose to meet Parton and, standing several inches taller — “she is just a teeny little thing,” Swarbrick Dries said — she introduced herself and her character’s name: Old Granny Hoover.
“I guess that makes me old Dolly Parton,” the longtime film and stage star quipped.
“No,” Swarbrick Dries recalled replying, “and it never will.”
Almost a full year-and-a-half after wrapping up the final shots, “Christmas on the Square” made its debut on Netflix on Sunday, Nov. 22 (see www.netflix.com/title/81128934).
Parton plays the lead role of an angel in a storyline that essentially puts “A Christmas Story” on its head, Swarbrick Dries said.
The film also stars Christine Baranski, a 15-time Emmy Award nominee and veteran film and stage actress, as a “Scrooge” type whom Parton’s angel looks to reform and inspire.
“The reveals in the plot are very surprising and very satisfying and very loving,” Swarbrick Dries said. “It’s all that Dolly Parton goodness and optimism.”
The film features more than a dozen original songs composed and performed by Parton and cast members.
“I love doing movie musicals,” Swarbrick Dries said. “You don’t have to memorize much (since) you audiotape everything, and when it’s done it’s done you don’t do it again the next night at 8 o’clock.
“(And) doing these big group dance-and-sing numbers (was) just wonderful.”
Swarbrick Dries plays Granny Hoover, a role she describes as “crotchety.”
“I say a line about you can’t cuss in church, but in my line is a cuss word,” she said. “She’s kind of crotchety but lovable.”
Particularly lovable, Swarbrick Dries said, was Parton during the film’s shooting.
“Dolly makes sure when she is running the show … that everybody on the set is not only efficient and professional, they’re nice,” Swarbrick Dries said. “There isn’t a weak link or a rotten apple in the barrel. It’s just not acceptable.”
Parton was professional but personal too, she said.
“Every time she’d see me she’d mention something special I’d done,” Swarbrick Dries said.
The film also features Treat Williams and Jenifer Lewis, and is directed by Debbie Allen of “Fame” fame.
Swarbrick Dries has several scenes with Williams, a veteran actor with 120 film credits to his name. In “Christmas on the Square,” her character works at his shop.
“I had seen Treat Williams on Broadway but never worked with him,” Swarbrick Dries said. “We had interplay (and) it was immediate, this regard for each other.”
Quick role wrangling
Swarbrick Dries said the process of getting linked to this production was at a kind of warp speed. Back in mid-2019, she and husband Jim — also a veteran actor — were running late for a meeting when she got a call from an acting agent she has in Orlando, Fla. The agent said asked if she had any footage of her singing, and Swarbrick Dries said yes and quickly found a recording to send.
“If we’d been on the road I wouldn’t have had access (to that footage),” she said.
The agent said Dolly Parton is shooting a movie and the producers were looking for a “mature woman,” Swarbrick Dries remembered.
About an hour-and-a-half later, the agent noted the film producers had watched the tape and about eight hours after the initial call, Swarbrick Dries had the part.
The Sequim actress was in Atlanta, Ga., about a week later for vocal sessions, back home for a week, and then back in Atlanta for two weeks of shooting.
Swarbrick Dries had recently filmed “Miss Lillian: The Lillian Carter Story” — she has portrayed Lillian Gordy Carter, Jimmy Carter’s mother, at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Mo.; in The Villages, Fla.; the Key City Playhouse in Port Townsend and on Theatre Row in New York City, among other venues — and had stayed at the home of an assistant producer during that production; she was able to stay at the same residence just a few weeks later while shooting “Christmas on the Square.”
“The timing was amazing,” she said.
A couple of months after shooting wrapped, Swarbrick Dries heard that the film would not be released for the 2019 holiday season. Further, she didn’t know if her scenes had been kept or cut until a friend who saw a sneak preview recently acknowledged her Granny Hoover was spared the cutting room floor.
“Just to be a little part of that is very gratifying, and to be welcomed into that circle (with Dolly Parton),” she said. “I got to work with her.”
While 2019 was a busy one for Swarbrick Dries — filming “Miss Lillian” in April, “Christmas on the Square” in July and a comedic turn in the Adult Swim series “Three Busy Debras” — 2020 was, as for many other actors and actresses, turned on its end. After performances of “Miss Lillian” in Sequim in January and Grand Rapids, Minn., in February, she was scheduled to hit the 5th Avenue stage in Seattle as Sister Mary Lazarus in the musical “Sister Act,” slated for March 13 through April 5.
In mid-March, however, the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, and state officials closed venues such as the Fifth Avenue to help stem the virus’ spread.
“What Gov. Inslee did was the right thing; it was heartbreaking but it needed to be done,” Swarbrick Dries said.
“It’s going to be a while before people are willing to sit next to someone they don’t know (at a theater).”
She said she’s impressed with how Olympic Theatre Arts is continuing on productions, recording old-time radio episodes of “Fibber McGee and Molly” (six in all) and posting them online (see olympictheatrearts.org/OTA/?page_id=6364).
“I praise them for finding options,” Swarbrick Dries said.
Check out “Christmas on the Square” on Netflix at www.netflix.com/title/81128934.