Marissa Jaret Winokur on Working Alongside Rita Moreno in Lifetime's 'Santa Bootcamp,' Her Versatile Acting Career and More (Exclusive)

You've more than likely seen Marissa Jaret Winokur in your favorite film or television series before. The Tony-nominated actress is a jack of all trades, appearing in everything from sitcoms to films, to musicals, and even game shows and reality shows. Now, she's transitioning into the world of Christmas. She stars in this season's programming for Lifetime's annual "It's A Wonderful Lifetime" movie series. She stars as one of the helpers in Santa's Bootcamp

When event planner Emily Strauss (Emily Kinney) is hired by mall magnate Ed Mancini (Patrick Cassidy) to stage the ultimate Christmas Gala for his most important investors, Emily finds herself being sent to boot camp – Santa Bootcamp – to find the perfect Santa and the inspiration she will need to make the evening a success. While there, Emily meets Belle (Rita Moreno), the boot camp's drill sergeant with a heart of gold, who helps Emily rediscover the magic of Christmas and find romance along the way. 

Jaret Winokur chatted with us about working alongside Moreno, her expansive career, and what she has next on her plate. The film premieres on Saturday, Nov. 19. Check out the full video interview above. 

PC: I'm very excited. Got a chance, obviously to watch the screener for Santa Bootcamp.

MJW: Oh good.

I loved it. I mean I'm a Christmas movie fanatic, so let's start this off by talking about whether or not you're the same. Are you Christmas-crazy as well?

Yeah, absolutely. I'm definitely of the school that I'm so happy that Lifetime does 20 movies – I don't even know how many, I feel like they do 100 movies now before Christmas. They're like every day before Christmas. And then everyone that you've ever seen, they replay them. It's always...I feel like they should have a network, always Christmas movies throughout the year, not just right before Thanksgiving. I feel like we should always have them on.

No, I 100% agree, and now that so many other networks are starting to follow that model with Christmas programming every year, some may even start as early as October. So it's always fun to kind of jump into the holiday spirit. But what about this specific project made you say, I want to be a part of this movie?

Well, this one was specifically was [because] Melissa Joan Hart and I had worked together many times before, and she called me up and was like, "Oh my gosh, you have to do this movie. I'm directing it, and Rita Moreno's in it" and I was like, "Oh, I'm in. 100%." You don't get offered an opportunity to work with a legend like Rita in your lifetime. So I was like, anyone that's in this business that would've turned down three weeks of working with Rita is a fool.

So first, I was like, "Is she really in the movie, or is it just a cute cameo?" They're like, "You'll get to work with Rita." I'm like, "Will I really? Or is it just like you can't..." Because a lot of times you'll do a movie and you're some big stars in it, but then you never even meet them, or you're never on screen with them, but this was not the case. She was number one on the call sheet, not just because she was the star, but because Rita's like the star of the movie, not just [because] she's the most famous.

Can you elaborate on a little bit about what it was like working alongside a legend like Rita Moreno, especially because you guys have a shared connection of Broadway and the arts in that realm? So how was it filming with her, and then what kind of relationship did you develop off-screen?

Well, I mean, obviously she's such a legend, but for a musical theater girl like myself, she has influenced my life. I saw her in the King and I and in West Side Story before I was even really old enough to know this is what I want to do with my life. So, she's definitely been an influential part of what I do in my career. So working with someone like that was just so incredible.

And I love that the younger audiences have gotten to see her in the new remake of West Side Story because a lot of people only saw the new one. But I'm like, "You have to go see the old one. I mean the new one's great," but I'm like, "You have to see the original," to the younger crowd. I'm like, "Wait till you see what she can do." She's just so incredible.

So for me, working with her, I just watched her like a hawk the whole time, but also, she was such a pro. I mean obviously, she's a pro, but at 90 years old she stayed on set, she never left. She did all the hard parts. A lot of times people will do their scenes and then someone will read their lines and you're working off of an AD or someone else who wants to just do the scenes for them because the camera can't see who you're doing your scenes with.

But she was there 100% all the time. And I just kept pointing that out to people. I'm like, "Look at her. She's such a pro." People don't do that anymore. I've worked with people who are just stars but they don't stay on and work, or give you eye contact when it's your turn up. They do their scenes, but they don't do yours. I said it so many times that I definitely think the younger people on the set wanted to kill me because I was like, "Look at her, look at her. She's so amazing." But she would stand there. We would all be complaining way before her. She's just such an icon. It was just such an honor to work with her.

That sounds so fun. And where did you guys film the movie and how are you going about this year keeping up with the magic of Christmas? Especially because all of us are so busy and it feels like it gets harder every year to really slow down and take in the holiday season, so I can imagine what it's like for someone with multiple productions.

I mean I flew into Nashville – I was working on something else – I flew in Nashville where we shot this movie, but we lucked out because sometimes you go on these sets that could be literally this office that I'm sitting in and they're like, "We're going to decorate it, and it's Christmas and just pretend you're in Christmas."

But we pulled up onto this house, they shot in this massive home, and you just would pull up to set, and there was an archway with all the Christmas stuff, and it was like "Merry Christmas." And every room was decorated because it was all set, ready to go, and that's very rare. Normally you're just kind of in your mind thinking about what they're going to do with it, but you don't really see it. So the minute you walked in, you were in Christmas land. There was no question that we were in a Christmas movie.

And this movie really kind of doubled down on Christmas. A lot of Christmas movies are romantic comedies that happen at Christmas time, or someone gets their first big musical number, one hit during Christmas, and now it's a Christmas movie. This is like, we are Santa's Bootcamp. Every one of us is wearing ridiculous Christmas costumes. Every costume I wear is more ridiculous than the next. For every bow I would walk on set, I'm like, "This is the craziest, right?" And then they'd be like, "Wait till you see tomorrow." I'm like, "Oh my gosh."

But it was very easy to get into the holiday spirit. I think it was easier to do it in the movie than it is in my personal life. I agree with you [that] we are all – I feel like, during our COVID time, it almost felt easier to be in the holiday spirit during that first Christmas and that second Christmas because you were so grateful to just be healthy and with your family.

And I took that to heart a lot. I was so grateful that I was in a safe place and my son was safe, my husband was safe, and my family was safe. Whereas now, we're all trying to make up for that time that we felt like we lost. So now we're double booking, and you're like, "I want to go to all the holiday parties," in a different way than I think I did prior to the Covid years of missing the holidays.

Now I'm like, "Oh," that was so hard. But so now we're trying to make it up for it, right? So now I just feel like I'm like, "Oh my gosh, Thanksgiving is around the corner, and I have to do the most massive Thanksgiving ever because we missed so many Thanksgivings. I missed two full Thanksgivings with my family, and we've lost people. And I want to make every day count now in a way that I didn't feel before." So it is harder now because we're all so busy, but we have to remember to be grateful for our family and my healthy son and my healthy husband and my healthy siblings because we forget how we felt at that moment in time.

And one of the things that I love about you so much is that you have such a versatile resume. Obviously, you've done theater, you've done TV, you've done film. It was so funny because when I got this interview with you, I was talking to my cousin, and she's like, "Yeah, wasn't she in Hairspray or something?" And of course me, I'm like, "She was in Moesha. You don't remember when she...?"

Yes.

And so I had to replay the episode and verbally to my cousin, I'm like, "Remember when she was in the dorms?" And my cousin is like, "Moesha went into a suite." I'm like, "No." See, I knew all the episodes. I'm like, "Season five. She moved out of her parents' house because they found out that Dorian was Frank's son and she got the last dorm room…"

She wanted out. She was jealous of all the attention, and I was her roommate. I was Theresa.

You were Theresa, so once I gave her that spiel, she's like, "Only, you would remember that." And I'm like, "Absolutely, because-

You know what? Shockingly, you're not the only one that remembers that. And also, Theresa, I think I did two episodes, but then I wasn't in it after that, but Theresa still was. They were like, "How's your roommate?" They would always talk about me. But I will say a lot of people are like, "You were Moesha's roommate." And honestly, because my hair, my look hasn't really, I still kind look the same.

I don't want to look the same. I'm grateful for it. But it is funny. I just like working, so people always be like, "You did Hairspray." Exactly. [But I'll also] do a Broadway musical, but then I'm like, "I'll do Big Brother or Dancing With the Stars. I like the game shows. I like reality shows, I want to do it." I think it's all just so much fun, and I kind of always been like that.

I always say to people, if you were a doctor, you wouldn't pick your clients, you would do your jobs. If there's a day where I don't need the cash, my sister will need it, my brother will need it, my family, I do the jobs. I love all the stuff. I love everything that has to do with entertainment. I have a one-woman show that I do where I sing, but then I'll do Big Brother because I'm like "Yeah, lock me in the house. Let's see what happens."

So what projects do you feel like you're most recognized for? Or does it vary because you are a jack of all trades within entertainment? And do you also feel as if it's been the secret to your success and longevity in your career because you are willing to try different things?

That's a great question. I actually feel like it's funny – I get recognized for such different things by such different people. It's like there's people out there who were obsessed with Dancing With the Stars or Big Brother and that's a whole different audience than that are obsessed with Hairspray. But then there is, I have this whole guest star TV thing that I've been a guest star on every single TV show.

I joke, I'm like, "Yeah, I was on that." People be like, "Wait, you were?" And I tell them, they're like, "Oh my God." So I get that a lot where people will come up to me and they're like, "How do I know you? "That's always where it starts. But then they think it's like we went to high school together or, our children hang out together. And then it's like I'm like, "No," and then I'm embarrassed, and I'll be like, "I'm an actress."

And they're like, "Oh my god, I'm so sorry. That's actually..." Because I do, I also am so familiar because I do look like everyone's sister. I do look like everyone's aunt. And because I still look the same as I did 20 years ago – again, I'm grateful for it, that's my parents – that's like all it is, my DNA – Because of that, I'm kind of been in people's households for such different reasons that I think that's the longevity is that I'm sort of familiar.

So I walk on set, and people genuinely are like, "Oh I like her," in a show, but they don't know why but it's because they liked me in Moesha. They liked me from 20 years ago. They liked me in Scary Movie. Scary Movie's the one that I feel like across the board, all ages, all genders are like, "Oh, Scary Movie. That's you in Scary Movie," always seems to be, brings it back.

And then when I gain weight or lose weight, I can tell because people will like me for something. I'm like, "Oh, did I gain weight again?" Because they're recognizing me from something where I was heavier in it and I'll be like, "Oh no." So they'll be like, "Were you in The Goldbergs? And I'm like, "Oh, I was so fat in The Goldbergs, but yeah, I guess that's me." So I can tell where my weight is by what people recognize me for.

That is crazy. That's a crazy marker. But I guess it's also funny, too. Which medium do you actually prefer? What is your first love because you're from the musical theater world? So will you always go back to theater or television, or do you like films which one do you find to be the most difficult or challenging, I guess I could say?

Well, it's interesting, the theater is my favorite, my favorite that if I could just do Broadway musicals, that's what I would do, but it is the most challenging, the most difficult, the most time-consuming, the most soul sweating – because when I'm singing it's like I can't talk, and I have a child. So I kind of held back after my son was born on theater because it's just for me, other people, Patti LuPone had a son, and she had no problems. She could do everything with her son. She didn't care. Whereas for me, I can't shut down at night, so I'm still up and high from the theater. So when I do theater, I'm not the best mom. So I kind of held off on theater until now we're, my son's now 14, so he doesn't want me to talk to him anyways at night anymore, so I'm excited to go back into theater now, and that is my favorite, and that is the hardest.

But again, I just kind of enjoy everything. Whatever I'm doing is my favorite at that time, if that makes any sense? Doing this Christmas movie, I was like, "Oh my god, I'm obsessed. I'm so glad I'm doing this, I'm having so much fun." And then I'll be locked in a house with 11 strangers and I'm like, "This is the best. I want to do this always."

I just genuinely enjoy entertainment, and I am always awestruck. I'm always like, "Oh my gosh, this feels like a movie set," no matter where I go. So I'm sort of always have fun, and I think changing the medium so much makes every experience so much fun for me, I guess.

And you mentioned earlier that you were the guest star queen. So what do you feel as if you haven't done yet? Would you like to get a lead or recovering role on a series, or what is your dream project?

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I mean when I say guest star, I feel like I'm recurring on every show always. I feel like I always am, even if I get cast to do one episode, they're like, "Oh well, we have to bring that character back." They're like, "Obviously, she lives in this realm." And I have done series where I'm the series regular on it, I'm the star of the show, but I feel like that, as I'm getting older now, I feel like I'm like, "Oh, I can see now where I fit in these shows." And I have a ton of ideas, obviously, like every other actor always. But where now that I'm not just a funny sidekick type anymore just because I'm getting older now, actually people will let me be a mom, and people will let me be a lead in the sense of I don't need to just come in and be funny.

I think my dream role would be a Larry David kind of show, more like I love shooting in docu-style, docuseries style. I do that on What We Do in the Shadows and that's my favorite way to shoot because it happens fast. You get in, you're funny, there's cameras, you don't have to pretend that there's no cameras. I love all that. So I think my favorite would be some sort of docu-style series comedy, single-camera comedy would be my ideal way right now.