For more than two decades, Maria Menounos has been on TV. Whether it was interviewing celebrities on “Access Hollywood,” hosting a WWE special or a “Challenge” reunion or doing an arc on “One Tree Hill,” she’s been a staple on television. However, it wasn’t until this year that she landed the lead in her first film — and a TV Christmas movie was the ideal situation.
“I’ve never had to carry anything on my own,” says Menounos, who notes that both she and her husband, AfterBuzz TV creator Keven Undergaro, are “obsessed” with Christmas. “I have always wanted to be a part of the Christmas movie lineup. I put it on my vision board last year.”
The vision was brought to life. Last year, Ryan McPartland, who has appeared in a few holiday flicks over the years, brought it to her attention at the exact right time.
“It was soon after my mom had passed, and he’s like, ‘Oh, we’re going to be in Connecticut shooting a movie.’ I’m like, ‘I’m in Connecticut. That’s so crazy.’ Then I got cast as a sister,” she recalls. After playing a supporting character in “The Holiday Fix Up” with Jana Kramer, director Brian Herzlinger called her this past summer — this time with a leading offer for Lifetime’s “The Holiday Dating Guide.”
She had always loved movies and the holidays, but it was nerve-racking to think of playing the lead.
“I’ve had psychics tell me that I’m going to be acting more,” Menounos says. While her focus was on her show, “Better Together,” and the spirituality world, she had placed starring in a Christmas movie on her bucket list.
“It was really special because it was going to be my first Christmas without my mom and it really gave me something to look forward to. So that helped me get over last Christmas and then this came,” she says of the last two years.
Menounos’ mother, Litsa, died in May 2021 after a battle with stage-four brain cancer. The journalist was very open about her experience, as she was diagnosed with a benign tumor, called hemangioma, in 2017, just months after her mother’s cancer diagnoses.
The holiday movies always helped her and her mom — and now, are part of her work life.
“I remember really understanding how much entertainment was important and what we do is important when I was in the hospital with my mom after she had brain surgery. We really needed a laugh and we really needed to escape. At the holidays, having Lifetime on and seeing these Christmas movies was a wonderful escape for all of us from what we were dealing with. And then it came and rescued me at a time where I really needed the escape myself,” she says. “It is a beautiful way that it came to be and I think my mom had a hand in it for sure from the other side. It’s so important for all of us to be able to have some levity at those times; those are the times when you feel the pain the most and I know because I’ve been there.”
For a long time, Menounos wasn’t sure she could be both an actor and a journalist. So, she did her best to “walk both paths.” And it worked. In 2004, she was set for a short stint on “One Tree Hill” — which turned into a 10-episode arc.
“‘One Tree Hill’ was such an amazing escape for me at that time too. I felt like I was always trying to escape scenarios. They were so welcoming and loving that I guttural cried when I had to leave,” she says. “It was the worst! I was like, ‘Please don’t make me go back!’ It was a really fun experience and I love those girls. … I was only supposed to be in one or two episodes. They really, I guess, took to me and the character and it just kept going for the whole season. I was going out there for a very short stint, maybe it was three episodes, then I got a job and had to go.”
Now, as a leading lady in “The Holiday Dating Guide,” she experienced nerves she never had before.
“The night before filming I had a heart attack that I was in every scene. I started panicking and then I remembered my favorite line in a Christmas movie that got me through it, which is ironic,” she says. “In ‘Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,’ they say, ‘Just put one foot in front of the other.’”
That’s the advice Menounos lives by. In 2020, she launched “Better Together,” a video series about healing, wellness and emotional health. She plans to continue growing that — and hopefully grow in the holiday movie space, too.
“I want to live a really fun, adventurous and purposeful life. That’s the umbrella. Underneath that, I want to do a lot more with my show ‘Better Together.’ I want to take that show out on the road and do heal events and really help people get on their healing journeys and taking control of their health which is super, super important to me and a big passion for me,” she says. “I want to build a production company for holiday stuff for Christmas movies because I really want to be making one of these a year. I love it. It just makes me so happy every time. It’s the most fun ever. I really just want to get back into filmmaking. You know, Keven and I got together making movies. On this movie specifically, working with the crew and the team we had, made me really fall in love with the idea of making movies again — in a producer role and as an actor. You’ve got to keep growing and moving forward and trying new things. This life is so short.”
“The Holiday Dating Guide” airs on Saturday, Dec. 17, at 8 p.m.