With the holidays upon us, what could be more appropriate than a good old-fashioned rom-com starring two likable and attractive actors to make the festivities complete? The Hating Game works off the premise that there is a fine line between love and hate, especially when the subjects involved are stuck together eight hours a day, desks facing each other, in a competitive office environment.
Lucy Hale (Pretty Little Liars, Ragdoll) and Austin Stowell (the Dolphin Tale movies, Bridge Of Spies) play colleagues at a newly merged New York publishing house whose tastes in reading material couldn’t be more opposite. Challenged by their boss (Corbin Bernsen) to each create a proposal that will elevate one and dismiss the other, the antagonism between the two is ratcheted up. Yet there is an undeniable burning passion beneath the barbs and one-upsmanship in which the twenty-somethings engage. In today’s real world landmine-filled work environment, “Lucy” and “Josh” would be sent to the human resources department for their frequent outbursts and probably dismissed. Their boss, Richard (Bernsen), would face charges of sexism and likely have to sign over the company to his new partner. But The Hating Game operates in an alternate universe where exasperated co-workers merely shake their heads and try to ignore the obvious sexual tension between their bickering colleagues.
As it turns out, Josh is getting over a bad breakup and Lucy is an insufferable perfectionist. Eventually, though, they succumb to their desires but then have immediate regrets. Lucy pretends to like Danny (Damon Daunno), another co-worker who has just resigned to start his own business yet, once back in Josh’s presence she admits, “nobody kisses me like you do.” Lucy agrees to accompany Josh to his more successful brother’s wedding, where the source of Josh’s psychological pain is revealed. Lucy points out Josh’s attributes to his disapproving father. Yet back in the office, the competition for “the big promotion” continues and a misinterpreted overheard conversation leads Lucy to believe that Josh was simply leading her on to distract her from securing the coveted promotion, but then he surprises her with an act of sincerity that charms her once again.
The Hating Game is directed by Peter Hutchings, from a screenplay by Christina Mengert, based on the bestselling Sally Thorne novel. The film also stars Yasha Jackson, Sean Cullen and Sakina Jaffrey.
Vertical Entertainment’s The Hating Game arrives in select theaters and On Demand Friday Dec. 10.
The rom-com marks the second on-screen pairing of Hale and Stowell, who previously starred in the big screen adaptation of 2020’s dark comedy “Fantasy Island.” From opposite ends of the continent., the duo appears via Zoom to discuss their friendship and their latest project together.
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Angela Dawson: Lucy, did you and Austin meet on Fantasy Island?
Lucy Hale: We actually were friends before that. We thought it was so wild that we did Fantasy Island together, working in Fiji together for a few months, and then ended up doing The Hating Game. It’s amazing because, for a movie like this, you want to work with people you know who are going to deliver. I knew that Austin was made for this part; he is Josh Templeman. We had fun and it was nice to know that we could play around with that chemistry. Peter (Hutchings), the director, really let us do what we wanted, which was a blast.
Dawson: Was his term of endearment for you, “Shortcake,” something you improvised or was it in the script?
Stowell: “Shortcake” is in the book. It goes back to her growing up on a strawberry farm. It’s his way of telling her that he’s into her but he doesn’t know how to express his feelings so he does a typical “Josh” thing and goes around it another way.
Hale: There’s a scene where we’re arguing over the snack tray (in the office kitchen) where he says, “You’d like that, wouldn’t you, shrimp!” which he improvised. We improvised some of it but the humor was pretty much all there in the script—the witty lines. For us, it was just figuring out the dynamic and pace of how our characters would interact with each other. But I think that all those one-liners were in the script. Right, Austin?
Stowell: Yeah, I’m not that funny so I need a script.
Dawson: You have a funny scene with actor David Ebert, who plays the concierge at the hotel.
Hale: He improvised the whole thing. We had these great character actors who came in and kind of did their own thing. Austin and I were laughing the whole time. David is really quick. I don’t think he delivered the same lines twice. As an actor, I like to have everything planned and mapped out. I’m just very Type A; that’s just how I am. So, it was fun to work with people who keep me on my toes like that because you’re reacting in real time. I was almost, like, nervous because I didn’t know what was going to come out of his mouth.
Stowell: He is one of the funniest human beings I’ve ever met. I’m sure when the DVD comes out there will be outtakes, and you’ll only need them from that one scene because I was losing it the entire time. All of that was made up on the spot. We were just supposed to walk up to the desk and ring the bell.
Dawson: In today’s work environment, do you think Lucy and Josh would be able to get away with some of the things they say to each other without getting in trouble with HR?
Hale: They do a lot of this bickering aside. They get off on it. They’re in love with each other but won’t admit it. Other than the donut scene where they’re yelling very loudly, I feel like it’s their own private exchange. Why they don’t report each other is because it’s a competition. But there are a couple of moments when Jeanette (Shona Tucker), the head of HR, says to them in the elevator, “Four complaints this week. Four. You two are the worst part of my job.” So, we do kind of acknowledge it. But, in the real world, no, I don’t think (their behavior in the office) would fly.
Stowell: Josh Templeman would make it about as far as Michael Scott (from The Office).
Dawson: Since this was filmed during the pandemic, was the size of the wedding scaled back from what was originally planned?
Hale: If times were different and we didn’t have to keep everyone’s safety in mind, it may have been broader, grander and bigger, but the fact that we got to make this movie safely during Covid is actually incredible. Safety always was in the forefront of everyone’s mind. So, the wedding became a little smaller.
Dawson: Is this the first time you’ve played a character named “Lucy?”
Hale: No, can you believe it? It’s a very popular name in scripts right now. I did another movie called A Nice Girl Like You, where I played a Lucy.
Dawson: Does that make it more of a challenge to get into character?
Hale: There’s so much of myself in “Lucy Hutton” (in this film). It was great because the crew would never forget my name. Usually they have to learn your name and your character name so it became very easy. For the audience, it might be a little harder because there’s so much of me playing a Lucy. Maybe that’s a good thing; I’m not sure. But it definitely made my job easier.
Dawson: Austin, typically in rom-coms the good-looking guy winds up being the villain but your character turns out to be a nice guy.
Stowell: He’s a nice guy underneath. He certainly puts up a front, though. He’s trying to create this image of perfection and I think he does it with simplicity, cutting away the extra fat in his life. He’s had his heart broken so he’s become a total workaholic. He commits himself fully to his job and the only problem in doing that is the woman sitting across from him is the one he really wants to be with.
It’s made the whole thing complicated in his head. All he wants to do is go to work and forget about his (previous) relationship and there’s this vision across from him that keeps screwing it all up. A part of him is, subliminally, angry at her. He wants her to go away so he can heal from his heartache when actually she’s helping him heal but dragging him along the rocks in the process.
The reason we act this way is because we don’t know what we’re doing, as men. It goes back to the playground. We see a girl we like and then we go push her down on the ground. We’re very confused.
Dawson: Each of your characters collects things. Lucy collects Smurfs and Josh collects Matchbox cars. Are you personally obsessed with collecting any particular thing?
Hale: I have a lot of crystals.
Stowell: Baseball hats and Koozies. Whenever I go to a new city or find myself at a new watering hole and I see a Koozie, I pick it up. I’ve got a drawer full of them at home. Lucy and I are going to open a boutique—Crystals & Koozies.
Dawson: What’s on the horizon for each of you?
Hale: My show, Ragdoll, is available to stream on AMC+. It’s probably the opposite end of the spectrum from The Hating Game. It’s a psychological thriller/serial killer from the creators of Killing Eve. It’s a disturbing show about a doll with six different body parts sewn together into one body known as Ragdoll. Three detectives, including myself, are racing against the clock to find out who the killer is. What makes it very unique and disturbing is that it has this dark humor banter between these characters that almost makes it blend genres. I thought that was pretty cool.
Stowell: I was in Canada for much of this year doing a couple of Netflix
Hale: Busy. We love to see that, Austin.
Dawson: On a sad note, Winter the dolphin from the Dolphin Tale movies, died from an intestinal abnormality the other day. Austin, you worked with Winter on these popular films. What do you remember about her and her legacy?
Stowell: This is such a bummer. I heard about her passing as I was getting up yesterday morning. I got a bunch of text messages and thought, “Oh man, that stinks.” She was an incredible animal and people were really drawn to her—little kids with disabilities, especially. To lose that, I feel, is a real bummer to all those kids as well as disabled veterans who went to (the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida) to see her.
I’ve seen kids come up to her who are missing limbs and maybe have a terminal illness, and smiles would come on their faces as they watched this animal who was “broken,” living her life and being so playful. You would hear her squeaking and squealing and doing all the things we love about animals and dolphins, in particular. There’s something so magnetic about dolphins. Her death is a real tragedy but her story lives on and I’m so proud to have been a part of it. Those people at the aquarium are doing such great work with (sick and injured) animals and there will be more.