Actor/producer/true-crime fan Alison Sweeney steps behind the microphone when she stars as true-crime podcaster Alex McPherson in her new franchise, Chronicle Mysteries.
The first of three films premiering over subsequent Sunday nights is the Feb. 17 thriller, Chronicle Mysteries: Recovered, where McPherson returns to the small town where she spent her childhood summers to investigate the long-ago death of a friend.
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When we caught up with Sweeney, she filled us in with details of the new series, previewed her first three films and shared a few of her podcast faves.
The true-crime genre is sizzling hot; is Chronicle Mysteries based on a podcast that we’ve overlooked?
Alison Sweeney: No, I developed it from scratch, and it all came down to a compilation of all the different things—everything that I’ve heard and watched—and the things I liked about true crime podcasting, and the people who do it. And so, we were excited to sort of create our own content and come up with our own cases. It really ends up being super-helpful to not be married to a certain IP.
Tell us little about your character in the series…
My character is Alex McPherson, and she is a new podcaster. She comes from a business world and is just someone who gets things done, and likes to help people. She was a bit of a fixer for other people’s businesses, but she never found something that was her own.
Her backstory is just that her mom is recently passed away, and she fell into podcasting as an avenue of helping someone find their missing child. And when that turned out to be successful, she realized there was real opportunity here, and that podcasting could really make a difference.
How did you research and prepare to play a podcaster?
It definitely started with my interest in true-crime, and listening to all these podcasts. So, it was a balance of certainly listening to the podcast I’ve been a fan of for all this time, and then also talking to some people who do it professionally and getting some insight from them as to what their experience was as a podcaster and learning from them.
Did your prep-work include appearing on podcasts?
I did! I have been a guest most recently of Real Crime Profile, the episode is gonna come out this Thursday. So, I was interviewed by them, and I did an episode of a show called Moms and Murder, and yeah ... I also spoke at length with Esther, who is the podcaster for Once Upon a Crime, and she and I have had lots of great chats about it. In fact, then, I also interviewed and spoke to Bob Ruff, who hosts Truth and Justice podcast. And he even, he was a firefighter, so he offered me some great insight, and he was my consultant for one of the scenes in my movie, ‘cause I needed professional advice. The whole podcasting world has been so supportive and excited for me, and everyone I talk to just loves that that world is gonna get its own place On TV, and they’re getting their own attention, finally.
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What other podcasts do you listen to?
Well, all of those, just to start with. I also listen to True Crime Garage. I listen to Serial. I listen to Undisclosed; that’s another podcast I’ve been a guest of, I’ve been on their Addendum episodes a few times and love the opportunity to talk to them. And, I listen to the shorter ones that Wonder does: Dr. Death and Dirty John, and the new one they just released is called Over My Dead Body.
How does your husband, who’s a police officer, help you get into the mindset of an investigator?
I always talk to him endlessly about my cases. Sometimes it’s forensics, I’m like, “Well, how long would the DNA stay?” And he’s so funny, because sometimes he’s like, “Oh my gosh, this is a really morbid conversation. What are we talking about here?” But, no, he always offers me his police experience when I ask, “Okay, if they arrested them, how would that go? What would they say? And what would you need?” So, I’ll pitch him an idea for a crime scene, describe it to him, and then he’ll give me the rundown of what he would do upon arriving. What would be the next steps, what would it take to actually arrest the person, or not? And all those kind of questions.
So believe me, there are a lot of checks and balances I have here before we get to the script where I’m running these by my team of experts. I don’t want to have glaring and egregious errors that pull people out of the story. As long as people pay attention to certain particulars, they’re willing to give you a little for dramatic purpose license.
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But, you want to be as honest as you can and true, and really work through the clues. Especially in a murder mystery. If you’re asking people, which I am, to sign up and watch the whole thing, and try to solve it with the main characters. I mean, the whole goal is that we are showing these clues and everything that Alex knows, the audience knows as they’re watching. So, the goal is, just like when I loved to read Nancy Drew mystery books when I was a kid, the whole goal of reading it is to try to figure it out before Nancy does, or as Nancy does.
I want to provide that experience for the audience, so the clues have to make sense. It is really important to me as a producer, but also as a fan of the genre.
Also, it’s no longer just cops who understand how crime-solving works. We’re all so much more educated about aspects of the legal system and detective details from other shows—it's the CSI effect. I have to hold myself to a higher standard.
What can you tease about Chronicle Mysteries: Recovered?
The first movie is about Alex coming back to the town of Harrington, Pennsylvania, where she spent her summers as a kid and looking into the case of a girl she once knew who went missing as a young woman. No trace of her body has ever been found, but people have presumed she’s been dead these last 20 years, and Alex is determined to get to the bottom of it and find out what really happened to her. And while uncovering that information, she ends up at the Harrington Chronicle, where she meets some fabulous characters that you’re gonna get to know in the series.
Tell us about the second film, that premieres on Feb. 24…
The next episode is called Chronicle Murders: The Wrong Man. I was just talking to someone about how when podcasts start getting noticed, people start turning to them to solve crimes. And that’s what happens to her in the second movie—a man who has been accused of murdering his wife comes to Alex, and says, “I want you to investigate my wife’s death.” He’s doing it hoping she will find him innocent, but she prepares him and says, “I’m gonna get to the truth. I’m not on your side. I don’t know that you didn’t do it.” So then, it ends up being a really interesting struggle for Alex. She has been given this information by this guy who seems super genuine, but there are holes in his story and questions that make him seem guilty. So, she has to do some real digging to get to the truth, and takes us on some good twists and turns along the way.
What can we expect in the third film, Chronicle Mysteries: Vines that Bind?
I call it lovingly “the Dynasty episode,” because for me, it was just beautiful. It takes place in a vineyard, and there’s a very intriguing family with a lot of family turmoil, and the father figure—the patriarch—ends up dead. Alex is there to look into it because it could have been an accident—he’s a winemaker, and a not uncommon accident happens, or it could be one of his offspring up to no good and is looking for the inheritance. And the Harrington Chronicle team goes on a field trip to this wine town to look into this case.
Who from the Harrington Chronicle staff is helping Alex solve these crimes?
Drew Godfrey is a journalist — played by Benjamin Ayres — and he and Alex are a great crime-fighting. And he’s also the one who lends experience and legitimacy to this group. He’s been a journalist, and on the police beat, so he knows how to find sources, and get information from the police, and how to read a the Medical Examiner’s file, and understand that world.
Eileen Bruce —played by Rebecca Staab—is the gossip columnist for the Harrington Chronicle. She brings all the background. She knows everybody in town, and who they were married to, and whether they liked each other, and what that family’s secrets are, and if she doesn’t know, she’ll find out at the tennis club.
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Dave Collette plays Chuck, who is our jack-of-all-trades. He’s there, available to do anything and everything, and always ready to help out.
After these three films, when are we gonna see more Chronicle Mysteries?
Oh, I’m so glad you asked. I’m in development of three more movies for this year, and I have been working on new cases and developing new stories since we finished the first three. We’ll be shooting them this summer, and hopefully, have them ready to air in 2020.
You not only act in this series, but you also created it and serve as an executive producer. How did you know that combining true-crime and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries would be a good fit?
Well, one of the other things I really loved about the genre and marrying the crime genre with Hallmark, is that it’s fun and there is intrigue, so it is a little bit of a gritty tale, but without the gore. I think if you are a true-crime fan, you really should check it out, and give it a shot. But, also for the Hallmark fans, I think it still honors what they’ve come to know and appreciate from the Hallmark brand, but it’s introducing them to a whole new world of the true crime space.
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I think the fans of Hallmark go in knowing that they can trust Hallmark to keep them safe from some of the extreme blood and guts that maybe is available on so much else out there. So, you’re not gonna get that, but you’re gonna get a really challenging story, with real intensity and danger and, hopefully, some fun and romance along the way, too. So, it’s a little something for everyone.
Plus, I love shooting it because you get to do some action scenes, and I got to do some stunts. And for me, having a character that’s active and out there, and getting into trouble is so fun for me.
Chronicle Mysteries: Recovered, Sunday, Feb. 17, 9/8c, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries