Music has been a part of singer JT Hodges’ life as long as he can remember. His father, Jim Hodges, started Buffalo Sound Studios in Fort Worth, and musicians such as Delbert McClinton and T Bone Burnett were in the studio when JT was still a child.
“I grew up in a musical family and ended up going to TCU,” Hodges says during a phone interview. “But my pops was like ‘Don’t be a music major. That’s what I was. Play your instrument, write songs, have fun -- but study something else.’ “
So Hodges studied theater, but he never did much with it. From an early age, he wanted to be a musician, and he really began focusing on it when he was a senior in huigh school. He moved to Nashville in 2010 to pursue a career. A couple of years later, he released his self-titled debut album, as well as a popular video for his song Goodbyes Made You Mine. Along the way, he has toured with stars as big as Toby Keith and Miranda Lambert.
But he’s still not what you could consider a household name -- although those theater studies could change that. Once he got a record deal, Hodges got an acting agent, and this weekend he makes his screen acting debut in Finding Christmas, a TV-movie airing at 7 p.m. CST Sunday (Dec. 15) on Hallmark Channel.
This isn’t just a bit-part acting debut -- Hodges plays one of the four leads in the movie, on a cable channel so Christmas-obsessed that you expect it to shoot tinsel and snow out of the screen during the holidays.
“[A casting director] called me and said, ‘Hallmark wants to cast you in a lead role in a Christmas movie’,” Hodges says. “I said, ‘Interesting -- I’ve never watched a Hallmark movie, but I hear they’re pretty big.’ He said, ‘Oh yeah, they’re real big.’ “
Hodges plays Owen, the musician younger brother of single mother Ryan, played by Battlestar Galactica’s Tricia Helfer. In a plot that reminds us of the Kate Winslet-Cameron Diaz movie The Holiday, Owen swaps his North Carolina home with a New York City ad man Sean (Mark Lutz), who finds himself attracted to Ryan. Meanwhile in New York, Owen meets Sean’s assistant Mia (Cristina Rosato) -- and sparks fly there as well.
“It was a little edgier than I thought most Hallmark movies would be, especially around Christmastime,” Hodges says. “It’s basically just me and my sister and her son, Caleb. She’s gone through a divorce, and I’m encouraging her to move on. And she encourages me to move on when I found out that my girl off and on of eight years is seeing another guy.”
Things also don’t go so well -- at the start, anyway -- for New Yorker Sean, who proposes to his girlfriend at a Chrismas party -- and is shot down. All the romantic setbacks lead to the Owen-Sean house swap, but the city boy and the country boy struggle a bit in their unfamiliar surroundings.
Part of Owen’s move to New York, of course, involves his chasing his dream to be a musician. Hodges admits that it wasn’t much of a stretch for him to play an aspiring artist.
“It was definitely easy to get with the character as far as ‘I’m gonna take a chance’,” Hodges says. “ ‘I’m gonna go to New York, and I’m gonna play at open-mike night, and I’m gonna play places I’ve never been to before and let people know what I’m all about.’ For better or worse, I still deal with that day in and day out. I’ve had some success, but there’s still a lot of people out there who can’t decide what I’m all about.’ ”
Hodges says that a couple of his musical models for his acting career are Tim McGraw and Dwight Yoakam, who have had strong performances, respectively, in the Friday Night Lights movie and Sling Blade, as well as other films. But McGraw and Yoakam were both established musical stars when they made their screen breakthroughs.
Hodges, on the other hand, needs to raise his profile, and Finding Christmas has breakthrough possibilities for him as both an actor and a musician -- especially since he sings in the movie, performing a rootsy country version of the Christmas standard Joy to the World.
“We wanted to do it stripped down,” Hodges says. “Just me and another guitar player. I recorded it in the studio on the fly while we were sooting the movie, and I felt that that song would be kind of the best representation of the character. But it also has a contemporary flavor that kind of reflects what I do musically.” Hodges adds that he’s a little tough to classify: “I’m kind of groove/Heartland rock/country-pop-oriented,” he says. “That’s a lot of different genres, but it’s all about the lyrics for me.”
Hodges says he has no idea where this initial acting gig is going to take him -- except that it won’t take him away from his music. He has new music scheduled to come out in February, and he feels like it’s the best material he’s ever done. Right now, though, he’s just hoping that people will like the movie. He does thing think the odds are on its side.
“The good thing about it is it’s Christmas,” he says with a chuckle, “and everybody’s in a good mood,”