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A Conversation with Danica McKellar

Images courtesy of Great American Family

Celebrated, deservingly so, as America's sweetheart, Danica McKellar burst into our lives on January 31, 1988, as Winnie Cooper, in the premiere of the iconic ABC series, The Wonder Years. In her role, we watched each week as she, along with her love interest Kevin Arnold and friend Paul Pfeiffer, navigated life’s complex and often confusing path of childhood and adolescence. The show struck a chord with millions of viewers and McKellar would go on to reprise the role for a full six seasons. After that, to the surprise of many, she took an unexpected turn and headed off to college to study mathematics at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). But she was not yet finished with the entertainment industry, or perhaps it was not yet finished with her. Entering back into the ‘biz,’ McKellar would go on to star in over 106 projects, including The West Wing, NYPD Blue, and The Big Bang Theory. But guest starring in hit television series was not to be her only path. McKellar found another love that has loved her right back: television movies, especially of the rom-com and Christmas variety, these days on Great American Family channel. Now with a busy schedule as the mom of a teenager, an author, and a very working actress, McKellar has come full circle, and she is truly just getting started.

Your son Draco is 13 years old now. Do you feel like time has started to go by fast? I feel like my son is growing up so quickly.

You know, yes and no. I’ve been hearing people say that since Draco was a baby, and I have just been determined not to think or live that way. There’s something very rebellious in me that just refuses to believe that this incredible time in our lives is going to fly by. The best advice that I got on my wedding day was that it is going to fly by, so, take mental snapshots. Just look around and go, “I’m at my wedding right now.” Take a mental snapshot, and when you do that, you kind of freeze time for a moment, and you experience it more, and then later, it won’t feel like, “What just happened?” And so, with being a parent, I just assumed the same philosophy must work. Really, what it comes down to is, how present are you? How present can you be with your child? And you know, we all struggle with that – for all sorts of reasons – but I’ve found that the more present I am and the more times that I can take these mental snapshots… and I’ll just stare at Draco’s face, and he’ll be like, “What are you doing?” I’m like, “I’m just taking you in right now.” I just really absorb every moment.

I still feel like he was two just yesterday, but I also remember all of that stuff in-between – and that helps me to not feel like I missed it, or like it passed me by.

Do you ever look back at yourself as a 12–13-year-old, on television, in front of America, portraying a young person growing up on The Wonder Years, and then look at yourself now as a mother with a teenager? Do you ever look back at your childhood—

With wonder?

Ha, Yeah, with wonder!

You know, so I write these math books, and I started off with writing for middle school age – this very age that you’re talking about – and I remember, at the time, I used my journal, because I wrote in a journal at that age also, and I remember thinking, “Wow, I have experienced this age like three times. Once on my own, once in my journals, and then once on the show,” and then to be able to use that stuff to write these books and share it, because my math books are very conversational, and there’s a lot of self-esteem boosting tips and things like that.


What you realize is how universal these experiences and emotions are. I’ve given him a heads-up many times, like, “Hey Draco, just so you know, you’re going to have really strong feelings that kind of come out of nowhere. You’re not going to be sure why, and that’s okay.” I was just telling him the other night like, for me, I found it really useful to write in a journal. I don’t know how many boys write in a journal at that age. I know a lot of girls have but it’s like, “That’s there for you if you want.” And I said, “You know what, you could just write in a journal, and then delete it. It’s really important that that stuff be private to yourself. Just sort through your feelings because there are so many big feelings.”

What do you think made The Wonder Years strike such a chord with audiences?

One of the things that The Wonder Years did so well that no one had done up until that point was to honor the feelings of a 12-year-old like you’d honor the feelings of an adult. So often we, for whatever reason, dismiss kids’ feelings as trivial. It’s like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, they’re fine. They don’t really have any real worries,” which is not true. You know, there’s divorce, there’s best friends, and bullying, and all sorts of stuff that goes on. It’s very, very important and very real, and it affects them for the rest of their lives but for whatever reason, we tend to dismiss that age. I think The Wonder Years was a really wonderful start to that, and nowadays there’s so much more awareness of mental health and how that starts in childhood, but back then – we’re talking 30 years – there just wasn’t that much of an acknowledgment of the importance of kids’ feelings.

And, on The Wonder Years, it was narrated by Kevin – so, from a kid’s voice. Kevin Arnold is witnessing some major politics on the news, but he’s not sure if a girl’s going to call him or not. Or if he should call the girl or not, and to have those feelings be elevated to the same level of importance – in the mind of a 12-year-old, that’s very real – it’s a wonderful acknowledgment and validation for people watching, both kids and adults. So, looking back, that’s one of the things that strikes me the strongest about The Wonder Years and why it was so well received. Also, it was very accurate about representing the 1960s and ‘70s.

It’s interesting, because even in the pilot – where your brother was killed in Vietnam – the subject matter was very heavy. Did you feel pressure to bring across a certain level of emotion?

I don’t remember any pressure at all. I remember being excited about wearing that outfit with the white Gogo boots.

I remember being super nervous about the first kiss because that was also both my and Fred’s first kiss in real life, and we totally had crushes on each other. That was nerve-racking and exciting.

At the time – you have to remember – Winnie Cooper was only supposed to be a guest role. She was only supposed to be on the pilot. I wasn’t supposed to be a series regular. So, I didn’t know that I was about to become a part of something iconic. It was just another TV job. I hadn’t done that many of them. Acting was just a hobby. In fact, my mom didn’t allow me or my sister, who was also acting, to go to auditions for feature films. For anything that would take us out of Los Angeles, away from our school.

So, the only reason I auditioned for the role of Winnie Cooper is because it was just supposed to be a guest role in the pilot. In fact, the final narration originally said, “That was Winnie and my first kiss, and our last one together.” I remember when I watched the pilot when it aired, that they took off the last part. I remember going, “Huh?” because I knew what the narration was supposed to say.

How did you end up as a regular on the show?

Four days into shooting the pilot they approached my mom – the producers did – and said, “The network really likes Fred and Danica together, and we would like to offer her a series regular role.” My mom was like, “Umm, I don’t know.” But I was like, “Please! Please Mommy! I really want to do this! This is so much fun!” and she had had enough experience, even in those four days, to know that the other moms on set really were not the typical stage mom, which really was pretty common. They cared about their kids as kids first.

When that nine and a half hours was up, Joanne Savage would pull Fred, even if they weren’t done with a scene yet. It was a very different environment from most sets that we’d been on. So, my mom was like, “You know what, this might be okay.” So, she hired some fancy lawyer and had them include a loophole because it was a seven-year contract. She was like, “If you ever want to stop, you just say the word and you’re done, don’t worry about it.” I have a really, really good mom.

You and your sister Crystal both went out for the Winnie Cooper audition, right?


Any thoughts on why you won out over Crystal?

Who knows? I mean, you never know with acting. I wasn’t in her audition, but she clearly did great. It came down, literally, to the two of us, and they liked her so much that they wrote a role for her. She played Becky Slater. She did nine or ten episodes.


You were surrounded by the themes, music, and storylines of the 1960s and ‘70s on the show. Did you become a fan of that era?

I wouldn’t say that I became a fan of it so much as I became more aware of it. I was not a fan of the fashion and really, really wished that my show could be in the 1980s [era], so that I could wear cool clothes like Candace Cameron and my other friends who got to wear scrunchies and banana clips in their hair. I had to wear pants with flowers all over them. I was like, “Oh gosh, this is horrible.” I would just cringe when I put my wardrobe on most of the time. (Laughs)

What about the music? The music was such an integral part of the show.

I’ve always been a fan of music from the 1960s. My dad is a huge fan of music from the 1950s and ‘60s… the Beatles, the 1970s as well. So, I’ve listened to the Beatles my whole life. All that music is great. The music on The Wonder Years was another character. That’s why it took so long for the series to become available on DVD, because nobody wanted to pay for the music rights. Back when The Wonder Years made their deals with the music companies, it was for television only – for cable. Nobody was thinking about DVDs or streaming or anything. So, if you watch The Wonder Years on Hulu, they don’t have the original music. They don’t even have the original theme song.

They don’t?

Well, it’s a cover of it, it’s not Joe Cocker’s anymore. The only way to see the actual, original show is [through] Time Life. They went ahead and shelled out and bought the rights, and it was a long and arduous process, I guess it took years. They finally got it together and, I want to say, back in 2014 or 2015 the entire set of The Wonder Years became available. It’s the only way to see it with the original Motown hits throughout the series. And to me, that’s the way you’ve got to see the show. The music truly was another character.

One of my favorite characters on the show was Karen Arnold, Kevin’s rebellious teenage hippie sister played by Olivia d’Abo. Did you have much interaction with her on set?

As a kid on set you spend all your time either working – and I only had a couple scenes with her the entire series – or you’re in the schoolroom, and she was never in the schoolroom. So, I didn’t get a chance to interact with her much. But she has a British accent. So – it’s really funny – she faked an American accent very well on the show, and I remember that the producers didn’t know that she had a British accent, and when they found out, after she had been hired, I heard that they all freaked out. (Laughs)

You and Dan Lauria didn’t do many scenes together, but you ended up being very close, even to this day.

He was such a wonderful parent on the set. He and the head electrician, Skip Cook, made sure that nobody used bad words on set. They made sure that it was kid-friendly, and that’s very unusual for a set in Hollywood. He was very protective of us. He got Fred and me – and Josh (Paul Pfeiffer) too, I think – involved in these play readings that he would do, so he got us into theater. He just took us under his wing and really went out of his way to be a mentor to us.

You were on a very successful television show at a young age. What was fame like for you?

I wasn’t out a lot. I was on the set, and I was at school. At my school, it wasn’t that big of a deal that I was an actress because a lot of… I mean, Tori Spelling went to our school too. I went to Westlake – which then became Harvard-Westlake – but there were a lot of people in the public eye who had attended, so it wasn’t a big deal. Now, when I’d go out to a restaurant or to the mall or whatever, then yeah, I got recognized. But when you’re little, whatever your experience is, you think it is normal – it’s normal to you. So, I learned right away that I was going to get recognized, and how to deal with it.

I went through my evolution. At first, I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is crazy, how about that? People know me, who don’t know me.” And then it was, at a certain point – I want to say, when I was about 15 or 16 – I was over it, and I was like, “Okay, I’m going to try not to get recognized.”


I remember going to Disneyland when I was about 15, and I went on my own with a friend of mine, and I put a wig on. My friend, she was kind of like, “Okay?” She spoke French fluently, so we spoke French. I still had somebody say, “Excuse me, aren’t you that girl?” and I was like, ‘Oh, je ne sais pas.” (Laughs) She had her eye on me, and I was like, “Oh, I’m found out.”

I don’t know how it compares to anything else. I have always known that being in the public eye has its upsides and its downsides, and whatever hand you’re dealt in life, you have to try and make the best of it and try not to focus on the stuff you don’t have.

When the show ended – the final episode aired on May 12, 1993 – you took a break from acting to pursue other things. What spurred the break?

Right after the show was over, I was in the mode of, “Okay good, so, done with that. All right, what’s next?” And I was over it. I went to UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) and got a degree in mathematics and tried something totally new, and I loved it. For a while I thought I might become a professional mathematician. Actually, I kind of was for one summer. I helped to prove a new theorem. I was working under a stipend, so I was being paid to do mathematics and it was very exciting. However, what I missed was being able to share the things that I was thinking about with the people that I care about. Because I was learning this highly specialized language – which is what math is – so all the cool discoveries that I was making, and the things I was working on, I couldn’t talk about with my mom, my best friends, I couldn’t talk to my sister… anybody.

What actually inspired you to pursue a degree in mathematics?

I had this amazing moment at the very beginning of my sophomore year in university. I hadn’t settled on a major yet. I was planning on becoming a film major and you didn’t apply for that ‘til you’re a junior, so I was just taking care of all my general requirements. I was in this calculus class, and I like a good challenge. I always have. I took this calculus class, and the first midterm was really tough. I studied so hard for it. I got a 22/40 and I thought, “Oh, my gosh, this is it – I’m failing.” But the professor graphed the scores on the chalkboard and there were 163 people in the class. There was one score of 22, then there were two scores of 15, and then everyone else was 9 and below.

I’m looking at my test and now, mind you, every single day on campus for a year at this point, people would come up to me every day asking: Aren’t you that girl on TV? Aren’t you that girl from The Wonder Years? Aren’t you that girl who played Winnie? And, the next day after that test, someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Excuse me, aren’t you that girl who got the 22?” And I was like, “Why yes, I am!” And that was such an emblematic moment for me. It was this feeling of being valued for something else.

Besides just that one television character.

Besides the one TV character, besides that one part of me, and I really embraced it. I mean, I went to school and… no makeup, hair in a ponytail, T-shirt, jeans, like the most comfortable orthopedic shoes you can find, because why not? It just didn’t matter what I looked like; it was all about my brain, and it was so glamorous to me. I would go to all the office hours for all the different professors, and I became a calculus tutor in the math department, just for free, just because. I went from “that girl on TV” to “that girl who helped me pass calculus.” And I loved it. I just felt so important for something that was just me. It had nothing to do with all the money and glamour of Hollywood, and whatever else.

But I mean, look, I’m talking about the 18-year-old mentality. I’d imagine that if I got really famous now, for the first time, I wouldn’t be questioning, “Well, what’s my value outside of this thing?” No, because I’ve had a whole life of value. But when you’re 18 and you haven’t experienced life yet – you’ve only experienced this show – that’s when you get all these insecurities about it. You don’t know who you are otherwise.


But then you came back to acting.

I really missed acting. I missed that exploration of human behavior and human motivations and just how we access truth and all that other cool stuff that we have as an artist in the acting world. So, I started auditioning again. I did The West Wing, which was awesome, and then I started working more after that, and eventually found these movies, these TV movies, these Christmas movies. Hallmark and now the Great American Family Channel. They’re such feel-good movies, and because Winnie Cooper was such a feel-good character, it always felt like a continuation of a similar genre.

There’s that, and there’s also, of course, the math books. You know, I did go back to acting and I started writing math books. My eleventh math book came out in July 2022 and it’s an incredible feeling. I love math so much; I love what it does for your brain. So, the idea that I could make it more fun and accessible to kids – to help grow their confidence – is very attractive. It always has been.

I love the titles of your math books. Math Doesn’t Suck. Or Kiss My Math.

Thank you! And The Times Machine, that’s multiplication and division, with time travel… you can’t name a book The Times Machine without having that, so that’s for the little ones, that’s for like third or fourth grade. The book has cartoons and graphics, it’s almost a part graphic novel, part math book. I’m an entertainer and I want to make everything interesting and entertaining, so you’re going to get an entertaining math book from me. It’s super fun. I’ve just had so much fun putting those books together.

Is it true that your celebrity crush when you were young was Michael J. Fox?


I was reading how you and your sister were on a drive with your mum, and you guys actually bumped into him on the road. What happened?

He was behind us, and my mom noticed, and Crystal and I turned around. We were on our way to school, and he was driving this little black convertible Mercedes, and, I mean, this was – I don’t know what year this would have been – but it was during Back to the Future. We turned around, and we both screamed and were jumping up and down. We took our seatbelts off, and I remember that he saw us and kind of laughed. He had his hand on the wheel, up high on the wheel, and he looked up and gave a little wave, like a half wave, where his hand was on the wheel. I’ll never forget it; it’s burned in my mind that he would see us and wave. It was so exciting. Way before we were acting. I mean, I might have been doing commercials at that point, but I certainly wasn’t on The Wonder Years yet.

Are you a road trip type of family? Have you taken any fun road trips?

Yeah, but not super long ones. I actually have driven across the country a couple times, but usually because there’s some reason to, not just, “Hey, let’s just drive across the country.” But I love road trips, I love seeing everything along the way.

It’s kind of like, you can fly someplace, and that’s fine, but you miss out on a big part of the journey, which is, how do you get from A to B?

I remember driving from Orlando, Florida, to Los Angeles, California – gosh, 13 years ago – and just watching the scenery change, watching the foliage change, watching the economics change, you know? It’s just really interesting to see the differences. And then the land – the landscape – changes so dramatically, which is something I just love about the United States. You’re driving through Louisiana, driving through lush… just green everywhere, and then there’s spans of Texas where there’s just nothing. And then you’re in New Mexico and it’s just… the colors change, and you’ve got Arizona, and it becomes really pink. It’s amazing. And then you get to LA and you’re like, “Wow, there’s a lot of people here.” (Laughs)

How did holiday films become your niche? You’ve done around 10 of them now.

I do more than just Christmas movies! I do rom-coms. I think I did 17 for Hallmark channel. And now I’ve done four for Great American Family. They’re just lovely. They put happy energy into the world, and everything works out. And yet there’s room for me as an artist, I feel, to really get in touch with real emotions and real dilemmas. Real human moments that resonate and help people to have faith in humankind again.

How did that all start, though? You were with Hallmark for quite some time and then in recent years moved to Great American Family.

I was with Bill Abbott at Hallmark. Then, when he started his own network, I went with him. But he created this whole genre of Christmas movies and... I mean, I think, at first, he was piggybacking off of the idea of the greeting cards – you know, with Hallmark, and how it’s all about celebrating the holidays. But then it became its own phenomenon – completely apart from the cards. (Laughs) Where people loved these Christmas movies and there were so many of them made every year by Great American Family, Hallmark, Lifetime, Netflix, and I think that people love them. You know, particularly when things get hard in the world, which I feel like they’ve been hard for a while.

You have a new television filming coming out on November 25th, A Royal Date for Christmas. What’s it about?

Yes, A Royal Date for Christmas. So, I play a jaded-in-love stylist who just got out of a relationship less than a year before. She thought she had found “the one” and it didn’t work out, again, so she’s kinda over it. The Duke of Tangford is visiting from England… this British royalty who comes over to the US for the holidays, but his luggage is lost. So, his butler hooks him up with me to style him for the week – he’s got a week-long of Christmas events – and, since his girlfriend has broken up with him, he asks if I would be his platonic plus-one for the events, so that he doesn’t have to face a lot of questions about his break-up. We both have broken hearts needing mending, and my costar Damon Runyan was so emotionally available, so there are some really amazing, romantic and touching scenes that you don’t always get in these movies. Of course, as I’m attending these events with him, we start getting closer and maybe, just maybe, we’ll mend each other’s hearts, fall in love and get together at the end – but I don’t want to spoil it for you. (Laughs) It premieres November 25th on Great American Family at 8pm eastern, and I’ll be live tweeting - or, X’ing? (Laughs) Then it will re-air throughout the holiday season. I’ll be posting the encore showtimes on my Instagram.


What I love about this movie is that there’s this theme of fairytales… can fairytales actually come true? So, you know, it’s especially for people who think they can’t. That it’s over. And for me, in my real life, I mean, I was married once before and... and nobody plans on getting divorced. So, this character for me, reflected a little bit of my life experience: where you’re pretty sure it’s just not going to happen but then you get a second chance at a fairytale. You’ve completely given up in a way, on love, you know. I was just focusing on being a good mom for my son and all the rest of it, and here comes along this dream man of mine, and I’m still pinching myself. Scott and I have been together for ten years now. Married for nine. And he’s my real-life second chance fairytale come true.

Now that Draco is entering his teens, how are you finding this whole parenting process?

Oh, he’s great. It gets better and better. And it’s so funny, because now he’s getting crushes on girls and the girls really like him and it’s so... He hasn’t had a girlfriend, or a first kiss yet, or anything, but I’m just like, “Oh my gosh. Any day, I mean, he’s...” The great part is that he talks to me about it. Like we’ll be cuddling before bed, and he’ll start telling me about how he’s feeling about stuff and I’m like, “Aw! This is so precious!” I don’t know how long this is going to last, but I know that if I don’t try telling him what to do or who to like, maybe he’ll just keep sharing. That’s my goal.

You made a huge life decision recently and became a Christian. What was your path to accepting Christ?

I guess you could say that on the one hand, it happened all at once, and on the other hand, it’s been building up to this for a while. I went to Catholic school when I was in second to fifth grade and didn’t really think much of it. Neither of my parents were Believers, so they’d say, you know, “Take it with a grain of salt and whatever.” So, I was like, “Okay.” So, I kind of dismissed it, but I was around it. And that’s something. And then, years later when I was in my early twenties, my dad found the Lord and he gave me this cross necklace – and I still have it now and I actually wear it. (Laughs) But I remember he was so different. He was so peaceful and joyful, and I could tell that he was trying to share it with me, and I was like, “I’m so, so happy for you. I mean, this is obviously really great for you.” But I didn’t get it at all. For me, my association with Christianity was the religion of it, and all the bad stuff. (Laughs) All of the wars, and all the oppression, and all the judgment, and all the things that you hear about like. But what I’ve learned is that Jesus was actually anti-religion, and I had no idea.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I was dating somebody who had a problem with alcohol. And I started going to Al-Anon with him. And that was actually the first time that I became comfortable with the word “God” to be honest. I started off with “higher power, higher power,” and then I started like, “the serenity prayer – ‘God grant me serenity for the things I cannot change....’” And I loved that prayer so much. So that became something I would say to myself all the time, and I became comfortable with the word “God” and that was a really big step.

Anyway, fast forward several years and Candace Cameron Bure is a good friend and she’s always posting about her faith, and I was like, again, “That’s so great for her. I’m so happy for her. It seems really good.” I DMed her one night: “By the way – I don’t know if I can explain it or not, but I don’t understand the whole concept of forgiveness. So, you can do whatever you want but then you ask for forgiveness, and it’s gone – like your sins are gone – and then you can just do it all over again?” And it’s funny. I don’t even remember her answer, but she wrote me a very long answer that I didn’t understand. (Laughs) And she said, “Would you like me to send you a Bible?” and I was like, “Well, sure,” because she has these Candace Cameron Bure branded Bibles and I was like, “Oh, that’s nice.” So, she sent me a Bible which I still have, of course. And it’s beautiful – it’s called the One Step Closer Bible. I didn’t open it at the time, but I picked it up, and I did like it. I wrote to her: “Thanks so much Candace for the Bible.” And then, I was just kind of there and she asked me if I wanted to go to church and I was like, “Yeah, sure let’s do that.”

It took a few months for it to actually happen, but by the time it actually happened, it was Palm Sunday and her church in LA was doing a Passion play. And it was that day that everything happened for me. I don’t know what happened. My dad says, “The Holy Spirit came to you. I know exactly what happened. You were, like, flooded with the Holy Spirit.” And that’s what it felt like.

How do you feel that changed you?

It has been so much of a blessing and so much of a gift. I’m now reading the Bible, cover to cover, and will be done by the end of the year, so I’ve gone through all of the Old Testament, and I’m like, “You know, I want to know what’s in here.” So, that’s been really something. I’m so grateful to have this relationship with Jesus that – it’s so funny – those words still sound funny coming out of my mouth! Because I lived 47 years of my life with a different idea of it. And now I just wish that everybody could have the peace that comes from that relationship. And it’s not like life is happy and joyful all the time every day, every moment - but it’s all the in-between times, it’s like, “Oh yeah, I have this relationship I can go to. And He’s always there for you. Always.”


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