When Season Two premiered on Netflix in early February, Sweet Magnolias captured the number one spot on the streaming platform’s top 10 list. Created by Sheryl J. Anderson and based on Sherryl Woods’ book series, the drama follows the joys and heartaches of a trio of friends in Serenity, South Carolina: housewife Maddie Townsend (JoAnna Garcia Swisher), restauranteur Dana Sue Sullivan (Brooke Elliott), and attorney Helen Decatur (Heather Headley). The friends decide to combine their skills and go into business together, opening a spa in their community.
Sweet Magnolias also introduces viewers to other interesting characters with intriguing backstories, including newcomer Isaac Downey (Chris Medlin). At first, Isaac is primarily seen at his job in Dana Sue’s popular restaurant, Sullivan’s. However, we quickly find out that there’s a lot more to his story and we’re invited to be drawn into his journey. Isaac is aware that he was adopted and believes that the answers he seeks are in Serenity.
Meet Chris Medlin, Sweet Magnolias’ Breakout Star
Isaac is portrayed adeptly by actor and dancer Chris Medlin, who has appeared in the original casts of Broadway musicals Diana and Mean Girls. Medlin’s credits include labs and staged readings in New York and at regional theaters. He brought these experiences and his skills to his first major recurring role, an impressive 17 episodes in Sweet Magnolias. Medlin was thrilled to sit down with Blogcritics Magazine this month for an in-depth interview about what it’s been like to work on the Netflix hit show.
Though he hails from Georgia, Medlin spent his childhood in East Tennessee, sharing a hometown with singer Dolly Parton. His grandmother, who helped raise him, attended grade school with Parton. He’s quite familiar with the close-knit atmosphere of a small town, something he could carry with him into his character’s story. “I easily relate to Isaac’s story of a nontraditional home setting. So many people come from broken homes or absent parents, adopted families, chosen families, or whatever it may be. I come from my own version of that as well.”
If you’ve read Sweet Magnolias, you know that Isaac is not a character in the book series, but entirely original to the television show. That required different preparation on Medlin’s part and in cooperation with the show writers. “My homework as an actor was to make sure he was a fully fleshed out person before he was onscreen, because we need him already in the community. He’s already got the job at Sullivan’s in Season One. He’s already part of Serenity [and in] Season Two, he starts realizing exactly how close he is to the community. Being able to apply my small-town raising and my version of today’s American household to Isaac was really special.”
According to Medlin, recurring roles are typically up to four episodes. Therefore, Sweet Magnolias was a unique, fast-paced, and challenging opportunity that he was excited to take on. He was amazed at and grateful for the creative team’s willingness to incorporate fun details about him and cast members into future episodes. For example, because they knew that Medlin and several actors could sing, they could put in a karaoke segment in Season Two. That was also useful for adding more depth and facets to Isaac’s character.
“Isaac can get caught dancing in a scene because during Season One, I kept dancing in between takes and fooling around with the pans and kitchen towels…My takeaway is [that] even for a large recurring role, if you step up fully and allow your best self and truest self to shine, it will be noticed, used, and put in its brightest light.”
I asked Medlin how he balances Isaac’s humor and heartache during the series. “Like a few other aspects of his personality and demeanor, I think the humor is something that comes from the heartache. He’s learned to keep things a little lighter and with a dry sense of humor. He is devoted to the people he considers his circle. He may say [only] one thing in that scene but it’s going to be something that’s completely off the wall and dry-humored.”
Medlin’s Memorable Times on Set
In Season One, Isaac’s confidante is Erik Whitley (Dion Johnstone), who serves as mentor and older brother figure. “My scenes with him are always special to film. They’re typically heart-to-hearts and one-on-ones.”
As Isaac’s network expanded in Serenity during Season Two, that offered ample opportunities for Medlin to work with actors he hadn’t collaborated with yet. The dramatic scenes he shares with Heather Headley are particularly poignant when Isaac consults Helen for advice. “Helen really steps in as a mentor and a guiding light. Coming from a theater background, those scenes with Heather Headley were always very good for my spirit as an actor, but also for Isaac’s, to realize that people he’s seen in passing are ready and willing to be a larger part of his life.”
As for lighter moments, Medlin loved getting to play basketball for two hours with Johnstone, Justin Bruening, Hunter Burke, and Brandon Quinn. He described it as a “free for all” where the actors operated within the framework of a few scripted lines. “It was a fun day of bonding, getting to be outside, and missed shots! There’s one quick shot of Isaac getting knocked in the shoulder by the basketball because Cal passes it too hard. It would get missed by the camera or the basketball would miss me or hit my leg instead. I was hit with the basketball so many times.”
Isaac’s history and the identity of his birth parents is the key mystery in his arc. I wondered when Medlin found out those answers. He revealed that some cast members did independent investigating to figure it out early on in the process. For the most part, the creative team kept a wrap on plot points; cast members learned important developments primarily during that week’s table reads and filming. “It’s a little easier to act when you actually don’t know the information yourself. You don’t have to forget that you actually know this answer. It was a fun way to walk through it.”
What’s Ahead for Chris Medlin?
Medlin agreed with me about the depth to the characters in Sweet Magnolias. When he watched the series, CeCe Matney’s (Harlan Drum) arc caught his attention, especially what makes her tick in scenes with her father (William Mark McCullough). “CeCe is written as more of a standoffish, entitled character in this story. [We see] her backstory with a father who is not supportive of her, and that is why she is so firm with her own self and her goals. I’m really intrigued by that.”
If Netflix does renew the show for a third season, Medlin would like to see more possibilities for Isaac now that his character is well known to the residents of Serenity. “Isaac has fully infiltrated aspects of the community…I hope that he gets a group of age-appropriate friends. I want some personal relationships whether that be platonic or romantic, with growth for Isaac. That’d be nice to see because he has only been [with] the people he works with and the people adjacent to them.”
Medlin’s aspirations extend outside Serenity. Aside from Sweet Magnolias, he admits to being a fan of “darker, grittier dramas” including Euphoria, Gossip Girl, and Riverdale to name a few. Having superpowers is another appealing avenue. “I’d love to do something involving a supernatural and action aspect, whether that be superheroes, magic, or what have you. Playing a superhero is probably top of my list at the moment.”
Season Two of Sweet Magnolias is available now on Netflix.