Actor Kristoffer Polaha’s Journey to Stardom

Forrest Hartman

 

When I first met Kristoffer Polaha, it was 2003 and he thought he was going to be one of the biggest stars in the world.

 

I know this not because the then 20-something actor wore the guise of a big shot. He didn’t. In fact, Polaha, or Kris as I more commonly call him today, has always been approachable and humble. When we sat down in 2003, what I knew was he had the charm of a politician, the countenance of a leading man and the grace to invite me into his parent’s Reno, Nevada, home. He was visiting them amidst an all-out press blitz for his starring turn in the TBS biopic “America’s Prince: The John F. Kennedy Jr. Story,” and he thought it would be nice to have his hometown paper on board. For a regional entertainment writer, the story was an easy, “yes,” because “America’s Prince” was about to become a television spectacle.

 

“That was the biggest TV movie that TBS had ever released,” Polaha said during a Zoom chat in mid-February. “I think 40 million people watched it that night, and I had a picture in Times Square of my face.”

 

Polaha had reason to believe his career would explode,  but I only know he expected it because he’s candid enough to admit that nearly two decades after it didn’t.     

 

“I was convinced that I was about to be the next Brad Pitt,” he said, his voice relaxed. “I thought, ‘Dude this is about to happen.’ And then it didn’t happen.”

 

Rather than follow “America’s Prince” with increasingly important TV and movie roles, Polaha landed a string of starring appearances in television shows that seemed promising, launched … and then stalled … time and again. From 2004 to 2012, Polaha had key roles in the nighttime soap “North Shore,” the sitcom “Miss Guided,” the romantic comedy “Valentine,” the relationship drama “Life Unexpected” and the Sarah Michelle Gellar thriller “Ringer.” Of those productions, only “Life Unexpected” lasted more than a season, and it disappeared after two. For an actor, watching so many shots drift wide of the bullseye was crushing.

 

This was an era when a multitude of hopeful opportunities were countered by periods of deep financial struggle, the latter made more difficult by the fact that Polaha is a family man. In a business that often sees celebrities bounce from one headline-scorching relationship to the next, Polaha is a beacon of marital stability.

 

 

Jensen Ackles (of “Supernatural” fame) introduced Polaha to a young actress named Julianne Morris in 2001, when the two men were working on a pilot called “The Third Degree.” Polaha knew almost immediately that Ackles had changed his life.

 

“I walked into Casa Vega, this Mexican restaurant. I saw this woman,” Polaha said. “She was surrounded by this whole circle of dudes, and it was like time stood still for a second. Then, we all sat down at this table and it was a table that was kind of small, but she got squished in between two guys that she already knew. So, she orchestrated a move to another table, and she was at the end.  I had a choice. I could sit next to some guy or I could sit next to her. I sat next to her and we talked. We talked the whole night.”

 

Polaha describes it as “love at first sight,” and when Morris suggested that he extend his stay in Los Angeles rather than fly back to New York as originally planned, he eagerly agreed.

 

“The thought that ran through my head like a little typewriter was, ‘If you’re going to be bold in anything, be bold in love,’” Polaha said.

 

His bold move led to a wedding not long after I would meet him in 2003.

 

“It was a really beautiful, innocent two-year courtship where we just took our time to get to know each other, and it was in that time where I was like, ‘I don’t think that my career is going to amount to anything unless I have someone to share it with,’” he said. “And I loved meeting Julianne when I did because I knew she wasn’t marrying me for my money or my fame or anything other than the fact that she just loved me.”

 

 

The couple will celebrate their 18th wedding anniversary in June, and they have three sons: Caleb, Micah and Jude. Polaha speaks of each with devotion, as he has for as long as I’ve known him.

 

“It’s made the journey that I’ve been on a million times richer, a billion times richer,” he said, “because I get to share it with these people.”

 

Although his family life is rich, Polaha is the first to say that the career bumps have been difficult for everyone. Things came to a head, he said, in 2015, after a key role in yet another series – The Rainn Wilson dramedy “Backstrom” – ended in disappointment.  Polaha had signed a deal for “Backstrom” that tied him up for two years, effectively preventing him from taking other opportunities, including what could have been an 18-episode arc on the NBC music drama “Nashville.” An actor rarely knows which projects will become hits, so when “Backstrom” fizzled, Polaha was distraught.

 

“I was so exhausted,” he said. “That was my seventh series.”

 

He had hoped the big break that evaded him after “America’s Prince” was near, but instead he had become an actor with a recognizable face, yet no defining roles. And things were about to get worse. 

 

“It all just dried up so that when the show got canceled, I needed money and I needed a job,” he said. “I was asking my agents to get me guest spots on things. I was like, ‘I just need to work.’”

 

All this prompted Polaha to leave his management deal with the major firm WME and return to the man who had helped launch his career, Paul Rosicker at Gersh. Polaha credits Rosicker with helping him land the work that now defines much of his career: recurring spots as a leading man in Hallmark Channel movies and series.

 

 

Not long after returning to Rosicker, Polaha was cast in a light romantic romp called “Dater’s Handbook.” During filming, there was no reason to think it would be anything more than the typical Hallmark romance. But the break Polaha had been longing for was about to hit. His co-star was Meghan Markle.

 

“We had a great working relationship,” he said. “We hit it off, and we were friends. … She texted me in March and she was like, ‘I met somebody.’ Of course we all know – the world now knows – it was Prince Harry of the royal family, and they ended up getting married. Well, that movie shot around the Commonwealth and just kept being seen over and over and over again. All ships rise with the tide, and it ended up being real good.”

 

Polaha hadn’t become the next Brad Pitt, as he dared hope in 2003, but he had laid the foundation for a relationship that continues to provide him with financial freedom and artistic rewards today. 

 

 “It just happened to be like lightning in a bottle,” he said. “You can’t manipulate it, you can’t plan for it, and Hallmark is just a really wonderful company to work for. To be honest with you, you do a couple of those a year and it becomes this padding from which, financially speaking, you can then go out and seek the other gigs.”

 

Since “Dater’s Handbook,” Polaha has starred in a number of additional Hallmark romances, including “Pearl in Paradise,” “Rocky Mountain Christmas” and “Double Holiday.” He and Hallmark co-star Jill Wagner have also launched an ongoing Hallmark series called “Mystery 101.” Feature-length installments of the detective drama air periodically, the latest debuting March 21.

 

“They’re writing seven right now,” Polaha said. “It’s just nice as an actor knowing I have a job. Like, I can look forward to something at least twice a year.”

 

 

The continuing work for Hallmark has also allowed him to take guest-starring roles in TV series ranging from “Get Shorty,” “Condor” and “Hawaii 5-0” to “The Good Doctor.”

 

Polaha – who has long been open about his Christian faith – has also carved out a niche in the film world, starring in a couple faith-based dramas, the most noteworthy being “Run the Race,” which was co-produced by football star Tim Tebow. Furthermore, last year he landed small but noteworthy parts in the major releases “Wonder Woman ‘84” and “Jurassic World: Dominion.”

 

The humble nature that prevented Polaha from revealing just how excited he was when we met 18 years ago defines him now, and although his career isn’t anything like he initially imagined, he is pleased. 

 

“I never in a million years imagined that I would end up being the face of the romcom genre on television via Hallmark,” he said. “I feel blessed to even be able to call myself a working actor.”

 

Polaha’s gratitude extends to his fans, who he says have been remarkably loyal and kind. In fact, he said the producers of “Run the Race” apologized for not putting him on the movie poster after running the analytics. It turned out that his fan base from Hallmark was a notable driver of ticket sales.  

 

“I had this group of people that were buying movie tickets and changing the box-office number enough for the producers to be like, ‘Ooh, this made a pretty significant difference to our bottom line,’” he said. “It’s not that you think about commodifying your audience or whatever, but I’m an actor. If I were in New York City and I were doing a play, I would go out after the theater, and I would go to the stage door and I would meet my fans and I would have a relationship with those people because they’re the ones that are putting food on my table and taking care of my kids, basically, by buying the tickets to seats.”

 

 

Although Polaha has found a comfortable niche allowing him to move past the difficulties following “Backstrom,” he isn’t complacent. He wants to direct, and he is also continually looking for projects to produce. In order to gain experience with the former, he directed a short film called “A Work of Art” that he’s shipping to festivals.

 

“It’s really a beautiful film,” Polaha said. “It’s about this little girl who is about to commit suicide, and she goes down to the beach in Pebble Beach and she starts swimming out into this stormy sea at sunrise, and we see her go under. As she goes under, we go into her mind and she starts remembering this relationship that she has with her uncle, who I play.”

 

Polaha’s most recent career turn has taken him to even newer territory. In early March, he released his first novel, a Hawaii-based romance that he co-wrote with Anna Gomez, author of six previous books under the pen name Christine Brae. The result of this team up is Moments Like This: From Kona With Love, the story of a woman named Andie who – with a nursing career and relationship disappointments – moves to Hawaii to help run a friend’s coffeeshop. On Christmas Eve, Andie meets a mysterious man who starts to work his way into her heart, but his secrets have the potential to break her again. Polaha said the story is what you get if you “take a Hallmark movie and pour it into a book and then have the time and the room to breathe and make it more realistic.”

 

Gomez and Polaha met virtually, after an introduction by a neighbor who thought he might be interested in turning one of her novels into a film. Although Polaha liked her books, they were darker than he needed. Still, the two of them hit it off during their Zoom call, and Gomez surprised him with the offer to co-write the Moments Like This series. Ultimately, five books are planned.  

 

“That was Monday,” he said. “We signed our contracts on Wednesday and away we went. … It was so fast and spontaneous and beautiful.”

 

In what is becoming a pandemic norm, Polaha and Gomez haven’t met face to face. Their collaboration instead utilized Zoom and other long-distance communication tools. Initially, Polaha said, their workflow involved trading chapters back and forth.   

 

“I had the craziest pleasure of filming ‘Jurassic World’ during the pandemic,” he said. “So, while the world was shut down, I was in a room at the Langley hotel in England, room No. 15. I had this 14-day quarantine, where I wasn’t allowed to come out of my room for 14 days. My sleep was all jacked up because of the time shift. So, I had like 14 days to write a book. … We wrote 48 chapters in 14 days.”

 

 

Once the first draft was complete, they passed it back and forth for revisions.   

 

“She arranged it and then she kind of sanded it down,” he said. “Then I looked at it and went through it and sanded it down and threw it back to her. … It was just a really seamless collaboration and so effective that we started book 2 last November.”

 

Although Polaha had never published a novel before, Gomez was interested in collaborating, in part, because she knew he spent extensive time in Hawaii while filming “North Shore.” He said that experience allowed them to bring authenticity to the book’s setting, so serendipitously, an early career letdown became a blessing.   

 

“We lived there for a year. My kid was born there,” Polaha said. “The idea of Moments Like This is that this guy, Warren, takes her to all these unknown places on Oahu. Literally, I was going through my mind, ‘Oh, I’ve got to take them to this valley because this is beautiful. I’ve got to take them to this beach because no one ever goes there and it’s beautiful.’ I had an untapped and unlimited amount of resources to draw from for the book.”

 

Polaha admits that he was terrified by the process at first. Gomez, he said, reassured him as he turned in early chapters, and he became more comfortable. In order to maintain a consistent tone between two authors, Polaha said he tried to parrot Gomez’s style, as she had already laid a lot of the groundwork for the story when he signed on.

 

“Her voice could have been so specific and unique that I couldn’t have latched into it … or maybe it is and it just happens to be that I was able to latch into it anyway,” he said. “Whatever it is, our publisher was like, ‘I can’t tell who wrote what. I can’t tell where Anna’s voice begins and where Kris’ voice ends.’”

 

 

While this is Polaha’s first published novel, he said he has been writing nonprofessionally for years.   

 

“What I’ll do as an actor, is I’ll break down a character, and I’ll do a back story ,” he said. “So, I’m used to writing, and I’ve filled volumes of journals. I have a stack of journals in my house from college all the way until now. I go through one a year probably where I fill it up like cover to cover.”

 

Polaha said the writing process was actually freeing in some respects.

 

“Acting, funnily enough, is the most vulnerable because it’s my face and my body,” he said. “With the book, I was able to just sit at a desk and create, and this guy was able to go off and have adventures with this girl. It was a really cool little fun safe place to work.”

 

Polaha likes the idea of owning intellectual property that he can, potentially, translate to film in the future, and he also wrote a short detective story that he says is being published soon. He hopes that story will eventually spawn a TV or movie franchise.  

 

“The idea is to create a character that I can play until I’m 70 years old if I want,” he said, “this iconic detective character. I’m doing the footwork to start building and owning the rights and owning the content.”

 

With tentacles reaching in several directions, Polaha admits he isn’t sure where his career is headed, but he’s sure there’s more work to be done.   

 

“When I graduated from NYU, my objective was to be the next Marlon Brando, like I wanted to be the greatest actor of my generation,” he said. “I still feel like I’m capable of that kind of work. … I really truly believe that my story is not told. … I’m genuinely curious. I’m excited to see what’s coming around the corner.”

 

Author Bio:

Forrest Hartman, a Highbrow Magazine contributor, is a longtime entertainment journalist who teaches at the Department of Journalism & Public Relations at California State University, Chico.

 

For Highbrow Magazine

 

Image Sources:

Courtesy of Kristoffer Polaha

Elisabeth Caren

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