Wonderland. — Five Feet Apart has all the traits of your classic teen romance flick. A headstrong but kind girl meets an ever-so-slightly bad boy and after an introduction full of acerbic put-downs, some light flirting and one DMC (that’s “deep meaningful conversation” for the uninitiated of you) sat by a pool, they find themselves in the full-throes of an all-consuming crush. The only difference in Five Feet Apart – our protagonists Stella and Will aren’t allowed to touch.
Played by Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse respectively, the teenagers both have cystic fibrosis, an inherited genetic disorder that disrupts the body’s ability to move salt and water between cells and causes mucus to build up in the lungs. The pair meet on a hospital ward where they’re both receiving treatment, and aren’t allowed within six feet of each other (or any other CF patients) in case they fatally pass bacteria.
Haley! I’ve been reading a lot about you and every article seems to have every film you’re in pinned as your ‘moment’. What do you feel has been your moment?
I don’t know if there’s been some huge moment. I have realistically been lucky. I moved to LA almost seven years ago now and, aside from that first year or two where no-one even knew my name and I didn’t know how to do anything and everything was awkward and clumsy and I wasn’t making any money, I have been lucky because after I got my feet wet, each thing got more interesting to me, and it was more of a consistent slow build. I still feel like a lot of the world doesn’t know about me to be honest. But I like the slow build, because I think it’s more lasting for the long term, and I want to act forever. So I don’t mind it, I’m surrendering to the slow build!
You moved to LA from Arizona, right? What was it like growing up there, do you have fond memories of it? Or were you excited to get out and move to LA and start acting?
I love Arizona, I think it’s the most beautiful state I’ve ever been to. And of all the pictures I’ve seen of the states I haven’t been to, I think it’s the most beautiful state. Have you ever seen way, way north with the Grand Canyon, and near the border with Utah? It’s so cool, it looks like Mars – I think I’m an alien. I went on a road trip a couple of years ago with my boyfriend, and we drove from Tucson which is really south, all the way up to the border of Utah, through Vegas and back to LA. If you have travel plans, that’s what you should do! One minute you’re going through flat, grey land, then 100 miles north there’s the painted desert, which is amazing. It’s really cool. Arizona’s epic. It’s not that I was eager to get away, I became obsessed with this idea of acting, you know? When I was 14/15 I became obsessed with this idea and future for myself, and when I become obsessed with something I go all in, and I did.
What do you think sparked the obsession?
I think it was a mixture of things. I’m an only child… It was a different type of comfort level – I grew up really fortunate, because my parents loved each other and loved me, especially since I was the only one. They didn’t spoil me with things, but they spoiled me with care and opportunity. My whole life, if I wanted to do gymnastics, they signed me up for gymnastics, if I wanted to do dance, they signed me up for dance, which I did actually, that was my whole life ‘til I moved to LA when I was 16. I did competitive dancing, and really got that type of storytelling and the physical aspect of dance, and that was what inspired me… I was in community theatre and summer camp plays growing up, but that was just for fun, it was the dancing that I really did seriously. But, when I was imagining what I was going to do with my life, this acting thing came up. Every movie and TV show I watched, I’d look at these kids and think, ‘I can do that, I think!’
You put it out into the universe and it happened!
That’s a real thing, that works! I’m a crazy person that will literally stand by my house in the mountains or on the beach and yell into the water what I want to happen, yell it to the universe, and it works, it really does!
I might try that, if it worked for you.
Yell it into the snow and rain!
Not quite as dreamy… So Five Feet Apart, you signed on to the project in April last year, then started filming a month later and had finished it within a month! Sounds like a whirlwind to me, how did you get involved?
I’ve known Justin [Baldoni, the director] for the past five years, because he’s on the show Jane the Virgin with my boyfriend. He’s actually my fiancé – I know I keep calling him my boyfriend, I think fiancé sounds really pretentious so I just say boyfriend.
Then, a couple of years ago, he was like: ‘Haley, I have this movie I want to make, and I want you to play the lead.’ I rolled my eyes, because I was like, ‘Oh Justin, good for you that you’re trying to make a movie, but if it does get made, there’s no way that the studio are going to want me to do it.’ At that time, I hadn’t really done that much that people had seen. Early last year, I got [the script], and for some reason, it didn’t really click with me. I was at this place in my life where I wanted to do really super, super grounded, quiet movies that weren’t magical. And this movie was so magical, the stakes were so high, and I think that everything about the movie is so much.
Justin came back to me and asked me to come to his set on a lunch break. He went through the entire script with me, and hearing him talk about how passionate he was about the movie, and the characters in this real life struggle… He talked about how I would have the freedom to make it as grounded as possible in this world, and I got really, really excited about it, and completely opened my eyes to the possibility of it, the movie and the story… Then I did it! And I’m so glad I did it. There’s the long story!
I get what you’re saying about a lot happening — there’s a lot of ups and a lot of downs — I understand what you mean about keeping it grounded. It’s not that glamorised, there’s a scene where you’re spitting mucus into a tray…
I was like, ‘No, we’re not going to have my hair in a leading lady curly wave. My hair’s going to be messy and in a ponytail, because we’re in a hospital.’ We really wanted to make it as accurate and grounded as possible. I feel like these types of movies don’t have as much impact, because the story is a love story, about what people go through to find each other and it’s so epic. And it’s so heavy, and beautiful, and it’s so much about all of those things, that the actual characters, and their dialogue, the conversations with each other, and what they looked like, had to be as stripped away and grounded as possible, or it would just be an unbelievable movie. And we want people to know that CF really exists, and want people to really feel the struggle of these people, and to believe the hardships they are going through, and what they overcome, and then, you know, they connect, and are really inspired as opposed to movie-world inspired.
Absolutely. I definitely felt that. Cystic fibrosis is something I know of but never something I’ve learnt about. I know you and Cole both consulted with Claire Wineland, the late activist and CF advocate who shared her life with the illness on YouTube to hundreds of thousands of followers. Did you meet her in person?
I did meet Claire Wineland, and I got to hang out with her twice, which was amazing and I will always remember that. Of all of the things that I’m grateful for doing this movie, meeting her and having her be so open and talking to me and just getting to know her was the number one thing I’m most thankful for. She really had a lot to do with the movie; meeting her was what inspired Justin to make this movie to begin with. It’s not a story of her life, but I don’t think the movie would have been what it was if it weren’t for Claire and the care she put into the movie. She actually said something to me when we were having lunch one day, all of her wisdom and all she knew, she just poured out to me, because she wanted me to know this, because she cared about this movie being real and connecting to her group and her audience. And she said, ‘I think the most important thing you should know for this movie is that there’s two types of people with CF. There’s the type that live for their treatment, then there’s the type who does their treatment to live. If you’re the type that lives for your treatment, there’s gonna be a time in your life before you die when you realise: “What have I been doing my whole life?” The whole point of life is to live. Then so much happens, and you start doing your treatment so that you can live your life.’ And we actually put the essence of that line in the movie, and I think it’s the most beautiful line of the movie, and it makes me cry because I imagine sitting next to Claire and her telling me that. I feel like the film not only speaks to the CF community, but hopefully, when people see it, it means so much more than just that as well.
She sounds amazing, I’ve been reading a lot about her and people had lots of beautiful things to say. It’s great that you could put something so similar to what she said in the film. And her having such a huge audience too, there’s a whole community that you don’t know about unless you’re a part of it. Was that something you guys were introduced to?
We had a CF nurse on set every day. She’s seen up close and personally everything you could imagine with these kids with CF. I have one scene where Stella finds out she has to go under general anaesthetic. And I didn’t really know what the weight of that would mean for someone with CF, and I went up to ask her about it and she said: ‘Even if you’re the toughest kid with CF, if you’re told you have to go under general in surgery, that is terrifying because there’s such a high chance of something going wrong and you dying in there, and not seeing anyone you love ever again, but you have no choice other than to do it, otherwise it will spread and your organs won’t work properly, so you have no other choice.’ Just having her there helped us remember the weight of all of this in each of these individual situations.
Obviously this is a film, it’s a dramatisation, but I’ve read about some people online having issues with the way treatments and Will and Stella’s physical proximity is displayed, what do you hope people with and without cystic fibrosis will take away from it?
For the CF community, obviously this is such a personal thing for them. Even though there’s a lot of people that have it, it is a rare disease and it’s a really tight community and, from what I’ve seen on the internet, they’re all really passionate. It’s such a personal thing for them, having their life, in a way, put on display in such a big way, so I understand.
I hope that, when anyone sees the full movie, they’ll see the care that we all put into that specific aspect, that it was so important representing that in the best way, the most grounded way that we could.
A lot of your other acting credits — like M. Night Shyamalan’s Split — have required a lot of crying and screaming too, and they’re really emotional. I’ve got to ask, is that something you enjoy?
[Laughs] It is very therapeutic, you have to kind of enjoy that stuff to begin with to be an actor, because that’s what’s expected of you. You have to be vulnerable, and feel comfortable being vulnerable, no matter what it is – whether you feel like you’re going to be eaten with a man with 23 personalities, or stepping into the shoes of someone who has an extreme life-threatening disease. It forces you to connect you to yourself and your emotions in a way that nothing else really forces from you in life. So I do enjoy it, in a weird way, it’s therapeutic, it’s cathartic, it makes me more empathetic as a person, and it’s fun sometimes even.
Walking into work and screaming – I think most people feel that!
I said to Cole, ‘How am I meant to do this flirtatious scene with you and then all of a sudden be sobbing and throwing things around my room?’ And he was like, ‘Well, you just have to be a sociopath!’ That’s what you have to be when you’re an actor, you have to be a sociopath, and on the drop of a dime do all these different things, and connect with them wholeheartedly.
In the film, I love that Stella has a daily to-do list and a life to-do list… What is something that you think everyone should have on their life to-do list? And what’s something you have on your life to-do list?
Something lame came to my mind first, so maybe there’s a reason for that. I feel like a lot of people aren’t comfortable spending time with themselves. At least one time in someone’s life, you should take yourself on a date, just by yourself, dinner and a movie.
For me, my biggest dream has been to mix my acting and dancing together, and bring back the classic dance movies – bring back the Gene Kelly of the past, and make it a thing for now. Mark my word!
Shout it into the ocean!
I will, I have!