[The following story contains spoilers from Five Feet Apart.]
In Five Feet Apart, Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse star as teenage cystic fibrosis patients that fall in love despite the fact that they must remain six feet away from each other at all times.
Richardson plays Stella, a control-obsessed cystic fibrosis patient that takes her health seriously. Meanwhile, Sprouse’s Will views his illness as a death sentence and doesn’t go out of his way to keep up with his regimen. The two strike a deal that Stella will pose for Will to draw her only if he agrees to keep up with his regimen, which includes regularly taking medication and exercising. As the two get to know each other, they develop feelings for each other that become increasingly difficult to maintain due to the medically advised distance.
Richardson spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the film’s responsibility to accurately represent cystic fibrosis patients. The actress said that she, Sprouse, co-star Moises Arias and director Justin Baldoni were all on the same page when it came to the project. “It’s easier when everyone cares and the people that you’re working close to care just as much as you do,” she said about the teamwork that shaped the film.
She also revealed why she almost passed on the role of Stella, the pressure she felt to play a character with the illness and the most “gut-wrenching” scene to film.
How did you prepare to play a character with cystic fibrosis?
Besides learning about the logistics like the machines and how they work, it was learning about how it affects you as a person growing up with that, spending that time in the hospital and what that imminent mortality from being a baby is like, what kind of pressure that puts on your life and the relationships in your life and how you look at things. That was the most important thing and I was really lucky to hang out with this girl Claire Wineland, who had cystic fibrosis. She pretty much poured her heart out to me and was super open and honest. She answered every single question and told me stories about situations that are similar to things that Stella goes through that she’d been in and just getting to spend that time with her was the best part of this whole movie.
Did you feel a certain pressure to do this role justice because the disease is real?
Oh yeah, of course. I would have to be missing a brain and a heart to not feel any pressure. I felt an insane responsibility, and I think Cole and Justin did too to really do it justice. It’s not like this is a made-up world. It’s a made-up story, but it’s not a made-up world, and cystic fibrosis is such a real thing that not a lot of people know about. Being one of the first outlets that this very real disease is represented, in such a big way of a studio movie, you have to do it as right as you possibly can. You have to do as much justice to it is as humanly possible. Me, Cole, Justin and Moises — pretty much all of us — felt that way. It was the No. 1 priority. Every once in a while there’s movie-world things that get in the way of making things 100 percent accurate, but I hope people with CF see this movie and really realize how much we cared and how much we wanted to do them justice.
What about Stella made you want to play the character?
Fun fact: I actually passed on this movie. I wasn’t super into this script the first time I read it, to be honest. Not because of what these characters go through, but because there were things about Stella that were hard for me to connect to. And I think that aspect of being so in need of control, that was scary for me because you can’t fake that innate need or pressure or whatever it is to have these control issues. Her whole life is built around that. The majority of it is because of her situation and her CF, so honestly it was hard. It was hard to picture that happening in this big, magical teen romance world and it was scary to imagine doing justice to that and making that grounded and real in this big genre teen movie. Honestly, I think it scared me at first because I didn’t know if it was possible, but then it’s also a challenge and exciting being as grounded and real of a character and having conversations and saying words that a teenager can actually relate to with this magical, high-stakes situation happening around them.
Stella’s sister died before the film takes place. Her death, as well as their parents’ divorce, contributes a lot to Stella’s anxieties and her need to feel in control. How do you think the loss of her sister impacts who Stella is?
There’s extreme guilt that she just carries around with her constantly, and it was there since she was a kid because of her parents and their marriage. The movie doesn’t really explore that in detail, but it’s there obviously. It’s the biggest thing in Stella’s life. Then this huge, awful tragic thing happens of her best friend and sister dying and she can’t control that at all. I can relate to that in my life. Anything that I could possibly control, or try to control, you almost overcompensate in those areas because there are these huge chunks in your life that you absolutely have no control over. I think that’s where it comes from, and then learning to accept those things and realizing what’s really important and the fact that she’s still alive and she’s young and she still has a chance — that’s the beautiful part of her journey.
Most of your scenes in the film are with Cole Sprouse. What was it like working with him?
Cole’s awesome. I didn’t really know what to expect. It’s always a bummer when you show up and you meet someone that you’re gonna be doing a movie with and you get the sense that they don’t really care as much as you do about doing a good job and about doing the best they can or they’re not invested in the creative or collaborative aspect of making a movie, and Cole is so not that. He’s so deeply artistic and caring and thoughtful, which made it possible to create those scenes and work with him, Justin and Moises on making these characters real and taking the time they need to make them real, well rounded people. I just felt like I had a real partner in him, and I appreciated that.
How does the dynamic change between Will and Stella throughout the film?
The cool thing about this movie, if you strip away everything about this movie and you just look at the two of them as people and their outlooks at life and their connections to one another, it’s two people that have been affected by something in completely opposite ways that meet and have this connection almost because of those differences. Through their meeting and sharing their souls and truth with one another, they almost rub off on the other person. They almost balance each other out. I think balance is the most important thing in the world and especially in a relationship. They balance each other out and through that they both get these wake-up calls of what’s really important that they’re missing in their lives and the way that they’re looking at life. I think that’s probably one of the most beautiful things about the story is just that simple connection between the two of them and how they help each other grow. It’s a really pivotal moment in both of their lives.
What was the vibe like on set? Did the serious tone of the film impact how you all acted offscreen?
There were obviously moments where the set was quiet and somber and everyone was feeling the weight of what was going on. But also, I’m the type of person that when things are too serious, I need a break. I need to be able to crack and be delirious and make stupid jokes. There was a lot of that, to be honest. When I watched the movie back, I feel like that actually helped the movie because you also have to see real teenagers in these characters and kids having fun and kids kind of forgetting about the situation that they’re in and just being a teenager or goofing off and having those lighter moments because that’s how it is. Imagine being a teenager with CF. The disease doesn’t define you. You’re still a kid living your life and going through all those awkward and weird phases. I think not making it a dark, serious set all the time hopefully made the movie more enjoyable.
Another important relationship in the film is the friendship between Poe and Stella, who grew up together at the hospital. What stuck out to you about their relationship dynamic and what was it like working with Moises Arias?
They’ve had each other their whole lives and no one really understands their relationships better than one another. I love that friendship. I love that they have gone through shit together and can be mean to each other and call each other out, but still meet for donuts and can be BFFs again. When we were doing all the — spoiler alert — Poe’s dying scenes, that was the hardest stuff to film because I really resonated and connected to that friendship. I love Moises and how he played Poe, so that was gut-wrenching. That was awful.
Other than the fact that the main characters have cystic fibrosis, how is Five Feet Apart different than other teen romance films?
I think because they have CF and they can’t get close to each other, that’s a whole aspect that’s never explored in movies or TV of people falling in love purely because of their emotional connection to one another. That was an interesting thing to explore as an actor because it’s not like there’s some big sex scene that really sells that they’re attracted to one another or makes the audience think, “Oh wow, they kissed. Now they’re in love.” It has to be this intimacy and the connection has to come from their conversations and their opening up to one another, which is a really interesting thing to explore as an actor, and I think to watch as an audience member, it’s pure, innocent and intimate because of that.