Fair warning to those passionate about all-things YA: The latest young adult novel to get a big screen adaptation will leave you weeping.
Justin Baldoni's romantic drama Five Feet Apart stars Cole Sprouse and Haley Lu Richardson as polar-opposite teens and cystic fibrosis patients. Sprouse's Will has a laissez-faire approach to his medical regimen, while Richardson's Stella has a tunnel-vision focus on getting better in hopes of receiving a lung transplant.
When the two meet in the hospital's neonatal wing (keeping to the six-feet-apart rule, which many cystic fibrosis patients are bound by for fear of cross-infection), they find they can't fathom one another's worldview. Of course, as Will and Stella open their hearts and let the other in a little bit more, it soon becomes clear that they're falling for one another. How does romance work when you can never touch the one you love?
Sprouse spoke to Refinery29 about the new movie, its tragic (yet, maybe not exactly in the way we thought?) ending, and who he really wants to like the movie.
Slight spoilers ahead.
Refinery29: This is your first major film role. Were you nervous about anything going into the project?
Cole Sprouse: "I think a lot of my nerves had been cleared after I met Justin [Baldoni (Jane the Virgin)]. When you’re taking on an illness like cystic fibrosis, the nature of the film industry might be to romanticise it in a way that would do a disservice to the community...Justin, as a director and individual, has had so much experience with the CF community, and had so much passion for the community for so long, that he eased a lot of those [fears]. I knew he would bring awareness to cystic fibrosis and do that [part of the story] justice. As an actor, we have to put a lot of faith into people, because we’re oftentimes bound by the writing, direction, or parts of the production cycle we have nothing to do with. Justin knew exactly what he wanted, and we were on the same page."
Some people who have not seen Five Feet Apart yet have criticised the film for romanticising illness, which was a similar criticism of the movie The Fault In Our Stars. What do you say to people who are worried about this?
"The nature of filmmaking is a dialogue with films in that medium or genre over time. This ultimately is a story about romance, and the set of rules that the characters are given, that real people who are patients of cystic fibrosis are given in real life. Ultimately, I think our goal was to bring awareness to that community, in a way that helped move it forward. Move research forward. To be honest, I don’t really care too much about [criticism from outsiders] because the people that I care the most about are the people within the cystic fibrosis community, because that’s who we made the movie for. It wasn’t necessarily for the general public. It was for the people suffering through a disease that is incredibly underrepresented, who would like more attention from a public that cares."
It seems that you and the cast got close while filming the movie. Any fun memories?
"We had as much fun as was responsible within the context of the movie. Really, after the movie finished, we were all able to get much closer. The respectful distance we had kept had ended. You don’t want to take yourself out of that emotional context within the production process...After the physical regimen that Haley and I had both been on to embody the physicality of cystic fibrosis [and] the nature of New Orleans to have some of the best food in the country, we did end up eating quite a bit — just stuffing ourselves — which was probably the most fun that we had."
How did you decide to take on a physical regimen for the role?
"I pitched early on, after some advice from Claire [Wineland, a patient of cystic fibrosis who died in September of 2018], that we go on a physical regimen to embody how physically taxing cystic fibrosis can be. It’s very hard to maintain and put on weight. I worked out under the guidance of medical professionals what would look accurate. We brought Haley on board with it too, and it was quite strict. When it ended, we went back to regular diets, which was nice."
What was the most difficult sequence to film?
"The pond sequence was incredibly difficult because it was a sweltering New Orleans day, and we were inside an old button factory, I think it was, that was converted into a studio space. It was probably around 110 degrees inside the studio, and we were in full winter gear, pretending to be freezing. That was quite difficult from a physical perspective."
Young adult novels like To All The Boys I've Loved Before and The Kissing Booth have found a lot of success. Why do you think that is?
"Without getting too political on a large scale, I think that film and art always serve a purpose. If that purpose in that period of time is to make people happy and give them hope, and the content is dedicated to love or loving or romance, and it gives people joy — that’s what we need right now. People like watching things that give them hope. At a time when things can feel quite incendiary, it doesn’t surprise me that people are enjoying this."
The ending of the film hints that Will may die as a result of his cystic fibrosis. What are your thoughts on how the movie ended?
"We actually filmed a lot of different endings. We wanted to keep the ending open for interpretation. A lot of people who saw the movie assume that he lived. I won’t speak too much about it because I want people to have their own feelings about it, ...but yes, some endings were more concrete. Justin and the editors decided on an interpretative ending."
Justin Baldoni is an actor and filmmaker. Do you have any interest in stepping behind the camera?
"I do. I’ve been in film for 26 years, but I feel like I have a lot to learn. There are aspects of the production cycle that I know nothing about. I’d like to shadow for a period of time, and then I’d like to have my 10,000 hours of practice done in private before anyone seeing. That’s sort of the trial by fire that ensures you’re ready, and I’ve already done a lot of those 10,000 hours, so it helps. The first thing I produce, I want to be an accurate representation of me and something that really stands out."
This interview was edited for clarity and length.