It’s a tale as old as 1990s Hollywood. A teen gets sick, meets another sick teen, falls in love, tears are had, money is printed. So it seems like it would be a no-brainer for Haley Lu Richardson to jump at the chance to star in Five Feet Apart, the new tearjerker from her friend (and Jane the Virgin costar of her fiancé Brett Dier) Justin Baldoni, who had long told her that she would be the lead if he ever got the movie made. But, the 24-year-old actress still needed some convincing.
“Very honestly, I was kind of hesitant,” admits the Edge of Seventeen alum, citing how teen love stories often tend to be more “big and magical” than grounded. “I ended up having this big talk with Justin and he really opened my eyes to the opportunity of making the characters as human as possible. And even though there’s this kind of magical love story and these extreme odds, having the chance to come in as an actor and make the character and the dialogue grounded and real within that big magical world is actually really interesting to me and something that I hadn’t really gotten to do before.”
Five Feet Apart (out on Friday) stars Richardson as Stella, a high schooler trading the classroom for a hospital room as she continues her ongoing battle with cystic fibrosis. Once onboard the project, Richardson immediately began her mission to make a grounded and authentic character and film by researching the genetic disorder that she’d be portraying onscreen.
“I felt like I had to do justice to this whole group of people who have CF, like 30,000 people in America,” she shared. “It’s something that a lot of people struggle with and know people that struggle with, but it’s not some mainstream thing that everyone is aware of. So there was a responsibility to do it right and do my research and be as medically accurate and as emotionally accurate with what these people go through, and be someone that that CF community can look at onscreen and really relate to and say, ‘Wow, I was represented in a way that I recognize and can be proud of.’ And once I started getting into it and learning about CF and meeting people with CF, it opened my eyes to how real it all was. It ended up just being a really inspiring thing to be a part of.”
Equally invested in that goal, according to Richardson, was her costar Cole Sprouse, who plays fellow CF patient Will. At first, Stella is driven crazy by Will’s rebellious view on his condition and treatment, but like every classic movie in the genre, the annoyance turns to affection. While EW previously debuted a clip of the duo preparing for a date, the most unique and romantic scene centers on Stella and Will getting as intimate as possible when they get undressed in front of each other, putting their many scars on full display. There’s an incredible intimacy in the sequence, despite the characters keeping their distance of five feet, a necessary mandate considering they share the same lung-affected disorder.
“In any other movie, it would be the moment that the characters made out or had sex for the first time,” says Richardson. “It’s so different still having that intimacy and vulnerability and awkwardness and attraction but just by standing there looking at each other and connecting with your soul in that intimate way as opposed to screwing. [Laughs] They needed to connect on a deeper level and expose more of themselves to each other, so they stood up and did that, and it was this really still and vulnerable and quiet moment. And I loved that and it stuck with me, and then there were a few other drafts where there were comments being said while they were looking at each other about how hot they were or the moment was broken really soon by laughing and jumping in the pool, which we do end up doing. But I was so glad that it was able to come back and what we actually filmed and what’s in the movie is that still, awkward, uncomfortable, quiet moment of them just standing there in their underwear with everything exposed. It captures to me what you feel when you have that first physical moment when you’re young — without the physicality somehow. Because they’re both emotionally feeling so intimate and connected.”
Richardson will soon know if audiences connect with Stella and Five Feet Apart, but at 24, she’s already established herself outside of the teen genre through recent performances in Support the Girls, Operation Finale, and Columbus. “I definitely feel really happy and content with the fact that I’ve gotten these opportunities to play such different characters,” she says. “I feel like I’ve worked a lot, but I’m still relatively new in a way because I’m constantly learning things and getting new experiences. I just want to keep doing that, experiencing and stepping into the shoes of different people and not do the same thing twice.”
So that the begs the question of what’s next? “My biggest dream is being in a dance movie,” answers Richardson. “Being able to bring back the whole art form of telling stories through dancing and not just through words and music. I feel like dance and the storytelling aspect have kind of separated over the last little bit and dance has become more of this athletic competition, like just entertainment. And I know that it is so much more.”
If only the title Five Feet Apart wasn’t already taken.