If Cherry tells the story of one man's descent into darkness, then Ciara Bravo's Emily is one of the film's few beacons of light.

The 23-year-old Kentucky native costars as the college sweetheart and eventual wife of Tom Holland's army vet protagonist, and although he sees her as a refuge from his problems, she's juggling traumas of her own. The film — directed by Avengers: Endgame alums Anthony and Joe Russo and adapted from Nico Walker's semiautobiographical novel — follows the pair from school into adulthood, as they grapple with opioid addiction, Holland's character's military service, and eventual bank robbery, all wrapped up into one sprawling, fourth-wall-breaking saga.

"To have this story, that's tackling topics like PTSD and severe addiction and bank robbing and then layer in this humor, it just makes it feel so incredibly honest and real," Bravo says. "It felt rare."

Bravo has been acting since childhood, and she broke out as the mischievous little sister on Nickelodeon's Big Time Rush, before starring on Fox's Red Band Society as an anorexia patient. But Cherry marked the chance to try something new: a years-spanning epic that can be winkingly comic one moment and devastating the next.

"When I saw the Russo brothers' and Tom's name, I was like, 'Oh, this is so out of my league, there's no way I'm going to be considered for this,'" Bravo says of her audition.

The directors obviously thought differently: "Anthony and I got about 20 seconds into her audition tape, looked at each other, and said, 'We found her,'" says Joe Russo, who considered "hundreds of people" for the role. "She just had that level of commitment."

Credit: Apple TV +

Walker's novel portrays Emily only through the narrator's eyes, a cryptic love interest who flits in and out of his life. For the film, Bravo wanted to explore her as a more three-dimensional character. She and Holland visited a rehab facility in Cleveland, where they spoke to out patients and employees for insight into the struggles of sobriety.

"I was so worried personally about doing justice to the story line of addiction," Bravo says. "I didn't want to glamorize it in any way."

"If I didn't have her as my teammate, as my partner in crime in this film, it wouldn't have been half the experience or half the final product," Holland adds. "For us to be absolutely vulnerable with each other on set was so valuable to the success of this film."

Despite the film's weighty subject, Bravo says she and Holland tried to keep things light between takes. "It's a very heavy story," she says. "But looking back, the amount of fun that I had on that set and the friends that I made and the laughs that we had while shooting these incredibly harrowing scenes, it kept me alive through all of this."

Cherry is in select theaters Friday and on Apple TV+ March 12.

A version of this story appears in the March issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now and available here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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