Haley Lu Richardson knows that with a casual glance “Five Feet Apart” looks like another angst-filled teen romance. It’s the story of two star-crossed teens who fall in love in a hospital. The angst comes from how they must stay 6 feet apart because both are suffering with cystic fibrosis (CF), which is extremely contagious between CF patients.
Cystic fibrosis is a life-threatening genetic disease that makes the body produce thick, sticky mucus in the lungs, pancreas and other organs. Approximately 30,000 people in the United States have CF. The film’s title comes from how Richardson’s character, Stella Grant, decides to defy CF rules and move a foot closer to Will Newman (Cole Sprouse), the young man who has captured her heart.
Richardson wants audiences of all ages to see “Five Feet Apart” as a universal story about unrequited love, the frailty of life and the imperative need for human conduct.
“One of the major reasons I like acting is so universally (is) just anyone can watch a movie and feel something. That means a lot to me,” Richardson says.
Richardson’s research to play the role included meeting with Claire Wineland, a CF patient whose nonprofit, Claire’s Place Foundation, supported and organized people with terminal and chronic illnesses. Before she died at the age of 21, Wineland was in the documentary series “My Last Days,” produced by “Jane the Virgin” star Justin Baldoni.
Baldoni, producer and director of “Five Feet Apart,” helped Richardson make contact with Wineland.
“She was so open and really wanted this film to do its job of representing her life and the life or real people with CF,” Richardson says. “She was such a wise human being.
“I did a lot of research and we had a CF nurse on set every day to get the medical stuff as accurate as possible. But, the most important thing was getting to spend time with Claire. She really taught me the emotional effect of CF on the child and the family.”
Richardson took all that knowledge and mixed it with her own thoughts of what Stella would be feeling. She concluded that Stella was dealing with a lot of guilt and pressure because of the dark cloud that hung over her and her parents from the day she was born.
The key to the film is Stella defying the cardinal rule of falling for Will. The connection is important to both, as Stella has lived a very regimented life through her battle with CF, while Will has resigned to the reality his days are extremely numbered and lives each day as if it could be his last.
Playing out the love story was easy for Richardson because of working with Sprouse (“Riverdale”).
“I was surprised and excited by the fact that Cole is a real artist and takes everything he does – whether it be acting or his photography – very seriously and he cares a lot,” Richardson says. “I also care to a fault about playing a character and so we both cared the same amount.
“When you have two people who are genuinely invested in doing the best they can do and bringing justice to these characters, then we could feed off each other and connect in these big moments.”
Part of Richardson’s focus when playing a role comes from her early days as a leading dancer with the Phoenix-based Cannedy Dance Company from 2001-2011. Her days as a dancer drove home the importance of training, rehearsal, hard work, determination and organization. These are all traits she brought to the acting world in projects such as “The Bronze,” “Ravenswood,” “The Chaperone,” “Recovery Road” and “Split.”
Stella has a master list of things she wants to do in her life, but Richardson doesn’t have such a document. She does have one thing she knows she would like to do and that is to star in a movie where dance isn’t just something the characters do. She wants dance to be used to tell the story. That’s a big hope for Richardson, but she’s never backed down from any test.