by Steven Goldman
In Hollywood, Cole Sprouse is teeing up for what could prove his biggest year yet. The former child-star (along with brother, Dylan) first became a household name back in the day on Disney’s tween comedy, The Suite Life. As Jughead Jones, he’s since reemerged as the breakout star of Netflix’s Riverdale (now in its third season with Sprouse himself boasting some 22 million Instagram followers) and is about to drop his first big screen feature, Five Feet Apart.
In the new film, Sprouse stars as Will, a brooding artist who meets the girl of his dreams, Stella (Edge of Seventeen’s winsome bestie, Haley Lu Richardson), a fellow patient in a hospital. But with Stella and Will both being treated for the same life-threatening illness which has compromised their immune systems (cystic fibrosis), they’re required to remain six feet apart at all times to avoid the potentially lethal prospect of infecting each other. “‘Five feet apart,’ is the mutual agreement that these two characters make,” says Sprouse of the movie’s title. “That they’re willing to get one foot closer to each other and take the inherent risks within that.”
We spoke with Sprouse about the making of his heartfelt new film in Los Angeles.
What was it that attracted you to Five Feet Apart?
I think it was Justin (director and Jane the Virgin star, Justin Baldoni). There was also the script, of course. But Justin really reassured me that the nature of the film and dealing with cystic fibrosis was going to be handled well. He had had such an extensive history of dealing with patients with cystic fibrosis (Baldoni’s My Last Days, released in 2012, became the most watched digital-doc-series of all time). And he was so passionate about doing that community justice that I knew, as an actor, I was going to be in the right hands.
The story is also very romantic. Are you attracted to films like these?
Definitely. I’d grown up reading romantic novels as my first little introduction into personal reading. So yes, I’m a bigger sucker for romance films, just generally.
Are you a romantic by nature yourself?
Of course! Are you kidding me? I’m an actor. I have to be (laughs)…
What’s the significance of the new film’s title?
There’s a “six-feet-apart,” rule for any two people with cystic fibrosis to avoid infecting each other. They have to keep six feet apart from each other which is the distance that germs from a cough on average will travel. ‘Five Feet Apart,’ is the mutual agreement that these two characters make, that they’re willing to get one foot closer to each other and take the inherent risks within that.
How would you describe the initial attraction between Will and Stella?
Well, the initial attraction is, “Here’s another patient who’s my age who’s in this ward.” There’s also a physical attraction there, but more interestingly I also think that they really balance each other out in that there’s an optimism and a pessimism inherent within the two characters. Both need balancing, in a sort of realistic and grounded way, that they can help each other with. Stella is a character who is absolutely obsessed with her treatments and is forgetting how to live. And Will is someone who is carelessly throwing away his treatments in order to live. There’s a balance that needs to be found within those two lifestyles that often times are how CF patients live. Their union is essentially that balance.
How familiar were you with the world of CF going into the film?
I think as familiar as most people are in the US, which is not familiar enough. Obviously, many people know the name, cystic fibrosis, but they don’t really know how grave the details are of the disease. And that was part of our mission statement – to make this more familiar. Once I sat down and talked with Justin, we started doing extensive research. And we had medical professionals with us on set at all times. We also worked closely with patients to learn about the psychology and physical limitations of living with cystic fibrosis.
How did you set about working with Haley Lu Richardson? The two of you are incredibly convincing on screen – had you worked together before?
We hadn’t. Cast chemistry is one of those things you have to roll the dice on. It’s one of the few parts of the production process that you don’t really know what the result will be. You don’t know if your acting methods are going to mesh or how your two personalities are going to filter through one another on set. So you sort of roll the dice, and in this case we got really lucky. Haley is just so talented… I think we really nailed it.
Was there a moment where that chemistry came together for you?
It was almost immediate to be honest – that’s one of the silver linings about shooting in a location (New Orleans) that you’re unfamiliar with. The first and only people you know are your cast and crew. So we ended up hanging out and really talking, getting to know one another, and then eventually becoming fast friends.
Did you have time to prep before filming started?
Kind of. We had certain ideas that we wanted to go in with. Justin was thinking of Hayley right from the start, but I only got the script about three months before we started shooting. So during that prep time I took up a sort of nutritional routine to get me into the physicality of someone with cystic fibrosis.
You lost weight?
I did. Cystic fibrosis makes it incredibly hard to maintain and gain any weight. So many patients are quite gaunt. This was an idea that was suggested to me from one of the patients that we were working with, Claire Wineland. So we worked out a sort of nutritional routine to physically embody the stresses. I don’t really feel comfortable talking about the amount of weight – it wasn’t the easiest process, but it’s not something that I think should be glorified, if that makes sense… Still, it was a lot of weight. And it’s kind of obvious now when I watch the film how much it was. That took about five or six weeks. And then with input of patients dealing with cystic fibrosis, we tried to get ourselves into the psychology of the characters as well.
Do you have a favorite scene in the film?
The pool sequence. For me it’s the moment where Stella and Will, along with the audience, realize how limited their ability to touch actually is. There’s this intense sexual attraction in the scene – they’re sort of daring one another, while recognizing the limitations of what they’re living with… It was a long day filming, as well. That scene took all day to shoot and we prepared for it a week in advance. It was an intense sequence.
Why is it your favorite?
That sequence to me feels the most real… this kind of moment where they show each other their whole selves. Even though it’s painful and they’re both vulnerable, they’re willing to bare their souls to each other in that moment. And then there’s this intense joy and play that comes right afterwards, which I think is really sweet.
Have you ever made anything like this before?
No… You know, everything you approach as an actor is different. For me the greatest boon that I had, regardless of any past work history or anything like that, was that Justin Baldoni was truly an actor’s director. And he gave us all the time necessary in order to find that emotional headspace that we needed.
You’ve had tremendous success with Riverdale and you’re now enjoying your first leading film role as an adult… Do you have a preference between film and TV?
I really like working on a film because it allows me to do my research and have time to prepare. One-hour network television has a lot of limitations in terms of preparation. We often times receive scripts the night before and we have to produce the work the next day. That can be an incredibly challenging thing to do, especially when you’re dealing with heavy content. But I think for my own personal lifestyle, something like film really works well for me. It’s a very enjoyable process.
You stepped away from acting to go to college. Are you glad you came back? And how difficult a decision was that for you to make?
The difficulty in the decision was just letting go. I had all these bound-up ideas about acting, like it was some sort of old lover of mine. Once I let it go and just let the wind take me, I booked Riverdale. I was also allowed to come back and be an adult, to sort of choose my own moves, myself – you know, to find my own path in a way that allowed me to find my passion again.
Did the experience of making Five Feet Apart change you as well?
I think so.
I think every film changes an actor. Any time spent within a certain character’s headspace should change the way that they feel. But I think for me, in a very real way, spending time with patients with cystic fibrosis also made me re-think my sort of unconscious acceptance of a kind of immortality that comes along with growing up… It really made me stop taking things for granted. I hope the movie imparts even the smallest bit of that onto audiences.
FIVE FEET APART is now available on DVD and digital.