There's something refreshingly youthful about Haley Lu Richardson, who stars in Five Feet Apart, CBS Films' poignant teen romance about two young people, Stella and Will (Riverdale's Cole Sprouse), who endure a heartbreaking love story and also happen to have cystic fibrosis. Nestled comfortably on a light grey couch in a luxurious Beverly Hills, California, hotel room on a dreary March afternoon, Richardson -- in a vibrant beachy crop top and maxi skirt -- is the spitting image of summer, the irony of her ill-timed outfit as the pitter-patter of the steady L.A. rain hits against the glass windows the main source of amusement for the young actress.
"Feel it!" implores Richardson (who turned 24 the day after this interview), as she leans forward on the couch once small talk turns to the unique fabric material of her neon-printed ensemble. "It's a bathing suit," she proudly states, a laugh escaping her lips as she happily shows off her outfit.
The actress isn't a household name quite yet, but Five Feet Apart -- her first major lead role -- could very well get her on her way. Though she's been in the business for under a decade, Richardson has already showcased her acting prowess through invaluable supporting performances in Freeform teen dramas (Ravenswood and Recovery Road), 2018's Support the Girls (as a peppy waitress) and 2016's The Edge of Seventeen (as Hailee Steinfeld's best friend who dates her brother), the latter of which landed Richardson raves.
"It's definitely something that's outside of my body," Richardson says of the quiet recognition she's gotten in her young career. "As much as you'd want to, like, if you do a movie that you are really proud of, obviously you'd want as many people to see it and like it or be moved by it. But I don't have any control over it, so I can't think about that. But a big part of why acting is so cool is, you get to have this selfish creative fulfillment. And then you get to share that in a movie or a show with other people and they get to have their interpretations of it. Half the joy of acting [would be] missing if you did something and no one ever saw it or no one ever got to feel something from it."
Richardson is also approaching a crucial fork in the road as she enters her mid-20s in Hollywood: the oft talked-about transition for young actors of her ilk from exclusively telling high school, teenage tales with rosier outlooks to mature, adult stories only life experience can convey. Recently, she lamented about the rigors of approaching adulthood when she shared a black-and-white photograph on Instagram. It's the first image "where I look at myself and see an adult woman person and not a 12-year-old person," she writes.
"That's not really how I feel like I look on the inside. Like, I think I'm going to be 90 one day and be walking around feeling like I'm 14, and then a mirror is going to pass, and I'm going to pass something and see my reflection and be like, 'Holy sh**, I'm like an old lady,'" Richardson says, as she fiddles with the hotel pillow. "I kind of want to just feel like a kid forever. Because kids have the most fun and they see the world in the best [way] -- that innocence or wonder that a kid sees in the world. I feel like it's really sad when people lose that, so I try to hold on to little baby kid Haley as much as possible."
"I did just get this script where I would be playing a young mother, and I was like, oh sh**. That's when you know. No more ABC family shows where I'm playing high school," she says, eyes widening a bit. "I'm a young mother. Someone is considering me for that. That's weird, that's bizarre." Nervous excitement would be the only way to describe Richardson's feelings about "venturing into this different age group" that will, hopefully, "open up more things." "I feel lucky in that way. I haven't really played the same character twice. Every project, every director I've worked with are completely different. It's a totally new vibe. You don't get pigeon-holed," she muses. "There are still so many more things that I want to explore that I don't know if studio executives look at me and would imagine me doing it, but that is exciting to imagine -- pushing that envelope and being something totally different than how I am or what I've done."
In Five Feet Apart, which marks Jane the Virgin star Justin Baldoni's feature directorial debut, Richardson plays Stella, a buoyant, obsessive rule-following 17-year-old YouTube vlogger who has cystic fibrosis. Somewhere along the way, she meets fellow cystic fibrosis patient, Will (Sprouse). He's the complete opposite of Stella; apathetic, moody and less than willing to abide by the strict regimen required by his clinical trial. They, of course, fall in love, but aren't allowed to touch, the invisible "six feet apart" rule instituted to protect CF patients from contracting potentially life-threatening bacteria from the other. It's a 2019 version of Fault in Our Stars, if you will.
But Richardson almost didn't star in Five Feet Apart, originally passing on the script when Baldoni -- who became a close friend through Richardson's longtime love Brett Dier, a co-star of Baldoni's on Jane the Virgin -- floated it her way. One, she was working on another project at the time. Two, she wasn't in the right headspace to tackle a story of this magnitude.
"I think where I was at in the couple things I had worked on right before [Edge of Seventeen] and the space I was in, with the kinds of things I was excited to do, I was [into] super grounded, simple, stripped away and as human as a story could possibly get," Richardson says. "Reading this type of genre of movie, no matter how moving and how real it is, it was hard for me to -- in terms of the creative space in my mind, I was wanting to do something different than that. I read it and I couldn't fully get on board with the big magical-ness of the teen romance world. And honestly, I couldn't get into it. I wrote Justin this big email and it was really hard, because I love Justin, and I was so proud of him, and I recognized that the script was so beautiful in so many ways. I just personally couldn't imagine me doing that next for some reason."
A lengthy phone conversation with Baldoni and his documentary about his late friend, Claire Wineland, ultimately changed Richardson's mind.
"He was like, 'Haley, just come and talk to me. We're friends. Tell me everything you feel and I'll tell you what I'm open to,' because he wanted to collaborate and he wanted to make the genre grounded. The characters themselves couldn't be magical, because the story's so magical. We talked through all of the words in the script on his lunch break on the set of Jane, and any time I read a word or a sentence or a conversation where I was like, 'I can't imagine that actually happening. Or, 'I can't imagine a 17-year-old girl saying this,' he was so open to it."Richardson shares. "Then, I was like, 'OK, I'll do it.'"
"He sent me the documentary he made of Claire, and that's when it really hit me, that no matter where I was at creatively or all that kind of bullsh**, like, this is a real story, and the weight and gravity and reality of cystic fibrosis -- these people have it their whole lives and live this way -- I became very passionate about that and learning about that and telling that story. When I was talking to Justin, and realizing the reality of it, that got me."
'Five Feet Apart' Star Haley Lu Richardson Talks Working With 'Pal' Cole Sprouse (Exclusive)
Creating chemistry with Sprouse was instantaneous, Richardson remembers, though the biggest challenge for the pair was unfurling a love story in an unconventional way, as their characters aren't allowed to touch. "We both just really cared about doing a good job, and doing justice to these characters, and making it as grounded and lived in as possible," she says. "Also, he's a nice, cool guy in real life, so I think it's one of those things where if both people are willing to commit to telling the story properly and believing the words they are saying, then it kind of happens."
"There's no sex scene in the movie. There's no big make-out scene. They genuinely fall in love because they have this connection, and yeah, I'm sure they are physically attracted [to each other] and they find the way they look in their bodies beautiful, but it's not about the moment where he puts his hand on her tit," Richardson says with a laugh. "It's about their vulnerability, and how they show each other in other ways to one another, and that's what's beautiful. That's what's refreshing and innocent, and kind of awkward."
She points to the climactic pool scene where Stella and Will are stripped down to their underwear as they bare their scars to each other for the first time. "That's the sex scene of the movie for sure," Richardson notes. "It makes it more intimate when you are exposed in an emotional way as opposed to a physical way sometimes."
And like Fault in Our Stars, Five Feet Apart has its heartbreaking, tear-inducing moments. Sprouse carries a heart-wrenching speech at the end of the movie that leaves things on an open-ended, bittersweet note. For Richardson, getting through the film's more emotional scenes wasn't particularly difficult, largely because her character is allowed to show her feelings.
"My character is allowed to cry," Richardson says. "There are times where she is trying to be so strong, but since you see them at this really high-stakes, pivotal moment in their life, they break and they have times where they are sad or hopeless. There's a lot of sad stuff, but at the end of the movie, I hope people walk out feeling inspired in their own lives, and awakened in a way." Richardson pauses, her inner child seeping through once more: "Or awoke!"