From the director Marc Meyers and screenwriter Todd Rosenberg, My whole life is inspired by the incredibly moving love story between Jennifer Carter (Jessica Rothe) and Solomon Chau (Harry Shum Jr.) who are in a race against time. When Sol receives a devastating diagnosis, it speeds up their lives together and makes them cherish even more every moment along the way.
During the film's virtual press conference, Collider had the opportunity to chat 1: 1 with actress Jessica Rothe about why she was so deeply connected to Jenn and Sol's love story, the pressure to get the wedding scene right, the immediate bond with which she combined with co-star Harry Shum Jr. and finding the difficult balance in tone. She also talked about playing characters in very different genres, how much she knew about them Utopia Pre-registration story sheet, whether there could ever be a third Happy death anniversary Film and branch out into writing their own material.
(Editor's note: includes spoiler for Utopia, Season 1, Episode 2, "Just a Fanboy".)
Image via Universal Pictures
COLLIDER: To start with a fun and unrelated question, could you play a character on one of your favorite TV shows, even something that isn't currently on the air, who you want to play and what do you want them to do in this world?
JESSICA ROTHE: Oh, that's an amazing question that I never thought about. I dont know. Maybe I want to do Breaking Bad and just play Bryan Cranston's character. That could be really fun and juicy. If I jumped into something like this I would be really interested in a gender change, like being Tony Soprano and doing a great piece of the Lady Mob Boss era. I'm trying to figure out what to do. I just want to do all the fun things they do, but with the Jessica Rothe twist. However, that's a good question. Just for fun, my husband introduced me to Firefly, which I had never seen before. I would totally hang out in a western space world. That could be really fun. I could go to the salon and get into laser bar fights or something.
What did you connect with most when you first read this script? Did you cry when you read it?
ROTHE: Oh, 100%, especially this one. I cried several times the first time I read it. And then when I read it again, the waterworks were already loose, so it was like Niagara Falls. The dog picks me up every time, whether it was the script or the trailer. It's just so deeply sad and touching. Our great screenwriter Todd (Rosenberg) captured so many great, intimate, and very detailed moments like this one. One of the things that make this film so incredibly unique is that there are a lot of very small, personal moments that carry so much weight emotionally, whether it's deep joy or sadness. I read the script probably a year or a year and a half before I was lucky enough to be tied to it. I met our incredible director Marc Myers and talked about it at length.
I not only fell in love with Jenn and Sol, but also with their love story, their relationship and the community they had built around them, and what a testament it was to who the two of them were as people that they had such an incredible group of friends who were so willing to go out of their way to show their love and support for them. I also really connected and fell in love with Jenn's strength, resilience, bravery, quirkiness, and magnanimous joy. I really love that this is the story of a woman who is fighting for her partner and for the life they should have together. It doesn't mean living in denial or never having moments of fear or weakness or total despair, but rather getting through those moments and arriving at the other side and realizing who she is as a person at the end of the movie. is totally because of the incredible love she had and the amazing man she married. I connected so deeply and deeply to it because I am lucky enough to have married my best friend. I knew that I really had to be a part of bringing this love story into the world and breathing life into these characters. It just meant a lot to me.
It must be so hard to tell a story like this because you connect with the characters and the relationship, but you know the real outcome and there is nothing you can do to change it. What do you see in tragedy as the most joyful aspect of its history?
ROTHE: It's so difficult because there are these incredibly beautiful, joyful moments, like the wedding, the proposal and even the fountain scene. It's only the two who live in this larger than life love story that is so real to both of them. For me, so much joy comes from really quiet, intimate moments, like lying in bed or walking together or brushing their teeth at the same time. These tiny, quiet, beautiful moments make us who we are and make our relationship specific, unique, beautiful, perfect, and flawed. For me and Harry (Shum Jr.) and Marc, our great director, investing in those small, intimate moments was important, just as we invested in the big, flashy moments.
Image via Universal Pictures
What's the experience of getting dressed and filming a wedding scene? Obviously, you don't have the same pressures to have a real wedding, but is there still some pressure to get it right?
ROTHE: Oh, that's totally possible. The real Jenn was there for the marriage vows too, which were so amazing, beautiful, intense and terrifying. It's super surreal. I planned my wedding at the time we were filming the wedding. We even talked about getting married in New Orleans and I went to see the place where we shot the film. So it was a strange alternate universe version of what my wedding could have been. It's just so much fun. I love my job for so many reasons, but one of them is to be able to dress up and pretend I'm in one of the most amazing, bizarre, and beautiful ways. It is every girl's dream to have a wedding and I have to have that big, beautiful wedding without the stress of who the caterer would be and who would do the flowers. I just had to show up which was a dream. There was definitely still adrenaline left. I didn't marry Harry in real life, but by that point we had built such a beautiful and special bond and I felt so connected to him that getting it right is important, not just for us, but because We really wanted to honor Jenn and Sol's love and connection. It was all the more important to really grasp the emotional aspects of this day.
A movie like this won't work if you don't believe and care about the couple in their midst. At what point in the process did you and Harry Shum Jr. actually meet, what was it like to meet him and did you have a moment where you could breathe a sigh of relief because you felt it was going to work?
ROTHE: Yes, 100%. I met Harry while reading chemistry and he was the only person we auditioned who could not only capture Sol's boyish charm and charisma and pin down the humor and jokes, chemistry and love aspect, but also the emotional vulnerability and fear and some of the much more difficult, trickier, darker scenes and materials. Not only that, but the little that we worked with that day, I got so much respect from him. We could ask each other questions, experiment and try things out, and we both felt very safe. The backbone of any good relationship – on-screen or off-screen, romantic or friendly – needs a lot of trust. Both partners need to feel safe because when you feel safe you are ready to take risks, be vulnerable, and put yourself there. It's such a big part of my process as an actor.
What pulled you the most when it came to everything Jenn and Sol went through?
ROTHE: One thing I will always remember in my conversations with Jenn was how much he emphasized her conscious decision to approach the remaining time they had together with joy, a sense of humor, and assertiveness. I can't imagine getting engaged and finding out that soon after you might lose the love of your life. It's something that makes me incredibly emotional. During the entire shoot, I called Eric (Clem), my husband, every night and thanked him for his wellbeing. It's something he's out of control at all, but it really impressed me. I am so in awe of Jenn and Sol and the love that they keep pouring out into the world even after the unthinkable has happened to them. As a result, she really feels like they are making the most of every single moment. It is such a testimony to who Sol was that he left a legacy as big and beautiful and positive as it is. It's a big thing that I took away and I hope that the people who see the movie can really internalize and receive that because I think it's such a central part of who they were as a couple .
Image via Universal Pictures
If you retell the story, I would imagine that not only would you want to be respectful of Jenn, but you would also want to live up to the memory of someone who is no longer here. How did that follow you during the shoot? Was that something you always thought about or was it something you tried not to think about?
ROTHE: We thought about it a lot. It probably fell a little more on Harry's shoulders than mine because he was playing Sol. Whenever we dealt with scenes between the two, whether it was positive, happy scenes, or even something as dramatic as the fight, we really wanted to make sure that they were two complex, layered, intelligent, intriguing, and wonderful scenes acted on people who were flawed but who you love for their flaws. It was always a balancing act because in order to honor him and honor their story, we didn't want to gloss over things and turn them into cotton candy. We wanted there to be depth and power there because we felt, and I felt, that her story deserves that depth and complexity. So I think we took that with us throughout the shoot. As a result, there have been some days that have been incredibly tough. The day we did the scene where we read the obituary, Harry and I took turns holding on because it just hit us, how incredibly heartbreaking and unfair it was, how unfair it is for people to see this on a daily basis and how happy we are. In the smallest case, we can only hope that this film brings comfort to people who have had a similar experience, that it will be cathartic in some way, and that we have honored the memory of two souls, which I really hope we did.
The tone for this can be difficult because you want it to come from the heart, but you don't want it to be too sentimental or just sad. What did you like about the approach your director Marc Meyers wanted to take and the way he wanted to approach this material?
ROTHE: What I love most about working with Marc is how organic his process is. It always came from the homework I did, or what Harry and I did, or what Harry, Marc and I did. We kept coming back to the question: "What happens in this scene? What do we have to learn for the story to move forward? And where are these characters emotionally?" At the heart of this film is the story of a relationship, and that's the part we have to buy. The fact that Marc kept bringing it back there is one of the reasons we were able to balance all things. It's difficult to go from comedy to drama and find all the nuances, but that's also so incredibly human. For me, the key to the human experience is juggling great joy and great sadness. Hopefully, since we always approached it from a truly human, grounded place, we could avoid making the movie sugar-sweet or overly soapy.
You play so very different characters from each other, just from Valley Girl to Utopia to All My Life. From the moment you signed up for Utopia, did you know that your character's journey would be what it was, and that it would end the way it did?
ROTHE: Fortunately I did it because otherwise I would have experienced a rude awakening. I was one of the lucky ones who knew that. That was the joke among the nerds. It was like, "Behave yourself or Gillian (Flynn) might kill you." But I knew that I was the leader of the group's red herring and that I would be the sacrificial lamb to be brutally murdered. I loved this opportunity so much and I love this cast. I love really, really different roles in really different genres. I love stretching and challenging myself and getting myself into uncomfortable positions because I've never tried them before. I think that's how we learn and grow as people and as artists. I feel incredibly lucky that I had so many different options.
Image via Amazon
What is it like as an actor to shoot such a moment and what is it like to actually see the finished moment?
ROTHE: The shooting is surprisingly technical. It's intense when someone points a gun in your face. Even if you know it's not real, it's still very intense. This scene is so emotionally intense, but I wanted Sam to think for a moment that she fixed it. Just a quick breath from the audience: "Okay, everything is fine" before it happens because then it's more fun and juicy and weird and messed up. The whole time I just thought, “My mother will hate this. My mother will hate it so much. She will be so upset. "And she was. She was very upset. But I like stuff like that. I think it's really fun. When you break off a stunt like this, especially when someone gets killed, there are so many technical aspects that it will never be charged or is emotionally fluid as you might want it to be.
You were also a supporter of a third Happy Death Day film and were able to tell more about that character's story. What are the chances of actually making this third film? What actually has to happen to achieve this?
ROTHE: I'm just saying that I know (Director) Chris (Landon) has the idea in his brilliant brain because he's a genius, a master and one of my favorite people around the world. I honestly do not know. Making films is such crazy alchemy and chance and a mixture of luck, money and the right time, the right place. What I know, and what Chris and I feel strongly, is that we just want the movie to happen if it goes right, to end the story of Tree and to really endorse the two incredible films we have made before and in honor of our fan base. They are so incredibly loyal and I love them and I love how much they love Tree and I would never let you down. Who knows? 2021 is a new year. I feel like there are many options. Once we leave 2020, anything can happen. Not so much in 2020, but once we're on the other side, the sky is the limit. Who knows?
Do you know what to do next? Are you shooting something now or trying to figure out how to make the next one as safe as possible?
ROTHE: Yes to all of that. I don't know when I'll be on set next time. I was actually tied to something before COVID started, but it's a project unrelated to the COVID restrictions. I think it's gone for a while which is fine. I'm currently writing something which is an endeavor that I started before COVID, and COVID just gave me a lot of time to sit down and actually write, which is incredibly difficult. Everyone who is a writer has my greatest respect because it sucks sometimes, holy cow. My writing partner and I are working on what will hopefully be our final draft before we try to make this thing green and take it out into the world. So an optimistic part of me is hoping to be able to make this film maybe next year. I would also act in what would be so strange and wild, but we all have to try things that make us uncomfortable.
Is it so terrifying to stare at the blank page as many people say?
ROTHE: Oh, it's terrible. You say, "Oh, wow, I have nothing to say. All of my thoughts are rubbish." It's the worst internal criticism you can imagine in any one place. When I'm on set and struggling with a scene, I have the director to help me or my co-stars. Hopefully I'll keep doing this until I've got a few tricks up my sleeve to fake it, until I've made it. But when I write, I might just fool them all the way up. That could be writing. It's just a lot of fakes and from time to time it becomes something. It was an amazing learning experience. It's been a long time since I've used my brain so differently. So I did that which was fun. And I really got into potters. I rented a bike for the first few months of quarantine and learned how to make bowls, so that was fun.
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About the author
(4653 articles published)
Christina Radish is a senior reporter at Collider. After working at Collider for over a decade (since 2009), her main focus has been on film and television interviews with talent in front of and behind the camera. She's a theme park fanatic who has had various land and ride openings covered, and a huge music fan for whom she judges life in terms of pre-Pearl Jam and after. She is also a member of the Critics Choice Association and the Television Critics Association.
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