This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
In a conversation with The Maroon and other college papers, All My Life costars Jessica Rothe and Harry Shum Jr. discussed their recent film, lessons learned from COVID–19, and appreciating the little moments.
The Odyssey at Texas A&M: During a year like 2020, this movie felt really personal in its exploration of illness and grief. What statement is your film making about sharing and suffering?
Jessica Rothe: I think one of the things that drew me to this project, and Harry as well, is the incredible sense of community, both in the relationship between Jen and Sol—this beautiful friendship that blossomed into something more, even though their time together was cut short—and the love of friends and family. We are so much stronger when we band together, when we lead with love and we lead with our love for other people. Especially in this year of so much difficulty and heartache and isolation for so many people, [All My Life] is very timely. It’s an incredibly meaningful story about the power of love and the power of connection, and I hope that people can really find solace in that and have compassion for themselves and other people.
Harry Shum Jr.: Jen and Sol have always helped build each other up in the happiest moments and the hard times when they needed to hold each other accountable and keep trying to find ways to get through whatever obstacles were in their way. And [this time] happened to be something a lot more tragic. A lot of people have been hit with something that is life-altering, and it just reminds us of what Jessica said: Now is the time to band together and get through difficult times.
Daily Bruin: In conversations with the real-life Jen, was there anything she shared with you that helped you get into the emotions and personality of your characters?
HS: We have this responsibility, especially when you’re telling a story inspired by a real-life couple, and Jen was such a tremendous help for her generosity and her openness to share her stories and to share pictures and videos. One thing that struck me is that pictures and videos say so much of not just what people are doing…. You can tell by the little moments how someone was and how they interacted with people, and that was really helpful to get to know Sol better.
What was also really helpful was Jess having a conversation with Jen about the portrayal of their characters in the movie and not making it feel like we had to mimic them or find mannerisms to put in the film. It was more about giving us freedom to connect with each other and get this message across of the beautiful love that they shared together and really tap into the hope that a lot of us need right now, especially watching a film like this.
JR: I think there was also so much positivity. They were living, breathing, weird, complicated, and messy humans. Getting to know Jen and watching those videos reminded us to not focus on the cancer of it all, even though it was such a huge part of Jen and Sol’s journey. They didn’t let that define them, and this movie is about not letting an illness define you. Our lives are made up of so many tiny, amazing, and brilliant moments, so it’s [about] really living fully in all of them. I think that was something that Harry and I really strived to do.
Chicago Maroon: How do you think All My Life stands out from other on-screen depictions of cancer?
JR: I think that our film really explores all the facets of being a person who is diagnosed with cancer and also the loved one who is there to support someone diagnosed with cancer. [Cancer] does not stop you from being a human, from planning a wedding, from having a silly night with a loved one, or from having a fight. It is not who you are. It is an aspect of something that you are going through. Not only does All My Life explore this illness in a more three-dimensional and layered way, but it is also a movie with a huge message of hope, and that’s very life-affirming. I think it’s very easy, understandably, for a lot of films that deal with cancer to feel pretty depressing and bleak, so I love that about our film, and that’s why it’s a perfect time [for it] to come out right now.
HS: What Jessica was talking about—the arguments, the fights—those are natural things that are going to happen. One thing that struck me is the line where Sol said, “You don’t know what it feels like,” and it’s the same for the caretaker. We don’t know what that feels like as well in a lot of ways. I thought that it was a really nice, healthy balance of our film to see different perspectives and tap into that. I thought that was really important, because a lot of times films just focus on cancer, but I think [this balance] makes this film unique from others.
Aspect Film Journal: In acting, there is a lot of trying to find the truth of the characters within yourselves. Since these characters are based on real people, as actors, did you find it easier to find that truth within yourselves or harder because you had to borrow someone else’s truth?
HS: You hop into a project and it’s like a piece of clay: You start to figure out how to shape it so it fits best for the story. This one kind of came shaped already, and then you have to figure out, “How can I put my touch on it without messing it up or changing it?” because it is portraying real people who lived these real lives and went through these pains and felt these joys. For us, it was important to learn as much about it [as we could]. But at the end of the day, we talked to Jen, and her giving us freedom as actors and performers to help tell the story [while also putting] a lot of ourselves into it as well was a real gift. It allowed us to roll up our sleeves and [look] in between the lines and see where we can connect and find this connection that is not just important to portray but also to connect with the audience as well.
Duke Chronicle: Since this film was based on a real couple, did you find that there was more pressure to be more authentic, and did that authenticity make it any more challenging than your past roles?
JR: I think there definitely was pressure because we wanted to honor these people and their incredible love story and the connection that they had. But luckily for me, I had Harry as my costar who is such a magnetic, charismatic, kind, big-hearted talent. In that way, it made it very easy to step onto set and put those fears and second-guesses aside and just be present with him and find our own intimate, fun dance through this relationship. Our director [Marc Meyers] was also amazing because he really encouraged us to let scenes breathe and to find the improvisation within the scenes and find little moments that weren’t in the scripts that we could add. We came up with so many fun, amazing, and bizarre inside jokes and ways to [look out for each other in] the moments that got particularly heavy. We also both brought inspiration into these roles from advice that we’ve been given by loved ones or people who we’ve lost or by paying homage to people that we’ve lost. I think that all those things together kind of made up the perfect storm that helped us step into these roles and create three-dimensional, fully realized characters.
HS: Universally, everyone wants to give and receive love. That’s what we need as humans. I thought what was really beautiful as I read the script was how much love these two wanted to give, not just to each other, but to the people surrounding them. As much as they wanted to receive love, they gave the same amount or even more, which was felt by the strangers selflessly donating to help them have this magical wedding. I think we all just want to create memories—ones that we can talk about, [ones] that will last a lifetime. That was what was really special as a whole in the movie. It really helped all of us collectively, as a cast and crew, to know where we were heading, and we all knew what we needed to do in our own expertise to lift this story up for Jennifer and Sol.
Brown Daily Herald: What are some of the lessons you learned from acting in this role, and how do you plan to implement [them] into your future roles?
HS: We take for granted the little things like just hugging someone. After finishing the film, it was really emotional. It took me a while to get out of that headspace. We had this really emotional scene where Jen is reading a eulogy to Sol, and I remember that moment where I just felt a little bit of what it would feel like to have someone read something to you, knowing that those might be the last words you hear. But how the film was shaped in the end, [we were] still finding some silver linings and uplifting moments that come from even thinking of a memory of someone and something that you laugh about, knowing that you at least had those moments, and hopefully [having them] help[s] you move forward in your life. How you connect with people in your life is something that I took away and continue to [take away], whether it be hugging my wife or daughter or friend who I took for granted for not giving a text or phone call. Now I do it to maybe the point of annoyance. That’s really what I took away, not taking little moments for granted.
JR: I had a similar lesson. It’s being grateful and acknowledging those little moments, even though we all yearn for the weddings and the big, flashy, fun events and things that we can do. It is those little moments that make us who we are, like waking up and snuggling with your loved one or taking a walk with your dog or a hug. You don’t realize how special they are until you don’t have them anymore. Especially during this year, it’s breathing and remembering to be present and remembering that during this time when we’re all so isolated from each other, there are things about this experience that we can learn and grow from [that] will help shape who we are in a positive and amazing way and [lead us] forward in that positive way.
Her Campus: Could you take us through filming the proposal scene? What was it like, and what did it feel like?
JR: It was amazing for me because I asked our director if I could not come to rehearsal and have the rest of the cast figure out where I would be because I wanted to be surprised. In real life, when you’re being proposed to, hopefully there is some element of surprise, wonder, and magic in it. So, we decided to go that way and I was just blown away by the love that was just radiating from every single member of our cast. Harry killed it and of course, we had to film it more than once to get all the angles, so I knew what was going on. But by the end of the day, I had mascara down my cheeks, my cheeks hurt because I was grinning ear-to-ear, and I was so filled with joy and love, and I told Harry that my [then-fiancé] would be mad at him because he kicked his butt with his proposal. My husband proposed to me in a beautiful way, but this proposal was definitely the Hollywood, romantic, fairy-tale, larger-than-life proposal that many people dream of. So, I got to experience both.
HS: What was crazy about the proposal was that it was put together with the help of hundreds of people. I remember—Jess, you requested to not come to rehearsal, we all agreed, and I remember it was really hard for you not to come to rehearsal because you would walk by and be like, [despairing FOMO (fear of missing out) noises].
JR: I had so much FOMO. I have the worst FOMO in the world.
HS: That song [“Don’t Look Back in Anger” by Oasis, which Sol and everyone else sings during the proposal scene] is so special. When I read the script and realized that song was what I was going to be singing, I just…. I love that song, it’s such a good karaoke song, it’s so meaningful in different ways and we did a bunch of different versions. I thought what was special and what said so much about the scene was [that] it was just Sol [being] who he was with his friends. It felt almost off-the-cuff, and that’s what made it seem really special.
Daily Californian: Even though the film is labeled as a romantic movie, an overarching theme is living life to the fullest. How do you feel that that sentiment resonated with or inspired you in your own lives?
JR: It’s just taking advantage of every moment, no matter how big or small. We wrapped production at the end of 2019, and I got to go to The Bahamas for a day and shoot [the final scene], which was amazing. At that time, it was before the pandemic hit and I was like, “I’m going to live life to the fullest, there’s this big wedding that I’m planning”—and life is unpredictable, and it changed. I think the lesson I took from the movie is that while you can’t plan how your life is going to [go], that doesn’t mean you can’t still take advantage of living and love and laughter and connecting with people that matter to you. It just might not happen in the way that you thought it would. I think that’s a really powerful message, and hopefully in 2021 we can all do all of the things that you normally think of when you think about living life to its fullest. But I think that you can live your life to its fullest in some small, intimate ways as well.
HS: It’s strange even looking back. We filmed this in 2019 and we wrapped at the end of December. Watching it back is being like, “Oh my gosh, this is what it was [like] to be so close to someone and to just freely share anything.” You see those things and you just want to get back to that as quickly as possible. I’ve had a fair amount of loss in my life, and it continually reminds me of how special humans are. We are gifted with these emotions that can go all over the place, but for us to really tap into and honor every single one of those is what I took away from this film—even the ones that we don’t want, to know that there is a reason to feel that way and to have a conversation with it. That’ll allow us to really appreciate it, and when we have those moments that we do want, we’ll hold onto [them for] as long as possible. I hope that we can always go back to it when the time is right. There’s so much more that I took away from this film but that definitely is the spotlight for me.
CM: Final question. Harry, what did it mean to you to be an Asian guy and to also be the lead in a romantic Hollywood film?
HS: I feel very lucky and honored. But I would be lying if I didn’t say, “It’s about damn time.” Not just for me, but if it was someone else who got to fill this role, I would be championing it and getting behind it. I think when we start learning about the history of why we have to celebrate something like this, we need to look back and say [that for] us moving forward as a human race, not just a specific one—whether it be Asian, Black, Latino, or whatever—it’s important that we’re not erasing people for whatever makes a certain industry comfortable. I think it's important for us to keep telling different stories, putting in faces that have usually been erased. For me, I love that the set provided an open space [where] that wasn’t an issue. I hope this continues so that more people can see themselves on-screen—not just as a face￼￼￼,￼and get to play characters that are complex and not oversimplified. I’m grateful to be in this position and I hope that it does not stop here.