Last fall, a group of journalists and I were invited out to the Vancouver set of the new CW series Life Sentence, which focuses on a young woman, Stella (Lucy Hale), who gets a second chance at life once she finds out she’s cancer-free. Though Stella spent eight years preparing for her death, she now has to face the consequences of her “life for the moment” attitude, including her marriage to Wes (Elliot Knight), who is basically a stranger. It also turns out that her perfect family was hiding their real dysfunction from her while she was ill, but now it’s all coming out.
We got the chance to speak with Hale and Knight about their characters, how the show subverts typical stories about cancer, what Stella and Wes’ relationship may look like now that their I Do’s really are forever, and more.
Question: This show is a very different approach to telling a story about cancer. What has it been like getting to explore that?
HALE: Yeah, initially, when I had gotten approached with this idea, they had said, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if the girl who was supposed to die ended up living, and she has to live with all these decisions and choices she made while she was dying?” So I loved it. I initially thought it was such a great idea and something that I had never seen or heard before. It’s very interesting. Where we pick up in the pilot, you meet this girl who is pretty impulsive anyway. But if she’s living like she’s dying, she’s going to do some pretty crazy like marry a guy she’s known for three days in Paris. Who knows what else she’s gotten herself into? But we meet her, we find out she’s going to live, which is great news, but to realize that she has no idea who she is and no who her family really is, because they’ve been protecting her in this little bubble from the reality of their problems and the reality of the world. So when she finds out she’s going to live, it’s a bittersweet moment, because then at the same time, she realizes how insanely dysfunctional her family. That’s been so fun to dive into in the later episodes.
KNIGHT: Same as you. When I initially read the pilot, I was struck by how different it was to the normal story, because it almost told what the movie version of this would typically be, but that was just the beginning. The real story begins at what would normally be the end. That’s something that you don’t really see discovered in that sense. I also thought it was incredibly funny and heartwarming. During pilot season, you read so many shows, all the time, trying to set up this dynamic and get you hooked and invested, and it was one of the only ones that I read – It was the first one that I read where I felt so engaged instantly with the characters and loved where – Actually, it was very different in the pilot, but I loved the dynamic with both of them, what they represented in the love that they had for each other, how impulsive it was sort of in its purest form. Then getting to do it, it was so amazing because it realized the potential it had when I read it. It was just as fun to make, just as funny, just as heartwarming, just as touching, just as real. And it’s nice to not just go over the real issues and factors of going through something like cancer and surviving, but actually being honest about it, and finding the humor where it’s appropriate, and telling a different version of that story. And yeah, it’s continued to be fun so far.
How will the marriage evolve after they find out she’s cancer-free?
KNIGHT: When we meet in Paris, for Wes, he meets this amazing new life force of someone who has this whole perspective on living, existing, that he’s never encountered before. He is kind of stuck in his dead-end routine ways, and he’s kind of losing a sense of purpose and fulfillment and enjoyment in life, not to get too deep. [Laughs] Then he meets Stella, and she blows him away because she is just this amazing, magnetic, spontaneous creature who lights a fire inside of him. I think he, for the first time in his life, stops thinking and just goes straight for that feeling. That is very much the theme of their marriage and them as a couple together: it’s this burning fire that they’re both just dancing in and living in. Oh, that sounds good.
HALE: That was really good. Should we write a song? Also, side note, me and Elliot’s band name is called Knightinghale. You get it? OK, I thought it was super clever. So when Stella realizes she’s going to live, she also realizes she knows not much about her husband. They realize how much they had never discovered, things they had never discovered about each other. So there are definitely some speed bumps. At the core of everything, they love each other so much, and there’s that childlike love that’s always there. Their chemistry and connection is just undeniable, so that’s what keeps them together. But there’s definitely a lot of learning and growing to do.
KNIGHT: For sure. A lot of secrets that existed that we didn’t even know existed that we have to end up facing, which is pretty interesting.
For Elliot, what does Wes think of all of Stella’s family dysfunction?
KNIGHT: [Laughs] I feel like all he knows is he loves this woman, fiercely. And so, he will deal with whatever else comes with it. But also, as Lucy said, there’s a lot of things that Stella doesn’t realize are happening. So in a way, they go through that journey of discovering the dysfunction together and seeing how that impacts them together, as well. But I think it’s interesting for him because he’s obviously English. He’s made the move from England to come over and now live with his wife that he met days before and is now living with her for months, and he has this whole new family. I think he’s just a man searching for a new way to live life, and in this bubble that he’s in right now, he feels like he’s found that. I see him sort of wanting to attach himself to the family or looking for a place to call home within this new home that he’s found, which happens to be somebody else’s. That’s a constant thing he goes through, and we definitely get into that a little bit more as the series goes on, of how he’s trying to relate to his new family and also how he relates to his actual family.
The show seems very aware of tropes and subverting them, can you talk about how else it might eschew people’s expectations?
KNIGHT: I feel like just because of the nature of the pilot that you saw — it being different in its roots — I think it just has a knock-on effect to everything else. Even if things do seem like a similar format, it’s being come at from a completely new angle and you dive into aspects of it that you wouldn’t normally. And that is what is definitely, for us, makes it so interesting to read each new script that comes in and see….we might have an idea of where we’re going, but how are we going to look at it and what specific bits are we going to hone in on?
HALE: The show is so because these characters aren’t perfect and they do mess up. You know, you find out in the pilot that this whole time her parents’ marriage has been not ideal, her mom is bisexual, her brother’s dealing drugs and is just a hot mess. But that’s what’s so great, is that people aren’t perfect and we’re not shying away from that. And it’s dealt with in a really funny way, because I think there’s nothing more relatable than dysfunction.
Lucy, can you talk a little bit more about the dysfunction with Stella’s family, and how they react after they find out that Stella is cured?
HALE: I’ll just go back to the pilot, but Stella grew up believing that she had this perfect fairytale life and that everything was rainbows and glitters and unicorns and love always works out because why doesn’t it? And so everything comes crashing down on her. Her bother and sister reveal to her that this is behind closed doors, this is not really what’s happening. It’s sort of a weird time for her because she’s discovering how relationships really work and that sometimes love falls apart and that sometimes your mom is bisexual. But it’s also a great time of self-discovery, not just for Stella but for Aiden as well. Everyone put their life on hold for Stella, so everyone’s kind of at this point like ‘well, where do we go now? For the last 8-10 years we’ve done everything for her’. So I think everyone’s a little confused on which road to go down. But it definitely leads to some arguments, some blow-outs. But at the end of the day, this family just really loves each other despite their flaws, despite everything. It’s really beautiful. It’s a cool little family.
For Lucy, what are you doing in this role that you haven’t before? Especially after playing the same character for a long time?
HALE: I have to say, it was very weird to…I jumped into something pretty quickly after Pretty Little Liars, which that was not really expected. But I read this script and I fell in love with Stella because she is just someone that we could all be a little more like. She looks at the glass half-full and she’s optimistic and she thinks that everything will work out. And she is a pretty optimistic and positive person. I admire her in a lot of ways. She has a great sense of humor. I think that’s one thing that I haven’t really played around with with acting. I’ve never gotten to do a comedy. And I thought the writing was really witty and she talks a lot. So this has been….it’s been a challenge for me….
KNIGHT: She does talk a lot.
HALE: She talks in monologues. She just talks so much. So it’s been challenging as an actress because tonally it’s just completely different from Liars or anything else I’ve done. It’s been nice to change it up. It’s exciting. I hope that everyone lives her as much as I do.
There are a lot of puns for store names in the town — do you have a favorite?
HALE: Aren’t they cute? The Cold and the Beautiful, the ice cream store. The writers are so clever.
KNIGHT: It’s such a delight getting every script because there are so many lines. Especially as we’ve gone on and they’ve had more time to tap into our own sense of character and humor, you see that feed into the characters on the page. It’s so fun to get to work with people who have that kind of vision and talent. To bring something so honest to life.
HALE: What you guys didn’t know is that originally Wes was supposed to be American and [Elliot] came into the audition and they’re like “Will you read it in an American accent and a British?” And obviously they went with British. So now Stella tries to do a British accent throughout the series and it’s so bad.
KNIGHT: And that happens because Lucy would do it to me, just not acting.
HALE: I would just do it and they were like “Wow, that’s really bad.”
There are two married couples on the show, you two and Diego/Elizabeth. Is there any rivalry there or competition?
HALE: Not at all. No jealousy whatsoever. I think that, if anything, we look up to Lizzy and Diego. Because in our eyes they’re picture-perfect and they kind of are. But we discover that they’ve had some speed-bumps along the way. And so Stella goes to Lizzy for a lot of marital advice. A lot.
KNIGHT: We feel like they’ve figured it out and we are figuring it out. And so in that we’re, like, maybe there’s some answers there or they can offer some guidance. Which is pretty cool. And it sets up a nice dynamic with us and them as well.
HALE: And then you and Diego’s character…
KNIGHT: We have a nice little bromance at some point. But it feeds into the characters nicely that way.
What will see in the flashbacks?
HALE: In the pilot we see a lot of things from when we first met and when things were just perfect.
KNIGHT: When we were in the bubble of romance and we were untouchable. And as we explore our characters and our dynamic in the story that bubble gets burst.
HALE: But we also see….we flash back to when Stella is going through her chemotherapy and when she’s younger and sick in the hospital. It’s really cool in the flashbacks because we get to see from her perspective. But sometimes we’ll do flashback where it’s seen from another person’s perspective. And it’s interesting to see how different those two can be. So I play all the way from 15 to 23 in this show, which is fun. They just throw some long hair on me. And we got to do where I see myself in the future, so I got to play older too.
KNIGHT: There is an episode where there are a lot of flashbacks from Wes’ perspective or about his story. Because, like we said, we don’t know each other as well as we think we do. And then we realize that and so some of the flashbacks serve the purpose of filling in those gaps. And not just for Stella, some of them for Wes as well. It’s actually one of my favorite episodes.
Life Sentence premieres Wednesday, March 7th on The CW.