‘Purple Hearts’ Star Sofia Carson: We Wanted to Avoid “Taking Any Sides”

Sofia Carson’s new Netflix romance Purple Hearts, which counts her as star and executive producer, has gotten a lot of people talking.

Carson, previously known for the Disney Channel’s Descendants franchise and Freeform’s short-lived sequel series Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists, stars in the film as Cassie Salazar, an aspiring rocker with progressive values who agrees to marry a Marine named Luke (played by Nicholas Galitzine) solely for the military health insurance to cover her medical expenses as a type 1 diabetic. Likewise, Luke is dealing with his own financial hardships and would also benefit from the faux marriage that gradually leads to real feelings.

Directed by Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum, who worked with Carson on Perfectionists, the film has found an audience. Purple Hearts, featuring a pun-based title referencing a person with blue-state values mixing with someone identifying as red, debuted in the top spot on Netflix’s Top 10 for films and has remained near the top of the list since its July 29 release.

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The movie clearly has plenty of fans, but it appears to be a bit of a polarizing title as well. It holds a 38 percent critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and while some social media users praise the love story and message of acceptance, others have found fault with certain characterizations, including Luke’s fellow serviceman at one point relishing in “hunting down some goddamn Arabs.”

Sofia Carson as Cassie, Nicholas Galitzine as Luke in Purple Hearts

Courtesy of Mark Fellman/Netflix

“We definitely wanted to showcase the dichotomy between these two characters and their incredibly differing political views without taking any sides,” Carson, 29, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “They see each other with compassion and empathy. Call it optimistic, but that’s the story that we wanted to tell, is that if you lead with love, love can heal in ways that can be quite powerful.”

During the below interview, the star discusses the film’s aim to comment on this “divisive” political moment, her hopes to effect change in the health care system, her experience with Netflix amid reports of its changing film strategies and why the project lets viewers see her “in a way they hadn’t seen me before.”

The film has clearly connected with audiences, debuting in the top spot on Netflix’s Top 10 despite a seemingly modest profile. How did you first get involved?

This actually has been about five years in the making for me. I was shooting a series called Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists in Portland, Oregon, and I had the chance to work with my director, Liz Allen, while we were there. Around Christmastime [in 2018], she came up to me on set and handed me a script and said, “Merry early Christmas.” It said Purple Hearts, and it was a rough draft of our movie. She said that she wanted to consider doing this as more than just director and actor, but as partners and to bring this to life together. I came on as the executive producer and star of the film and had been developing it ever since, and it’s been the most fulfilling journey, personally and as an artist. It’s just the most beautiful feeling to know that it now belongs to the world, and the world has fallen in love with it as deeply as I loved making it.

Did you have a personal connection to military spouses?

I didn’t have a personal connection to military spouses. I do have a connection to the military, as my great-uncle and my two uncles on my grandmother’s side were both in the military. But what drew me most to this story was really that it was so much more than just a love story, but it was a love story with a really important social-political message. The last five years have been some of the most divisive in our country, or at least in my generation. The story is about two hearts from opposite ends of the world — one red, one blue, raised to hate each other — who, through the power of love, come together to form a beautiful shade of purple. That, to me, is the heart of our movie and a message I was really passionate about telling.

What went into handling the character’s health journey with type 1 diabetes?

As we were learning more and more about type 1 diabetes and developing Cassie, we learned that it’s, frankly, highly underrepresented in film and TV and in media. An issue that needs to be spoken of is the insulin crisis in this country and the health care crisis in this country, how there are countless girls and men and women like Cassie who literally can’t afford the insulin that they need to survive. I learned a lot about what it means to be a type 1 diabetic, what my daily life would look like. We had a doctor on set as well who taught me about the insulin pump, the injections and how I should be acting when I had a low-blood-sugar attack.

Sofia Carson as Cassie in Purple Hearts

Hopper Stone/Netflix

As a producer, you got to have a voice in the casting. Why was Nicholas the right fit for Luke, and how did you develop chemistry?

It was very interesting to be on the other side of casting for the first time in my life, and to be casting rather than casted. We met with a lot of really talented actors, and I knew the second that I read with Nick that he and I had something special because our chemistry was evident even via Zoom.

You’re a singer and perform a number of songs as Cassie. What was the music process like?

I’m forever grateful to Netflix and to Liz and to my producing partners for trusting me to have such a decision-making role in this film. Even when it came to the soundtrack, they trusted me to write the soundtrack and to pick my partner for the writing process, and the first person I reached out to was Justin Tranter. We wrote the soundtrack in a week. It’s surreal now to see the numbers and the stats of the soundtrack — we just found out it’s top 10 on Spotify. The song “Come Back Home” has had the most resonance so far and really just captures the essence of our film.

A lot of fans probably know you from Descendants, but it seems like this project is getting you seen in a different way. Has its success led to different kinds of meetings and conversations for you in the industry?

It’s been one of the craziest weeks of my life. It’s moments like this that step you into a different phase of your career, and I’m cherishing every moment, every opportunity that’s coming my way. I’m so grateful that it happened with this film because I’ve been so lucky to do so many beautiful things in my career, but I poured so much of my whole self into this movie and every aspect, and for this to be what is resonating with the world in such a massive way is so fulfilling and so gratifying. This being a very challenging and dramatic role has allowed the world to see me in a way they hadn’t seen me before.

Amid Netflix’s recent stock downturn, there were reports that the company may start focusing more on bigger projects. Had you gotten any sense that projects like yours could potentially be at risk in the future, or would you worry about that happening?

My only experience with Netflix has been, they have believed and supported in our film wholeheartedly from the very beginning. This is a relatively smaller movie compared to big blockbusters that they do, and they poured their whole heart into this, and I’m so grateful for the partners that they were. If anything, this is proof of the opposite of that because we were No. 1 in most countries around the world.

There’s been discussion surrounding Chris Pratt’s Amazon series The Terminal List over the show’s team defending its popularity despite not having a strong critical reception. Does it seem that projects with a military storyline can get put into a certain box or potentially be polarizing for audiences?

I can speak for us in that we haven’t had that situation whatsoever. Our movie has been so loved by the whole world. Of course, military families are so deeply connected to this film, but it seems to have spoken to the rest of the world as well. This message of “come back home” — even though in our film, it’s specifically about Luke coming back from the war to Cassie — it can be related to so many things. You’re seeing so many TikToks online of people turning this song and this message into coming back into your own skin or reuniting with your love or with family. But I think this message has become far more universal than just the story within our film.

Was it a goal to not politicize the film and find a way for viewers, regardless of political affiliation, to see themselves in it?

We definitely wanted to showcase the dichotomy between these two characters and their incredibly differing political views without taking any sides. And also showing that, especially Cassie’s character, she doesn’t ever abandon who she is or what she believes in. What happens with these two people is that, rather than approaching each other with hatred and with seeing their divisions, they start to see each other as human beings, not just political views. They see each other with compassion and empathy. Call it optimistic, but that’s the story that we wanted to tell, is that if you lead with love, love can heal in ways that can be quite powerful.

There’s now a new Pretty Little Liars series on HBO Max. Do you and Liz lament the fact that yours didn’t work out?

I think it was meant to be. We were meant to meet on that show, and that brought us here.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

Purple Hearts is currently streaming on Netflix.

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