Lead with love: An interview with ‘All My Life’ stars Harry Shum Jr., Jessica Rothe

Still shot from All My Life
Universal Pictures/Courtesy

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The average person lives for 27,375 days, according to the new romantic drama film “All My Life.” The tragedy of existence, however, is that those days often get cut short. “All My Life,” released Dec. 4, explores a young man’s battle with terminal liver cancer, his lust for life and the heartache of those closest to him in his ill-fated last days. 

Based on a true story, “All My Life” follows Solomon “Sol” Chau (Harry Shum Jr.) and Jennifer Carter (Jessica Rothe) as the two plan an expedited wedding in light of Chau’s quickly worsening condition. Co-stars Rothe and Shum Jr. portray a real-life couple who faced incredible pain and joy through this journey, and bringing that emotion to the screen was no small feat.

“We wanted to honor these people and their incredible love story,” Rothe said in a roundtable interview with The Daily Californian. “Luckily for me, I had Harry as my co-star, 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 kinds of fears and all of the second guessing and the doubt aside.”

In preparation for the roles, the co-stars met with Jennifer Carter to hear stories from her relationship with Chau and look through photos and videos taken before Sol’s passing in 2015. 

Though the actors strived to embody as much of Carter and Chau’s true essence as possible, Carter made it clear to them that she didn’t need to be mimicked in order to uplift her message of compassion and hope. The couple’s dedication shines through the emotional turbulence of last times, and the talented stars connected and worked to bring this love story to life.

“In the happiest moments, and I think even in hard times, they needed to hold each other accountable and keep trying to find ways to get through whatever obstacle is in their way,” Shum Jr. said. “Whether it be trouble with illness or something that’s life altering, it just reminds us how … now is the time to band together and to get through difficult times.”

But watching the videos reminded Rothe and Shum Jr. that cancer didn’t define Carter and Chau’s relationship. It was the “tiny, amazing, brilliant moments” that Rothe said shaped this couple’s journey and helped them stay present, living life to the fullest while they could.

“(Cancer) isn’t who you are, it’s an aspect of something that you’re going through,” Rothe said. “Not only does ‘All My Life’ kind of explore this illness in a more three-dimensional and layered way, but it also is a movie with a huge message of hope, and that’s very life affirming.”

The movie thus balances the trying experience of having cancer with the experience of caring for and supporting someone diagnosed with it. Many movies centering on illness can understandably feel bleak, but “All My Life” makes an effort to be lighthearted and colorful, reflective of this couple’s imperishable, bright bond.

“Universally, everyone wants to feel loved — they want to receive love,” Shum Jr. said. “What was really beautiful as I read the script is how much love that these two wanted to give, not just to each other, but to the people surrounding them. As much as they wanted to receive the love, they gave the same amount — or even more — to each other and the people around them.”

Considering “All My Life” wrapped filming in December 2019, the actors found it bizarre to watch the film back and see characters sharing drinks, talking face-to-face and gathering indoors — just some facets of a pre-COVID-19 world. 

After production, Rothe felt inspired to start traveling more often and look forward to planning her own wedding, but as we all saw at the beginning of 2020, the universe had other ideas.

“You can’t plan how your life is going to fall out, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t still take advantage of living and love and laughter and connecting with people that matter to you — it just might not always happen in the way that you thought it would,” Rothe said. “I think that you can live your life to its fullest in some small, intimate ways as well.” 

Performing as an on-screen couple and living as off-screen friends, Rothe and Shum Jr. ended up building their own inside jokes, playing with improvisation during filming and leaning on each other while shooting particularly heavy scenes. Rothe even joked that the elaborate Hollywood proposal scene set to Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back in Anger” might’ve given her fiance a run for his money.

But getting out of his character’s headspace was tough for Shum Jr. once filming ended. The same might be said for many viewers of “All My Life” — especially now, the thought of living life to its fullest can feel dampened, or still far out of reach. 

What the movie strives to communicate is that every moment and emotion is worth attention and appreciation; in times of crisis and struggle, forgetting to live while you’re here can be the biggest tragedy of all. 

Contact Skylar De Paul at [email protected]. Tweet her at @skylardepaul.