As ABC Family gets ready to debut its new series “Chasing Life," lead actress Italia Ricci is finding herself in a unique position. Portraying a young aspiring journalist who learns she has cancer, Ricci hoped people would identify with her character’s all-too-real situation. But she had no idea how much that portrayal would mean to people – even before the show aired.
“I’m getting a lot of fan mail and people are sharing their [cancer] stories with me,” Ricci tells SpoilerTV in a joint media conference call about the show. “I get these letters and they are just so amazing and inspiring to me. It’s incredible, the strength of the young adults and children with cancer that I’m beginning to know. It’s a little overwhelming, but in a great way.”
Ricci takes these personal stories to heart. “I’m so grateful that I can be somebody that makes them feel like they’re being heard,” she says. The actress isn’t just spouting off canned answers about how she feels. She has clearly thought about this before. As she begins to talk about the hardest part of shouldering that responsibility, Ricci suddenly gets choked up. “Oh my God, I’m totally going to cry.” And she isn’t exaggerating. Her voice catches and you can hear the emotion in her next words: “I don’t feel so great when I get to come home and not be sick when there are so many people who can’t turn it off.”
“She’s so many things,” she says of the character. “She’s just a regular girl. She’s a stubborn, smart, ambitious girl who just wants happiness and success in her career and love. She’s written so well. She gets giddy and girly and sort of goofy and then she’ll just be a bitch. There’s so much to do with her and it’s so exciting. Some days I get to come in and ball my eyes out, and some days I get to come in and scream my head off. And some days I get to come in and laugh like a hyena. I don’t have to wake up and play the same tone every day, which keeps it so interesting and I think keeps the performance fresh.”
As the series title suggests, April is “chasing life” with all that means, cancer or not. “She’s chasing everything,” Ricci explains. “She’s chasing that success as a journalist. She’s chasing the happiness for her mother to find love after her father. She’s chasing her sister all around as she’s figuring out who she is becoming. Before she gets diagnosed she was already chasing life. But now she’s just got to run a bit faster.”
When it comes to her character, Ricci admits she has some things in common with April. “We’re both pretty stubborn and hyper organized,” she shares. “I can’t function if there is like a dirty dish in the sink or things aren’t where they belong. I’m a little OCD, so I think April and I share that. There’s a bunch of jokes in the show about how organized she is and I think that’s really the writers just taking shots at me.”
While Ricci and her personality have shaped the character, she says April has also influenced her. The character is one who refuses to give up when life is hard. Over time April plows ahead with her dreams and finds new strength to face life with a renewed passion. “She’s actually inspired me a lot more than I expected her to, which is kind of great,” says Ricci. “I wish I was as ballsy as her. I hope to be.”
At the same time, Ricci loves that the character has flaws. She struggles like anyone else and doesn’t always deal with things the right way. “She makes mistakes and she relies on people to help. She’s not a hero. She’s definitely a role model but she’s not perfect. I think that’s really important for a character that we want audiences to relate to.”
When April learns she is sick, her family role amplifies her fear. “She doesn’t want the people who she feels she has to take care of needing to take care of her,” Ricci says. “She feels so much responsibility to make sure that everybody is happy and when she tells them that she’s going to need the help now and she can’t play that role as well as she would before then, she thinks it will sort of all fall apart. She’s terrified.”
Though it may not happen right away, Ricci’s comments reveal that April does eventually tell her family the devastating news. So what else can we expect as the series moves forward? “The season is going to explore how the diagnosis elevates all of the stakes in April’s life. All of her decisions matter to her a little bit more than she thought they did at this point,” Ricci previews. She says viewers will see how April handles that – in the mistakes that she makes and the victories that she accomplishes. “It’s interesting to see her whole world sort of getting massaged because of this big, awful thing.”
On the lighter side, Ricci says watch for episode six – it was her favorite to film because she got to drive a Maserati as fast as she could. And though April has a crush on co-worker Dominic (Richard Brancatisano) that seems to be heading toward a relationship, another young man enters her life in episode two. Scott Michael Foster plays Leo, the son of a wealthy gubernatorial candidate April is assigned to cover for work. Though April and Leo share an unpleasant first encounter, Leo eventually teaches April a few valuable lessons.
April says the entire cast and crew have a great time together. “I am so excited to go to work every day,” she says. “They are some of my favorite people in the entire world. Everybody does such a fantastic job. We’re all just so grateful to be there. There are no egos anywhere. It’s like I have this gigantic new family that I get to hang out with every day and I would do it for free. … Don’t tell anyone.”
Ricci says she feels extremely lucky to have won the role in the first place. She tells us, “Besides one other series that I did called ‘Unnatural History,’ I had really only ever played quintessential stereotypical ‘Hot Girl One’ or whatever. So when this one came up, I was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s real. It’s something that I can actually lose myself in and sort of become.’ When I got the audition, I was auditioning for everything during the pilot season and this one was kind of like a golden ticket. This is the role that you are just like, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be one that everybody is dying to get.’”
Because of that, she was extremely nervous about the audition. Hailing from Ontario, Canada, Ricci was working on getting her green card and had to have a couple of shots right before she went in for the part, leaving her out of sorts. “I didn’t even remember the audition,” she says. “I remember getting into the car and just crying and being like, ‘I ruined it, I screwed it up.’ I called my agent to see if I could get another appointment and they were like, ‘Actually, you’re screen testing.’ I just about peed my pants.”
Ricci booked the role after screen testing against two other girls. She remembers the exact day she got the fateful call: October 9, 2012. “I was at McDonald’s. My friend has a video of me getting the call and screaming, running around McDonald’s like a complete psycho. I grabbed my Big Mac, forgot my fries and went and had Big Macs and champagne at my manager’s.”
From all indications, she has no reason to be terrified. The “Chasing Life” Facebook page already has over 235,000 likes. The network has encouraged fan reviews on the site, which continue to pour in with positive responses. ABC Family ordered 20 episodes of the series. Just as the pilot debuts, the cast is filming the finale this week. “I’m looking forward to this one scene in the finale that I’m going to be filming, but I can’t tell you what it is,” Ricci teases.
I guess we will just have to wait to see how things turn out. Until then, Ricci says she hopes viewers find the show a source of hope and inspiration to never give up.
“Chasing Life” premieres tonight on ABC Family. It airs after “Pretty Little Liars” at 9/8 Central.
Are you excited for the premiere of "Chasing Life?" What are you most looking forward to about the show? Let us know in the comments below.