When actress Italia Ricci auditioned for the ABC Family pilot Chasing Life in late 2012, she was very unfamiliar with the subject matter at the heart of the show.
"[I] was like, 'Do I even have a right to be telling this story?'" she tells TVGuide.com of playing a twentysomething diagnosed with cancer. "I had doubts about if I was going to be able to do it justice as an actor. I've never had a personal experience with cancer. So, when I auditioned it was sort of like 'the C-word.' I was intimated by the whole idea of cancer and talking about it."
What a difference a year and a half makes. Now the star of the new cable drama, which premieres Tuesday at 9/8c, Ricci has attended several American Cancer Society events and is active on social media in reaching out to those suffering from the illness, as best evidenced by a recent photo of the mirror in her trailer adorned with inspiring photos and messages. "Doing all of these charity things is a no-brainer," she says. "As much as someone on a sci-fi show would get to do all these Comic-Con events and stuff like that, I feel like this is the same but better."
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It's safe to say that Chasing Life has had a profound impact on Ricci's life, both professionally and personally. In her first headlining role, she stars as April, a 24-year-old aspiring journalist who is diagnosed with cancer. Based on the Mexican telenovela Terminales, the series follows April's journey to accept and deal with her illness, as well as her struggle to balance her treatment with her career, her family and — this being ABC Family — her love life. "This girl does have cancer, but cancer is not her world," Ricci says. "There's just now a bit of cancer on the side."
Sound depressing? Executive producer Patrick Sean Smith says he was initially hesitant about signing on as the series' showrunner — and not just because he didn't want to work on a show about cancer. "One of my first reactions was, 'Well, how do you keep this show going?' For me, the show is about how her life has changed forever and that can go in to the series finale where she survives it or she doesn't,'" he says. "It's fun to see it touch everybody's lives around her in an encouraging way. Not in a way that drags them down, but in a way that motivates them to see things differently."
Also helping keep things light is the humor and candor with which the show deals with April's illness. However Smith, who previously created the ABC Family series Greek, admits making cancer comedic was much easier said than done. "There's all the anxiety of: Is having comedy in this show going to be perceived as disrespectful or flippant?" Smith says. Fortunately, he had several technical advisers to guide him, including 24-year-old Suleika Jaouad, who has been documenting her battle with leukemia for The New York Times' health and wellness blog for two years.
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"[She] was so grateful to see lighter moments in a show about somebody dealing with this because she's like, 'I don't see my life as depressing. There are heavier elements to it, but I have a lot of fun in my life,'" Smith says. "The fact that we get to show the good and the bad and the light and the dark with April is really so much of what the show is about."
That mixture is what Smith says will help Chasing Life stand apart from the growing trend of TV shows such as Parenthood and Brothers & Sisters featuring characters suffering from cancer. "Those were one story amongst many, and, with this, we have such real estate to delve into every aspect of April's life," he says.
And it seems the topic is becoming popular in Hollywood too. The Fault in Our Stars, which also features a young girl with cancer who falls in love, has sold 10.7 million copies and opened to $48 million at the box office this past weekend. "It is very similar to our show. The characters are different in the way that they handle things and the details are different, but there are a lot of events in the movie that happen in our show," Ricci says. "But I think it's great that people are bringing awareness to this because it affects so many people."
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More importantly, this increasingly crowded field also helps to reduce the stigma surrounding cancer. "I've sort of knocked cancer down to size," Ricci says of the effect of Chasing Life. "It shouldn't be something that makes people uncomfortable. It should be something that we can all say, 'F--- you' to." Adds Smith: "It's a struggle and it's a fight, and seeing April go through it is empowering for a lot of people."
However, going through this fight in front of the camera has taken a toll on Ricci, who jokes about drinking "a lot of wine" to cope with the emotional weight of the role. "Sometimes it's really hard to come home and realize that I'm not sick and realize that I can turn off the cancer after a long day of work. And all of these people — oh God, I'm choking up right now — all of these people don't get to do that," she says. "I cry in my car on the way home and sometimes it will just come out of nowhere because I just feel so bad for April."
Smith praises his leading lady's dedication to the role. "I'm blown away by how far she lets herself go into it," he says. "There was one day when she e-mailed me and was like, 'I couldn't find my whisk in my kitchen and I burst into tears.' I was like, 'You should take a day off. I think you're going a little too far into it.' But she's a really smart girl and she's established some really important emotional boundaries for herself to be able to separate herself from it at the end of the day."
But while she may not be allowed to read The Fault in Our Stars anytime soon — "my boyfriend was like, 'Absolutely not. You play a girl with cancer for 12 hours a day. You are not reading a book about it for fun,'" Ricci recalls with a laugh — the extra pain and suffering is "now so worth it," she says. "I'm getting all of these amazing stories from these incredible fans. Just seeing what a difference this show has already made before it's even premiered. I'll take having to cry everyday in my car for the rest of my life if I can keep making people feel like this."
Chasing Life premieres Tuesday at 9/8c on ABC Family. Watch a sneak peek here: