In many ways, Everything, Everything is your typical teenage rom-com. It centers on Maddy, a beautiful but socially awkward young woman who’s allergic to everything—the air, grass, germs—and therefore has been sheltered from the world by her overprotective mother. But when a handsome teen named Olly moves in next door, he and Maddy strike up a friendship that changes her life forever.
If you’re like me, you grew up watching your fair share of films like these—think any movie with Julia Stiles from the early noughties—and loving them. I was never short on crushes and obsessed with happy endings, because that meant there was hope for me. While my homegirls and I would spend hours trading snacks and one-liners about the latest young adult romance, there was one thing we’d never see: black girls at the center.
Sure, my favorite films had black female characters: the sassy best friend, the tell-it-like-it-is homie, the super-smart nerd. But the black girl never got the guy, and if she did, she didn’t keep him long. So when I watched Everything, Everything, I was pleasantly surprised to see Maddy, played by Amandla Stenberg, in the middle of it all.
Recently, I spoke with the film’s director, Stella Meghie, and its stars, Amandla Stenberg and Anika Noni Rose (who plays Maddy’s mom), about the project, which was based on the popular book by Nicola Yoon. Though it is full of #BlackGirlMagic, discussions about race are absent from the film—and that’s what makes it so special.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
This movie is full of Black Girl Magic. It has a black director, black stars, and is based on a book by a black woman. What was it like knowing you were creating this project that literally black women built from the ground up?
Stella Meghie: When I read the project I was just like, “Is this real? Are they making this? Is there a black girl in the lead [and] are they [reaching] out to me too?” To be able to add Amandla and Anika to the mix was just…it just got stronger and stronger as it went along.
Amandla Stenberg: I was just shocked and excited to come across a lead character in this type of film. We normally see these films with white girls carrying the movie. Then to see that it was going to be directed by a black woman and based on this book that was intentionally written for a biracial girl to play that role, and to be in this relationship with this boy and not have to have this big conversation about race kind of pushing the plot forward.
Anika Noni Rose: I was very excited. I didn’t realize in the beginning that Nicola was black because [of the name] Nicola Yoon. But it was enough for me because I was like, “Yoon, she’s a woman of color, this is great.” And then I found out that she’s this amazing black woman writing these magical stories, magical realism, and we don’t really get that very often. And then Stella called and I knew listening to her voice, and I was like, “Oh, ok, she’s black.” And then she said, “So, Amandla…” And I was like, “In!”
Stenberg: Honestly, I’m not someone who receives young romance scripts and thinks, “Oh, this is the one for me.” Traditionally, when I’ve received scripts for young adult stories, teen romance movies, I maybe look at for five seconds and think: “They’re going to cast a white girl. Why did I get this script?”
I have an agent who will push for diversity and pitch me to studios and say, “But you could cast her black,” and does it actually happen? Probably not. But when I got this, it was specifically written for a black girl and that kinda blew my mind. You think it wouldn’t be that rare, but it is.
Rose: Not to have to talk about [race] in the script, there’s so many life things that we’re dealing with that aren’t about what color we are, or what the world is trying to put on us, but just about the life that we’re living. That she can have a relationship with the boy next door, who’s just the boy next door—not the white boy next door—is refreshing.
That’s one of the things I really loved about the film. As someone who grew up watching a lot of teen rom-coms like 10 Things I Hate About You, I was like “Wow, I wish I had this when I was 17.”
Rose: I’d like to have it now.
Stenberg: I’m glad that we get to have it. I saw this and I was like, “My 14-year-old self would die having seen this.” This magical, surrealist, kinda clever film that is made for teenagers and this girl gets to be whimsical and nuanced and a real person.
You two—Amandla and Anika—have been in the business for a while, but this issue of casting and there not being a lot of roles for black women or women of color is persistent. I would think that maybe for someone like yourself [Amandla], it would be a different experience. But you’re saying it’s not.
Stenberg: No, it’s not. It’s always been that way, and it’s always been rare to find roles that I could play and that are good roles. But I think it’s shifting right now, and I think it’s shifting for a multitude of reasons, but one of them is that we’re able to create our own content now and distribute it in a wide way without the studios and without the movie theaters.
Rose: And without permission.
Stenberg: And without permission and without having someone to fund it and okay it. So I think studios are feeling that pressure, and they’re feeling pressure to diversify, even if they don’t want to.
Meghie: Even if it’s out of shame.
Stenberg: Even if it’s out of shame, they have to diversify because it is a diverse world and we are demanding that content now.
Rose: And it’s money.
Stenberg: And they’ll make more money that way.
Rose: You’re just gonna pass over money? We go to see ourselves and other people go to see us because culture has changed, so that we really are mainstream culture, as quiet as it’s kept. And you see something with the success of Get Out, which is strictly about race but brilliantly so, it said a lot more monetarily to the powers that be than it did just message-wise. So it would just be dumb not to follow that trail of green.
Stenberg: I think we—all three of us—are positioned very interestingly at this point in time because these studios are wanting this content, and we’re here, we’re ready to go.
Stella, this is your second film; I spoke to you right after you finished shooting it. What was it like coming into Hollywood—you had Jean of the Joneses, which was independent—and now working for a studio?
Meghie: It was a very quick jump. We were talking about Jean when I was wrapping this, so it’s back-to-back shooting films this year. It’s a different process in a way, you get on set and it’s the same, but there’s more people to talk to on a studio film, more input.
I was fairly lucky. I had some kinda risky ideas about how to bring the movie to life with some of the more surreal and fantasy elements that aren’t in the book and they trusted me. It’s difficult and it’s hard, but I had a fairly good time doing it. I think it was serendipity that this project came up right at a time when I kinda had a voice that spoke to it. I love both avenues. Whether you’re doing independent [films] or whether you’re doing studio, it just depends on the story you’re telling and who wants to put money behind it.
Everything, Everything is in theaters nationwide May 19.