It’s a chilly November day in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2018. Winter coats are a requirement and I didn’t even realize the desert could get this cold. But the moment I stepped onto the set of “Firelight,” the production codename for Stargirl, everything changed. The atmosphere of positivity and the high energy buzzing around the location shoot made me feel instantly warm. What was this energy, and how could you bottle it?
It was early morning when we arrived at an expansive golf resort called Sandia that will double for a country club in Arizona in the film. Inside a relatively small building, a set was being finalized for the climax of the film, a winter ball where something incredible is going to happen. Even though it’s the middle of the day, filming is about to begin for what will ultimately look like a sequence completely filmed at night in an open air space. This is the first of three days for the cast and crew on this set and principal photography on Stargirl will wrap up within the next week. You get the sense that this was a special experience for all involved as they take breaks from their shoot to meet with a small group of journalists hoping to get a little more insight into the project.
One of the people who made the film a reality, Producer Lee Solomon, was able to articulate why this environment felt so unique. “I think that we got incredibly lucky with this cast, not just in terms of their acting abilities. What you try to do is cast a movie based on the look and the feel and vibe of the characters and then hope that there’s chemistry. We got all that in an abundance of good will and just a good group of kids that have bonded and become friends. They hang out on the weekends, they hang out when they’re not working so the environment has been incredible. You know, you’re working long hours and you’re working with minors and sometimes in extreme locations and weather. Luckily we’re inside today, but that element of the production has been seamless.”
Some call it luck, but some might even call it fate. After nearly two decades of trying to bring Jerry Spinelli’s novel to the screen, during which numerous screenplays and studios were involved, Kristin Hahn was given the opportunity to write a script several years ago. If the eccentric titular character doesn’t feel real and relatable, the film isn’t going to work, which is why it was important that Stargirl not only feel authentic on paper, but also in the hands of the actress that gets the part.
“Grace was incubating while the script was being written,” Writer and Producer Kristin Hahn shared when reflecting back on the events leading up to the shoot. Both Lee Solomon and Kristin’s daughter happened to catch Grace VanderWaal’s life changing America’s Got Talent performance. “So I watched it and thought ‘My God, there’s a real Stargirl out there’… It was such an affirmation that this character was in the real world. Because it’s so important to us that this character and her messages feel accessible… So the fact that she existed was just this great comfort to me and then I went on and we met with thirty other financiers and kept looking for Stargirl and then Disney called.”
Back then, the film was looking to get off the ground quickly and Grace was too young. But after several additional setbacks to the production that ultimately lead to it moving to Disney, where it would be created for the company’s yet-to-be-named streaming service, fate would step in again. “Lee, my producing partner, said we should find out what Grace VanderWaal’s doing. I thought, well, could she have grown up that much? Because two years to us goes by so fast. She can’t be that much older, but sure enough she was the perfect age. So she auditioned, she put herself on tape… And we auditioned over five hundred girls for this role… It’s like she was just born to play this role and to be this girl and the fact that it’s authentic to her. She is a wonderful actress, she’s not just playing herself, she’s playing a character, it’s a version of her. But her essence is so aligned with Stargirl that there’s no persona, it’s just a beautiful thing that when she promotes this movie, she really is this person in the real world. There’s just something extra magical about that.”
I was familiar with Grace VanderWaal’s ukulele performance from America’s Got Talent and even saw her perform live in 2017 at the Radio Disney Music Awards, where she won “Best New Artist.” But when she stepped into the media office where we were watching a live feed of what was happening on set, her delight at seeing a bit of the film in process erupted out of her with a gleeful exclamation. Hands on her cheeks like Kevin McCallister, Grace’s eyes lit up seeing her friends and costars working on an entrance shot for the dance scene.
It would be an understatement to say that Grace was glowing. It was more than that. It was like seeing someone’s aura and hers was yellow. Her hair was intricately layered on top of her head with flowers, which dotted her beige dress where the floral motif was extended in three dimensional form. Her makeup was unique, with glitter radiating from her eyelids to her temples. It’s the kind of look you expect to see on a vintage collector’s Barbie doll, not on a real person. If she looks half as beautiful on screen as she did on set, this look is likely to set a trend in 2020.
In preparation for this set visit, I listened to Grace VanderWaal’s albums and was taken aback by the way her lyrics almost sound like Stargirl’s personality from the book. “I feel like it was just sort of fate,” she responded when I asked about this. That fate theme kept coming into play throughout the day. “I don’t honestly know if I believe in that stuff. I mean everything could be random but everything could be lined up. I have no clue, but I do relate to her and I do feel like she was my dream role so it’s kind of crazy that I’m playing her.”
Producer Lee Solomon is friends with Grace’s agent and reached out to him as far back as 2012. “I heard about this part when I was twelve and I was on America’s Got Talent and that’s when I first read the book, but I was too young for the role so I thought it would just go away,” Grace shared while reflecting back on the casting process. “Because a lot of things happen like that in the industry. You hear about something and then it just kind of disappears. But no, this time it was different and then a couple of years later they offered me the role.”
The film may be called Stargirl, but the story is actually told from the point of view of Leo, played by Graham Verchere. “She’s my best friend on set which is super cool because we have so many scenes together and obviously I never met her before this,” Graham shared about working with Grace. “And it’s always a pretty big jump from never meeting someone to being shoved in a room for ten hours a day with them. But we get along really well and it’s pretty cool.”
Disney Channel veteran Karan Brar co-stars in the film as Kevin, the best friend of Leo. “The funny thing about Grace is that she kind of puts on this brave face,” the actor shared about working with the singer/songwriter. “It’s hard to read her at times. It’s been really cool to see her go from being a little bit nervous to seeming so much more comfortable and confident on set. And she adapts so quickly. My firm philosophy is that you keep learning when you’re on set and it’s so cool that such a new actress I’m learning from day to day. Same thing with Graham. I learn so much from them just by watching them work even though I’ve been on sets before.”
Looking back through my notes and transcripts from my Stargirl set visit carried a lot of weight from Karan Brar’s interview. The actor was asked who his own real world Stargirl is, meaning a person who makes you see the world differently and makes you want to be your true, authentic self. “I think probably my best friend Cameron [Boyce],” he shared. The two friends and former Jessie costars had recently moved in together. “We worked on a show together for about four years and after that experience we’re like brothers. We haven’t worked together for like four years yet we still see each other every week. I’m like one of those people that’s such a perfectionist and I try to focus on doing right and playing by the book and we’re such a yin and yang. He was one of those people that kind of just taught me it’s not the end of the world. Have fun, enjoy your life because I can get so caught up in my own head and my own things. So it’s nice to have a friend that’s the complete opposite of it.” Cameron Boyce passed away unexpectedly last July.
The word “Magic” is synonymous with Disney and during this set visit, I got to experience the behind-the-scenes magic of Stargirl. Friendships were formed, dreams were made reality, and a special story was being told. Not only is Stargirl Grace VanderWaal’s first movie, but it’s a Disney film at that. Between winning an RDMA and being given the opportunity to show her acting skills to the world, I asked Grace what it was like having a company like Disney behind her in such a big way. “Disney has given me an incredible amount of support. I don’t even know why, honestly. I’m just here, but it’s been so cool. I grew up with Disney, Disney practically raised me, so that’s pretty cool to then grow up and have them support me, which I never thought would happen.”
With Disney+, subscribers have access to a vast library of classic Disney films and TV shows in addition to new exclusives like Stargirl. You can stream Stargirl when it premieres on March 13th only on Disney+.
Alex has been blogging about Disney films since 2009 after a lifetime of fandom. He joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and covers films across all of Disney’s brands, including Star Wars, Marvel, and Fox, in addition to books, music, toys, consumer products, and food. You can hear his voice as a member of the Laughing Place Podcast and his face can be seen on Laughing Place’s YouTube channel where he unboxes stuff.