When his best-selling debut novel, Cherry, was published, Nico Walker was in jail. Walker is an Iraq war veteran who was deployed at 19 years old and returned to the United States 11 months later, with what one forensic psychiatrist described as the worst case of PTSD he’d ever seen. To help cope, he was prescribed opioids. He became addicted, and heroin followed soon after. When he ran out of money to score, Walker began robbing banks. He got away with 10 heists before he was caught.
Cherry fictionalises his experience as a former army medic-turned-drug addict-turned-bank robber. The Russo brothers, the director pair behind Avengers: Infinity War and Captain America: Civil War, came across the book, which described a real war and its aftereffects. What a thing, for directors who make movies about superheroes, to then make one about an antihero who robs banks and abuses drugs.
Like Walker, the Russos are from Cleveland and knew some of the same guys. They felt that both his extraordinary story and his Midwestern amity made his book ripe for adaptation. Over a productive three-minute phone call – all the time Walker had left on his monthly phone allotment – the Russos secured the film rights. Their previous relationship with Tom Holland made him an ideal choice to play Cherry, but who could play the Bonnie to his bleary-eyed Clyde?
Often, when talking about their chosen profession, young actors are chirpy or privileged in a practiced-speech-at-an-awards-show way. Ciara Bravo is neither of these things. She’s grateful, certainly, but seems unable to believe she’s made it this far at all, holding onto the shock of recognition that she was picked over hundreds of others to star opposite Holland in Cherry. The Dateline-worthy story! The guy who plays Spider-Man! The billion-dollar box office success of the Russo bros! And here is Bravo, the Kentucky-born actor with a bright, pincushion face who beat out the competition.
Bravo, 23, says over a recent Zoom call that she thought the job offer to work on Cherry was actually her agent firing her as a client. With no other work lined up, her agent “sent me a text message and was like, ‘Are you free to chat?’ And because I’m an actor, I was like, ‘He’s gonna drop me. I know it, this is it,’” she says. Instead, he rang with the news that she got the part of Emily.
“The first words out of my mouth were, ‘What the fuck?!’ I was like, ‘You’re lying to me, I think you called the wrong actress,’” she recalls. “I just felt like something shifted in that moment. I was terrified and so excited.”
That was probably because of the stuff she’d have to do: beg, steal, swear, and make Holland look taller. “When I first got this role, I was like, ‘Oh,’ because when you put me next to Tom Holland, I don’t make him look like a kid. We look the same age, we’re similar heights.” (Google will tell you he’s 5’8.)
Emily starts out taciturn and alluring. She marries Cherry before he departs for war, giving him good reason to return in one piece. She lashes out when Cherry does stupid shit, like break into a drug dealer’s safe. But we soon see her dragged into the sweet, dark rhythms of a toxic relationship with an addict; she becomes addicted herself. This is, for Bravo, the perfect role to make her the cynosure in Hollywood’s eyes. Her performance is brutal and compelling, a bleeding cauchemar of a strung-out young woman who can’t wake up from the paralysis of addiction, and Bravo makes it believable in a way most young actors cannot.
But also, funny. There are moments so absurd they become divine comedy. “It was the darkest story I’ve ever read, and I’ve never laughed harder in my life,” she says of the script. “If you don’t learn to laugh in the face of tragedy, it’s gonna eat you alive and you’re not going to make it to the other side.”
Ciara Bravo’s early years were “not similar to Lady Bird, but not dissimilar to Lady Bird”. She attended Catholic school, like the main character in Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age film. She rode horseback. Bravo’s parents owned a black car and limousine rental company.
“When I was a kid, like four or five years old and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I wanted to be a professional cheerleader. And when they asked how many children I wanted to have, I said 14 kids. Fourteen kids and be a professional cheerleader. And if you asked how I was driving around, it was gonna be a bus,” she says with a laugh. “Sounds like a TLC show.”
At eight years old, she was approached at a county fair by an agent. He told her that she had a “great look”. Her mother was put off, but after a background check, he seemed legit. That agent introduced her to other agents and managers in Hollywood, where she would fly out to audition every pilot season. Her break came with Big Time Rush. So she traveled to LA for work and returned home to Catholic school and horses. She describes it as straddling “two different worlds.”
Bravo has worked since she was 10. She played Katie on the Nickelodeon show Big Time Rush. You may remember her as Emma in Red Band Society or Gracie in Second Chance. Then she played Del in the Amazon sleeper hit Wayne. Del is a badass who lifts herself out of an abusive situation and becomes an accomplice to Wayne’s revenge murder spree, but her acting, despite this implausible setup, is relatable. This girl, who was raised in northern Kentucky, can inhabit the downcast of middle America without becoming an offensive caricature with a buckwheat accent and a chain smoking habit – that’s where her true talent lies.
“Ciara is almost like… threateningly good at acting,” her Wayne co-star Mark McKenna told me in December. “I remember showing up on set and I was making jokes, and then Ciara showed up and I was like… She’s so much more professional, which makes me look like an idiot.”
Cherry is not as disturbing as Requiem for a Dream or Panic in Needle Park or Heaven Knows What or any other number of drug-centric films. To get into the mindset of someone who abuses heroin, however, Bravo spoke to former addicts.
“One nurse […] had a journey that was strikingly similar to my character Emily’s,” she says. “From being a schoolteacher and having multiple jobs in the beginning of her addiction with her partner, and being so deeply in love, in this toxic codependent relationship, to the end and getting clean and going into this new field. I felt like I was looking at a real version of Emily.”
“There’s another nurse I spoke to that really humbled me and grounded everything for me. She was like, I had avoided looking in the mirror for three years, and then one day I was brushing my teeth, and I just glanced up and saw a skeleton staring back at me. That’s when I decided to get help. It’s not until you glance up in the mirror that you realise how everything’s changed, how badly you’ve been hurting and hurting yourself… That really shook me.”
Bravo is excited for the film to be released, if only because it represents climbing up “that next rung of the ladder”. Through hard work over the course of more than a decade, Bravo sublimated the child star experience into a slow, gratifying rise. She doesn’t simply make Tom Holland look tall, Bravo steals every scene in which they appear together. This could easily be her career-defining role.
Nico Walker hasn’t seen Cherry. He was released from prison halfway through filming. Bravo never met him, nor the real-life Emily. Walker is now hard at work on a second novel. If he does choose to watch it, maybe one day with some distance, he will notice hopefully that Ciara Bravo did Emily justice.
Cherry will premiere in select cinemas on 26th February, 2021 and globally on Apple TV+ on 12th March, 2021.
Photography assistant Graham Austin, Hair Kylee Heath using Oribe at A‑Frame, Make-up Fiona Stiles using Chanel Beauty at A‑Frame, Special thanks Narrative PR and Apple+.