Extras in 'Fault in Our Stars' live their own cancer stories
Alexander Murph's cancer story is a March 2013 diagnosis of Ewing sarcoma, chemotherapy, the removal of a portion of his hip and eight months in bed recovering.
Nikki Lipinski's cancer story is passing out while putting up her family's Christmas tree, hitting her head, suspicious blood work and a leukemia diagnosis at age 15.
But, much like the characters of a best-selling book-turned-movie, Murph and Lipinski know there is much more to life than their cancer stories. For a select few, that includes a stint on the big screen. Murph and Lipinski are among a group of cancer survivors who appear as extras in “The Fault in Our Stars,” premiering nationwide June 6. (Plot spoilers ahead.)
“Cancer isn't who I am,” says Murph, 19, of Oakmont, who recently finished treatment. “Right now, it's at the front of everything, but I can't wait for the day when people look at me and don't even know.”
“The Fault in Our Stars,” by John Green, is the story of Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 16-year-old living with cancer and relying on a nasal cannula for oxygen. She falls in love with Augustus “Gus” Waters, a fellow support-group member who lost a leg to osteosarcoma, and her life changes in ways she'd never imagined.
The film, directed by Josh Boone and starring Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, was shot last year in various locations around Pittsburgh, which acts as Indianapolis. To find extras to portray cancer patients in the Cancer Kid Support Group, producers reached out to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.
Dr. Peter Shaw, head of Children's Adolescent and Young Adult Oncology Program, served as a consultant to producers, helping them learn the ins and outs of a cancer unit, how to operate machines and more.
“I was really impressed with how thoughtful (Boone) was,” Shaw says. “He really wanted to get it right.”
They repaid the favor by allowing him to appear as an extra in a flashback scene with Laura Dern and Sam Trammell, who play Hazel's parents.
“Everybody was so nice,” he says. “Laura Dern and Sam Trammell were talking to me about their kids. Laura told me about a film her dad (Bruce Dern) was in, ‘Nebraska.' ”
Shaw calls the book “very realistic” and appreciates the relationship portrayed between Hazel and her doctor, Maria, who works to help the teen maintain her quality of life.
“You want them to have some semblance of normalcy,” Shaw says. “Teens have a sense of their own mortality. They think about what they want to be, who they like, who they don't like. We really try to empower them as much as possible and work with teens as partners. It's not just, ‘This is what you will do.' ”
Murph was one of the patients who met with Boone and a producer to talk to them about the nuances of living with cancer.
“They had questions about energy levels,” Murph says. “The characters don't have enough energy to do what normal kids do, and that's very true. Before my diagnosis, I was running and playing games. Now, I walk up a flight of stairs and have to rest.”
After his surgery, Murph received a gift basket with cards, candy, notes and copies of the book from the cast and crew of the movie. Murph says he relates most to the character of Gus, who has a similar diagnosis. Gus' death in the book had a profound effect on Murph, particularly when Hazel wishes he could have stayed stronger toward the end.
“Dying is an awful thing,” Murph says. “You lose yourself to it, and there's nothing you can do about it. I know what it feels like to lose yourself to a disease.”
On set, Murph met friend Josh Potter, 19, of Perryopolis, who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma at age 9, then with Ewing sarcoma in 2010. He relapsed in 2012 and finished treatment in April. Potter sat right next to Woodley for one support-group scene. The star hugged everyone upon meeting them, Potter remembers. He also enjoyed the conversations he had with Green.
“John would have talked to us all day if he could,” Potter says. “We talked about the book, our experiences, his kids.”
Potter's favorite part of the book is Gus' habit of keeping an unlit cigarette between his lips as a metaphor for not giving power to that which can kill you. He also appreciates the friendship depicted between the main characters, knowing firsthand how important relationships with others who have lived with cancer can be.
“You don't feel like you're the only one. Sometimes, you need to vent and break trophies,” he says in reference to a scene in the book when a character does just that.
Lipinski, 22, of Oakdale, who is now in remission, also met with Boone and producers to share her thoughts on certain aspects of the film. Several weeks later, they contacted her to ask if she'd mind having dinner with Woodley at the Bigelow Grille.
“It's an organic restaurant — she's all about that,” Lipinski says. “I was the first one there, and I thought there's no way she's going to show up, this is going to be so awkward! But she did, and turns out she and I are very close in age and both have younger brothers, so we had a lot in common. After a while, it was like hanging out with one of my friends.”
One of Lipinski's best friends had an oxygen tank like the one Hazel uses. She asked Lipinski questions about how out of breath she typically was, what she could and couldn't do.
Lipinski appreciates Hazel's sense of sarcasm. The hesitancy Hazel has toward starting a romantic relationship with Augustus rang true for her, as well.
“You have no control over what's happening with your body,” she says. “That is not a priority at times.”
Sebastian “Joey” Dean, 19, of New Castle also appreciates that “The Fault in Our Stars” allows for humor and even joy even as the characters are coping with life-threatening illness.
“There are a lot of things you wouldn't expect,” says Dean, who was diagnosed with leukemia at age 12, underwent three years of treatment, relapsed, and is now in remission. “Most people think about cancer patients and support groups as just sad. But this book has a lot of jokes only cancer patients would understand. It's kind of a dark comedy.”
Dean also liked the good-natured teasing the characters dish out to a friend who's recent surgery had rendered him blind.
“That is the kind of thing that would be totally off limits, but they are in the same boat,” he says.
The experience of filming over five days and meeting everyone in the cast and crew has made Dean consider pursuing a career in movie-making. He got to see himself on the big screen at a special viewing last week for locals involved with the film.
He hopes people with cancer see the movie, even if they're hesitant.
“People with cancer aren't going to want to watch because they think it's going to be sad and depressing,” he says. “But it's really funny and really true to how people feel.”
Christelle Seide, 30, of Forest Hills, was not an extra in the film but has attended real-life support groups for years. She read “The Fault in Our Stars” at the recommendation of a friend shortly after the book came out in 2012. Seide was diagnosed with breast cancer that year and has been undergoing treatment for the cancer and resulting complications since.
“I absolutely fell in love with the book,” she says. “Her storyline was so close to mine. I may not have an oxygen tank, but I know about the never-ending treatment. I call my apartment my cave, because, sometimes, it's like, ‘What's the point of going anywhere?' ”
Support groups do help, says Seide, who attends the Cancer Caring Center's Young Adult Cancer Support. The depiction of the groups in the book was “exaggerated just a little bit” for comedic value, Seide says.
“They're very calming and comforting,” she says. “We all chat. It's not like you're on the spot. But I still liked to read that. It was very well done.”
The book's ending brought tears to her eyes, Seide says.
“I think everyone should read this book, no matter how old you are,” she says. “This is the world we live in, and this is what can happen. The book is not just sad. There are happy moments. But the end is realistic.”
Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or firstname.lastname@example.org.