How Justin Baldoni Found His Calling and Made the Movie ‘Five Feet Apart

The Jane the Virgin actor's faith led him to create a movie about cystic fibrosis, hope and love.

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- Posted on Mar 15, 2019

Photo credit: Alfonso Bresciani

These days, Justin Baldoni is perhaps best known for playing Rafael on the television show Jane the Virgin. But less than a decade ago—when he was in his mid-twenties—he felt lost and had decided to give up acting.

“I realized that I was talking a lot, but I wasn’t doing a lot,” Baldoni told Guideposts.org. “I was focused on…trying to make it as an actor, and letting my happiness be dictated by my material success.”

Baldoni decided to find a better way to be of service.

“It was about shifting the way that I fundamentally viewed what I did,” he said. "Was it about me, or was it about using my profession to say something [meaningful] and [be] a light?"

Faith has always been important to Baldoni, who is Baha’i, a religion that emphasizes unity: unity with God, with religion and with human kind.

“I had a very honest, real conversation with God where I got on my knees and I asked God to come and use me,” Baldoni said. “I said, ‘Please use me in a way that will benefit Your creation. Use me as a tool. I don't care what it is, just help me find my way, and use me as a tool.’"

It was through prayer and listening that Baldoni began to get a sense of his true calling: telling meaningful stories that would inspire hope and joy.

“I believe at the end of our lives we're going to be asked what we did with our time, and did we leave this world better than we found it. Were we of service to each other?” Baldoni said.

Baldoni started a production company in the living room of his house as it was going into foreclosure. He was inspired by the Baha'i teaching, “I've made death a messenger of joy for thee, wherefore dost thou grieve?” He decided to find out how joy could be part of death.

The result was My Last Days, a documentary series about people living with terminal illness and finding hope and joy in the midst of unimaginable circumstances. While making the series, Baldoni met Claire Wineland, who was living with cystic fibrosis and became “like a little sister” to him. It was Claire who told Baldoni that people with cystic fibrosis have to stay six feet apart from other people with the disease.

Seven years later, Baldoni is releasing his feature directorial debut, Five Feet Apart, about two teens (played by Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse) living with cystic fibrosis who meet in a hospital and fall in love despite the risks. For Baldoni, accurately portraying the disease was of prime importance. Wineland was a consultant on the film and a cystic fibrosis nurse was present on set.

“From the location of the scars, to the g-tube, to the ports, which most cystic fibrosis patients have never seen on screen before, it was so important for me to get it all right,” Baldoni said.

He also wanted to raise awareness of the disease.

“Only three percent of Americans even knew what [cystic fibrosis] was before we released the very first trailer,” Baldoni said. “I'm really proud to say that new numbers just came out, and we increased cystic fibrosis Google search queries by 110% in just the three-and-a-half months we've been promoting this movie.”

For Baldoni, the movie is about more than cystic fibrosis, though. It’s about what it means to be alive.

“It comes back to my faith,” Baldoni said. “This idea that we're only here for a short time, and if we allow it in… the recognition of our mortality can actually be the thing that inspires us.”

He's come a long way from the self-interested man he was in his twenties.

Wineland passed away in 2018, just before Baldoni completed the first cut of the movie. Five Feet Apart is dedicated to her. Baldoni hopes the movie inspires people to reach out to their loved ones—and to learn more about cystic fibrosis and consider donating to Wineland’s nonprofit Claire's Place Foundation.

“I hope people walk away with a new sense of appreciation for their life,” Baldoni said. “I learned so much spending the last six years with people who have chronic and terminal illnesses. They've taught me how to live. They've taught me how to love.”

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