When Sofia Carson was cast as Ava Jalali in Freeform television series Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists, she had no idea the experience would have such a pivotal effect on her life.
She had already established herself as a multi-hyphenate artist. As an actress, she had co-starred with the likes of Dove Cameron and other soon-to- be-household names in the popular Disney Descendants TV movie franchise, as well as starred in a number of other projects. She was also making waves as a singer-songwriter.
Carson and Liz Rosenbaum, one of the episode directors of the PLL spinoff, which began taping in 2017 and aired in 2019, struck a deep and immediate connection, vowing to work together again. During filming, Rosenbaum handed Carson their next project.
“I remember it vividly,” Carson, 29, says. “It was around Christmas time 2017, and she came up to me on set one day and handed me a script and said, ‘Merry Christmas!’ The script had purple hearts drawn on the cover.”
That was the working script for Purple Hearts, which debuts on Netflix today (July 29) and follows the unexpected relationship of struggling singer-songwriter Cassie Salazar (Carson) and newly enlisted Marine Luke Morrow (Nicholas Galitzine). The only thing they have in common is their desire to get away from their struggles.
“Liz told me when she handed me the script that she wanted to embark on this journey together,” Carson says. “It’s more than just director and actor, but partners.”
Carson has spent the past four years not only bringing Cassie to life, but serving as executive producer of the Netflix film — and co-writing and performing several original songs for the soundtrack, which also came out today on Hollywood Records.
As the script was being revised, Rosenbaum relied on Carson’s experience as a songwriter to inform how Cassie would approach her music. “I was most definitely writing from Cassie’s point of view,” Carson says. “Liz asked me how I write songs and when inspiration hits. I would tell her that sometimes [I] might be driving and I have to pull over to the side of the road and start writing something down, based on something that just happened to me.
“We wanted to kind of capture that essence for Cassie, that inspiration would hit based on the things that were happening to her in her life,” Carson continues. “I was so lucky that I got to live with Cassie, with their love story, with the script for four years.”
Purple Hearts and its corresponding soundtrack is not your typical boy meets girl story. When viewers meet Cassie, she is singing on stage with her band The Loyal as the audience sings along to their rendition of Neil Diamond’s classic “Sweet Caroline.” As The Loyal leave the stage (or forced off by the bar owner) we learn that Cassie and her bandmates are also the servers.
A group of Marines, including a friend she used to babysit, arrive with Luke in tow.
While Cassie and Luke’s “Will they/Won’t they?” storyline is not new, these characters face a much more complicated journey. The odds of a love match between the pacifist daughter of an immigrant who is appalled that the US is still in Iraq and a son who believes going to war is a safer bet than facing his retired Marine father with a disturbing secret leads to some major struggles.
They marry for the insurance benefits, but find themselves falling in love as their world, divided by red and blue ideologies, blends together to turn their hearts purple.
Carson says that the idea of writing songs for a soundtrack, especially from someone else’s view and a story not her own, was daunting. Carson’s first choice of collaborator was Justin Tranter, best known for his work with Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, and Gwen Stefani.
“I had, of course, been writing songs since I was eleven years old, but for myself, from my point of view… songs that came from my heart, not someone else’s,” she says. “I was so tremendously lucky that I had Justin to be my co-writer in this process.”
The respect is mutual. “Sofia is one of the most dedicated and detailed creators I have ever had the joy of working with,” Tranter told Billboard in a statement. “Getting to craft original songs with her and some of my Facet Publishing team that held up mirrors to the emotions of this movie was an honor.”
The first song Carson and Tranter wrote together was “I Hate the Way,” which was Cassie’s way of expressing her frustration that she was falling for Luke. It served as a gateway to the other songs.
“I had partially already written the song in my notes,” Carson says. “It was, of course, very much inspired by the simple fact that Cassie just hated the way she was loving [Luke]. She hated the fact that she was falling for this man. It was a combination of rage, frustration, and deep passion. And once we brought that song to life, it was like we found Cassie’s voice that was different from mine — which was important to us. And it kind of guided us for the rest of the soundtrack.”
With Cassie’s voice unlocked, Carson and Tranter would go on to complete three more original songs for the soundtrack within a week, including “Come Back Home” which is first introduced in a pivotal moment of the movie and was released earlier this month to tease the project. “We wrote two different versions of the song until we landed on the ‘Come Back Home’ that you hear in the film,” Carson says. “And once we did, we just fell in love with it. And we knew that that was our song. It just really captured the soul, the tenderness of this moment, the vulnerability at this moment — and truly the heart of our story.”
Regardless of how Purple Hearts is received, the immersive experience has changed how Carson thinks about her career, she says. Having had the experience of executive producing, she doesn’t want to go back.
“It’s interesting because growing up, I always had the examples of women like Barbra Streisand and Cher who were such trailblazers and really redefined what it meant to be a woman in the industry,” she says. “They did it all. They were not only musicians and songwriters, but they were also directors and producers. So, it’s very exciting to have entered this stage of my career.”