Hopper Stone/Netflix Sofia Carson and Nicholas Galitzine in Purple Hearts
Sofia Carson, who first broke out nearly seven years ago as one of the stars of Disney's Descendants franchise and recently released her debut self-titled album, is now a leading lady in the new Netflix film Purple Hearts.
The actress and singer, 29, wore many hats during the production of the romantic drama, including the role of singer and actor on screen as well as executive producer and songwriter behind the scenes.
"I think I've been really lucky that a lot of the projects that I have been a part of have allowed me to do everything that I love as an artist," Carson tells PEOPLE of her character Cassie, an aspiring musician. "And this one in particular went kind of a step further, because I've always been in love with storytelling, and to be a part of storytelling from every aspect, from behind the scenes as producer to physical storytelling as an actress to storytelling through song, was incredibly fulfilling."
Purple Hearts tells the story of Cassie and Luke, who enter a "marriage of convenience" — with unexpected results.
Cassie, who is living with type I diabetes, marries Luke, a Marine, as a way to get access to Luke's health benefits.
"Luke is hiding a troubled past and has his own reason for entering this marriage of convenience," an official synopsis of the movie explains. "For a while, their secret plan works and they start to develop a semblance of a friendship. As Luke begins paying off the debt that haunts him, Cassie's musical career starts taking off, inspired by an unexpected muse: Luke."
Charley Gallay/Getty Sofia Carson attends Purple Hearts special screening on July 22.
"But when a tragedy sends him home earlier than expected, Cassie and Luke are unprepared to feign a marriage face-to-face, in front of family and friends," the synopsis adds. "They constantly argue and disagree, but slowly, the walls between them start to come down as they reveal their vulnerabilities to each other."
The synopsis concludes, "As the line between real and pretend begins to blur, Cassie and Luke might finally admit to feeling something real for the first time in their lives."
Carson said playing Cassie was her "greatest challenge as an actor."
To prepare for the role, the Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists actress says she did "a lot of research into every aspect that could have shaped and formed the woman that she was when we met her."
"Everything from the immigrant experience coming into this country, being an immigrant in San Diego, in Southern California, type 1 diabetes, military, the military culture, her worldview, her political views, her stance on marriage," she continues.
Carson says she even began keeping a journal from Cassie's point of view that included created memories of a story her mother told her about crossing the border, growing up with an abusive father and the first time she heard a song.
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"Every memory I could think of," Carson says.
Much like their characters in the film, Carson says she and Nicholas Galitzine, who plays Luke, had to get to know each other pretty quickly. She says their chemistry was "immediate," though, despite meeting for the first time over Zoom.
Mark Fellman/Netflix Nicholas Galitzine and Sofia Carson in Purple Hearts
"We didn't actually get to meet until the night before that we started shooting, and so we literally did not know each other," she continues. "And the next day, our characters got married. The day after, they professed their love for each other. The day after, he got deployed to Iraq. And then the next day was the love scene in the motel. So we really dove into this film, and we had to build pretty immediate trust with one another."
Cassie's "passion for justice" is something Carson says she learned in her own life from her mother — and is what connected her so closely to the character.
"My mom is the most extraordinary heart I've ever known," Carson says. "She raised her daughters, not only to believe that as women anything was possible, but that the greatest and most important thing that we could do with our lives and our voices was to give."
In addition to her busy schedule in Hollywood, Carson works as a UNICEF ambassador where she fights for the rights of young women globally and works to protect their access to education.
Carson shares that through everything that comes with being in the public eye — something that didn't happen for the actress until she was "older," compared to some other stars who got their start on Disney — she looks to her mother who remains her "ground" throughout it all.
"I was also very lucky that I was older when everything changed, and I was an adult. I had been to college. I had lived in normal life before fame hit, because the world that I live in now and fame, it isn't real and it isn't normal," she says. "And it's really important to make that distinction. And I think most importantly, I think the example my mom sets is to lead not only with love, but with gratitude."
She adds "It's so easy to get caught up in things in this industry and to want more and more, for nothing to be enough, or to get caught up in fame and just remembering that I'm so lucky every single moment."
Purple Hearts is now streaming on Netflix.