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Russo brothers, Elizabeth Banks talk Tom Holland and Russo's latest flick 'Cherry'

Anthony and Joe Russo with Elizabeth Banks in a session about the Russo brothers' latest movie "Cherry."

Anthony and Joe Russo are best known for their Marvel superhero movies that essentially print money for Disney. So you'd expect the directing duo to transition from their 2019 record breaking box office monster "Avengers: Endgame" to another sprawling action flick.

Instead the Russo brothers chose to make "Cherry," a gritty and darkly humorous drama starring fellow Marvel alum Tom Holland ("Spider-Man: Far From Home") as the title character.

The Russo brothers spoke with fellow filmmaker and actor Elizabeth Banks — "Hunger Games," "Charlie's Angels" — Friday in a South by Southwest session that focused on their latest project, which is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Nico Walker.

Banks began with the leading question at hand: Why choose to make a film with deadly serious themes such as addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder following the almost unfathomable success of their run of Marvel movies? "Cherry," it would seem, marks a departure for the brothers, who came up directing episodes of "Arrested Development" and "Community" before being tapped for the superhero/spy thriller mash up "Captain American: Winter Soldier."

Not so, Anthony Russo said.

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"We have a little known and little seen period of our development, which was the beginning," Anthony Russo said, referencing their 1997 movie "Pieces," which never saw wide distribution. "'Cherry' is in many ways a sort of a continuation of things we're doing in that time."

The Russos were in post-production of "Endgame" and unsure what their next project would be when they were given a copy of Walker's book. The setting and subject matter were familiar to the Russo brothers, who grew up in Cleveland.

"We understand the city. We are emotionally attached with a lot of the locations that Nico writes about," Joe Russo said. "Nico and I worked in the same restaurant about 10 years apart from each other and we had very similar upbringings."

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"Cherry" is adapted from a book that Walker, an Iraq War veteran who became addicted to opioids and turned to robbing banks to feed his addiction, wrote while in prison. The story is told in chapters, each with a theme, Joe Russo said, as Cherry meets his first love — played by Ciara Bravo — joins the Army, faces combat, becomes an addict and robs banks.

"I felt like I was watching the evolution of a human man from sort of downfall to redemption," Banks said.

The prevalence of the opioid crisis — Anthony Russo noted that 2020 was the deadliest year for opioid-related deaths — was the "tipping point."

"There's a lot of reasons why we got into it, but I think the tipping point for us was the fact that it was speaking to the opioid crisis, and the fact that we had had, like many people, personal experiences with the opioid crisis in terms of loved ones either struggling with addiction, or even dying," he said.

Tom Holland stars in "Cherry," a story of drug addiction, war and bank robbery.

Without giving too much away, "Cherry" can seem like it is a journey from one trauma to the next with forces pushing him toward bad decisions at every turn. Joe Russo said that it feels like the experience of younger generations, which have seen a series of traumas from 9-11 to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

"That was something that was so beautiful about the book," Joe Russo said. "He captures this malaise, this existential crisis that we hadn't heard before."

Of Holland, who Banks called "America's sweetheart," Joe Russo said his charisma became immediately apparent when casting him as Peter Parker for Spider-Man's first appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Holland was one of hundreds of actors vying to be the web-slinging hero during auditions in Atlanta. Joe Russo said he knew Holland was destined to be a movie star.

But "Cherry," of which Holland has gotten particular acclaim, has allowed the 24-year-old Englishman to stretch his acting chops far more than what people have seen from him as the latest neighborhood Spider-Man. Banks was definitely impressed.

"I mean this guy," Banks said, "I was blown away by his performance. He holds the viewers through the whole movie."

Cherry is currently in theaters and streaming on Apple TV+.

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