Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy were attracted to Andy Serkis’s directorial debut, Breathe, as soon as they read the script.

“I cried constantly and I also laughed a lot,” says Andrew Garfield, describing his first reaction upon reading the script for Breathe, the inspiring true-life story of Robin and Diana Cavendish, newlyweds who refuse to give up in the face of Robin’s polio diagnosis.

“Fortunately there was more laughter than crying. It seemed stranger than fiction,” says the actor who was further inspired after meeting with Breathe’s producer Jonathan Cavendish, who was determined to bring his parents’ story to the screen.

“Andrew’s performance has brought my father back in a remarkable way,” says Cavendish, describing how Garfield freaked him out by leaving a voice message in the voice of his long-dead father.

Garfield has been traveling on a spiritual filmmaking path over the past few years, starring in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, Martin Scorsese’s Silence and now Andy Serkis’s Breathe.

Breathe is one of those incredibly life-affirming stories which you can’t help but be changed by in some way. I felt there was such a magic to Robin and Diana’s life, and Andy’s vision was so heartfelt about the pioneering spirit of these two people,” says Garfield when STACK meets with him and the cast at the Toronto International Film Festival.

“Breathe is one of those incredibly life-affirming stories which you can’t help but be changed by in some way”

Initially hesitant to meet the real Diana Cavendish whom she portrays, Claire Foy recalls, “I was a bit scared because she had become a hero in my head. But she’s unashamedly herself and she won’t be anyone else for anyone else, which I find incredible. She’s very honest and truthful without being sentimental. She says what she thinks and means what she says.

“I don’t think you can ever underestimate what it’s like to care for someone in that way – to be somebody’s everything, and know that they can’t exist without you. But she wore it incredibly lightly and is very inspirational,” adds The Crown actress who, the previous night, had attended Breathe’s Toronto premiere with the real Diana Cavendish, receiving three standing ovations.

Director Andy Serkis – best known for his motion capture performances as The Lord of the Ring’s slithering Gollum and Caesar in the new Planet of the Apes trilogy – was already deep into his directorial debut, The Jungle Book, when he began work on Breathe.

“I’d already finished filming Jungle Book in South Africa, but it has such a long post-production that we were able to make Breathe during that time,” he says, explaining why Breathe now serves as his directorial debut.

“I’m truly grateful that Breathe is my first movie because it’s such a vivid, vibrant and witty take on disaster. My father was a doctor and my mother taught disabled children, so I grew up with kids who had Spina Bifida and polio and felt very connected to this world,” says Serkis, who furthermore portrayed Ian Dury in Sex & Drugs & Rock’n’Roll, the biopic about the polio-afflicted rocker who defied odds to become a punk icon with his band, Ian Dury and the Blockheads.

“People choose to respond to adversity in different ways. Some can cope with it and others can’t, but what was incredible about this story was the wit with which these people handled adversity,” adds Serkis, who dealt with his own form of artistic adversity in shooting the film in just seven weeks.

Breathe begins in 1959, in an era where people with disabilities were resigned to a life in the shadows, permanently residing in nursing homes and hospitals.

“Even now it’s still difficult but, back then, it was like climbing Everest in your backyard,” explains Serkis, whose own sister is an MS sufferer who relies on a wheelchair.

“But Robin and Diana’s story is truly inspiring. Their love transcends initial romantic attraction, and becomes so profound and true, that it cannot help but emanate to all those who surround them. I feel incredibly privileged to have helped bring their story to the screen.”

Breathe is in cinemas on Boxing Day.