An interview with the stars of ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’

June 18, 2015, 8:40 p.m.

A big hit on the festival circuit, Alfonso Gómez-Rejón’s “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” stars Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke and Ronald Cyler II as three high school misfits who hilariously try to find their sense of place in high school, all the while becoming unintentionally close.

Mann, an up-and-coming leading man, has appeared in everything from “Project X” to the Sundance smash “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” Cooke in the cult series “Bates Hotel” and Cyler, a Hollywood newbie, has only just begun his career.

The Stanford Daily’s Ena Alvarado sat down with these young individuals, to talk everything from process to influences.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): On screen, Greg, Rachel, and Earl seem to have really good chemistry. How was it when the three of you met in real life?

Olivia Cooke (OC): (Sarcastically) Our first meeting was slightly awkward.

Thomas Mann (TM): (Playfully) It was forced. Our managers are like our moms in the movie. “You’re gonna get along and you’re gonna kill it at that audition.” We met the night before, but it worked. We had the audition the next day, and we were friends after that. There’s no workshop you can send people to and say “go, have chemistry.” It either happens or it doesn’t. And for us it was effortless.

TSD: What drew you to your respective characters?

TM: I liked Greg’s sense of humor and his honesty. I didn’t find him annoying, even though he was self-deprecating. I think if you explain why you are the way you are, then people can relate to that. He’s very honest. And I think that lets people see themselves in him. He reminded me of how I was in high school. I liked that he didn’t see it as a beautiful, poignant time in his life. He thought it was a burden. Really awkward and uncomfortable situations. Which is how most teenagers would react.

OC: Similar to Thomas, I relate to my character in the sense that she felt like she’d already graduated from high school, a few years before she actually got to that age. She was waiting for it to be over. Very mature for her age. When  you meet her, she’s kind of already become an adult, in a sense. She’s confident, and she likes herself. She’s not riddled with insecurities. She’s not self-hating. She’s not written as a stereotypical teenage girl who is all about the exterior, rather than what is going on inside. She’s mysterious because she wants to keep things that are important to her to herself, until the right person comes along, when she feels like she can share. It was a lovely, flushout quality to have in an eighteen year-old. Typically, the girl in the movie is either beautiful and doesn’t know it, or all the boys love her, and she reads “Jane Eyre.” Something like that. But that’s not how girls are. There’s many different layers.

R.J. Cyler (RJC): The familiar feel really drew me to Earl. I don’t think any of us had to look for our characters. They were very honest to who the teenager is, realistically. And all of us our teenagers, except Thomas — he’s a granddad. It was familiar. I loved how honest it was.

TSD: So, do you see a lot of yourselves in your characters?

TM: Yes, 100 percent. I wanted to work through things that Greg was working through. Until you see yourself in a character that’s less admirable, it makes you really think. I didn’t really have to do a lot of research about Greg. I just honed in on the parts of myself that I saw in him.

OC: I also saw similarities to Rachel. But I’ve never had cancer, and no one in my immediate family or friends has had cancer. So that was a challenge in itself, trying to portray that correctly.

RJC: Me and Earl are the same person. I’m not as serious as Earl, perhaps. That sets us apart from each other. It was fun making his character, because it was a challenge, and I love challenges. And that’s just in life. I don’t want to take the escalators. Give me the stairs that have the dips and the two old ladies that are blocking it and they’ve got an attitude, and they don’t want you to go past them.

TSD: Overall, what did you learn from the experience of shooting “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”?

TM: To trust myself. To be emotionally available. I’d never been part of a film that required me to open up and lay myself out there in this way. It came through Alfonzo really trusting me and being respectful of my process, and all the actors’ processes. You don’t really know if you’re capable until you do it. And now I feel like I’ve grown as an actor and believe in myself more.

OC: Give everything you can to a role and a project, because that’s all you’ve got. Don’t half-heart it.

TM: It’s okay to feel vulnerable on set. It’s the best place to feel vulnerable.

OC: It’s the most protected place. As a person, to connect more with people. To share more and to be more selfless.

TSD: Did you watch any of the movies that Greg and Earl parodied?

RJC: “Midnight Cowboy.”

TM: R.J. watched “Midnight Cowboy” probably like ten times. I’d seen some of the films, but I wanted to discover them all. I also thought it would be dishonest to parody films that I hadn’t seen, so I wanted to understand why Greg liked them. Lots of them are obscure, so that was my homework, watching the films. “Don’t Look Now” ended up being my favorite I discovered.

TSD: Are there any individuals who have guided you in your acting careers so far? Who have been influential?

TM: I grew up watching Tom Hanks. Paul Dano is also really inspiring. His trajectory and choices. He only works with great directors, and that’s what I want to do. Only work with people who I think are better than me.

OC: “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” has really opened up opportunities for me.  I’m working with actors that are so experienced and so good. I feel like I’m in school, because I’m just learning so much. It’s very exciting. I remember seeing “Moulin Rouge” and the whole theatrics of it, thinking it was probably the most fun. Being able to play silly and pretend everyday is the best job in the world. It’s not a job!

RJC: I like watching old stuff. I like old Al Pacino movies. “Serpico.” “Dog Day Afternoon.”

TSD: What are some challenges that as actors you have yet to overcome?

RJC: I just started. Being emotional is what I fight with. I’m not an emotional person. I don’t use the emotion train that much. I just use the happy card.

TM: I want to keep exploring different parts of myself. This journey with Greg opened me up emotionally, and I reached a point of empathy that I had never quite understood before. It’s looking for roles that allow me to open up new parts of myself.

OC: I want to be able to let go. Completely lose yourself in a character.

TSD: Do any of you have a “process”?

OC: I don’t have a method. I’m just winging it. Dind’t go to drama school.

TM: Understanding the scene and talking about it before shooting it. And then on set, let all go. Be present and react to the people around you. It’s about losing yourself and getting out of your head. Not trying to control things. If you do the homework ahead of time, then it’s subconsciously inside you. You know these things. I have trouble explaining my process because I don’t really know what it is.

TSD: What would you like viewers to take from characters?

TM: I hope people can see themselves in Greg. That they can realize what it is they’re holding back. And just realize the importance of the people around them. Trying to make the most of their relationships. Sharing with others.

OC: I hope it inspires people, if they have anything they want to share, do or create, not be afraid of rejection. Just do it. Don’t wait for it to come along, take control and do it yourself. The most fulfilling thing in the world, is when you’ve worked so hard for something and you’ve done it, even if you get rejection from some people, it doesn’t really matter. You’re so full anyway.

RJC: Get the urge to appreciate the smaller things that we take for granted everyday. The ability to wake up and say that we’re not sick. Things that we take for granted.

TSD: What was the most fun about the project?

TM: Scenes with Molly Shannon. You never wanted the scenes to end because you just wanted to see what she would do next. So unpredictable. I ruined a lot of takes with her.

RJC: Chung.

OC: Chung!

RJC: Chung! Chung is this brilliant D.P., responsible for the way the film looks. Barely speaks any English, but is still somehow sarcastic and funny. “My first movie” — he would often say, when it’s obviously not!

TM: We were surrounded by really funny people all the time. People who liked to hang out and party, but take their job very seriously and love what they do.

OC: Everybody lives life to the fullest. It’s so exciting.

Contact Ena Alvarado at enalva ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Ena Alvarado hails from the boisterous city of Caracas, Venezuela. She is a hopelessly undecided freshman who enjoys reading literature and watching films as much as understanding science and studying math. Someday, Ena aspires to learn how to whistle, improve her current juggling skills, and compose a full-length music album. In the meantime, she finds solace in books and nutella crepes. Writing about documentaries and foreign cinema never hurts either.

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