By Danny Peary
Me, Earl and the Dying Girl fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. And if this charming adaptation of Jesse Andrews’ best-selling YA novel, does play here, it might be the rare instance when teens in town dare visit the local cinema. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (American Horror Story), boasting a terrific cast of young, rising stars and veteran actors, and featuring a smart, witty, moving, and offbeat screenplay by Andrews, Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at 2015 Sundance Film Festival. According to its press notes, it tells the story of Greg (Thomas Mann), “a high school senior who is trying to blend in anonymously, avoiding deeper relationships as a survival strategy for navigating the social minefield of teenage life. He even describes his constant companion Earl (RJ Cyler), with whom he makes short film parodies of classic movies, as more of a ‘co-worker’ than a best friend. But when Greg’s mom (Connie Britton) insists he spend time with Rachel (Olivia Cooke)–a girl in his class [with hidden artistic talents] who has just been diagnosed with cancer–he slowly discovers how worthwhile the true bonds of friendship can be.” This movie is getting a lot of attention and prior to its New York debut this Friday, Mann (Welcome to Me and the upcoming The Stanford Prison Experiment), Cyler (a winning debut performance), and the Cooke (the British star of horror and sci-fi films Ouija, The Quiet Ones, and The Signal), appeared on the Today Show on Wednesday. Two days before I spoke to them at the Crosby Hotel in SoHO. From three separate roundtables, here are my questions and their responses.
Danny Peary: The movie is about high school kids dealing with adult situations. Could this film have been about college kids instead?
Thomas Mann: I think it could have been placed in college, yeah. It could be about any young person who hasn’t really experienced his first emotional trauma yet. Because you’re constantly ‘coming of age’ at different points in your life. I haven’t seen a character like Greg on-screen before, regardless of his age. He doesn’t see that this is a beautiful, poignant time in his life because he is thinking only that it is awkward, uncomfortable, and confusing. It’s funny and endearing watching him try to be sensitive to Rachel’s situation. It’s just so honest. I still feel like a teenager sometimes so I could definitely relate to him.
DP: I can see why Rachel accepts Greg into her life after her diagnosis, but what does he see in her?
TM: I think just acceptance. I think he genuinely feels like she appreciates him. She laughs at his jokes, and I think when you’re a teenager, all you really need is someone to understand you. And he had never shared as much of himself with anyone before. When you open up to someone, as Greg does with Rachel, and it doesn’t go poorly, you feel much safer around them. They feel safe with each other which is why they can confide in each other.
DP: Greg has some denial about Rachel’s cancer being terminal. Do you think he pictures a future with her?
TM: I think he does. That’s the thing, you don’t know. It’s not that they don’t love each other, and you can see that maybe in five years they would become a great love story, but right now it’s just this great friendship. That’s
all it needs to be for now. That’s all that they both need from each other. Two artists discovering each other’s art.
Danny Peary: What’s Earl’s role in the movie?
RJ Cyler: Earl is like the moral compass of this movie. He’s the one who tells it how it is. You don’t see Earl throughout the whole movie, but when he’s on-screen what he says is true and to the point. He doesn’t say what doesn’t need to be said, there’s nothing extra. And he’s the voice of the audience, saying what the audience thinks. He’s like the middle man between the audience and the screen.
DP: Was that explained to you or was that something you figured out yourself?
RJC: It was something that came up through the script, really, reading it and talking to Jesse and Alfonso about the vision that they had for Earl and the entire project. I was like, “Oh, okay, now I get it. It took me two hours but I get it now!” It was a bit of a challenge to have to calm down and be the voice of reason through the whole thing.
DP: What’s Earl’s life when we don’t see him in the movie?
RJC: When he’s not around Greg, Earl’s trying to find out who he is, while at the same time watching out for his brother and mom. He had to grow up at a young age, so he’s an adult figure in almost every situation. That’s not like me. I’m not always the adult in every situation, I’m very childish, as you can tell by this orange shirt.
DP: Does Earl think he has a future as filmmaker, maybe with Greg?
RJ: He doesn’t want to do film in the future. He loves making films with Greg, but that’s not his life choice. He’s just like, “I’m backing up my friend in this, it’s fun, it’s what we do together.” But I think Earl wants to go to college and then have a family and an American-Dream type of life.
DP: I hope you didn’t have to do twenty-five takes for those scenes when Greg’s father gives you exotic food to eat.
RJC: “Take 75!” I had to do a lot of takes because Alfonso is very thorough. He’d give me a break and put some spread on a cracker for us. It wasn’t bad when they were for long shots, but he loves close-ups. The pate brick was big when we started, and it was tiny when we were done. I was like, “Okay, I’m going to go my hotel and I’m going to change tongues. I’ll be back.”
DP: The growth of Greg’s character is a theme of the movie. But does Earl also grow during the movie?
RJC: Yeah, Earl’s character throughout the movie is hard and he doesn’t really show his emotions. The movie shows the progression to where he has had enough, and at the confrontation scene at the end, when Greg gets into a fight in the cafeteria, that’s his tipping point. His cup is full and that one last drop tips it over. Earl’s growth throughout the movie is internal, it’s about stuff he has to start softening up to. He has to learn how to just be in the moment and let go and show how he feels.
DP: Greg says at the beginning that Earl is not a friend but a “co-worker.” Will Greg ever admit that Earl is a friend?
RJC: I feel like he will, he just has to grow up a little bit. Greg’s relationship with Rachel, and the lessons that she teaches him throughout the movie will help him appreciate the people around him. That includes his parents, who he takes for granted. “My mom thinks I’m a nerd, my dad is weird.” I feel he’ll get over those kind of things through his relationship.
DP: You’re pretty tall so do you play basketball?
RJ: I play in my neighborhood but I’m always picked last. But now I don’t have to make even one shot because I’m in a movie!
Danny Peary: In the press notes you say that you wrote the director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, that you wanted to play Rachel, but it doesn’t say what you put in that letter.
Olivia Cooke: I really can’t remember other than it was just blind panic, desperation. Please, please, please! I think I tried to explain what I could bring to the role as an actress, and what I could bring to the movie. It’s always weird writing those letters, because often I’m quite self-deprecating, and it’s like writing a personal essay in which you build yourself up and are confident and say only what you’re good at. I’m quite aware of my strong points but also my weak points, and writing those letters is just basically bullshitting, saying, “I can do this, I can do that!”
DP: Was it about playing the girl or playing a good part?
DP: When playing the dying girl, did you think about her future at all?
OC: Yeah. With Rachel, you have to think about the backstory and where she wants to be, after graduating from school and after chemotherapy and the cancer. I thought about that a lot. Alfonso and I spoke about how she would go to college and pursue art, probably somewhere not far away from Pittsburgh, probably somewhere in New York, That seemed more like her style than this smallish town. We always felt that Rachel had matured beyond high school a long time ago, and she was kind of waiting it out and doing things just to get by. She’s graduated in her head, before we meet her.
DP: Did it make you really sad, thinking that she has cancer and probably won’t have a future?
OC: Well, we don’t know that yet in the movie. But yeah, of course it made me sad.
DP: Greg seems to tell Rachel everything during the months of their friendship, but does she hold back stuff from him?
OC: Yeah, definitely. I don’t want to say what because I think it’s nice that she has a bit of mystery.
DP: Then why does she hold back stuff from him?
OC: Because Greg needs to learn to listen. I think he’s starting to realize that by the end of the film. That was a big thing. You can see it with the way the camera moves. Everything’s so chaotic and the camera really captures his neuroses, and then everything becomes quiet and more still, and that really reflects his consciousness and his mind expanding and him learning how to listen and how to share and be selfless. I think he will learn more and more about Rachel as the years go on, but for now, that’s enough.