Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is about the unlikely friendship that develops between two self proclaimed outsiders and a classmate recently diagnosed with cancer. Thomas Mann plays Greg, an infinitely relatable selfish teenager who would rather make film parodies with his friend Earl (RJ Cyler) than be confronted with life’s realities as represented by Rachel (Olivia Cooke) and her illness.
After watching this heartfelt dramedy, you’ll probably fall in love with this trio and wish you could hang out with them. We got to do the next best thing when we interviewed the film’s leads. Mann is more thoughtful than Greg (at least at the beginning of the film), and Cooke is much more British than Rachel, but RJ is basically just Earl.
In the film Greg’s character avoids getting attached to any high school cliques, did this reflect your high school experiences at all? Were you part of a specific clique?
Thomas Mann: That’s one thing that I never liked about high school movies was the way that they all compartmentalize these cliques and I didn’t have that experience in high school. It was much more fluid than that. The jocks hung out with the stoner kids. In this movie I think it says more about Greg, that he has to make sense of all these people. Not necessarily that they are these cliques but it’s just the way that he classifies them just to kind of keep himself separate.
Olivia Cooke: I was a floater. I wanted to go where all the fun was, so I wasn’t ever loyal to my group of friends in that moment, I don’t really talk to anyone I went to school with because my best friends where who I did theatre with, which wasn’t a part of my school. I was really wildly unpopular for my first three years of high school and then I got a side fringe and then all the girls copied me and got a side fringe as well and then I became pop-u-lar (laughs).
RJ Cyler: I was uh…
OC: You were popular.
RJ: I was, yeah… But it wasn’t like, you know how some people are popular just because they’re really cute? Even though I am a very cute son of a bitch, but it was because my brother was popular before I got to the school so I tried to come in and just be like ‘oh my brother’s popular so I’m popular’ but no that’s not how it works. So the whole 9th grade I was just like that ugly kid, then throughout the years I got involved in band and then I started getting friends, in every group in the school I had a least two or three friends. So everybody knew who RJ was and you know, I was a just a boss (laughs).
These characters are all kind of in transition, so how do you find characters who haven’t yet found themselves?
TM: It’s all about embracing the confusion. Greg is kind of selfish and you just had to embrace that, it reminded me a lot of how I was as a teenager. If you’re thrown a situation like this it’s uncomfortable and it’s awkward and you don’t know how to deal with it. You don’t always say the right thing, you just kind of say what’s on your mind. I just really responded to his honesty. I saw so much of myself in him, it wasn’t like I had to do some kind of transformation or some different approach, it was just an emotional response I had to him and felt like I understood him. In that sense that was enough.
OC: Same with Rachel. It was nice to see a teenage girl depicted in a screenplay as someone who just likes herself and is very quietly confident and comfortable with herself and not riddled with all these insecurities and self doubt and self hatred, which I find is the majority of teenage characters that are being played or written. It’s just really damaging for teenage girls especially, and offensive. Because I certainly wasn’t like that and it’s nice to love yourself and I feel like girls especially should be taught that from a young age and not be trying to compare or obsessively improve themselves physically. As long as everything works, you’re set.
RJ: Earl was a fun character because he’s kind of a cut and dry piece of honesty really. And I’m a piece of honesty but I’m just a fun one, I’m not cut dry. Earl’s like vegetables, I’m like cake.
What struck you as being particularly different about this project and worth fighting to be a part of it?
TM: I knew it was going to look different than a lot of coming-of-age movies and high school movies.
OC: It definitely didn’t feel like a ‘high school movie’.
TM: Yeah I never approached it as like a ‘teen movie’, the story was so good and it made you feel something. I knew Alfonso was not going to treat it like a teen movie, he was going to make it personal and deep.
OC: Not sentimental.
TM: Yeah, and I wanted to be a part of that. And just his love of filmmaking is so infectious that you just trust him, he has such an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of cinema and all these great filmmakers that have come before him. I wanted to be a part of that and I wanted to know those things and care about movies the same way that Greg did.
OC: Me and Thomas met Alfonso and became really close to his last movie, which is good that we didn’t get that one because then we wouldn’t have been able to do this one. Just meeting Alfonso for the get-go, he’s got this aura about him that you’re just drawn into and you can tell that he’s just this incredible filmmaker that’s going to completely stand the test of time.
Had you seen many of the movies you were parodying or did you have to watch them as homework?
TM: I’d seen a few of them but a lot them I just took it upon myself to watch. I felt like it would be dishonest to be making parodies of them having not seen them. That was a lot of my homework. Don’t Look Now is one of my favourite movies that I discovered. I’d never seen anything quite like it.
Which movie parody was the most fun to do?
RC: 2:48pm Cowboy.
TM: Yeah, that was a cool one for you. Burden of Screams for me, as Klaus Kinski. I’m in the middle of this park and there’s like kids walking by and I’m cursing at the top of my lungs. That was the first day, it was nerve wracking. If I can do a German accent in the middle of a park with a tiny crew, the rest of the shoot will be okay.
The scene where Rachel tells Greg she’s not going to continue treatment was amazing, we’re forced to just stare at the two of you, there’s no cutting. Was that really difficult to shoot?
TM: We had been living with that scene since our first audition together, and by the time we got on set we didn’t want to waste anything. We just wanted to lay it all out there in the first few takes.
OC: Four takes, that was it. We didn’t know that Alfonso wasn’t going to do more traditional coverage and come in closer, so it really worked because I think if we had known that was going me the only shot, we might have tried to ‘act’ more or be more showy, but it was just so in the moment.
TM: And it got more and more authentic, I think we ended up using the fourth take. It’s a dream as an actor to have a director trust you enough to not cut your performance. It just makes us look really good.
RJ this was your first role, how did you come to it?
RJ: I got the script from my managers while I was playing X Box, they actually knew that I was playing Xbox, they know me so well. I started reading it and was like I gotta have this. It’s like that one toy on Christmas that you’re parents are like no you can’t have it but you whine and whine enough and you get it. I was willing to do that and then you get it. It was just the familiar sound and tone of it. It sounded very familiar to me, just a bunch of honestly. I went and did the audition and I felt comfortable with every word that was on the paper.
People have very emotional reactions to the film’s subject, what’s it been like taking it to different audiences and experiencing their reactions?
TM: There’s nothing like someone coming up to you and telling you that they are moved by the film. It’s all you can ask for is that people feel something while they watch it. Seeing people have their own emotional experiences, we feel like we did our job. I feel good putting this out into the world. It’s definitely the best work I’ve ever done and I’m really proud of it and now it just belongs to everyone else.
OC: Rarely, you’re lucky enough to make a film that makes people genuinely feel something. It’s really wonderful.
Read our interview with director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon here.