School’s out for summer, and what better way to celebrate than by going to the movies? In case you’re searching for a quirky film that will make you laugh and cry over the course of 105 minutes, look no further than Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. We caught up with the movie's stars (Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, and R.J. Cyler), the director, and the screenwriter during their press day in NYC to get exclusive deets on this film (which got a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival, no big deal).
In case you haven’t read the 2013 novel written by Jesse Andrews, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a coming-of-age story that follows a high school senior named Greg (Thomas Mann) who is forced by his mother to befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate who has been diagnosed with cancer. The result is a life changing, purely platonic friendship that slowly develops between Greg and Rachel.
Although the title and synopsis may seem slightly morbid, it is a surprisingly humorous and moving film, vastly different from typical teen movies. When we spoke with Mann, he completely agreed. “I liked that it was a really funny and honest take on a serious subject,” he told us. While many might be quick to assume that this film is just another variation on The Fault In Our Stars, Andrews assured us that this is simply not the case: “I knew that this was a kind of story that gets told a lot and there's always a romance in it. I just wanted to make something that was much more about how hard it is. It's unfair to expect adults to make sense of this, let alone teenagers, so I wanted a book and then a script and movie where it's not that simple.”
Greg is a highly awkward, self-deprecating teenager whose only ambition is to blend in and get along with every clique within the chaotic world known as high school. For Mann, his character was somewhat relatable. “It’s just so much easier to live that way and just be amicable with everyone, without making real connections, so I saw a lot of myself in Greg,” he explained. In his spare time, Greg makes parody films with Earl (R.J. Cyler), an individual whom he insists on referring to as his "coworker,” despite the fact that they’ve known each other since elementary school. Similar to his character, Mann admits that he used to “make little home movies and parodies of other films” during his teenage years.
Balancing out Greg’s insecure demeanor is Earl. “I think they sort of need each other. Earl needs Greg’s stable home life, and I think Greg finds a lot of comfort and honesty in Earl. Earl is a very grounded person,” Mann said. Since this was Cyler’s first film role, he admits that the experience was initially nerve-wracking. “At first, I was nervous because everyone [in the cast] was on my Netflix instant queue,” Cyler recalled. However, he quickly bonded with Mann and Cooke, which explains why their chemistry seems so natural throughout the film. Bonding activities for the trio included an Arctic Monkeys concert, a baseball game, a “random block party,” and a boat ride. As for Cyler’s future in the film industry, you can expect to see his face more often. “I’m glad that this was my first movie. This is the best launch pad that I could have for my career, especially since I see myself doing this for a long time,” he said.
Also worth mentioning is the phenomenal performance delivered by Olivia Cooke, who portrayed a cancer-ridden teenager named Rachel in a way that was genuine and honest. This was made possible through meticulous preparation on Cooke’s part. “I wanted her to be strong, and I didn’t want anyone to look at her as victim or a tragic character,” she said. In order to deliver an authentic portrayal, Cooke committed entirely—she completely shaved her head. “I just thought it’d be really disrespectful if I didn’t,” she explained. But it wasn't easy—at first, the process was entertaining, but Cooke admitted that she shed a few tears when the reality of the situation hit her. “Feeling my scalp for the first time, I was trying not to cry, but then this bubble of scream/cry came out and I started crying,” she said. Although Cooke said she endured the stares and uncomfortable looks from strangers afterwards, she has no regrets: “It was the best thing I did to get into the role emotionally.”
Tying together the entire production is director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. Having connected with the character of Greg on a personal level, Gomez-Rejon put his heart, soul, and creativity into the film. To help Cooke better understand and connect with her character, the two spent time with a young girl who had also been dealing with the same form of leukemia that Rachel has in the movie. After speaking with the girl’s parents and doctors, Gomez-Rejon and Cooke created a chemotherapy chart, which documented the various stages of treatment. This information proved to be vital to Cooke, who drew upon the research in order to “physically and mentally prepare.” Additionally, Gomez-Rejon worked quite closely with the actors involved in the film. “He was really open and nurturing, and made us feel like everything was our idea,” said Mann. Mann added that Gomez-Rejon was also “very collaborative” and “made everyone feel as though they were part of the creative process.” Teamwork makes the dream work, right?
The end result is a film that captures a truly beautiful friendship, where Rachel helps Greg realize his full potential and artistry. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl isn’t a movie that aspires to give the audience a typical teenage love story, laced with life lessons. Rather, it explores a serious situation in a way that is humorous and endearing. While there is no blatant moral attached, Mann believes that it “tackles the selfishness and stubbornness of teenagers” through Greg’s relationship with Rachel. “It’s about learning to be selfless” and “the importance of making connections with others,” Mann added.
The movie hit theaters last week—so be sure to check out Me and Earl and the Dying Girl!
P.S. You might want to bring a few tissues with you.