Some lessons come from the most surprising sources. In Sundance Film Festival favorite Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, it takes a high school senior with terminal leukemia to teach antisocial schoolmate Greg and his friend Earl how to live fuller lives. SF Weekly chatted with the three rising stars of the film: Thomas Mann (Me), RJ Cyler (Earl) and Olivia Cooke (Dying Girl) about what they've learned so far about filmmaking, opening up emotionally on set, and navigating the pitfalls of the red carpet.
SF Weekly: What was it like working with director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon?
RJ Cyler: It was very fun. Alfonzo is like another dad. He's very close to the actors and made it easy for everyone involved by making it very family oriented and very fun to be a part of it. I couldn't ask for a better director to start out my career with. He's just a fun, genuine person and so artistic.
SFW: Movies like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl about young people dealing with serious illnesses are prevalent right now. What was your goal with this film?
Olivia Cooke: We tried to create as honest and as real a film as we could possibly make it. That was the biggest factor going into it, more than anything.
SFW: Were there any moments in the film that were particularly emotional for any of you?
Thomas Mann: Yes, if you're not feeling it for real, it's not gonna read onscreen. That was one of my toughest things with this movie. I wanted to be so emotionally available, and I wasn't sure I'd be able to deliver on the day. But thanks to Alfonzo trusting me and being open to me about his personal reasons for wanting to tell the story, and how open and giving all the other actors were, it became very easy to empathize with the story and the characters and just throw myself into this world.
SFW: After a particularly difficult day of shooting, how would you decompress?
OC: We were really lucky with this crew that everyone wanted to hang out afterward and go for dinner. So that's what we did. We'd chat and laugh and drink, and it was really wonderful. It was like summer camp, so it was really easy to decompress after an emotional scene.
SFW: Tell me something funny about working with Molly Shannon.
OC: She's so intrigued. She just wants to suss you out immediately … Before Alfonzo says, “Action,” we'd be lying in bed together, and she'd say, “Oh my, he did that, really? What an asshole. I'd never stand for that.” Then Alfonzo yells, “Action,” and she gets right into it, and I'm so overwhelmed. I need 10 more seconds to just ground myself. Also how funny she can just take it — from zero to 100 in no time at all. She can go bigger and bigger and bigger — the sky's the limit. There's no stopping Molly Shannon.
SFW: Olivia, I couldn't help but laugh when I read on all the blogs that you learned an American accent from watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
OC: No, I didn't. Someone misquoted me. I really hate that. What I said was that my sister can do a really good Kim Kardashian. And now they're saying, “Olivia learned her accent from the Kardashians.” What a terrible accent I would have if that's how I learned my American accent. No, I just learned it by watching American TV and films and working with an amazing dialect coach who's worked with me since I started on Bates Motel. But as soon as I said it about my sister, I knew they were going to get it wrong. Ugh, I hate people.
SFW: Since all three of you are new toHollywood, what's it like getting your first taste of fame?
OC: It's still very overwhelming and new and weird and not a comfortable place that you put yourself into. All these cameras are flashing at you and you just hope that you don't have an epileptic fit. You just try to smile through it as much as possible and hope that they don't see the terror in your eyes.