Thomas Mann and Olivia Cooke may not be household names, but they will be this June after Fox Searchlight unspools Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. The Film rocked Sundance this past January, picking-up the Audience Award and the Grand JuryPrize. But on a sunny Toronto afternoon, they are just two courteous young adults apprehensive of how the howling wind is going to affect our interview.
“I just don’t want it to mess with the sound because the air is bad for microphones,” Mann says as we hurry inside, dodging unsecure patio furniture.
At the suggestion of his mother, Greg (Mann) befriends Rachel (Cooke), who has just been diagnosed with leukemia. The Film chronicles their friendship, and the way they grow into adulthood when faced with this debilitating disease. RJ Cyler plays Earl, Greg’s friend and “co-worker” who helps him make short Parody Films based on their favourite Films.
Cooke was no stranger to ill characters before taking on the role of Rachel – her character on the TV Series Bates Motel struggles with Cystic Fibrosis: “I’m always drawn to the [roles] that are going to challenge me. I never approached it as ‘Oh my God I’m playing another dying girl again!’” Cooke shaved her head for the Film and worked on-set with Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon to track the five stages of Chemotherapy.
Mann was very cautious not to interfere with any of this. He says, “I purposely kept myself distant from her process. Greg has no idea about the stages of Cancer, and so I would just arrive on-set and see her in these different stages. It was just a very subtle, physical thing I would notice and it affects you.”
Despite what she goes through, Cooke was very precise on how she wanted to play Rachel, “You don’t ever want to see Rachel as a victim or as a tragic character, or anyone with Cancer as a tragic character. Because they’re still themselves.” She has nothing but praise for costume designer Jennifer Eve for helping her achieve this: “As Rachel got sicker, her clothes and her wigs and her hats became more vibrant and brighter because she’s like ‘I’m still me, I’m not completely vanished and disappeared because I’m deteriorating’.”
In discussing the content of the Film, Mann and Cooke were very strongly opposed to lumping the Film into the sick-fiction genre shared with Films like The Fault in Our Stars and If I Stay. “Cancer is more of a backdrop,” Mann says, “It’s so complex and I feel so many things about it, that talking about it is often really frustrating.” Cooke elaborates that “I feel like people like to pigeonhole, and it’s so annoying. You can’t compartmentalize it because it’s so many things at once. I feel like you can take the Cancer or the illness aspect out of it, and you’ll still have a really wonderful movie about friendship and discovery.”
And that friendship is what Mann really likes about the Film: “When you see a romantic couple on screen, you’re not taking a part in it. The fact that we’re friends, you feel like you could be one of us. If you like spending time with these kids then anything tragic that happens to them is so much more resonant.”
While the Film is emotional, there is a lot of humour and comedy scattered throughout. Mann had a lot of fun working on the Short Films Greg and Earl make in their spare time. His favourite was ‘Burden of Screams’, based on Les Blank’s 1982 Documentary Burden of Dreams, “That was the first day of shooting, and they’re like ‘You can do a German accent right?’ It’s just so ridiculous. I’m wearing this all-White suit with a straw hat. And there’s kids walking by, and I’m cursing at the top of my lungs.”
In the end, both Actors took something away from Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Mann learned “to trust myself and trust Alfonso, and really just [learnt] to let myself go. I’m a more emotional person now. I cry when I watch movies, and I never used to do that before. I’ve grown as an actor, and hopefully as a person.” Cooke was just as emotional. When discussing romanticizing death, she says “It’s so stupid to waste your time on thinking like that. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.” Instead, she now wants to “just be more present and live.”.
Fox Searchlight release ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL on Friday, June 12, 2015.