Once in a while, a movie comes along that is so natural, so unpretentious and free of clichés that it blows away everyone who sees it with its simple honesty.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is just such a film. Written (book and screenplay) by Jesse Andrews and directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (who’s known for his work on such diverse series as American Horror Story: Coven and Glee), it walked away from this year’s Sundance Film Festival with both the Audience Award and Jury Prize in the US Dramatic category.
The movie stars Thomas Mann (Project X) as Greg, an awkward teenager trying to navigate the social ills of his senior year of high school. He spends his free time making short film parodies with his buddy Earl (newcomer R.J. Cyler), and lunch breaks in his History teacher’s (Jon Bernthal, The Walking Dead) office, keeping to himself as much as possible.
But then his parents (Connie Britton, Nashville), and Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation) ask him to spend time with his classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke, Bates Motel) as she’s the daughter of a friend (played by Molly Shannon, Saturday Night Live) and has just been diagnosed with leukemia. Begrudgingly, he agrees and through the experience, learns much about friendship.
It’s simple in plot, rich in emotion. The film is dedicated to Gomez-Rejon’s father and was a passion project for him, even though he didn’t write it himself. He and his three lead actors were in Toronto recently to promote the film and we sat down to chat about the overwhelming response it’s had so far.
Obviously there’s something in this film that really resonates with people. What was it that stood out for you when you first read the script?
Olivia: The dialogue was honest; it’s disjointed, it’s disconnected…people are searching for the right thing to say, and there’s no right thing to say. Teenagers are aware of a lot of things and so street smart. But still, you’re a teenager and haven’t got the tools to be able to handle something as tragic as this. You never really do have them, but especially at that age when all these emotions come flying at you and it’s all-encompassing. I feel like Jesse Andrews just captured that really well.
Thomas: All of that and the opportunity to work with Alfonso…you just knew it was going to be something different and was going to mean something. It was going to resonate with people and he wasn’t going to approach it like a teenage coming of age movie. It was personal to him and you just wanted to take that journey. I knew it was going to be something special.
RJ: It was the honesty, and for me, the hilarity, really, that was heard. Jesse is really good at knowing who and what teenagers are, you know? The cliché movies that are made nowadays about teenagers…they say the perfect thing and they do the perfect action and they know exactly what they want to say. No teenager on earth knows that…we barely know what we want to eat for lunch. Jesse knew that, and he put it into the book and the screenplay. So it was like, “I’ve got to be a part of this”. It’s just real. With most teen movies, you can read them; you know exactly what’s going to happen and when and it’s boring, you know? With this movie, it was a lot different because it was a new voice that Jesse was able to bring to “younger” movies, if you will.
You’ve worked in different genres, Olivia and Alfonso particularly in horror. How did you enjoy working on this type of film?
Alfonso: This was a personal film and I hadn’t done that before. I hadn’t looked into myself and tried to make something out of what I was feeling. That was a new experience. It could have taken the shape of a different genre, like a horror film or something. But this was like a gift that appeared and I thought “OK, I get this on so many levels…I can do something with this that will represent who I am right now.”
Olivia: It was nice to feel real emotions and not have to scream at something pretend or react to the director screaming off-camera. To live in these characters that were real. We felt so much about each other, and also the characters in the script and the story, that it really was so easy to feel all these things. I think Thomas and I felt that even though we’re playing teenagers, this was our first adult role.
Thomas: Yeah – I felt like it was my most mature role, even though I’m playing someone who’s relatively immature. It’s the kind of movie where, as an actor, you want to find this human story, as vague as that sounds. A human story that you can sink your teeth into and just live in, that doesn’t feel like too much of a stretch. So in that way it was easy, because you really want to go there.
Tell me about working with Connie, Nick, Molly and Jon.
Thomas: Jon is the coolest “dude’s dude” ever! We were so lucky to have those guys. After we were cast we were really excited to find out who the adult characters would be played by. When it turned out Nick Offerman was playing my dad, I freaked out. I was so intimidated to meet him, but he’s the nicest person ever…and Connie as well. So talented and just fun to watch them work and listen to them talk about their experiences. And Molly Shannon is just a riot.
Olivia: And so curious as well. Both she and Connie just wanted to know everything about us. God, it was so much fun.
Thomas: They would literally sit and stare into your soul and say “tell me everything about yourself”.
Alfonso: I knew Connie Britton from American Horror Story; she read the script and called me when I was directing a pilot and said “I would love to play Greg’s mom”. I was like “of course!” And then once you have Connie, now you have a real movie because then you ask Nick Offerman “do you want to play Connie Britton’s husband?” It’s easier, it just becomes real. But the movie almost fell apart because we had no Earl. And then RJ submitted his tape at the very last minute and we had him.
RJ, congratulations on your acting debut. I understand it was a leap of faith, for you and your family, when you decided to go into this industry. Tell me about that decision and the validation that comes from your debut performance being in a critically acclaimed, award winning film.
RJ: Yeah! We decided to move to California after I went there to do an acting camp and had a good response with a lot of callbacks. I said, “Mom, I like doing this. This is how I can buy you a house and Daddy a truck…this is how it’s going to happen, I don’t see any other career path that’s going to make me this happy”. So she said to my dad “RJ wants to move to California” and he said OK. And so they just took a leap of faith and moved out there with me. Now my mom is a chef, going to school at Cordon Bleu, and my dad is driving a truck, so they’re both happy. A couple of months before I landed Me and Earl, we were pretty much homeless, living in a hotel and our truck. But then I actually booked the movie and I was like “Oh thank you Lord”.
Tell me about your experience at Sundance.
Olivia: Just sitting in a room of 1600 people and laughing…and then crying…and then doing a standing ovation and crying at the same time with all those other people. God, it was amazing. I’ve never been more proud of anything. And to say that you’re proud of yourself…it’s not often that you get to say that. It was really lovely and I was very joyous. But I couldn’t open my eyes for like four days, I’d been crying so much! I can never go again, because it will never be like that.
Thomas: It’s ruined. It was such an explosive experience. It’s all a blur to me now – it was like this really amazing thing where one thing after another was happening…the movie just took on a life of its own. It was really emotional, for all of us. I remember when the first Variety interview came out and we were all just sitting at this bar, hovered over someone’s phone reading it…and we just started crying. That feeling of “They get it…people will feel about it the same way we do”, you know? It means a lot.
Alfonso, you started out working for some pretty legendary directors like Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. I would imagine there were many learning experiences but is there anything in particular you took with you into your own directorial career?
Alfonso: It’s hard because you’re talking about these legends and you’re with them every day in the course of a film or two. You soak up something every second, you know? How they solve problems, how they get their ideas, how they realize their ideas, how they deal with pressure and time and how they treat their crew. There are so many things, but it’s still their process. It doesn’t have to be yours. Ultimately I would hate for Scorsese to watch a movie of mine and say “all he does is copy me, there’s nothing in that”. This is my voice, but I’m also thanking them. But they’re all so humble, so generous, and always treated me like a colleague. That means the world to someone who’s starting out. So I try to do the same.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl opens in Toronto June 12.