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Interview: Olivia Cooke Talks Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Naturally combining your rare sensitivity and unique worldviews, particularly as you strive to learn what it means to be selfless, is a powerful transition into truly embracing your maturity. The ability to also accept your true personal identity along the way, and eventually express it through humor, no matter what difficult obstacles you’re forced to overcome, is the powerful epitome of the contemporary coming-of-age story. That compelling exploration of learning how to stop fighting against your journey of self-discovery, and realizing that hiding from the world is futile, is passionately explored in director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s new comedy-drama, ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.’ The movie’s script, which first-time feature film writer Jesse Andrews based on his popular 2013 debut novel of the same name, features actress Olivia Cooke as a teen girl who’s suffering from, and struggling to come to terms with her, leukemia. As she truly becomes friends with one of her classmates, who has always cherished the emotional distance he has placed between himself and their peers, she teaches him that you can’t spend your entire life only presenting yourself as the person you want others to see.

‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ follows high school senior Greg (Thomas Mann), who has tried to avoid developing genuinely close friendships, as a survival strategy to navigate the difficult social stigmas associated with adolescence. While he has instead easily made acquaintances with his classmates, he describes the relationship with the one person who he has allowed himself to form somewhat of a true connection with, Earl (RJ Cyler), as more of an associate than a best friend. Since their childhoods, the two have bonded over making their own low-budget parodies of classic movies, including ‘Senior Citizen Kane’ and ‘A Sockwork Orange.’

But Greg’s life and perspective on friendship instantly changes when his parents (Connie Britton and Nick Offerman) tell him that one of his classmates, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), has been diagnosed with cancer. After they suggest that he spend time with her during her treatment, in an effort to make her feel better, neither Greg nor Rachel are keen on the idea. But once the two begin to spend time together, they begin to bond, especially when she begins to like his parodies. As Greg then begins his next cinematic project, which emphasizes Rachel’s struggles, he realizes that completing it is going to be harder than he originally thought, and how worthwhile the true bonds of friendship can be.

Cooke generously took the time recently to sit down for a roundtable interview to talk about starring in ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ at New York City’s Crosby Street Hotel. Among other things, the actress discussed how she was drawn to play Rachel in the comedy-drama, as it not only had the best script she has ever read, as it features dialogue that shows how teenagers really speak, but it also portrays her character as a girl who likes, and is confident in, herself; how she was grateful that she was able to speak with a teenage girl who had the same leukemia as Rachel, as it helped her better understand the emotions and motivations cancer patients of that age group experience during their treatment; and that she decided to shave her head for the film, as she was committed to the role and showcasing the physical and emotional struggles Rachel was confronting during her treatment.

Question (Q): So you have your hair back-how long did it take to grow back?

Olivia Cooke (OC): It’s taken nearly a year, and this is all I’ve got so far (referring to her short hairstyle). Hair is nice to have, and it’s bizarre to realize how important it is when it’s gone. It’s strange not to have it, especially as a woman, because a lot of times your hair is your most defining feature. So when it’s suddenly gone, you become like a baby again. It makes you stand out, and it’s a big loss of identity.

I cried when I got it cut, because what woman wouldn’t? Cutting your hair is easier for boys, because a lot of boys I know say, “Oh, I just shave it off during the summer, and grow it back during the winter.” So for me to suddenly not have hair after 20 years, especially since I had a thick head of hair, was really strange. But I only cried once, and I was really brave. (laughs)

Q: At what point did you decide that you wanted to cut your hair, instead of using a bald cap?

OC: I decided about two weeks before we began shooting. I don’t know how they were going to use the bald cap, so before we began filming, I began panicking. So I sent Alfonso an email, saying “Bad caps look like sh*t, even if you have the best make-up artist in the world. You can always tell if there’s a lot of hair under them, as they’re bulky. It’s going to take everyone out of the movie.” He then sent me an email back, saying “I’m so happy how committed you are to this role.”

I thought, if they don’t okay it, at least I said I would do it, and it would look like I’m committed to the role. (laughs) But then we received the okay from the producers on the TV show I was on (‘Bates Motel’). So I was like, okay, I have to do it now.

Then we shaved my hair in character in Rachel’s room, and we thought about putting it in the final film that Greg gives to her. We put it in bunches to make it easier to cut, and we cut it off in pieces here and there. Everyone else was laughing as we were cutting it off in pieces. Then I cut the front piece, and Thomas cut off the back piece. Then I saw my scalp, and I was trying not to cry. But it showed that Rachel was taking control of the cancer, before it took control over her.

I didn’t expect it to be so emotional. I was so overwhelmed by the process that a weird noise came out of my throat. I had never made a noise like that before-it was a weird scream. Then I started sobbing in Alfonso’s arms, and he held me a bit. Then I went to dinner, and it was fine. (laughs) It was the best thing I did. It was a treat for me as an actress to get to that place emotionally.

Q: What intially attracted you to your role of Rachel in the film-were you familiar with Jesse’s book before you read the screenplay?

OC: I wasn’t familiar with the book before I signed onto the film. My agent sent me the script, along with a note saying “You’re going to love this.” He was right-it was the best script I had ever read. Even though the story’s partially about a girl who has cancer, it’s also so funny, particularly in the way Greg was written. Everyone’s dialogue in the film was written to show how people really speak-it’s awkward and confusing. The thought process is discombobulated, and they’re always looking for the right words to say.

I find that with most coming-of-age movies, a lot of 18-year-olds are so profound, and everyone’s saying the most perfect thing. Everyone’s so sentimental in those films, but I find that teenagers, and people in general, aren’t as sentimental as movies make them out.

But this film was written so real to me, and Rachel was written as a girl who likes herself. She isn’t riddled with any glaring insecurities. She was quietly confident, which was refreshing. It’s nice to see a young woman like in films-she wasn’t written as mean, and was just happy with herself. I feel like that’s the type of teenager I was when I was younger. So it was really refreshing to read a character like that.

Q: You’re also known for having starred in several horror films. What was the transition process like to go from that genre to this type of comedy-drama?

OC: It was nice to actually be able to touch real things, and not have to scream at imaginary things, as the director’s yelling “Scratch, scratch, Olivia look scared,” off-screen. (laughs) But I wasn’t scared, and was obviously faking that response all the way.

So it was nice to feel real emotions on this film, and not have to live in this world of constantly having a scared face. It was also nice not to have to always walk around extra slowly, so that it looks like you’re walking slowly on camera. You think, how long is this scene going to take? It was nice to be funny, and have dialogue that makes it very easy to act, on this film. We didn’t have to make lines like, “Maybe we should go in there,” sound real, because that’s not something I would really say. It sounds like I’m sh*tting on everything I’ve ever done, and I’m not meaning to, but it’s nice to be able to feel real things.

Q: What was the process of creating the photography books that Rachel makes, and how did you build that aspect into creating the character?

OC: Early on in the process, Luci (Leary), who was one of the film’s prop masters, sent me an email, and asked what I thought Rachel would have in her room. We had this continuous dialogue about it. I would constantly look at Tumblr to find things that Rachel would have in her room, and I wanted it to feel like a treehouse. Our set decorator was amazing-my room when I was a teenager didn’t look like that at all. It would be my dream room, if I had a set decorator. (laughs)

It was something that was a constant dialogue, which wasn’t completed until the end of the movie. Ideas were always being sparked, and the design of the wallpaper didn’t happen until the end of the shoot. I thought it added so many layers to Rachel, and it really informed her relationship with her father. Molly Shannon’s character really brushed it off, but Rachel really had a deep connection with her father. So that aspect was wonderful.

What Greg sees around the room really says a lot. Some of the things that are in the room aren’t even highlighted, but they really inform the character. They show how Rachel is everywhere. The color yellow was assigned to Rachel, which represents the sun’s rebirth, and how life is everything. It was wonderful, and also really emotional, to play the heart and soul of something like that.

Q: Did you keep anything from Rachel’s room after you finished filming?

OC: I didn’t end up keeping anything. Although I originally wanted to keep the pink wig, but the hair stylist had had it for years. It smelled and was itchy, so I was afraid to wear it. (laughs) Jennifer Eve, the film’s costume designer, loaned me a lot of hats to wear, so my bald head wouldn’t get burned, which was nice.

Q: How did you build your working relationship with Thomas Mann, who played Greg, since his relationship with Rachel was the key bond in the film?

OC: We got along right from our first chemistry read. I felt like we were friends as we were going into the screen test, even I was testing with other boys. Then as we began shooting, we had a week of pre-production together.

You can’t force people to be friends. The reason Alfonso probably cast us was because we had this lovely platonic chemistry and relationship before we began shooting. We needed to have a connection that was so deeply rooted, and not because one of us fancied the other. We just connected on a really simple platform, and genuinely got along. We really were friends with each other, as well as with RJ.

Q: Were you able to talk to anyone who was dying of cancer, as you were preparing for your role of Rachel?

OC: I did, as I visited the cancer ward at UCLA, and spoke with a girl who was 16, and had the same leukemia as Rachel. She went through rounds of chemo, and it hadn’t worked, so she was waiting for a bone marrow transplant. But she was super positive and so strong. However, we never spoke in detail about what happened, because it would be so insensitive for a stranger to ask if the treatment was going to work. I just wanted to get to know her and see how she was.

I also spoke to her dad, who had leukemia two years prior, and fought it. That was unheard of, because it’s not hereditary at all. But he told me about what he went through when he had it. He told me that he would look outside, and would give anything to be the person on the street who had all this freedom, and was relatively healthy.

I also spoke to her team of doctors about all their cancer patients who went through what Rachel did at her age, and how they knew their own bodies and what worked. During the process, they become the parent, as they really consoled their parents as they made their decisions. Their parents were in denial, and wanted to do everything they could, because their daughters were still their babies.

But the young daughters who were the patients knew what the best option for themselves was, and they wanted to be as comfortable as they could. They didn’t want to have all this radiation and chemotherapy, as well as all these drugs being put into them. After the cancer reached a certain stage, the treatments just made them sicker.

Q: To end on a slighter more upbeat note, what were some of your favorite scenes to shoot?

OC: Even though I only had one scene with Molly Shannon, filming with her was great. She was at the bottom of the stairs with Thomas, and she welcomes him in for the first time. Watching their interaction from the top of the stairs, and seeing how big, as well as heartbreaking Molly’s performance, could go, was great. It was also wonderful to see how theatrical she could get with the slapstick comedy. I was trying to be as quiet as I could be, but she was so funny.

I tried to watch her as often as I could, even though we only had the one scene together. Watching her was a great lesson in comedy, as it came from the best person who could teach it.

Interview: Olivia Cooke Talks Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Written by: Karen Benardello

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As a life-long fan of entertainment, particularly films, television and music, and an endless passion for writing, Karen Benardello decided to combine the two for a career. She graduated from New York's LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic. While still attending college, Karen began writing for Shockya during the summer of 2007, when she began writing horror movie reviews. Since she began writing for Shockya, Karen has been promoted to the position of Senior Movies & Television Editor. Some of her duties in the position include interviewing filmmakers and musicians, producing posts on celebrity news and contributing reviews on albums and concerts. Some of her highlights include attending such festivals and conventions as the Tribeca Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, SXSW, Toronto After Dark, the Boston Film Festival and New York Comic-Con.

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