Coming of age is a universal experience, which may explain why it is so often explored on film. The latest film to take a look at that particular slice of our lives is ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, but this isn’t your typical teenage fare. Here, when boy meets girl, they don’t fall deeply in love for the first time or nervously make their way towards their first sexual experience. No, here, boy and girl struggle to find a way to just be real with themselves and with each other in the face of the coming of age story’s greatest foe, death.
ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL is a charming and genuine film that will catch you off guard and stay with you long after you’re done seeing it. Just as charming and just as genuine is the cast of young people who play the title characters, Thomas Mann (Me), RJ Cyler (Earl) and Olivia Cooke (The Dying Girl). I had the privilege of sitting down to speak with them recently on the Thompson Hotel rooftop in Toronto as they passed through the city on their whirlwind press tour.
“I knew it was going to look different than a lot of coming of age movies and a lot of high school movies,” Mann explains, when asked what first attracted him to the project. “I never approached it as a teen movie. The story was so good and it made you feel something. I knew Alfonso [Gomez-Rejon, director] was not going to treat it like a teen movie; he was going to make it personal and deep. I wanted to be a part of that.”
Cooke, who is perhaps most well known for her role on TV’s Bates Motel, echoes Mann’s sentiment that this script, written by Jesse Andrews, and based on his novel, was unique in the way that it handled adolescent characters. “It was nice to see a teenage girl depicted in a screenplay as someone that likes herself and is quietly confident and comfortable with herself and not riddled with all these insecurities and self-doubt and self-hatred, which I find is the majority of teenage characters that are being written,” It was at this point that I realized Cooke is British, from Manchester to be specific. “I certainly wasn’t like that. It’s nice to love yourself and I feel like girls especially should be taught that from a young age and not be trying to compare or constantly improve themselves physically.”
This doesn’t mean that the characters always have it together on screen. They are teenagers after all. And how exactly does an actor inform a character that isn’t fully formed yet?
“It’s all about embracing the confusion,” Mann proclaims. “It reminded me a lot of how I was as a teenager. If you’re thrown into a situation like this, it’s uncomfortable and it’s awkward and you don’t know how to deal with it. You don’t always say the right thing; you just kinda say what’s on your mind. I just really responded to his honesty.”
And if we’re speaking about honesty, we have to talk about Earl, a character who always lets you know what he is thinking even if you don’t like to hear it. “Earl was a fun character. He’s kinda a challenge. He’s a cut and dry piece of honesty really,” says Cyler, who was cast as Earl, his first film role in fact, after an exhaustive search. “I’m a piece of honesty but I’m just a fun one. I’m not cut and dry. I’m spoon moist, a spicy piece of honesty. That’s me. Earl is like vegetables; I’m like cake.” I’m not entirely sure what that means but anyone who identifies themselves as cake is fine by me.
The genuine honesty in the film that they all seem to be so drawn to is often attributed to director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (American Horror Story, Glee). Cooke declares, “Just from the get go, meeting Alfonso, he’s just got this aura that you’re drawn into. You can tell that he’s just this incredible filmmaker.”
Mann feels similarly. “His love of filmmaking is so infectious. You just trust him. I wanted to be a part of that.” Cyler meanwhile goes back to the script itself, a script he likens to “that one toy on Christmas that you’re parents are like you can’t have it but you want it and then you get it. It was just the familiar sound and tone of it. I felt comfortable with every word that was on the paper.”
ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL won both the Audience and Critics Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and these three have been touring with it ever since. You’d think they’d be exhausted by now but their youthful exuberance is still abundant. Most of all though, they are just happy to be sharing this beautiful film with an audience.
Says Cooke, “Rarely, you’re lucky enough to make a film that makes people genuinely feel something. It’s really wonderful; it really is.” Mann adds, “There is nothing like someone coming up to you and telling you that they are moved by the film. It’s all you can ask for is that people feel something while they watch it. Seeing people have their own emotional experiences, we feel like we did our job. I feel good putting this out into the world. It’s definitely the best work I’ve ever done and I’m really proud of it and now it just belongs to everyone else.”
ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL opens in Toronto on Friday, June 12 and expands across the country in the weeks to follow.