Several weeks ago, we caught up with actress Olivia Cooke right after she landed in L.A., following six blazing weeks in the New Mexico desert. The 21-year-old was in the Southwest filming Katie Says Goodbye alongside Christopher Abbott (who played Charlie from the early seasons of Girls). Now back on the west coast and nestled into a cozy couch at Tres by José Andrés in Beverly Hills, she’s got her new flick, Me & Earl & the Dying Girl, on her mind. After it won the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition as well as the prestigious Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in January, she’s excited that it’s finally getting its national release on June 12.
In the film, an adaptation of Jesse Andrews’s book of the same name, she plays “the dying girl” Rachel, a funny, talented Pittsburgh high-school student who is diagnosed with cancer. She soon finds herself in forced friendships with two outcast guys from her class—the “me” and the “Earl,” played by Thomas Mann and RJ Cyler, respectively—who make film parodies to keep themselves entertained. “The chemistry between me and Thomas and RJ was so palpable when we all met each other,” she tells us over sips of raspberry-infused tea. “We all wanted it to seem so real, and not fake in any way.”
Cooke, a Greater Manchester native, started her career riding Harry Styles’s back in a One Direction video, and then went on to star in several scream-queen flicks like The Quiet Ones and Ouija, before landing a role on A&E’s Bates Motel. Her career is catapulting, but she’s not letting it get to her head. She’s off social media entirely (gasp!) and she’s trying to keep a low profile overall. But she’s happy to step into the spotlight to make sure everyone knows about Me & Earl & the Dying Girl, a film that had us laughing, crying, and still thinking about it days later. Keep reading for our unfiltered conversation with Cooke about the movie, what it was like to shave her head, and her repoire with her on-screen wine-o mom Molly Shannon.
You shaved your head to play the dying girl, Rachel. The act of you shaving your head was supposed to be in the film, but it got cut from the final edit. How did that transformation feel?
I shaved it last July. It was so strange to lose your femininity and your identity all in one—what people perceive as feminine, anyway. For me, I never realized how much I relied on the looks of the opposite sex, to just be more gentlemanly or open the door and all that. It was a trip. I don’t think it was very liberating or freeing. It kind of highlighted what is wrong with how people perceive women in today’s society. You’ve got to change your mindset and realize that you are so much more. Beauty is going to fade anyway and you’ve got to be so much more than your exterior.
Why did you choose to do it?
I just wanted it to be as real as possible. I met a girl in the children’s hospital in L.A., and she had the same leukemia as my character does. One of the first things she asked me was, "Are you going to shave your head?" At that point, I was going to wear the bald cap because I had to go back to Bates Motel. I just felt like such a phony. So then I made some phone calls to the creator of Bates, who said I could shave my head. I thought "I’ve got to do it now!"
So you made it happen for yourself?
Yes. Even though as an actor you are faking it most of the time, I didn’t want this to be another one of those things where the struggle is only surface level. I know it was only surface level for me, but I wanted people to really connect with the character, because cancer hits so many people. I didn’t want it to just seem like it was cancer with lip gloss on. Hopefully this film is going to stick around much longer after I’m gone, and I don’t want any of it to seem forced or to feel cringe-worthy or fake. I just want everything to seem real.
This movie is about cancer, sure, but at the same time you describe it as a comedy. Why?
I think the way people get through things (like cancer) is by laughing and by making jokes of it and not by taking it too seriously. It’s told from Greg’s (Thomas Mann) point of view and he is so selfish. But he’s an 18-year-old boy and all he’s thinking is, "She’s got cancer but it’s making me feel terrible, what a bitch!" Everyone’s guilty of feeling that sometimes. Something could be happening to your mom, to your sister, to your dearest loved one, and you’re just like, "This is making me feel bad." It’s just these human traits that you have to deal with, and you have to get over, and you have to grow from it and realize that it’s not all about you.
What is refreshing is that it’s not about romance, it’s about friendship. Can girls and boys truly be friends?
I think so. There’s a very fine line, I think. Sometimes you’ll be drunk and you’ll look at your friend, and you’re like, "I mean I could, I could right now if I wanted to." But you always have to push it a bit further. I’ve never had a relationship where I’ve been friends with the person and the attraction has built over time. There has to be instantaneous, "I want to rip your clothes off" feelings.
What was it like to have Molly Shannon play your mom?
She’s the most hilarious woman ever. She’s wonderful and she’s so interested in every single thing. She’s a very curious woman, and she just asks you loads and loads of questions, and then she’ll want your opinion on something, like, "Do you like him? Do you think he’s cute? He’s cute right?"
This isn’t the first time you’ve played a sick character. In Bates Motel, your character has cystic fibrosis.
I’m the dying girl in every single thing. It’s easier to find the tragedy in things. I think underneath it all, I’m quite a dark person, so it’s easier for me to tap into that. I’m drawn to these things where I’m challenging myself, and challenging how far I can go. So I think the most attractive things that come to me are the ones where I have to go to quite a dark place. But I’d love to do a full-on comedy.
Do people come up to you and say anything like, "Are you okay?"
When I shaved my head and it was like, really, really bald, people would not look at me at all. They just felt so uncomfortable. Then you start to gain your hair and you’ve got this buzz cut, that’s fine. But it was weird for a while. I rarely get recognized, I rarely get people who come up to me in the street or anything like that, so for the most part I feel quite anonymous.
Do you like being under the radar?
I don’t want fame. It’s lovely when people come up to you and say that they love your work, but if it’s in a public place I get so embarrassed because then everybody’s like, "Who is that?" I feel like I came into this business jaded as a defense mechanism. I never came in too bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I just went into it very guarded to protect myself. I’m not as jaded as I was. I feel like I’m more aware and more clued up to who’s B.S-ing me and who’s not.
Watch the trailer for Me & Earl & the Dying Girl below.