'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl': Meet the Stars and Screenwriter

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Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke and RJ Cyler at 'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl's' Sundance premiere.

Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, RJ Cyler talk about the honesty of the film's script, the first from author Jesse Andrews. And all four reveal more about the film's main characters and key scenes.

[Warning: Spoilers ahead for the movie version of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.]

The young stars of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl all say they were struck by the honesty of the film's script, written by the author of the young adult book on which it was based. In fact Olivia Cooke — who plays Rachel, the "dying girl" of the title — was so impressed by the script and so strongly wanted the part that she wrote what she calls "a really desperate" email to director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon to try to convince him to cast her.

Although she says she's blocked out exactly what she said in the email, Cooke tells The Hollywood Reporter that she was struck by the rare tone of the writing.

"I've never read a script that was so honest," Cooke says. "There's a bunch of scripts that you're sent all the time that are supposed to be able to depict how it is to be in high school, and I feel like a lot of them are just really obnoxious and stereotypical and quite offensive to young adults. And I felt like I could do something with Rachel and not let people see her as a victim."

The film follows Greg (the "me" of the title), played by Thomas Mann, as he befriends his high school classmate Rachel as she battles leukemia. Earl, played by RJ Cyler, is Greg's friend whom the latter calls his "co-worker," part of Greg's pattern of avoiding close relationships. Together, Greg and Earl make parodies of classic films, something Rachel later learns about and they share their spoofs with her.

Mann adds that the screenplay "really portrayed teenagers in a very specific way that I hadn't quite seen before." He was also attracted to the project because of the involvement of Gomez-Rejon, whom he met while Gomez-Rejon was working on his first film and the two of them bonded over movies.

"I was so excited when I found out that he was going to be involved because I knew it was going to be something different, more meaningful. I knew that it wasn't going to be a teen movie, I guess. It was going to be something deeper and more personal than that," Mann says.

Cyler, meanwhile, says he couldn't put the script down after he started reading it, interrupting the Xbox game he was playing.

"It just felt so familiar and honest that I just knew I had to be a part of it," Cyler says. "When they sent it to me and I finished reading, I couldn't help but keep reading. I [wanted there to be] more to read. I read it maybe two or three times that day."

But it took a while for the script to get into that condition. Novelist Jesse Andrews, who'd never written a script before, didn't expect that he would be the one to adapt his book for the big screen, but producer Dan Fogelman "had the idea that I could," Andrews explains, adding that Fogelman, who's a screenwriter himself, served as his teacher and mentor during the process.

"Dan was very patient with the first draft, which really didn't resemble a movie in any way. It was the right number of pages but that was about it," Andrews says. "He was very nice about it. We had a really long phone call — a four-and-a-half, five-hour phone call – during which [we went through] every page [and Fogelman said essentially that it was] good but here's why it can't work at all."

After that call, and even throughout the entire process, Andrews says he was learning and excited to improve.

"I came away from that somehow not feeling sad or like I had failed. Somehow at the end of the call, I was really energized to work on it some more, which is a sign that you're learning from someone, that you're dealing with someone really, really good, really worth learning from," he tells THR. "And everyone was kind of like that … I was just trying to learn as much as I possibly could."

Fogelman encouraged him to make mistakes and "not be overly concerned with the conventions of the script as they tend to be taught," Andrews says.

"He said any good script makes mistakes, and those mistakes are why the script is distinctive," Andrews explains. "So you have to make mistakes. Yeah, we'll have to fix a lot of them but some of them will be the mistakes that aren't mistakes that are the source of the script's uniqueness and power." 

Perhaps it was these "mistakes" that made the script seem so refreshingly different to Cooke, Mann and Cyler. They all read the screenplay before they read the book but read the novel before they began filming. And they all auditioned, a process that involved other actors being considered for the roles of Greg and Rachel. Katherine C. Hughes, who plays "hot girl" Madison in the movie tells THR that she initially auditioned for the role of Rachel, but wasn't right for the part. And Cooke explains that she read with "three other [potential] Gregs" in her screen test before Mann was cast.

Andrews says Mann, Cooke and Cyler all made his characters "so much richer" than they were in the book. Cooke, in particular, with Rachel, who's not as fully developed in the book as she is in the film.

"Olivia brought a lot to that character that couldn't really be in the book because in the book we don't get a good look at that character," Andrews says. "The book is narrated by Greg. Our sense of her is mediated by his inability to pay attention. It's the story of him learning how to pay attention, and he doesn't really learn until the end. However, in the movie, there's much more to her, much more sense of her strengths and how surprising she is and how capable she is of showing us different sides of herself that we didn't know were there."

Andrews, Mann and Cooke all agree that even though Greg says he's not sure if he loves Rachel, they do love each other, even if it's not in a romantic way. "It was just this powerful bond that you see so much in high school but not in stories about high school," Andrews says. "There are so many different kinds of strong relationships at that age, I wanted to show a different one."

Mann says it's these feelings that ultimately force Greg to visit Rachel in the hospital towards the end of the film, after he's resisted others telling him to go.

"I think he realizes that this whole situation is not about him, and he's kind of lived his life very selfishly, the way a lot of teens do. They don't realize it; it's just that they've never been asked to give that much of themselves before," Mann says. "[He learns] to be selfless and do something for someone else. He realizes how much Rachel means to him and the fact that he might actually lose her is finally so close to him. It's this thing that he's been pushing away for so long until it's right up in his face."

Throughout the film, both Rachel and Greg help each other on their journey. Rachel helps Greg realize his full potential, both Cooke and Mann say.

"He's so self-deprecating. He doesn't realize how brilliant he is and how brilliant of an artist he is," Cooke adds. "When we meet Rachel, she's already sort of come of age by the time we meet her and Greg has a really long way to go."

In that way Rachel is almost like Greg's mom (Connie Britton), who's also trying "to make him a great man," as Britton says, adding that encouraging Greg to be there for Rachel, her friend's daughter, is part of that.

"She is so invested in how great her son is and her desire to foster his greatness," Britton explains. "I think it all comes from that."

And Greg takes Rachel's mind off of what she's going through, serving as "a really good distraction," Cooke says. Mann adds that Rachel seems to appreciate Greg's honesty.

"He knows what he should be saying, but instead he just kind of says what he's thinking. I think that's kind of what Rachel needs at that moment in her life, she just kind of needs someone who's real," Mann explains, adding that he thinks there's "something to be said for" the fact that when he tells Rachel he's only visiting her because his mom's making him, he still gets to go upstairs and hang out in her room.

Getting to truth of things is also a hallmark of the Earl character.

"Earl is definitely the moral compass of the film, if you will," Cyler says. "He's definitely the one that will tell you how it is, cut and dry. You probably won't like the way that it's said, but you're going to, at the end of the day, appreciate that he said it, because it's so honest."

Despite all of the film's honesty there's a key moment in the movie in which Greg is dishonest, saying in a voiceover that Rachel will survive even though viewers see later what Greg already knows, that she dies.

So why does he say that?

"The easiest answer and the least satisfying is that it just felt right and that's what Greg would do," Andrews says. "That's how he would tell you the story. But then OK so why? I think it's a measure of how difficult this is for him that even in the retelling of this he's hoping that this will turn out differently, although that of course is impossible. That's his desperate, unfulfillable hope that when he gets to the end of the story he's going to find Rachel still there and he doesn't … There's also the dumber reason of you're more invested in the story. It's so much sadder if you've known from the jump what's going to happen. And then you're not going to watch."

Viewers also discover at the end of the film that Rachel has a secret artistic side, cutting up books to create 3D designs and drawing squirrels on her tree wallpaper. There are hints of this earlier in the film, as Rachel talks about counting squirrels with her dad and her mom, played by Molly Shannon, reveals that Rachel's favorite toy when she was little were scissors and that she cut up her dad's old books. But both Cooke and Shannon said they weren't trying to reveal too much about Rachel's hidden talent before the audience learns of it, as Greg does, at the end of the film.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl received an enthusiastic response when it premiered at Sundance, where the film sparked a bidding war, with Fox Searchlight emerging victorious. As the film begins to hit theaters this weekend, Mann, Cooke and Cyler say it's strange to be part of a film with so much buzz around it.

"It's been very crazy," Cyler says. "It's been almost like a dream, like I'm still trying to wake up. Hopefully I don't wake up because this would be the worst dream to wake up from."

"It's good to finally have made a movie that really resonates with people. It's a lovely, fulfilling feeling," Cooke says, adding that she's still afraid no one will see the film and hopes people go in without knowing too much about it.

Mann adds: "It's overwhelming. There's no way to prepare for anything like this. It's been amazing. It's been incredible, and we're just trying to make the most of this because it's not always like this. It's so rare that you have something that's so well-received, and people [are] coming up to you after screenings and telling you their own personal stories. It's been so moving to be a part of that."