This is the Part Where RJ Cyler and Me Talk 'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl'

RJ Cyler as Earl and Thomas Mann as Greg in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.
Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
“It’s like going up to the girl you see in school and you really, really like her, and you actually talk to her, and it goes way, way out the first time,” says actor RJ Cyler when asked about the success of his first film Me and Earl and the Dying Girl during our recent phone interview. Cyler, who plays Earl in the film, doesn’t seem the least bit phased by the extraordinary success of the film. The film is now playing in theatres (it opens in Ottawa this week) after a thunderous debut at the Sundance Film Festival where it scored both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, and stirred a bidding war. “It’s crazy and unreal,” he adds, “I couldn’t ask for a better blessing to start off my career.”

Cyler, who’s just as funny in conversation as he is in the film, shares the success of the film with his two co-stars, Thomas Mann (who plays Greg) and Olivia Cooke (who plays Rachel). “It was like working with two friends that I’ve known for years,” Cyler says of his experience working with his co-stars from the shoot to Sundance and beyond. “It was like we had a genuine friendship before we even started the shoot, from going to restaurants, baseball games, and concerts.” The actors even shared their passion for arts like Earl and Greg do in the film, with Mann and Cooke introducing Cyler their favourite bands like The Arctic Monkeys. The three stars have natural chemistry, and seem to be having as much fun playing the parts of three high school cinéastes grappling with friendship, life, love, and death.
Olivia Cooke as Rachel, Thomas Mann as Greg, and RJ Cyler as Earl in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.
Photo by Anne Marie Fox / Fox Searchlight Pictures
The close relationship between Cyler and his co-stars gives Me and Earl some of its strongest emotional depth when Earl and Greg have a falling out late in the film, but Cyler says he had the right collaborators to keep the atmosphere friendly on set while taking the film where it needed to go. “Alfonso, or director, is really genuine in pulling emotion,” he says of the scene where Earl and Greg have their first fight. “It was like fighting your brother where you’re like, ‘Dude, I don’t want to fight you, but you’re pissing off right now,’ and we fight, but we know we’re gonna play Xbox together later. It took a while for me to get there, but it I was in the moment and the emotions were there. It took me a whole night to get out that emotional stick, but it was so worth it.” When asked how he gets out of that moment, Cyler quickly jokes that it takes lots of sleep and some food, showing that Earl’s candid comedic side is very much like his own.

Cyler also adds that Me and Earl Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (American Horror Story) gave the stars a list of films to watch together during production. The film sees Earl and Greg make a smorgasbord of cheesy parodies of classic films, like an amateur library of The Criterion Collection. “He would send each one of us the entire list of films we were making parodies of with clips,” Cyler notes, “so we could get a sense of the films we were making.”

The list of parodies featured in Me and Earl ranges from “A Sockwork Orange” (A Clockwork Orange), “Monorash” (Rashômon), and “The 400 Bros” (The 400 Blows), but Cyler says that his favourite was easily Earl’s biggest star vehicle, 2:48 PM Cowboy, which, coincidentally enough, is a parody of Cyler’s favourite film, John Schlesinger’s 1969 Oscar winner Midnight Cowboy.

“The most fun for me was 2:48 PM Cowboy,” says Cyler of the parody in which he plays the Joe Buck cowboy in a take on Jon Voigt’s most iconic role. “I was on a bridge full of Pirates fans because there was a baseball game about to start when we were shooting the short. And so I’m walking against the crowd in this cowboy get-up and I was getting all these crazy looks, and people were stopping me, and I’m like, ‘You just messed up this take,’ but it was a lot of fun to shoot. And it’s also my favourite movie, Midnight Cowboy, and Alfonso’s the one that introduced me to it.”

The cast’s experience of sharing these films with their director adds to Me and Earl’s spot-on depiction of the film experience to which film buffs and moviegoers can relate. “Nowadays [audiences] would rather FaceTime and watch the same movie rather than meet up at one another’s house or actually go out to a movie together,” Cyler adds. “The human connection is starting to lose over to people being in their phones, in their tablets, and their laptops, and real aspect of conversation and communication is being lost, but this movie shows how great that is—to actually talk to somebody.”
RJ Cyler as Earl and Thomas Mann as Greg in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.
Photo by Anne Marie Fox / Fox Searchlight Pictures
The actor’s own career trajectory follows a philosophy of growing through shared experience, and working through life in a collaborative creative process. Cyler, who was a dancer before going into acting, can relate to the coming of age story in Me and Earl. “Me and my brother Broderick started this dance group when I was diagnosed with diabetes,” he says, “and it was just like a way to do something and make that bond between us really strong, and we came up with it together and that became our brother thing. And I kind of pulled that relationship into that essence with Greg and Earl like they were like two brothers making things they like.”

The emphasis on the creative process and the importance of sharing art and experience life with others, really get to the heart of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl as Earl and Greg push themselves to make a movie for Rachel, who is undergoing treatment for stage four leukemia. “It’s really a movie about learning how to appreciate, and share, and create and be artistic and push what’s creative and pull what’s in you out,” Cyler says.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is now playing in select cities from Fox Searchlight Pictures.
It opens in Ottawa on June 26th.