Actress Olivia Cooke's future couldn't be brighter, as she swaps horror for indie films
The British actress turns in a career-making performance as the Dying Girl in this month's must-see movie
You can't make a film out of tragicomic novel Me and Earl and the Dying Girl without the perfect, terminally ill final third character in that title. The film's director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, cast about and found someone in a genre that both he and she are well-versed in - horror.
"It's a very expressive genre," says Gomez-Rejon, who directed episodes of TV's American Horror Story and the film The Town That Dreaded Sundown. He found his "Dying Girl" on TV's Bates Motel. But young Briton Olivia Cooke's resume includes the British horror thriller The Quiet Ones, as well as Ouija and supernatural thriller The Signal. Gomez-Rejon saw talent and a kindred spirit in 21-year-old Cooke.
"Horror has allowed both of us an opportunity to show what you can do," he says. "This film let us both show something deeper. She had to be someone who could be funny without trying to be funny. She's confident, like Rachel, her character … She commands her scenes, and handles even the toughest emotional moments with such grace."
Cooke, whose character is diagnosed with terminal cancer and is reluctantly befriended by two high school filmmaker/classmates, chose to shave her head for her chemo scenes. But when your first leading lady role had you crazy, dishevelled, in various states of self-injured undress in The Quiet Ones, shaving your head's nothing, right?
"I don't think horror taught me much of anything," Cooke says with a laugh, noting how The Quiet Ones was the one great experience she's had with the genre. "I never went to drama school. I'm winging it, doing my own thing. So maybe I 'went to school' in those films. Horror certainly taught me to be patient, and to appreciate a really good script and the chance to do something that proves I can do other things."
Cooke's close enough to her teens that she respected the characters in Jesse Andrews' script (he also wrote the novel it's based on). "These movies are too often conceived by 50-year-old men writing in their swanky apartments in Burbank. They make girls like this riddled with insecurities and self-deprecation. The girls never seem to like themselves. I was a girl who liked myself."
While Cooke can be excused for the 21-year-old's view that 50-year-old-men write teen romances in Hollywood (50-year-old studio execs pay 28-year-old screenwriters to write them), her observations about her peers seem on the money.
"I know the thing with teenagers, with me back then and with my 15-year-old sister now, is there's no filter. At that age, you've not had to use tact or put empathy into practice. That's what Rachel teaches Greg [Thomas Mann]. She's already come of age, grown up a little, by the time we meet her. What she gives him is the chance to care for another person in a way that's not self-serving."
Greg doesn't so much fall in love with Rachel as make a friend, and learn from her. And Rachel makes real friends at a time when she fears people are just taking pity on her.
The praise that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is earning from critics suggests this could be a game changer for an actress who might have been destined to become a "scream queen". Cooke will next be seen in Katie Says Goodbye, a drama about an Arizona waitress so desperate to leave her small town that she turns to prostitution.
Her unfiltered age and newness to the business make this the perfect time to ask what she wants out of this career. A flip "To challenge myself, to not be found out," is followed by something more thoughtful, Cooke's list of "no-nos". She doesn't want to become "a brand". "Not the least bit interested in that. All this social media nonsense, where's the mystery? I want to remain a little mysterious. I'm not up to being funny on all the chat shows. It's just a job, at the end of the day."
But her director thinks she's selling herself short. "All these things that Rachel is, brave and scared, lonely and real - Olivia was able to do it all, right in the audition," Gomez-Rejon says. Her future could not be brighter, after this film.
"Because, it turns out, she's not just a 'horror girl'."
Tribune Content Agency
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl opens on Nov 12