Celebrity Interviews: RJ Cyler: “We always knew this film was something special.”




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by Samantha Ofole-Prince

Photo by Anne Marie Fox

A film that seesaws between smile-inducing banter to talk of death and oblivion, it’s not hard to see why “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” has been getting rave reviews.

But long before the accolades, which include an award at the Sundance Film Festival, the cast of this quirky flick knew they had something extraordinary.

“We always knew that this film was something that was very special because of the love we had filming it and the love onset. We just didn’t expect this big of a boom,” says RJ Cyler who plays Earl.

The film which snagged a Grand Jury Audience Award Prize at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival follows Greg (Thomas Mann), a high school student forced to spend time with Rachel (Olivia Cooke) – a girl in his class who has just been diagnosed with cancer. Along with Earl (RJ Cyler), who makes an impressive big-screen debut as Greg’s partner in cinematic crime (they make short film parodies of classic movies together) he slowly discovers how worthwhile the true bonds of friendship can be.

Based on the beloved novel of the same name by Jesse Andrews, the film is funny in an unusual and unpredictable way and contains profound messages about friendship, life and love.

“Sitting at the theater at the Sundance premiere was really an eye opener,” adds Mann, “as people were laughing at scenes you didn’t think were that funny. You could just feel the energy in the room. We made the movie that we wanted to make and people were getting it and that was the icing on the cake.”

When we first meet Greg (Mann) he thinks he’s figured out life. His plan is to scale through high school by keeping an insanely low profile and remaining on the sideline at all times. Armed with subversive humor and a large dose of denial he fights against his journey of self-discovery as long as he can. His futile attempts to hide from the eyes of the world are thwarted when his mother forces him to become friends with a girl who has cancer.

Until he connects with Rachel, Earl (Cyler) is his only confidant. The child of academics who are interested in ethnic art and esoteric films, Greg seems an unlikely companion for Earl, a stoically faced character with monosyllabic answers who lives on the tough side of town.

“Reading the script, it really surprised me how similar I am to Earl,” Cyler shares. “I am very extra and Earl is very cut dry and to the point, but he is still the same honest person that I am and I like that. It’s not far fetched and I can relate to the character of Earl right off the bat so that is what made me very intimate with this character.”

Set against the backdrop of a high-school senior year, it deftly delves into the teenage psyche and speaks undeniable truths about high school experiences that ring true.

“The whole movie reminds me of my high school,” Cyler continues. “I was the popular person in high school because I had a friend in every single aspect of the school. From the African American to the white, the Hispanic, the Chinese and the Gothics. I liked high school but I won’t do it again,” he adds.
Charming and touching, it approaches a sad story with wisdom, wit and a heartbreaking blow that, foreseen or not, leaves an emotional impact.

The first thing Greg says to Rachel when he reluctantly goes to see her is: ‘I’m here because my mom is making me.’ Greg brings her humor instead of the canned sympathy and platitudes she’s getting from everyone else and is the perfect distraction. Their friendship becomes unexpectedly effortless.

Olivia Cooke, Thomas Mann and RJ .Cyler..
Photo by Anne Marie Fox

The cast chemistry is easy and delightful to watch and credit goes not just to director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (“American Horror Story”), but also to the performers.

“After we got off set we still hung out like we were on set. We hung out so much and spent a lot of time together in Pittsburgh after we finished filming. We are genuine friends,” says Cyler.

“You can’t really fake being friends with someone,” adds Mann. “Everyone was just so excited to be there and everyone wanted it to go really well so we all effortlessly became friends immediately.”

Told well with wit and heart, it’s a thought provoking and moving film that chronicles a young man’s journey into adulthood as he learns what it means to be truly selfless.

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