If you’ve seen Olivia Cooke in indie sci-fi thriller ”The Signal”, long-delayed horror flick ”Ouija” or TV’s ”Bates Motel”, you’d be surprised to sit down and hear her discuss her new film ”Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” in her broad natural accent from Manchester, UK.
But the accent only adds to the lustre of her delightful personality, prominent smile-dimples and gorgeous expressive eyes – ones that open wide often to emphasise a point. As well as playing only Americans, the 21 year old has also put herself through the ringer as an actress to an extent few A-listers will do (not without a flurry of media interest, anyway) for the role of Rachel.
As the teenage schoolgirl who gets leukemia, Cooke submitted to having her lustrous wavy locks shorn off, and when Moviehole sits down with the actress to discuss the role in LA, it’s growing back – just not as fast as she wants.
Your hair’s coming back.
Slowly but surely. It’s been 10 months and I literally thought, oh, I’ll shave it off and in five months it’ll be down to my shoulders. It’ll be fine. But, no, it’s taken so long to grow. Thomas always laughs at me because he’s had 17 haircuts in that period and says, ‘It’s really not growing, Olivia,’ I’m looking at it in the mirror every day, tugging on it.
Has it been tricky to do so many American accents?
It was at first. The first couple of episodes of Bates Motel are just terrible. If you ever watch them back – which I don’t recommend because my accent is just so, so bad – I don’t know how I got that job because I don’t even know what accent I’m doing, it sounds Indian or something. It’s terrible.
Did you find lots of similarity between yourself and the character?
I did. I finally found that it was a role that’s written for a girl who likes herself and is very self confident. That’s fine. She doesn’t want to share everything about herself, she doesn’t want to put her whole life on social media. That’s definitely me.
I find that in a lot of roles written for young adults, especially girls, they’re so mean or they’re bitchy and everything revolves around a guy. They’re trying to sleep with a guy or get a boyfriend or get that one gratuitous kiss at the end of the movie.
You’re just so riddled with self-consciousness and you’re so self-deprecating and you hate every little bit of yourself. She wasn’t that at all, which was so refreshing. I think it’s very important to show more women like that.
A lot of actors, actresses particularly, say that those kind of roles are found more on TV nowadays. Are you finding that with Bates Motel?
Stronger women? Oh, for sure. Although, since getting bits on telly it’s really allowed me to read more scripts that have them, and to get access to scripts. In England, in Manchester, I never, ever read scripts like this that are written so beautifully, and that sometimes do have really strong females in them. Then everyone fights for them because they are so far and few between.
When you read with Thomas at the audition, did you feel any kind of chemistry between you?
Oh, completely. I don’t think Thomas has already spoken about it, but we had this really awkward, well, not awkward between us, but it was awkward how it was set up, dinner before we read. We both auditioned separately and then we were the first two to read together. Both our managers and agents really wanted us to get it together, so they set up a dinner. It was this weird blind date.
But it was good to break the ice. At least we didn’t just have 5 minutes before reading together to breaking the ice. When we got into the room it was just so exciting. It was everything that I’d hoped for. It just really gelled well. He was Greg. He wasn’t doing too much, he wasn’t trying to be funny. He just was this character, it was electric, it was so palpable in the room. We came out of the room and high fived each other, we thought we had the parts already.
Then we separately read with other people, it felt like we were cheating on each other a little bit. I got cast first and I had to screen test with three other Gregs, I came out of the room after reading with one and came back to Thomas and felt like the cheating wife. He knew where I’d been and he knew all about it. Thank God he got it.
Did you purposely reign it in with the other guys just so you’d sell Thomas on the idea?
No, because then I was so nervous that they’d recast me. I still have to perform. I’m still on trial here.
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon described Rachel as the heart of the movie and everything else revolves around you. It’s an interesting viewpoint because she’s not very active and not even on screen a real lot. Did you feel that on the set?
No, I never really felt it. Not too much emphasis was put on that because then I feel like I would have done a different performance, like I’m the heart of it. I didn’t want to be too showy or anything like that, I just wanted to live with this character and be as honest as possible and just react to what Greg was doing.
I never felt I had to really try hard to be the heart of the story. Jesse [Andrews, screenwriter) and Alfonso worked so well together to make it so well put together that there wasn’t any improvisation. You didn’t have to try too hard because everything was already there.
Was there a tendency to go bigger and more grandiose than you want to and you felt you’ve got to reign it back in?
Not with my stuff because all my stuff wasn’t terribly comedic. I’d see him work with Molly [Shannon, who plays Rachel’s mother] and be like, ‘Go bigger. Okay, now bring it back really small and then go bigger again.’
There’s no parameters, she just could go bigger and bigger and bigger until you told her to stop, or smaller and smaller. Then really bring so many layers and so much heartbreak to her performance. Watching her was amazing because, like you said, a lot of my stuff was very still.
The scene of the argument in the bedroom looked hard, apparently it only took four takes. Was it hard finding the emotion in that?
No, it wasn’t hard to find. We were worried because that was our audition scene, so Thomas and I lived with that material for 6 or 7 months. There was no rehearsal because we didn’t want it to go stale at any point.
It’s just written so beautifully. You’re saying the harshest things in the moment to the ones you love. A lot of the lines are very immature and you don’t know what you say, you just want to hurt the other person. I find that so true to life anyway.
No, I didn’t feel like it was hard to get there emotionally. I didn’t know that was going to be the only setup. I thought, ‘Alfonso’s probably going to do more traditional coverage.’ Then when he said, ‘That’s it,’ we were like, ‘Oh gosh.’ But you trust him.
How’s the transition been for you? You did TV work, you did Ouija and then you did this movie.
Oh my god. I’ve never worked on anything big budget, so I’ve still got that to look forward to if it happens. Bates Motel has really put me on the map. I’ve been able to audition for things that I would never have gotten to audition for. So that transition’s been lovely, and gone into film.
It’s been really nice to get a script where I’m not screaming at things that aren’t there or acting surprised. It’s really nice to take a departure from that and feel real emotion and just be reactive to real people in your face. Just to be able to feel that. It sounds really cliché and cringe worthy but it really makes you feel alive. You don’t get to feel all those things on a day-to-day basis. It’s really amazing. To me it feels like what life is all about, just these emotions. When do you get to be encompassed by that?
Did you guys get a lot of time before shooting to find the dynamic between you?
We had week of pre-production. Thomas and I were already good friends before then because we got this long, gradual process of will they want me?
Then RJ Cyler [Earl] came into the mix and you can’t fake that. You can tell when people really don’t get along onscreen. He was just the missing piece of the puzzle, it was really lovely. We all had our different dynamics that we brought to our little group, but we spent every single day with each other 24/7. If you don’t like someone then that’s really hard to do.
I don’t know what I brought to the table but they found me funny in my little Britishisms. I find when you’re over here, Americans say, ‘Oh, you’re that’s so cute the way you say that.’ It was nice.
The way Alfonso described it if it had been any other actor opposite you it would have been a completely different movie because everyone’s so distinctive in their styles?
Oh my God, yes. Even acting opposite the two guys in the screen test it would have been a completely different. They were so good, they brought their own Greg to life, but it was Thomas from the get go. If anything became remotely romantic in any way then that would have been a completely different movie because you would have constantly been like, will they, won’t they? This is such a pure, platonic friendship that there’s no getting away from that.
If you end up on something like Avengers 3 you’re going to be acting opposite a guy holding a tennis ball in front of a green screen. Do you fancy that kind of thing?
No. I watch those films, I watched Mad Max the other day, and it was beautiful. It was amazing. It was just visceral, all in my face. I was thinking ‘God, it must be so boring to shoot a movie like that’. You’re just doing one little stunt for three days and you’re constantly running around in the desert with a towel around you.
Even though all those stunts were very practical, it must have been just a feast for the eyes to see them in the flesh. Guardians of the Galaxy, loads of fun, but I think, ‘God, hair and makeup in the morning, like five hours getting it off at night.’ That’s all I think about. It’s ruined movies for me unless it’s an indie where I’m just like, ‘Oh God, they really feel that.’
Have you any plans to kind of stay at this level of low budget? Where it’s more performance driven?
Whatever happens. I don’t know. I can’t really say for sure what would happen because if I say something like, ‘No, never,’ then that’ll probably happen within two months and you’ll remind me I said it.
I don’t know. I really hope that all the things that I do I really believe in. This has set the mark for me now. To do something that’s not as fulfilling as this, I think I’d really be disappointed in myself.
They need to be pumping more money into these stories and not movies that are just the same. Hollywood really knows how to kill something. I think people are getting a bit bored of it.
Any writing or directing aspirations?
I don’t even think I can act well yet. Let me just sort that out and then maybe. I’ve got things in mind but then you come to write it and it’s just terrible. People don’t speak like that. You sound like you’re writing 50 Shades of Grey. It’s just so robotic. I’m wondering how to kind of make it come to life on the page. It’s very difficult.