2012 found footage party comedy ”Project X” introduced audiences to the lanky, nervy Thomas Mann, and then he seemed to fade a little into roles that didn’t suit his ruffled, young Woody Allen persona like cheap Harry Potter rip-off ”Beautiful Creatures” and ”Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters”.
So it’s gratifying to see Mann put to the best use of his career so far in Sundance hit ”Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”.
He plays Greg, a smart and sarcastic kid who wants to coast through life and school and not connect with anyone too deeply. He doesn’t even use the term ‘friend’ to describe Earl (RJ Cyler), the kid from the wrong aide of the tracks with whom he’s spent years homaging and parodying popular movies by making their own low-fi versions of.
But when he’s forced by his well meaning mother to befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a girl at school he hardly knows who’s been struck down by leukemia, the sardonic Greg might just find a way of letting the world in.
The 23 year old Texas native spoke to Moviehole.net in LA.
Did you have to approach it in a different way to Project X? Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is still funny, but it’s obviously very heartfelt.
You always approach every role differently. When I got that part I thought, ‘This is the meatiest part I’ve every had.’ Then when Me and Earl comes along, it’s like a whole different approach. It’s a much more personal story for a lot of reasons.
I had never been part of a film that required me to be so emotionally available, it wasn’t something I was comfortable with. I wasn’t even sure I would be able to deliver on the day, but I guess just thanks to Alfonso [Gomez-Rejon, director] trusting me and really getting to know and love these characters, it was much easier to reach that emotional point.
Did you get a lot of rehearsal time to find the dynamic?
There were a lot of conversations with Alfonso and Olivia. Olivia and I have been reading together since our first audition, which was about six months before we started shooting. I think the rehearsals kind of started way before we were even cast.
We were the first Greg and Rachel to read together, and it was the kind of thing where it just sort of clicked instantly, and you knew it was going to turn out okay. We got along. You can’t really fake chemistry. It’s not like there’s some workshop that you can send actors to try to bond. It either happens or it doesn’t.
Did it read like a comedy or a drama on the page?
From the first time I read it, I always approached it as more of a comedy. It was a great comedy with a lot of real emotional beats to it. In terms of Greg, he’s always trying to push the darkness away and keep everything sort of light hearted, because he’s not accustomed to dealing with this sort of emotional trauma.
That kind of reminded me a lot of how I was in high school, and how I might have dealt with that situation. He was just sort of awkward and clumsy to watch. That’s where a lot of the humor comes from until this sort of inevitable tragedy sneaks up on him, and then it kind of pulls the rug out from under him a little bit.
How was the reception at Sundance for you?
There’s nothing that can ever prepare you for something like that. I was just excited to go to Sundance. Ever since I had started acting, I wanted to be in a movie where the trailer would start, and then you’d see those laurel wreaths. It was just a dream come true to be there.
We knew it was working because people were laughing at these jokes that we didn’t even think were that funny anymore as we’d lived with the material for so long. To hear everyone get quiet and really emotional toward the end, it was such a gratifying experience. It was a very emotional time.
How was working with Alfonso? What’s so special about the director?
I could talk about Alfonso all day. He’s this really amazing, nurturing, insanely creative person. He’s just really inspiring to be around and his love for film is so infectious. A lot of my preparation for this movie was just watching a lot of other movies, because they parody a bunch of these.
Alfonso was really helpful, teaching me, educating me about all these past filmmakers that have come before him. He used the camera like a paintbrush, but it’s never getting in the way of the performances. He’s very sensitive to each actor’s individual needs. Really he just trusted us, and that’s the best thing you can ask for in a director, is someone who really believes that you’re right person for the part, and will do anything to make you feel comfortable.
He was never off in video village, he was always right there. Usually just out of frame. He wanted to go through these emotions with us. It was really important to have him there.
Were you into movies as much as Greg is?
I thought I was, then I met Alfonso and I realized I knew nothing. My knowledge of cinema was pretty narrow. I discovered so many great filmmakers through this process, Powell, Pressburger Nicholas Roeg, all these brilliant filmmakers I’d never been introduced to before.
I wanted to like these movies the way Greg liked them. I felt like it would be dishonest to be parodying films that I hadn’t seen so I took it upon myself to watch as many as I could before we started shooting.
There’s also the talk about Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski movies. I’d seen some Herzog documentaries, but I hadn’t seen any of his older stuff, I hadn’t seen anything with Klaus Kinski in it. I knew about their relationship, it was tumultuous but they were very close, they had a very close working relationship. Then I watched Fitzcarraldo and Burden of Dreams, stuff like that.
Where did you have to dig in order to get the emotion that you had to get for this movie? It seemed like you were giving a really complex performance.
It’s so rare that you come across a role that has this much depth and complexity to it. There’s a lot of great actors out there that no one will ever know about because they don’t get the opportunity to showcase their talents.
I’d been looking for a part like this. Sometimes you have to do these bigger or cheesier movies to get your name out there. You could say that if I hadn’t done Project X, I wouldn’t have had this same opportunity to be in Me and Earl.
I knew I had an incredible opportunity. It was such a personal story for so many reasons. The reason Alfonso wanted to make the movie is to process a loss in his own life. I felt like it was something that I had to pour myself into completely. As an actor, that’s all you want to do, where you can immerse yourself in this world.
I saw so much of myself in Greg, even the less admirable parts. I liked that he was not someone that you immediately liked. The writing owns up to his selfishness and his stubbornness, but he’s also very intelligent and confident. All these things are pushing back, which makes him so interesting.
I feel like I hadn’t quite seen that character in a movie before. This whole experience opened me up emotionally, took me to this extreme point of empathy that I’d never really reached before as an actor. It was never about recalling some sort of past trauma in my own life. It was just thinking about Rachel and thinking about these characters, and that was enough.
When you heard about the project but before you read the script, were you surprised how funny it was going to be? And then when you realised how funny it was going to be, were you surprised by how sad it was going to end up?
I almost forgot how heavy it was going to be. Then we get to a lot of the scenes, and sometimes they turned into something. They just became so much more on the day than I ever pictured when I was reading them. It’s just because the writing is so subtle but it does make you feel something.
A lot of these movies will go for the same sort of emotional beats but they can’t quite get there, because they’re trying a little too hard. This movie’s about doing less. Even with the comedy, it’s always about doing less with the jokes. Sometimes that just made it work.
Did the script wrong-foot you and surprise you, the way the movie did to viewers?
Yeah. It was so long ago that I first read the script, now I’m trying to remember my first reaction to it. I knew it was an incredible opportunity. Not only as an actor, but also to tell a story that subverted a lot of the cliches.
I had read every single coming-of-age movie script that you can think of. I’ve auditioned for every single one of them. I know what’s out there. We wanted to do something that felt like our own.
When you compare this film to all other coming-of-age films, what distinguishes it from all others, do you think?
I don’t know, I hate to do that. This one just felt more honest to me. I like that the characters didn’t see this as a beautiful, poignant time in their lives. It was uncomfortable and awkward. Sometimes great comedy comes out of the most tragic moments.
Alfonso was telling us a story about how he had a huge laughing fit at his grandfather’s funeral. Those moments are much more relatable than some others but I don’t want to start talking bad about other movies. This one just felt different to me, and I felt like it finally understood me. That’s really all I can say.
How was high school for you?
I left high school in junior year, so high school for me was something I was trying to get past. In the same way that Greg sees it as an obstacle, I was kind of looking beyond that. It was very chaotic. I went to a huge high school in Texas with thousands of kids.
I think it relates to how Greg sees it. It’s not necessarily that those cliques do exist, but it’s the way that he has to compartmentalize it to make sense of it for himself. It was chaotic, just kind of something I was over.
Any inspiration to be a filmmaker from this movie, or from the rest of your career?
Definitely. Working with Alfonso, I realized how much I have left to learn. It’s so inspiring watching him work, seeing him change. The climactic scene in the film was storyboarded out to a T.
He had all these different shots planned, and he ended up scrapping it on the day and going with something new. A new approach to shooting it but the scene is the same. He’s very intuitive, and trusts his instincts. I think that is the best quality in a filmmaker.
Did he give you guys much room to improvise and come up with your own stuff?
There’s a couple scenes that had some breathing room, and they sort of grew into something else. For the most part we stuck to the script. All the scenes have this really nice rhythm to them, if you try to add something somewhere, it kind of throws the whole thing off.
I feel like a lot of directors are just like, ‘I want you guys to go ahead and improvise here.’ You see actors trying to think of things to say, or trying to be funny. I feel like it’s misused quite often, actually. This script was just so tight. All the awkward beats were already written in. We mostly stuck to the script.
That improv style’s getting a lot more prevalent in comedy as well, which is kind of your background. Is it easier to come to something that’s a bit more structured, that way?
I like the structure. In a way, we had a lot of freedom with how we would play out the scene. We tried to do different things with them. It definitely helps having the improv background. In a sense you’re always improvising. Just because the words are the same every time doesn’t mean you’re not doing something new. I guess it helps.