Olivia Cooke Central STAFF   June 16, 2015

RJ Cyler makes his acting debut in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” but he’s getting noticed — and recognized.

Tucked away with his co-stars in a Downtown hotel suite Monday, he said people are starting to ask, “Hey, you in the movie? Is it the one with the dying girl and the dude from ‘Project X’? Oh, you the black dude.”

“Yeah,” he responds to each question, imbuing the word with coolness and comedic timing that should serve him well down the road.

“Bates Motel” and “Ouija” actress Olivia Cooke is Rachel, a teen diagnosed with leukemia, and Thomas Mann from the epic party movie “Project X” is Greg, the “me” of the title who is ordered by his mom to befriend his ailing classmate. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon directed the film, written by former Pittsburgher Jesse Andrews and based on his novel.

It will open in Pittsburgh June 26, five months almost to the day after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival and capturing two big awards. It has been a year since the trio came to town to shoot the movie in which Pittsburgh plays itself; they remember visiting the Three Rivers Arts Festival, catching the Arctic Monkeys at Stage AE and eating at Meat & Potatoes, Butcher and the Rye and Cure.

“You come here and everyone is so proud to be from Pittsburgh. There’s such a rich, diverse, eclectic feeling. I’m from Manchester [England] and it feels very similar,” said Ms. Cooke, clad in an off-the-shoulder white peasant style blouse, black pants and fashionable low boots.

“It’s very photogenic. It’s really beautiful, all the bridges and the hills, and it’s lush and green. I love it here,” added Mr. Mann of the city. “Maybe it was just the experience that we had here, but I really have great fond memories of being here.”

In the book, Greg carries some extra weight and jokes, “I can definitely grab two different rolls of my stomach and make it talk like a Muppet.” So the search initially was for a young Jonah Hill but expanded to actors who could be self-deprecating and Mr. Mann fit the bill, ever so nicely.

The novel makes much of Earl’s diminutive height but Mr. Cyler, tall and thin like his male co-star, says, “In the book, he’s not that attractive, but Earl on the screen is one sexy boy.”

All quipping aside, though, the movie changed the trio as they grappled with such subjects as the bonds of friendship and grave illness. “I saw a lot of myself in the character of Greg, and any time you see parts of yourself in someone who’s less than admirable, then it causes you to just reflect on how you’re living your life and I wanted to kind of grow up with Greg,” Mr. Mann said.

“I’d reached this new point of empathy that I’d never really experienced before and it opened me up emotionally as an actor and I wasn’t even sure that I could deliver on some of these scenes, it was very new for me, but Alfonso trusted me and took a chance on me.”

First-time actor Mr. Cyler, who rocks soft bucket hats on and off screen, said, “Acting-wise, I’m way more comfortable finding out new things about the actor in me and RJ as a person. There’s a lot of new nuggets that I can dip in the sauce.”

Ms. Cooke shaved her head near the end of the shoot and also met a 16-year-old diagnosed with leukemia. “I just wanted to sit down with her and have a nice girly chat,” she said, rather than quiz her about odds and outcomes. The actress also talked with doctors about slightly older patients and taking decisions about chemotherapy or other treatments into their own hands.

Ms. Cooke said she and her co-stars are different today from who they were at the beginning and even end of production.

“We’ve all grown up so much. I feel like we’ve just got more of a broader view. Life. Death. And trying to be as creative, trying to be the best versions of ourselves to the people that we care about. And also not being afraid to show your vulnerability, as well.”

(source Post-Gazette.Com)

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