By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Olivia Cooke grew up in the small industrial town of Oldham in Northwest England with no expectation of establishing a successful career as an actress on a popular TV series (“Bates Motel”) or starring in Hollywood horror films (“Ouija,” “The Quiet Ones”). Her dad was a police officer and her mom is in sales. She didn’t come from a theatrical family and had no connections when she started out as a teenager. At 21, the doe-eyed brunette is making a name for herself as an up-and-coming actress.
She plays Rachel, a high school student diagnosed with Stage 4 leukemia in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” But this is no weepy melodrama. Based on the Jesse Andrews novel of the same title, the quirky film is about an unexpected friendship that develops between the newly diagnosed Rachel and Greg (Thomas Mann), an acquaintance who attends the same high school. He’s an outsider who tries to avoid any entanglements. Even friendship scares him. He calls Earl (newcomer RJ Cyler) “a co-worker” rather than “a friend,” because they spend their free time making no-budget parodies of Hollywood movies. Coerced by his overbearing mom to hang out with Rachel, Greg gradually softens and decides to make a short film for her, but can’t quite achieve what he wants to, which frustrates him.
Sprinkled with nearly as many laughs as tears, the heartfelt dramedy, adapted by Andrews and director by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, won the grand jury prize and the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.
Though she considers herself a nomad these days, Cooke, who once appeared in a One Direction promotional video, retains her distinctive English accent (although she does a remarkable job of playing an American girl in the film). Playing another very sick young girl—she plays a girl afflicted with cystic fibrosis tethered to an oxygen tank on “Bates Motel”—has changed her perspective on life and death. Committed to her role, she decided to shave her head instead of wearing a bald cap. That, she says, gave her a new perspective on beauty and its superficiality, as well.
Dressed in a hot pink Rebecca Minkoff blazer and black skirt, she looks sophisticated with a short ‘do now that her hair that she shaved for the role is growing back.
Q: Since you play Emma on “Bates Motel” with an oxygen tube in your nose, when you got the part in this movie that would require that too, did it seem like a funny coincidence?
Cooke: No, I never even thought about Emma. I felt that the world that Rachel lives in is so entirely different from “Bates Motel.” So I never made that connection. I knew, afterwards, that people would be like, “Oh, she always plays a sick girl. She’s typecast. But they can fuck off.” I’ve played two characters that are sick in my career. I feel like people really love to label and pigeonhole you. If they want to do that, they can. But I didn’t think about that.
Q: Rachel’s room is so distinctive. Did you have input into the design? Was the Hugh Jackman poster on her wall your idea?
Cooke: No. It was scripted. The pillows were always scripted. (Production designer) Gerry Sullivan did such an amazing job. I am not artistic in the slightest so he’d come to me with ideas and show me a pattern, and I’d go, “Oh that looks great!” But I have no idea where I’d even start with decorating a room, because my mom would always do that like when I’d been away from home for a week with my dad. I’d come home and my room would be completely redecorated. I’d be like, “Oh, it’s awful.”
Q: Since you play a girl with cystic fibrosis on “Bates Motel,” did you already have the research down as far as playing a girl with a serious illness? Did you have to do a lot of research about a girl with leukemia for this film?
Cooke: Oh yeah, completely, when I got the role. I went to the Mattel children’s ward at UCLA (in Los Angeles) and met a girl who had the same leukemia as Rachel and had gone through rounds of chemo. It hadn’t worked so she was waiting for a bone marrow transplant. Her dad had had leukemia the year prior as well. So I spoke with those two, and so I just sat with her and watched how she was, physically.
She was so still but you don’t lose your personality and your likes and dislikes. You don’t suddenly just become cancer because you have it. She had all these One Direction posters on the wall, and she was the sweetest, loveliest girl and so positive. And then I spoke with doctors who had worked with her and some other patients, who then become the grown up in the situation. At 17 or 18, they’re making grown up decisions that their parents can’t handle because they’re so emotionally stricken by it.
The young adults that have the cancer have to take control of it so that was really informative and helpful and changed my perspective because I’m very lucky to have not gone through anything like that. Alfonso and I created a chart which timelined Rachel’s chemotherapy treatments and stages of cancer, so I drew upon that when I needed to and mentally and physically get into a certain state.
Q: There were some points in the movie where you had hair and some points where you were bald.
Cooke: That’s between chemotherapy treatments.
Q: It’s traumatic when you’re character loses her hair, and she gets angry with Greg for telling her she’s beautiful, because she thinks she looks ugly bald. Do you wish that she could see that she’s still beautiful?
Cooke: I had just shaved my head so I definitely felt ugly. We had shaved my head the night before and I was so overwhelmed by my appearance; I’d always had hair. But it was the best thing I did for the role to emotionally get there. It was the most I could have done without actually having cancer and I didn’t want any part of my performance to seem false or to take anyone out of the movie, so that was really a cheat for me to get there, emotionally. If I’d had this bulky bald cap on I wouldn’t have been able to get the same performance at all.
Q: You and Thomas Mann spoke for months before you started filming, right?
Cooke: Yeah, we met something like six months prior to actually shooting the movie. We had dinner the night before we auditioned together and we would meet intermittently for different chemistry reads and the screen test. We also had a week of prep but we already were good friends by then so it wasn’t like, “OK, now be friends.” Smush. Smush. Like you do with dolls.
Q: Have you remained friends?
Cooke: Oh my God, yeah! He’s a dear friend. I love him so much.
Q: Are you back to work on Season Four of “Bates Motel?”
Cooke: I don’t know if it’s been picked up. I haven’t heard anything but if it does, it would go in December.
Q: The fans loved Dylan and Emma getting romantic last season. Are you happy they responded well to that?
Cooke: Yeah. That was great. It was overwhelming, actually. I’d get screen shots from my friends saying, “Everyone is talking about the dilemma kiss.” And I was like, “What dilemma?