RJ Cyler Discusses His Debut In ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is a coming of age film that is a catalyzer for tears as soon as you start watching it. Amongst the crying and blurred vision, the story is extremely well executed in a quirky way that also makes you laugh.

The plot unfolds as the main characters enter their senior year in high school. One of them, Greg, played by Thomas Mann, is convinced by his mother to visit Rachel, played by Olivia Cooke, who has cancer. As the film progresses, the two of them become closer, and Earl played by RJ Cyler, Greg’s best friend and “co-worker” starts to get to know Rachel as well. Earl and Greg start to make a film for Rachel while realizing the difficulties of life and how unpredictable it can be. We caught up with star on the rise RJ to discuss his impressive acting debut:

How did you get involved in the project?

I got the script from my managers. They called me. And I was playing Xbox, I wasn’t doing anything constructive  … They called me and were like “we got a script you might really really like.” So they sent it to me and I was reading it and it was just like reading RJ on paper. That’s how close to home the character was, you know, so I was just like this is me … So I went in for the audition … And I went in and I remember the monologue piece first and then the scene so I was reading with Angela and she was just like you’re Earl after I was done and I was like … Alright I’m going to clam down. So I called Judy: “She said I’m Earl! She said I’m Earl!” So after that I went back for  the second time and did a chemistry read. And then you know I went to Missouri for my brother’s graduation from the military and the day he graduated was the day I found out I found out I booked the movie. My mom was emotional, I screamed like a girl, and my dad was like, “Oh crap.” And then I got back to California and a week or two after that I was headed to Pittsburgh to film the movie and it was just like fun, the process was just like “Oh Snap.”

How do you feel about this being your debut?

I just feel blessed I was able to have Alfonso first as a director. Everybody’s like usually your first project is the worst kind sometimes but no I was like this was really fun! I forget I was working … Everyone on set was just fun and loving and it was just like a little family that help made this great piece of art work. Alfonso being as sweet as he is and Thomas and Olivia are two really good friends of mine now… it was amazing.

How was working with Alfonso?

Alfonso’s the perfect director to me. I will work with Alfonso on any project or idea he has. It’s just the way he directs. He knows that there’s always a game plan to every script but he’s open always to change. He’s always willing to explore how far the script can go more. And he lets us be us you know, and it also comes with how he casted it ‘cause each character is unique to the person that played it. So that just puts extra trust in us to make these characters come to life. And that was just the best time of my life right now. … He treats us like we’re his kids. He’s a very sweet person. Even after we finished filming … He bought me the best birthday gift ever. It’s a signed copy of “Brother, Brother, Brother” by the Isley Brothers and that’s one of my favorite music groups. And I was like, I didn’t even know he knew and that’s another thing that kinda surprised me. I was like how did you know and he was like, “I have my ways.”

There were so many emotional scenes, where did you get the inspiration to bring the authenticity to your character? 

When you bring up the emotion in the movie … I’m not an emotional person at all. I’m always like that bubbly, happy guy. But Alfonso he made me think about certain things, like he’ll say, put your mom in this situation or that situation and that would get me there in like 15 seconds and I’m like … Nobody makes me cry! So the fact you can actually make me cry and put me in that state of mind … I’m just like “oh goodness” and then it takes so long to get out … it took 15 seconds to get in, I’m gonna need a good 5 minutes to get out. It became really fun to explore the different areas of RJ as an actor. Because usually in this movie I used a lot of emotions and a personality that’s almost the opposite of me but I wouldn’t say completely opposite but this character is very dry, straight-to-the-point, no  humor, but RJ is like “Oh, fireworks in your pocket!” I’m extra … And it was fun finding those different areas of what this character could be. And we made Earl.

Tell us about your upcoming HBO show.

It’s a show named Vice Principals by Danny McBride who’s also in the show and I played a twin. It’s exciting because I never had a twin. I mean me and my brother may look a little bit alike, but the fact that I get to be on a show on HBO, which is a network that I do pay a lot of attention to, especially because True Blood is born and raised from HBO. You know it’s really fun and exciting because I watched Danny on Pineapple Express and Eastbound and Down and these different movies, and the fact that I get to work with him, that’s exciting. And that starts shooting in this month.

You’re also a musician. Tell us about that. 

I’ve been into music ever since I came out of the womb. [Laugh] It was like: Birth. Music. I just became like a beat-head. I just love music to the fullest. I started playing the drums at my old church in Jacksonville. I was taught how to my play the drums by my Godmama. Then I just started building off of that, and started learning the piano. My dad used to be a DJ so that trickled down in my genes. That was just like, “Ok, RJ, I’m not gonna pass my looks down to you only.” Anytime that I feeling this type of way or this or that or extra happy, it’s always music. I love music. It’s like a second language to me.

What musicians do you admire? 

Right now one of my favorite bands is the Arctic Monkeys. Their music choice and the way they make music sound … because it’s not normal to what I used listen to and it’s what makes me want it more. It’s interesting.  I like Chumbawamba ‘cause “I did get knocked down but I get up again.” And a lot of the old music groups like Soul Sonic Force. One of my favorite DJs is Grandmaster Flash. I pay attention to Doug E. Fresh, the great Doug E Fresh. Taylor Swift is one of my favorites right now. She’s amazing

Who do you admire acting-wise? 

Al Pacino, Wil Smith, Martin Lawrence. Those are three big influences in … who I try to model my acting career. Also Denzel Washington. It’s just because they can play a comedic role and capture people in a dramatic role. I never know what to expect next from Denzel or Will or… I never know. That’s what keeps me to watch their stuff. They’re not stagnant in their careers. And so that’s where RJ wants to be in. Al Pacino is just a genius when it comes to his art.

What was it like working with Molly Shannon and Nick Offerman?

It was fun! At first I was a little nervous, not to lie. I was like, OK, I watch you guys. Like I know who  you are. My parents know who you are. So I was like, RJ, please don’t mess this up! Don’t be nervous when they shake your hand, don’t start shaking, but they’re like very cool people and made the filming process way much fun.

Nick has a vocabulary like no other. I feel like Nick Offerman is the best walking dictionary I will ever meet, because he’s fun and full of knowledge. Like every time you talk to Nick you learn something, even if it’s a new word or phrase or definition. I’m just like, where do all these words come [from]? If my vocabulary, if my plethora of knowledge can push out vocabulary like Nick Offerman, I will be set for life and Connie is just so sweet and she’s very  fun! Also working with Molly Shannon who my dad is just crazy about. That’s his actress-hero. They’re just extra fun! and then Jon Bernthal. I watch him on the Walking Dead. And then when Fury came out I was like, look, I actually know him, he knows who I am, trust me, we’re friends! We actually talk to each other! Like conversations, it wasn’t just like me asking for autograph. It was just exciting you know being on set with all these different names. Especially people that I actually watch. You know, seeing Thomas on Project X and Olivia in Bates Motel, and I’m just like, I was watching you like two weeks ago, and now… we’re working together. It was like a dream.

The film hits theaters this Friday.