Me & Earl & The Dying Girl Actor Talks Debut Role, Success of Film

Rocking a style that seems to redefine cool, RJ Cyler walks into the lobby of the chic downtown Toronto Thompson Hotel wearing a neon orange bucket hat and a leather button-up shirt with a matching gold chain and watch. Being led through the lobby by his publicist, RJ’s swag and importance have every head in the room facing him. But for RJ, he says that kind of attention is just becoming another part of his everyday life.

It’s the media day for Me & Earl & The Dying Girl – a comedy-drama film, which won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, set for release June 12. The film is a coming-of-age story that follows the budding relationship of a narcissistic teenager, his  best friend, Earl, and a girl dying of leukaemia, all the while leaving viewers balancing a wave of emotion.

The story is undoubtedly captivating. But one of the actor’s paths to success is arguably more captivating than the narrative itself.

Cyler, a 20-year-old Jacksonville, Florida native, started acting in 2012 after auditioning for a local TV commercial. He moved to Los Angeles in 2013, taking the advice of his acting mentor. Just two years later, he’s starring as the titular Earl in the movie Me & Earl & The Dying Girl.

Born as Ronald Cyler II, it’s RJ’s debut role and first major acting credit of any kind. But the success of the film and positive reviews of Earl’s performance have skyrocketed RJ onto the scene of sought-after actors.

NOW THAT THE SPOTLIGHT IS ON YOU, HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT ALL THIS PUBLIC ATTENTION? I like it. Today we had gone from the studio to here and it was a little creepy, but at the same time it was really fun. It’s fun to me because people get to see who RJ is, not just on screen, but personally. I don’t see why some actors are like, ‘okay I’ll act, but I don’t want anyone to know who I am other than that.’ That’s just odd. To me, it’s fun.

YOU’RE FAIRLY NEW TO ACTING. WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO TAKE THIS SPECIFIC ROLE AS YOUR FIRST BIG STEP? When I was reading the script for Me & Earl & The Dying Girl, it was just very familiar and very honest to the teenage mindset. Most of the movies you see today that are teen movies are very cliché. No teen ever knows what they are supposed to say. We always mess up when we’re talking – and that’s what makes us teenagers. The writer Jesse Andrews captured what teens think and do and put it on paper. I was like, ‘I got to be a part of it.’

RJ Cyler (left) with fellow cast members

RJ Cyler (left) with fellow cast members Nick Offerman (centre) and co-star Thomas Mann (right).

DURING FILMING, DID ANY OF THE EMOTIONAL SCENES REALLY GET TO YOU OR AFFECT THE WAY YOU FELT? The confrontation between Earl and Greg (the film’s main character) was really a crazy type of good moment for me. I don’t use emotions, really. I’m not an emotional person. Alfonso (the director) was like, ‘you got to think about this,’ and in 30 seconds he had me emotional as hell. And [the emotion] won’t turn off. For the rest of the day I was just a mess. That’s my favourite scene because it challenged me to go into a place I didn’t know I could go.

HOW CAN THIS STORY PROVIDE HOPE FOR PEOPLE WITH SIMILAR SITUATIONS IN REAL LIFE? It opens the doorway to acceptance of the inevitable. When it comes to death, some people don’t want to deal with it or they stay in denial. A [line] in this movie says that you can still learn about someone after they’re gone. That’s the main thing that I think sticks out and makes this movie something special.

YOUR CHARACTER, EARL, MAKES A LOT OF PUNS ABOUT FAMOUS MOVIES OR POP CULTURE REFERENCES. DOES THAT RELAY TO WHAT YOU’RE REALLY LIKE AS A PERSON? I wouldn’t say I make pop culture references – I’m just very good with metaphors. I think I get it from my dad. We’re all quick at the mouth and we know how to come up with comebacks. That’s just how I was raised. Some people get confused when I explain things, because of the metaphors. It’s just like a second language to me.

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HOW ABOUT THE SWEARING? EARL SWEARS A LOT IN THIS MOVIE. ARE YOU PERSONALLY LIKE THAT AT ALL? I don’t overdo it. If there’s a funny moment where [I need to swear] then I’ll say it. But, just cursing for no reason is stupid. I know it makes people around uncomfortable. It took me a long time to say my first cuss word – even when I said it I was looking around for my mom and dad. I wasn’t allowed to swear at all.

WHAT WERE SOME OF THE LIGHTER, OR FUNNIER MOMENTS ON SET? There was never a day where there wasn’t a light moment. Alfonso was always pulling jokes on people. He’s the best at sarcasm. The first time we ever sat down for a table read was at Alfonso’s house. He was telling us that he personally cooked the bread and made the jam, and I thought, ‘Wow. He does a lot.’ He did it just to mess with me because when we started filming I was very gullible. When you work with Alfonso you become a friend and build that relationship.

CRITICS HAVE CLASSIFIED THIS MOVIE AS A COMEDY-DRAMA OR DRAMEDY. HOW DO YOU SEE IT? I don’t know. Dramedy is a good rendition, but I just put it as unique. If that was a genre I would put it in there. But dramedy does sound quite close, because it’s a very heavy subject, but it’s not too heavy. Watching the movie you’re never left in such deep depression that you can’t get out – there’s always these comedic moments that are honestly placed.

From what I’ve seen, the most successful actors are the ones that show on screen what their rendition is while staying honest to themselves at the same time as the character.

DURING THE MAKING OF THIS FILM, DID YOU EVER THINK IT WOULD BECOME SO SUCCESSFUL OR AN AWARD-WINNER? You never know. I just know that I really loved the response. We were at Sundance, sitting in a theatre with like 1,600 people and everyone was crying or laughing all in unison. At the end we got a standing ovation. I didn’t know what to expect, because this was my first acting job, so I was thinking, ‘Is this normal?’ But no, it wasn’t normal. So now I’m just riding the highway.

YOU’VE TAKEN A RECURRING ROLE IN DANNY MCBRIDE’S SHOW “VICE-PRINCIPALS” SET FOR FILMING THIS MONTH. HAS THIS EXPERIENCE WITH ME & EARL & THE DYING GIRL CHANGED THE WAY YOU SEE YOURSELF AS AN ACTOR ON THAT SHOW? It made me challenge the choices I make while acting. Watching TV or different actors, I would think what they would want [from the acting]. But from what I’ve seen, the most successful actors are the ones that show on screen what their rendition is while staying honest to themselves at the same time as the character. The character I play on Danny McBride’s new show is very honest. There’s a lot of comedy in it, but it’s real in the sense that those situations could happen, those people could exist in the world. That’s what makes it fun.

Photos Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures