Sundance 2015 belonged to “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s crowd-pleasing big screen take on the popular YA novel of the same name by Jesse Andrews. The adulation was obvious from the start, thanks to a premiere punctuated by a massive standing ovation and a late-night bidding war (with Fox Searchlight ultimately paying $12 million for the indie), all topped off nicely by the double-whammy win of the festival’s Grand Jury Prize and its Audience Award.
The tearjerking dramedy even came complete with a trio of up-and-coming talents to watch — the me, the Earl and, yes, the dying girl — including Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler and Olivia Cooke. As “dying girl” Rachel, former scream queen Cooke was tasked with being funny, sad, dramatic, creative, worldly and wise, all in one appealingly unsentimental package. Best known to audiences for her turns in a series of horror offerings, including “The Quiet Ones,” “The Signal” and “Ouija,” the role swiftly thrust the British actress into a new class of so-called It Girl.
But while Cooke’s fresh place in the Hollywood hierarchy has already helped her land a major role in a studio film — she’s currently filming Steven Spielberg’s much-anticipated “Ready Player One,” cast as the female lead in the Ernest Cline adaptation, an experience she deems “absolutely colossal” — Cooke’s next breakout role was already wrapped and completed before most audiences even laid eyes on her “Dying Girl.”
Olivia Says Hello
In Wayne Roberts’ directorial debut, “Katie Says Goodbye,” Cooke plays a small town waitress (Katie, of course, it seems she may have an unintentional thing for eponymous characters), who is mistreated by nearly everyone in her life — from her abusive mother (a terrifying Mireille Enos) to a seemingly never-ending string of men who pay her for sexual acts — but who manages to approach everything with a kindness that borders on mania. When ex-con Bruno (Christopher Abbott) arrives in town, good-hearted Katie pins all her hopes on him and her continued dream of running away to San Francisco. It’s a mature, intense role, and one that Cooke pulls off in stunning fashion.
And also a role that she almost didn’t get.
“It was two weeks or three weeks before they went into production,” Cooke recently told IndieWire. “I think there was an actress previous that was set to play Katie and something happened there, so she wasn’t going to do it anymore and there was this big, bad rush to find an actress.”
She laughed. “Wayne saw my picture and was like, ‘Oh, that’s her,’ but I’m like, ‘Come on, you had another girl.'”
Cooke admits that she definitely had some concerns about the delicate nature of the film – and the character she would be playing – but that they were allayed when she met Roberts in person.
“I had my concerns about the movie, rightly so, because it is a lot of sensitive material, and he really brushed out those concerns for me,” she remembered. “He’s just such a lover of women and the biggest feminist I know. Obviously, some of the concerns I had was the way Katie is treated by other people close to her.”
Cooke added, “That’s always a challenge, because you don’t want to portray that in any way that’s going to be seen as passive, and you want to still do things with conviction and strength, even though she has suffered at the hands of all these people.”
“The Best Time of My Life”
By the time production started in March 2015, smack in between the “Dying Girl” Sundance premiere and its June release date, Cooke felt even more comfortable with the film’s tough material and the demands of a role that is very adult in nature.
“It was so easy with him,” she said. “He put me at ease and there was never any pressure from him. He just completely trusted me and believed in me, and despite what we had to do, it was the best time of my life. It was wonderful.”
Despite the positive experience of production – or, perhaps because of it – Cooke was very open when asked about the film’s more challenging scenes, including a brutal third act attack that changes the trajectory of the feature in huge ways.
“It was a lot. We all took time out,” she remembered. “By the end of it, we were all very exhausted emotionally and physically. But I was so re-energized from the experience, because creatively, it was just the best experience ever. It was Wayne and the actors and me and we’re all just making something really beautiful and feeling every single day, which isn’t always the case.”
“I just came away from it just really content,” she added. “And I didn’t really feel that physically tired. It kind of pumped me up.”
Despite a rise that some would deem “meteoric” – Cooke only has eight features under her belt, counting “Ready Player One,” “Katie Says Goodbye” and two other features that have yet to be released, plus a recurring role on “Bates Motel” – Cooke is trying hard not get caught up in “It Girl” rhetoric.
When asked about being perceived as some up-and-comer, Cooke balked. That’s not what she’s interested in at all. “I just think then you’re doing it for a different purpose,” she said.
“If you look at the role as what it can do for me, then it’s kind of conniving, and you’re not in it for the right reasons,” she said. “Oh, God, if I thought about that, I’d be even more anxious than I already am doing this job. I feel like I get more and more anxious as the years go on and the more and more films I do.”
Cooke might be wrong about that anxiety thing, however, because as taxing as the “Ready Player One” casting process was – it was weeks-long, taking place in both New York and Los Angeles and she remembers being ushered out of rooms after auditions, knowing that another actress was literally trailing behind her – she only sounds excited and pleased when talking about the feature.
“It’s absolutely ginormous,” she said. “It’s the biggest crew I’ve ever been a part of it. Today, we had five units going on at once. It’s insane. It’s insane. It’s just absolutely colossal.”
And that might be the fun of it.
“But I don’t feel the pressure as much, because we’ve just got this amazing cast and we’re very well protected by Steven Spielberg and he’s so brilliant, and I’m sure he’ll make us all look really good,” she continued. “The material is so fun. It’s nothing like I’ve ever done before, and I’m finally playing this really badass character.”
Not too bad for an up-and-coming actress – and maybe, yes, an It Girl – who found out she had landed her first studio film while running errands in her own neighborhood.
“I got the call that I got the job,” Cooke remembered. “And I was in the middle of doing my laundry in Brooklyn, and I was walking down the street. I didn’t really know what to say.”
She laughed: “It was just this really bizarre, bizarre moment.”
“Katie Says Goodbye” will world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.