Oldham girl Olivia Cooke delivers a powerful performance playing terminally ill Rachel in the indie hit Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Here she talks about life in New York, shaving her hair and why she dislikes ‘sexy girl roles’
I walked past a shop the other day, a really beautiful shop, that was dedicated to just hot sauce,’ Olivia Cooke is telling me, in wide-eyed astonishment and a rich, rolling Lancashire burr. The 21-year-old actress, born and raised in Oldham, has been living in New York for only five weeks and is revelling in the randomness of its retail outlets. ‘I love it here,’ she enthuses. ‘But you do see some really ridiculous things.’
You may not yet be wholly familiar with the young Briton, but chances are you very soon will be. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, in which Cooke plays Rachel, a teenager with terminal cancer, premiered to a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and won the Grand Jury Prize, in no small part thanks to Cooke’s powerful but understated performance.
The film’s director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, can’t praise her highly enough. ‘I want the world to know who she is, but at the same time, I want to keep her for myself,’ he gushes. ‘She has an amazing instinct, a naturalness and an authenticity to her performances – I believe everything she does.’
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, as its bleakly irreverent title suggests, is not some predictable, romantic weepie, but a tragi-comic tale of a platonic friendship between Rachel and Greg (played by Thomas Mann). ‘Nearly all my friends are boys, and that’s something I often don’t understand in films,’ Cooke says. ‘There’s always that sexual tension, [as if] the only reason the guy is doing something for the girl is because he wants a gratuitous snog at the end of the film. That’s not what happens in real life.’
It is a hot, humid Saturday afternoon when Cooke and I meet at a restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village. She arrives in Doc Marten boots and a black playsuit, refreshingly unfiltered, straight-talking and self-deprecating from the start. ‘I feel like I’ve gained new sweat pores. I’m sweating in places I’ve never sweated before,’ she laments.
Tucking into a hearty bowl of chicken tagine, she confesses that career opportunities have meant a rather nomadic lifestyle of late, and she had been itching to put down some roots. ‘I’ve never really lived anywhere apart from my mum’s house. And it’s been three years of moving around all the time, living in hotels, and I wanted to settle,’ she says. She decided on Park Slope, a well-heeled Brooklyn neighbourhood, where hot-sauce shops can support a trade. Moving to America full-time was not in her game plan until a few months ago, however, when she filmed the forthcoming Katie Says Goodbye, another independent production, in which she stars as the title character, a 17-year-old waitress stuck in a small Arizona town, who turns to prostitution.
‘Doing Katie Says Goodbye really changed my life and who I wanted to be,’ she says. ‘I’d always thought I’d move to London and make my life there, but everyone I met on that film lived in New York, and they were the most creative, generous people I’d ever met. I thought, if my being in New York helps me meet more people like that, I want to be there.’
Cooke also has a regular television gig, as Emma Decody in the US-made series Bates Motel, and this autumn will be shooting the film adaptation of Peter Ackroyd’s novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, alongside Alan Rickman and Douglas Booth.
She has a New York-based boyfriend, a fellow actor, but is unwilling to talk about him. ‘I don’t think he’d like that. I’m helping friendly relations between Britain and America though,’ she jokes. ‘But it’s quite hard – he’s in a play at the moment, so we’re on this weird theatre schedule. I see him on Mondays, or at night for nine hours when we are both sleeping.’
To me, she seems admirably self-sufficient, striding around New York solo at 21, but she confesses to finding it lonely. ‘I have a tough time doing things on my own. I get really miserable. I hate my own company,’ she says simply, without self-pity. ‘I came to New York with a seven-year-old’s mentality, thinking that if I just smiled at people, they’d be my friend, like at Kids’ Club in Majorca, and I’d have a whole gang by the end of the week,’ she says, laughing.
Research for her role as Rachel in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl included visiting a cancer ward in Los Angeles, to meet a 16-year-old girl suffering from leukaemia and awaiting a bone-marrow transplant. ‘I didn’t want to go in asking questions like, “How do you feel? Do you expect you’ll make it?’’?’ Cooke says. ‘So we just talked about pop culture. She had all these One Direction pictures on the wall, so I told her about being in this ridiculous video for them [in 2012, she appeared in the video for Autumn Term, as a student getting a piggyback from Harry Styles], and it was her doctors I talked to about the nitty-gritty.
‘I felt like a bit of an idiot,’ she admits. ‘These people are living it, and I was there saying, “I’m playing a girl who has cancer in a film.” It sounds ridiculous.’ She pauses. ‘I suppose everything does when you put it all into context.’
It was the teenage leukaemia sufferer who asked Cooke if she was going to shave her head for the film. ‘I hadn’t really thought about it until that point,’ she admits. After a few days pondering the options, she emailed Gomez-Rejon. ‘I said, “Bald caps look so shit. Let’s just shave my head.’’ It was weird. When I shaved it off I looked like a greyhound,’ she says with a laugh.
‘I thought it would grow back really fast and in five months I’d have a bob.’ She tugs at her still-gamine crop and raises an eyebrow. ‘This is a year on…’ (She does, however, wear a $10,000 wig in Bates Motel, for continuity reasons.)
Growing up in Oldham, with a sister five years her junior, Cooke didn’t see too many films, she admits, apart from blockbusters such as Titanic and teen fare like 13 Going On 30. ‘I didn’t know what the Criterion Collection [a video distribution company specialising in classic and contemporary films] was until I met Alfonso,’ she admits. ‘He’s been introducing me to a lot of films.’
Cooke’s father is a retired police officer now working as an attendance officer at her former secondary school, while her mother is a sales representative for a food manufacturer. She is not entirely sure where the acting gene came from. ‘I tried gymnastics and ballet, but nothing really stuck,’ she recalls. ‘And then, at eight, I found the Oldham Theatre Workshop and [discovered] I just loved performing. That stuck for almost 10 years.’
She makes no attempt to dress up the details of her early CV. ‘I got a local talent agent in Manchester, and did a few cringey adverts and some modelling jobs,’ she says. At 18 she was cast as Christopher Eccleston’s daughter in the television drama Blackout, her first professional acting role. At the theatre workshop, however, her classmates were auditioning for drama school, so Cooke did too, and made it to the final round for Rada.
‘It was a horrible auditioning process,’ she tells me. ‘There was a voice teacher who singled out me and this girl from Wigan because we both had northern accents. He told me to run on the spot while I was reading a monologue, and he was thumping me on the back really hard. I knew then that I hadn’t got in,’ she says.
The day she got her rejection letter, though, she also heard that she had won the role of Jane Harper, a young woman apparently possessed by a violent demonic spirit, in the supernatural thriller The Quiet Ones, alongside Jared Harris and Sam Claflin. It is an intense performance in a film that is as exhausting to watch as it must have been to act in, but Cooke didn’t see it that way.
‘I was 18. It was my first film, and only my third ever job,’ she says. ‘I was barefoot and running around in knickers and a white smock the whole film. In-between scenes, we would sing songs from West Side Story – it felt like we were a travelling theatre company or something.’ She was also made up to be bruised, battered and bloody on a daily basis, and her co-star Claflin has commented on Cooke’s comfortableness with ‘playing ugly’.
There were several further outings in the horror genre – namely Ouija and Bates Motel – and she says she was keen to avoid becoming pigeonholed. ‘When Me and Earl came along, I was so relieved,’ she says. ‘I don’t want to scream at imaginary objects any more.’
Nor, however, is she keen to be considered for what she calls the ‘sexy girl roles’. ‘I’ve never acted in that way, I’ve never been like that. I think characters who are mysterious and quirky are so much more alluring than a girl who has just got it all out on show,’ she says.
There will, though, be plenty on show in the forthcoming Katie Says Goodbye. ‘It was wonderful. I had no inhibitions, and by the end of the film I was like: everyone should be naked, all the time,’ Cooke says. ‘It sounds pretentious, as an actor, to talk about “being in the moment”, but I don’t think I’d ever really known what it felt like until I did this movie and could truly let go of any insecurity or inhibitions I had with my body.’
While Cooke is incredibly proud of the film, she has already warned her mother not to watch it. Has her family always been supportive of her rather non-linear career? ‘Erm… in some ways,’ she says. ‘There was a period of about two months after I got my second job, on [the 2012 BBC television miniseries] The Secret of Crickley Hall, when I didn’t work at all, and my mum was panicking. She understands it all much more now, and is very proud. And she’s the person I call at one in the morning.’
We head to the subway and catch a train back to Brooklyn together, Cooke having eschewed offers of a car service to take her home. ‘I don’t understand why some actors and actresses get too big to do certain things,’ she says. ‘I think it’s really important to do normal things – still go down the shop to get milk – so you can play normal people. How else are you going to be convincing, as a policeman, for example, if you don’t integrate? And no one gives a shit here anyway, about who you are, or what you’ve been in. And even if they did care, they’d never let you know.’
New York, we conclude, is quite like the north of England in that sense. Except, as Cooke points out, her accent seems to give her some currency here. ‘I’ve always felt a bit embarrassed by my accent before, and felt I’d maybe be at an advantage if I was more plummy,’ she confesses. ‘But people here seem quite charmed by it.’
I’d say it is far more than the accent that they are charmed by.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is released on September 4