Me & Earl & the Dying Girl's Olivia Cooke Doesn't Want To Play The "Sexy Girl"

Photographed by Aaron Richter
Olivia Cooke refused to fake it.

While preparing for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the indie film out tomorrow in which she plays a teenager with cancer, the actress visited the UCLA children’s hospital and met a young patient with leukemia, who had one question for her: “‘Are you going to shave your head?’”

“At that point, I hadn’t really thought about it,” admitted Cooke, 21, sitting in the Refinery29 photo studio on a recent afternoon. “I wouldn’t want anyone watching the film to think I’m a phony. I wanted to be as honest and raw as possible.”

That meant nixing the rubbery cone-head route that many actors resort to when portraying terminally ill characters. “Bald caps look like shit,” she said matter-of-factly. “Even if you get the best makeup artist in the world, you’re still going to be able to tell it’s a bald cap. And I have so much hair, I’m going to look like an alien. I’m going to look like Mars Attacks!” So Cooke told her team there was only one solution: “Let’s just shave the head.”

Photographed by Aaron Richter
And shave it she did — on camera, no less — committing to the part in a way that few actors her age have the guts to do. Her refusal to be a “phony” paid off. Since Me and Earl premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the Manchester, U.K., native has been earning raves for her portrayal of Rachel, a loner who develops a deep friendship with two fellow misfits (played by Thomas Mann and RJ Cyler). Cooke is thrilled that this tender little movie about kids who don’t fit into tidy, predetermined boxes is connecting with audiences.

“Rachel isn’t stereotypical,” explained the actress, best known for playing Norman Bates’ pal Emma on A&E’s Bates Motel. “She’s not riddled with all these insecurities. She likes herself, she’s self-confident, she’s happy. I think it’s really important that more teenage characters like that get written, instead of depicting these angsty teenage girls who are riddled with hormones and just lash out. I think I can speak for a lot of teenage girls that aren’t [like] that and have a lot more to say than who their crush is. They’ve got self-motivation. They’re not motivated by trying to kiss the boy or feel attractive. They just want to do stuff for themselves.”

Delightfully forthcoming and self-assured herself, Cooke gamely answered a few more of our questions.

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Photographed by Aaron Richter
Me and Earl is about a very close friendship. What was it like to play that with Thomas Mann, someone you didn’t know?

"We were the first two people to chemistry-read together, and so the night before [the audition], we had dinner — that really awkward blind date set up by our managers. The day after, when we auditioned together, it was really electric. We went out of the audition thinking we got the roles because it went so well. Then we had to chemistry-read with other people, and we felt like we were cheating on each other. But then, luckily, he got the role — and we were already good friends by the time we arrived on set, so there was no weird, forced hanging out in Pittsburgh [where the movie was shot]. We just genuinely wanted to hang out with each other. And RJ as well."

Ah, Pittsburgh.

"No, it was wonderful! It was in the summer. We watched Jake Bugg, watched Arctic Monkeys, there were all these excursions that we did — rented a boat on a lake. It was lovely. I had a really, really good time. It was like summer camp."

You mentioned that your Me and Earl character, Rachel, is not stereotypical. It’s important that movies show women as dynamic as opposed to rehashing tired old archetypes.

"I think that’s happening more — more so than not. I always find it odd when I watch a film and the woman is still two-dimensional, and either the really hot girl or the mean old woman. I’m just like, Whoa, this is really dated for the 21st century. So, I think it's happening more than not, but still, there’s a long way to go."

Photographed by Aaron Richter
Your hair has grown out and it looks lovely now.

"It has been nine months, and this is all I’ve got! I thought it would be so much longer by now. I thought, Oh, in five months, I’ll have a bob, I’ll be fine. Shave it, shave it off. It just took so long. It was rough.

"I never realized how walking down the street, I’d get looks from men, and how much I relied on that to feel pretty or feel desired. And then, when you take away your hair, that’s — for the most part — the biggest defining feature of a woman, her identity. Walking down the street, when it was to the scalp, I would get awkward glances because people thought I was sick, or they chose to ignore me because it made them feel uncomfortable.

"Then when it came to be a buzz cut, I just remember getting no attention anymore, and it just made me really angry about how unattainable these friggin' beauty standards are. What if I really did lose my hair? I’m still the same person. Luckily, I had a boyfriend at the time who made me feel pretty, so that was nice, but if I had been single, it would have been very miserable. Maybe I did rely on that too much, but it would have taught me to be more self-loving."

It’s complicated. You don’t want to believe it, but especially as young women, the journey is like, Okay, how does this come from inside myself and not from what people around me are saying?

“I think it would have been fine, but it was the summer, I was in L.A., and I was surrounded by beautiful Amazonian women, all in their fucking Lululemons, with the same hair, same Victoria’s Secret hair. I’m just like, Fuck off, all of you. I’m walking down the beach with my boyfriend looking like a Make-A-Wish. Honestly.”

Can you talk a little bit about the beauty standards you mentioned, and how you’ve dealt with them in your career?

“You struggle with that all the time. Especially when you’re auditioning for roles that are in bigger budget [movies], where they want to put more bums in seats, at the end of the day, it all comes down to how you look. It’s really depressing, and those are the sort of movies and films I’m just not interested in. If I get the breakdown, and it’s like: 'Sexy, beautiful, doesn’t know it.' I’m like, 'Next.' That’s why I’ve [never] played the pretty, sexy girl, because I don’t want to. I’m not that person. It’s just boring. I love the roles where I get to be raw, and no makeup and head shaved, whatever. I just did a film where it was just full-frontal nudity, and it was so freeing. Everyone should be naked all the time.”

Photographed by Aaron Richter
Was that Katie Says Goodbye? [Ed. note: The movie, about a 17-year-old who becomes a prostitute, recently wrapped production and will play the festival circuit.]

“It was incredible. I think that’s important, especially in America, to sort of erase the taboo of sex and make more of a taboo of having such violence in films. You’re more likely to see someone’s head being blown off than you are [to see] two people having a loving, intimate relationship. It’s so bizarre.”

You haven’t played the “pretty girl,” but you have done some darker stuff, like the horror movie The Quiet Ones and of course, Bates Motel.

“Yeah, it wasn’t a trend. I literally had just got an agent in America, and [Bates Motel] was my first job that I got off an audition tape. I never even thought about the genre of it. It was just an amazing opportunity I couldn’t pass up. So I didn’t seek out that genre; it just kind of happened.”

What can we expect next season?

“I have no idea. I know my character’s off to get a lung transplant. If she survives, who knows?”

Do you have your next project lined up?

I’m doing a movie with Alan Rickman, a murder mystery. It’s incredible, called The Limehouse Golem. I got to shoot that in England, Barcelona, and Belgium.

Photographed by Aaron Richter
Do you have a dream director or project?

“I want to carry on working with [Me and Earl director] Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and Wayne Roberts, who I just did Katie Says Goodbye with. He’s a great writer. I’ve got some stuff on my own that I want to write with him because I just don’t have the means. I have it in my head, but then I come to write it on paper and the dialogue is just like, 'Where are you going?' It sounds so robotic, it’s just awful. I don’t know, I’m not very starry-eyed when it comes to actors and directors because you could meet someone, and they could be dicks, and then it doesn’t really work well, and then you have the worst time ever. Saying that, Scorsese would be amazing.”

Who inspires you to feel more confident?

“My mum inspires me. She’s so beautiful, she’s so natural. She’s 52, has had two kids, has a wobbly stomach but will still bang out a bikini on the beach and doesn’t give a shit. We’ll be in the ocean being pounded by the waves, and her bottoms will come down, and she’s like, ‘Oh, shit, nipples out.’ I’m like, ‘Mum.’ But she just doesn’t care. And who inspires me as an actress? I think Kate Winslet is very brave. The way she looks is secondary to the parts that she gets, and the parts [she gets] she does friggin’ amazingly. She’s awe-inspiring. She’s had three kids and she looks like a woman and she’s beautiful for it. And she’s still got a career and three kids, and Hollywood hasn’t ousted her.”

If you could offer one piece of advice to young women to help them build confidence, what would it be?

“I’d say stop waxing your pubes off. We have hair down there for a reason. It’s sexy. You wouldn’t want your mum to be completely shaven down there. It’s weird; it looks like an elephant’s trunk. Stop waxing every square inch of your body, just embrace it. Down there, where only you and your partner sees it, who gives a shit, really? And if he doesn’t like it, get rid of him — because it says more about him than it does about you.”

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Photographed by Aaron Richter
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