Life after Sundance

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl out today: Actor Thomas Mann and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon go head to head in the new issue
By James West | Film+TV | 12 June 2015
Photography Fabien Kruszelnicki
Fashion Nicolas Klam.

Thomas Mann shot by Fabien Kruszelnicki for HERO 13: True Blue

Taken from HERO 13: True Blue, out now

At its Sundance premiere, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl bagged a five-minute standing ovation and received both Grand Jury and Audience awards in the US Drama category. 

Thomas Mann stars as Greg Gaines in a role that defines his still-young career and will undoubtedly propel it skywards. In conversation here with director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, the pair reflect on life after Sundance.

Thomas Mann Hey Alfonso. Are you at home?

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon Yeah, I’m on like my seventh cup of coffee.

TM I’m on my first; I had to be awake for this conversation. [laughs]

AG-R So at our first audition together [for Gomez- Rejon’s film The Town That Dreaded Sundown] I didn’t give you the part. I almost did, I thought you were so brilliant and I felt so bad and knew, and I knew I wanted to work with you at some point – I took you out for a beer, you remember that?

TM Yeah I remember that, it was the second or third time we met, the first time we got to really know each other. It was a great conversation, we were talking about actors and movies. You listed all these films I needed to watch, and since then you keep sending me movies periodically, which is a great habit you’ve picked up, I hope it continues. When we were at the bar I remember thinking, “Hands down, I have this part, no question.”

AG-R Before I’d made the decision?

TM Yeah it was before, you were like, “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but whatever does happen I think you’re great…” But it came back around.

AG-R I don’t know how you do it [audition] so often. When you didn’t get the part were you crushed? Or was it just one of those things that’s just ‘a day in the life’ of being an actor?

TM I guess you pick and choose which parts you are going to get upset about, you’d kill yourself if you were just depressed over every part you didn’t get, and that’s most parts. It’s harder when you get really close and invest all your time into learning the lines and getting into character. I read really slow and I work pretty slowly so it’s more of a process for me, it’s frustrating putting all this effort in and not getting the part in the end. Auditions, at least for me, they ruin your day, I can’t eat, I can’t plan anything else because I’m preparing for it. It’s stressful, but that’s the job.

AG-R Do you remember which movies I gave you?

TM Yeah, it was 400 Blows, Last Tango in Paris, The Age of Innocence, is that all of them?

AG-R I don’t know, you’re getting something tomorrow; I thought you should see Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï, if you haven’t seen that it’s heading your way.

TM Okay, no I haven’t seen that. When you emailed me last night asking for my address I thought you might be driving it to my house right then, but then I realised that you needed it for Amazon shipping or something…

AG-R I like that you actually watch these movies and then we talk about them.

TM Yeah course.

AG-R It’s a tradition Scorsese started with me when I was his PA, he’d mention a movie and the next day I’d get a FedEx of a couple of VHS’s.

TM Did you say that you used to watch movies with Marty on weekends or something?

AG-R Yeah, on Saturdays, he had a private screening room. This was after Casino, he came back to New York and the office itself had a library of about – and this was the mid-90s – a library of maybe 25 or 30,000 VHS’s. There were laserdiscs and film prints everywhere and you could just check movies out. And there were obscure movies, probably the only copies of certain films, and also random stuff, he had an incredible sense of humour, you could find obscure Luis Buñuel or you could find SCTV episodes, you could take anything out and you just kind of lived in that room and absorbed stuff, and sometimes your job was cataloguing things so you’d just soak up all these names and then go to Kim’s Video or something that night and check it out. He’s constantly watching and watching and absorbing and learning, his humility is unbelievable, I think that’s what makes him so great. One night we watched a John Wayne movie called Wake of the Red Witch, it was John Wayne wrestling an octopus underwater, it wasn’t very good but he’d find the beauty in it, or we watched The Picture of Dorian Grey, I forget what it was, it was black and white with one colour sequence at the end, and the first thing he said was, “Ah, I should have done that shot in The Age Of Innocence.

TM So was it the first time he’d watched the movies?

AG-R Either that or he just hadn’t seen them in a while. Whatever it was, it was invigorating because he wasn’t above anything, he was still learning and anyhow. It’s a tradition I love, to show you the little that I know, but I feel that there’s some great performances out there that I feel you have to see.

TM How old were you during that time? You must have been about my age or something.

AG-R I turned 22 on Casino, so I was like 21 or 22. So let’s talk about Sundance, what’s your take on Sundance? I’ll give you mine later.

TM I sort of knew what to expect just from people talking about it and I knew it was going to be crazy and sort of stressful and I was told not to go unless you have a reason to be there, which I think is good advice because it’s so hard to actually see movies, which is what I really wanted to do. The overall experience was so much more explosive than anything I could have imagined, I don’t think any of us were ready for that, I think I knew the movie was good but to have people react in that way to something that was so close to us and so private, it was really overwhelming, and you know, we went through this together, it was really emotional, as I’m sure it was for you too. Do you want to talk about that?

AG-R Well yeah, I was in New York and we were two weeks late delivering the DCT of the movie, there were a lot of technical issues, a lot of big arguments, my post supervisor and I were so sleep deprived and I kept pushing the limit, detail work here, detail work there, until I couldn’t do any more. We said, “If it sells we can come back and tweak the detail a bit,” but the main thing was: what if it didn’t sell? That was it for the rest of my life, so there was a lot of push and pull and very heated, passionate arguments, with the best intentions from his point of view, I understood that and I was just terrified of letting it go, that’s what it was. And I finished it, watched it in New York at 7am and that was it, regardless of whether it was going to sell or not. This is the movie that is going to define me – or whatever. And then it was Sundance, I had a fever, I had the flu and I’d been in hospital, I was a mess. TM What? I didn’t know that.

AG-R Yeah, that was in New York, right before I left. Sometimes your body is strong enough to get you through it and then it just lets go, and I hadn’t slept in a couple of days, I lost my voice, or my ‘instrument’ as they say in the business. And then we premiered, I almost threw up before going on stage because of the anxiety, the lack of sleep and lack of food, and in fact my prop masters were in the third row and they thought I was going to hurl, they were certain of it. But whilst I was watching the movie I began to let go, and Jeremy Dawson, our producer, he was sitting behind me and rubbed my shoulder because he saw that it was working. We hadn’t screened it for an audience ever, except for a little friends and family screening, and then I started to let go and be quite emotional and get carried by the film and I hadn’t been emotional probably since I saw the first assembly, I’d just been seeing the details and the mistakes. Then I was able to see it and the reception completely took me by surprise and was so overwhelming, we were all crying and hugging, all my friends from high school were in the row in front of me and they all knew my dad, who I dedicated the movie too, so I felt a lot of love and felt really comfortable.

Thomas Mann wears t-shirt and coat by CERRUTI 1881 FW15; trousers by LOUIS VUITTON PF15

TM Yeah and your mum was sitting right next to you.

AG-R She had no idea that I dedicated it to my dad. TM Wow, that’s amazing.

AG-R It’s almost like, my life at this point is ‘before Sundance’ and ‘after Sundance’ because, certainly now, it seems like I’ve found my voice as a filmmaker and I’m back on track.

TM Right, it seems like you’ve gone full circle and come out of it a better person, not that you weren’t a good person to begin with of course, but you’ve come out of it in a way that seems really positive, it’s like you’re glowing now.

AG-R I never led with that, even in every meeting where I auditioned, as a director, I never led with, “I’m trying to process my dad’s death,” that would be the ultimate downer, I never talked about it, it was a very internal thing, never in the meeting, I might have brought it up with you guys a few times.

TM It came up more towards the end, I feel like you started to bring it up more as I needed to hear about it. It definitely became more helpful to me and I think that it informed my performance quite a bit; just having those personal conversations really makes a difference.

AG-R I didn’t want to be the Debbie Downer – you don’t want people to be sad when they look at you. It was almost in deep post-production that the idea to dedicate the film to my dad gave me a reason to talk about it, I had to write a letter to the DGA, the Director’s Guild of America, because it’s a whole DGA thing if the first name isn’t going to be the director, it’s going to be the dedication. So I had to put into words why I was doing it, and it forces you to start thinking about it, leading into acceptance and ultimately integration. And I did it all through Greg, through you as Greg [Mann’s character in the film], I think when you lose a parent you’re always the child, you feel quite young but then it’s about more than acceptance, it’s about integration. It’s good to talk about it in a way that isn’t sad, it’s a triumph and it’s part of me. I knew making the movie was a healing process in itself because I had fun and I had support, I’d never had that before, never had this much support on set before with producers. So that felt like making a movie in high school again, having people around you that inspired freedom and creativity. If you do something with a lot of love people really do feel it, I think it’s tangible in some weird way, you can feel the voice behind it, there’s something to that and it just goes back to the filmmakers who inspired me to make movies. No matter what the reason is for choosing projects, whether it’s the script or technical challenge, I think that you have to find that personal hook, I know that at this point in my life I have to only generate projects that have something to say, I think this is a high I’ll be chasing for a very long time.

TM That’s exactly how I see it. It’s going to be hard to top this experience, I’ve never felt so emotionally attached to a character or script and I’ve never learned so much either. It’s been a huge experience for me and has really changed the way that I approach acting and the kind of movies that I want to do.

AG-R How so?

TM Like you were saying, now I only want to tell stories that feel important and actually resonate on some deeper level, that’s just how I want to focus my energy. I read a lot of scripts that are very similar and there are certain roles that I don’t want to play anymore as an actor, ones that just come with my age. That’s what I loved so much about Me and Earl, it’s such an honest film, there’s so many more opportunities in that script and it’s so much juicier than any other coming-of-age sort of role.

AG-R But you wouldn’t turn down a good tent-pole movie, would you? Like a big studio project?

TM It depends, that’s the thing. Like if you’re talking about superhero movies then you have to ask if you want to live that kind of life. Do you want to be able to walk down the street to get coffee and not be stopped? That’s a whole different question, at that point it’s not just about wanting to do great art or anything, there are obviously great artists working in that sort of genre now, but it’s just such a gamble and such a huge commitment to take on. I’d just be happy to be a supporting actor working on a bunch of roles, working and leading a relatively normal life. But then you can’t really control that. If someone offered me a tent-pole movie tomorrow I don’t know what I’d say, it just depends on a lot. But I’m at that age where I know what I want to do and I have to do things that I really need to do.

AG-R Scorsese has that model where he’s like, “One for them, one for yourself, one for them, one for yourself,” to be able to continue working in the system, but even his ‘one for them’, I mean Casino might be considered one for the studio but it’s so much about…

TM That’s ‘one for me’ too though.

AG-R There’s a way to find a personal hook in the ‘one for them’ as well and continue to work in the system that we both love. I’ve always wanted to work in the Hollywood system for some reason, ever since I decided I wanted to be a director when I was like ten or twelve I was fascinated by the idea of working within it. I’ve worked outside of it too, and this was outside of it, but now it’s part of it, at least it seems to be. Who knows how it’s going to be received when it’s released in summer?

TM You’re on the outside you’re of a lot of things until someone decides that you’re good enough and then they tap you and welcome you into the system, and then you’re fighting to do the same kind of things you did before. That’s what I love so much about Me and Earl, it’s just such a fun movie, it’s something I think anyone can watch and enjoy and relate to, but at the same time it’s not going for anything cheap, real emotion is earned and even from the technical aspects it is so much more visually entertaining than it has any right to be or even needs to be. I remember when I heard that Chung [Chung-hoon] was going to be the Director of Photography I was so excited because I was just tired of seeing all these high school movies that looked the same and didn’t really have a style of their own. You and Chung working together worked so well, it felt like the Scorsese of high school movies, which is exactly how I wanted it to be when we were in the pre- production stages. I knew that I didn’t want the movie to be some cute, quirky thing, not that it doesn’t have a quirky aspect to it, but I just wanted it to be different, I wanted to dig deeper than that, and I think you wanted to do that too, I know that Olivia [Cooke, who plays Rachel] did. We were all on the same page, and that goes back to what you were saying about us working together as a family, a tight-knit family that just wanted to make something great, and I feel like we did. I’ve had that before but never as strongly as on this film.

AG-R I’ve worked on films as an assistant or Director of Photography on huge films such as Argo and things like that, but as an actor on a big, big movie… was Project X a big movie or just a big success, was it a big budget?

TM I mean, it felt like a big movie. It was my second big job and then everything that happened after it was because of Project X; it opened a lot of doors for me, so for me it feels like a huge movie in my life, it was a turning point in my career. But at the time it was just this weird little party movie that we were making and we had no idea whether it would even come out, it was sort of an experiment. Warner Bros spending $12m on a movie was just a bit random, because that’s a small budget for them, but then it came out and became this huge success, at least in a certain market, and now people come up to me still to this day and ask me about it and whether we will do a sequel and all that. It’s nice, sometimes I forget that I even did it and then someone will come up to me and talk about it, it’s nice to know that you’ve made something that will last and people are watching and showing to others, and I hope that happens with Me and Earl on an even grander scale.

AG-R How long ago was that?

TM I shot that movie when I was 18, I’m 23 now, so like five years ago. It was August 2010 when we shot it.AG-R Between that and now, for a young actor who is new to the whole Hollywood scene, has it been a difficult road? We all hope that things are going to change with Me and Earl, and I think obviously your work is amazing and is being noticed, but was it that you were being offered jobs you didn’t want, or didn’t get roles you wanted?

TM Well a weird thing happened, I’m not sure if it was just in my head, but after Project X came out I had this idea that I could just say no to a bunch of projects and wait for something really good, something amazing… but it just never really came. I was still fighting for movies but it wasn’t any easier, I wasn’t a better actor just because I was in a big movie, I still had to work for the good parts and I turned down some things I probably shouldn’t have done. Then the next thing I knew a year had gone by and I hadn’t worked, so then I took a bunch of movies. I learned a lot in that year where I didn’t work, just how to approach things and how to not let all the industry talk get the better of you, and how to just focus on what you need to do.

Thomas Mann wears sweater and coat by McQ by ALEXANDER McQUEEN FW15

AG-R Who kind of guides you through that period if you don’t know anyone in Hollywood? I think it would be the beginning of the end for a lot of actors, do you have a mentor, or is it family?

TM I talk to my mum a lot about it, she’ll give me advice but then I’ll dismiss it because I’ll be like, “You don’t know,” but I still call her a lot to talk about things. My agent and manager – I’ve been with the same agent since I was fourteen in Texas – we’ve been through four different agencies together, so I trust her quite a bit and I’ve had the same manager for five-and- a-half years now. They’ve been incredibly helpful: there are a lot of decisions you have to make in regards to the career you want to have.

AG-R Here’s another question: Why do you act? I always like asking that question.

TM Because it’s one thing that I do that people have told me I do well. I started doing it in middle school and the first play I ever did was Sleeping Beauty, I played a court jester, and I just sort of fell in love with it, I was so excited to just go to rehearsals and wanted to see what I could do with it. So I got an agent and realised that there wasn’t a lot of movie work in Texas, but I had this acting coach named Catherine Sullivan who would have these casting directors and agents come down from LA to these seminars, so I kind of got picked up through that. It was just a really slow process, then all of a sudden the universe told me to go to LA, just to try it and see what happens, to just go for a couple of months. I got a guest spot on a TV show episode and it was great, it was really serendipitous, it just felt like the right thing to do. I was seventeen, I didn’t drop out of high school but I took online courses rather than going to public school anymore. Yeah, it was a weird thing but it felt right. It was crazy but also not so insane that it was stupid.

AG-R Interesting.

TM I guess I’m just thankful that my parents let me leave when I wanted to.

AG-R Right.

TM Shall we talk about the process of casting for Me and Earl?

AG-R Yeah?

TM The waiting was a long process.

AG-R It was easy.

TM Yeah, you can say that!

AG-R It was! Ask all my producers, the final decision felt right. Because I knew that I wanted someone to be my emotional proxy and to go through, certainly in the last thirty minutes… I was never as funny or smartasGregbutIknewthatintheendIhadtogo through that. I was this artist, always this secret artist the way you and Rachel are in the film, and it just came down to the chemistry between you two, and it couldn’t be romantic chemistry, although you guys look great together and it would be a great love story a few years later, but not now and that was tricky. It also informed how I was going to shoot the movie because you start going to classic coverage and one, it’s a little boring, two, it’s familiar and three, cutting to the wrong close up might suggest a romance that we didn’t want.

TM That’s true. That’s what I love most about the movie – the way it’s shot. You’re just watching these two people in space and it’s allowed to be awkward and it almost helps their relationship. There’s so much talking between me and Olivia in the movie that it would have been easy for it to become boring or monotonous but I think you did an excellent job of spicing it up.

AG-R I remember looking at your audition tape while I was still doing American Horror Story and saying, “I think this is the guy.” That process can be tough figuring out all the roles. Once RJ [Cyler, who plays Earl] came in you guys just came together quickly, maybe we had to find that combination before it all felt right. There was no doubt in my mind from the first take of the first scene that the casting worked at least. I’ve done a lot of casting myself and I enjoy the process.

TM It’s very intense, by the end we were doing 30 pages.

AG-R Yeah, there were so many movements in the script we wanted to check that the funny was funny, real funny, and the delicate moments and the emotional points, we wanted to check that the actor could balance it all in a way that is naturalistic and doesn’t feel melodramatic, and obviously you did. It was tough but necessary. So what’s next for you, do you know?

TM No.

AG-R What do you want to do next?

TM What do I want? I want to do another movie, I’m not really going for any pilots, maybe a couple, but I’m just reading scripts looking for something great.

AG-R How was it post-Sundance, has that changed the way the industry perceives you now?

TM It’s weird because I think now people are told to pay attention to me, like, “This guy is supposed to be great,” but they don’t know themselves, nobody has seen the movie still. Everyone has been so complimentary about the movie, I’m still treating the process like I did before, it’s not like I’m getting all these crazy offers now, I’m getting offers but it’s not for the things that I’m really chasing after. It might be a slower process as people begin to see the movie, I’m not anti- auditions or anything.

AG-R Has it given you more confidence in a weird way? Because I’ve noticed a change in you and I wasn’t the only person who noticed it.

TM Really, you think I’ve changed?

AG-R Yeah, in a good way, there’s a confidence and you can’t avoid it, it’s natural.

TM I think it’s just that I’m really happy that I’m finally doing the type of movies that I want to be doing and I’m known for this thing that makes me really happy. So yeah, I’ll say that I’m more confident.

AG-R Do you read reviews?

TM Yes, I do, especially with this film because most of them were very positive and it’s fun to read positive reviews about your movie and yourself.

AG-R Do you always obsess about the one bad one of something?

TM No, but I know you do.

AG-R Well… [laughs]

TM It’s hard to ignore it.

AG-R What about the Project X reviews? I don’t read a lot anymore because around the time that I did The Town That Dreaded Sundown some of the big reviewers liked it and some really dismissed it, and it stings because we tried to do a lot, it was a very ambitious. A horror, slasher movie with some wonderful performances in it from some dear friends, and you feel like you’ve failed the crew. After all the jobs I’ve done in the past I feel very attached to the crew and the cast, so I feel that I’ve failed them when the movie gets dismissed. Luckily with time, it’s getting rediscovered by horror fans and it’s coming up on some top ten lists, and going to Sundance was really good for me because the guys in the horror division were big fans of it. But yeah, I stopped reading them because it hurts, it’s your art being publicly humiliated and so I assumed that it could have gone the same way with Me and Earl… but it went really positively. Were you with us at the bar when we got the first Variety review at Sundance?

TM Yeah, I remember we were in that bar with all your high school friends.

AG-R Exactly.

TM It was all of us just looking at this one review, it was very emotional. I never thought that a review would make me cry, it was so overwhelming.

AG-R What about the Project X reviews, weren’t they hard to read?

TM Yeah, those were rough. I wasn’t expecting it to be critically acclaimed or anything but the ferocity with which they actively hated that movie is so intense, it was really eye-opening for me and made me a little jaded, I had this attitude towards the industry after that like I was being underestimated and felt like I had to prove myself as not just ‘the kid from this party movie,’ I think there was even a review that said that, “Nobody wants to be known as the kid from the party movie.”

AG-R Ah.

TM And I was like, “Oh fuck, is that me?” So then I knew that I had to do something important, and I feel that Me and Earl is that thing. It just felt like a huge responsibility, I’d never had so much trust put in me.

AG-R Do you watch all your movies, and interviews and things? I don’t.

TM But you haven’t been in movies…

AG-R I mean in like in YouTube videos of interviews and things.

TM Watching yourself be yourself is much harder than watching yourself acting as a character. I’d much rather watch myself in a film than watch myself answer questions about a film, I think I’m just too aware, I can’t be completely myself whilst being interviewed. It’s always awkward to see it.

Thomas Mann wears t-shirt by CERRUTI 1881 FW15; denim jacket by DIESEL FW15; jeans by DIOR HOMME W15

AG-R And I have been in movies!

TM Well yeah, you were in You’ve Got Mail.

AG-R Yeah my back was in You’ve Got Mail and I’m shooting a shotgun in Casino, I’m out of focus on the right.

TM Oh right, I missed that. I’ll have to look for it.

AG-R I look about twelve.

TM Do you have a favourite movie?

AG-R It changes, it moves depending on the day. I think I could come up with a rough top five, but not just one. How about you?

TM Yeah I couldn’t come up with one either. I think anyone who asks someone if they have a favourite movie hasn’t seen enough movies themselves, because then they wouldn’t have just one favourite movie. It’s such a ridiculous thing to choose. Since being Greg in Me and Earl I love movies even more now than before, I have a new respect for them.

AG-R To me that’s more exciting than anything, the fact that you said that, it means a lot to me. At one point people said to me, “Shouldn’t the movie be more accessible?” And my answer was ‘no’ because, what’s the point, if Greg’s dad is into Criterion Collection films why don’t we open up the conversation and have people try to find movies like the ones that Scorsese turned me onto? I wanted the film to be a reason for people to look up these movies and watch them. One of the most amazing things to me was when we had the high school screening in Salt Lake City and a lot of the high school students said that they couldn’t wait to go out and find these movies, and I used to really have to search for them and fail and eventually find a revival house in New York or somewhere, but now some of these movies are on YouTube even and although it’s not the way to see them at least they are accessible.

TM Yeah it’s so easy. If I want to watch any movie right now I probably could and it’s amazing.

AG-R But one thing you need to do is go see The Tales of Hoffman, they’ve restored the film and I think it’s going to be screened in New York in February, it’s worth the trip.

TM No I haven’t seen that yet, every time I watch a Richard Oswald film I’m constantly more curious, I need to watch that.

AG-R And it was fun for someone like RJ, who hadn’t been exposed to many films, to hear about a film like Midnight Cowboy and then watch it like ten times.

TM I know! He watched it so many times in a row. He wasn’t just doing it to make you happy either – he legitimately loves that film.

AG-R Yeah I know. So who were some of your favourite directors growing up, or were you not aware of the role of the director until you got into the industry?

TM I definitely wasn’t as aware of it, I always liked Paul Thomas Anderson, I remember really loving Magnolia, that’s an incredible movie. One movie that really influenced me when I first started acting, when I was like thirteen, was Little Miss Sunshine, I don’t know if you’ve seen it but Paul Dano is amazing in it.

AG-R Yeah, he’s incredible, everything he does is amazing.

TM Yeah, there’s this scene in it where he just erupts into laughter when he finds out that he’s colour blind and it’s so powerful, I was like, “How does he do that?” He’s the most interesting character in the movie yet he doesn’t say anything for the first 40 minutes.

AG-R You’ve mentioned Paul Dano a lot in other conversations.

TM Yeah, I just think that he’s always different and I guess I can relate to him for some reason. People ask me about my career trajectory and ask if I want to be like Joseph Gordon-Levitt or Ryan Gosling or someone, and I always say, “Someone like Paul Dano.” He’s worked with so many different directors and he always puts in a special performance. That’s what I love: the specificity of these great actors, every role is so specific.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is out in cinemas today. 


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