olivia cooke talks high school, drama school, and rejection

The star of Me, Earl and The Dying Girl discusses not making it in drama school and making it in Hollywood.

by Samuel Fragoso
29 June 2015, 11:55am

Like most fledgling actors in Hollywood, Olivia Cooke is determined to make it. However, unlike the bulk of her contemporaries, Cooke, at the tender age of 21, understands herself. Moreover, she knows what type of projects she'd like to be involved with (spoiler: good ones, preferably where she's not objectified).In other words: she has principles. The last of a dying breed.

Through conversation, it's clear that she's equally unmoved and uninterested in the glitz and glamor of Tinsel town. Many flock to Los Angeles to be a movie-star; she came to act.

With her recurring character on acclaimed A&E show Bates Motel and scene-stealing performance in Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl as a cancer-ridden high schooler, Cooke has the potential to be propelled into"stardom"(a word that makes her understandably quiver). Here's hoping my prognostication is right. After all, the world could always use another artist who deeply cares about their craft.

Let's start from the beginning.
I'm from Oldham in Greater Manchester, I got my first role when I was 18. It was a BBC miniseries called Blackout, playing Christopher Eccleston's daughter. Then I got another thing after that, then got an agent in London, and then I auditioned for drama school and didn't get in, and then I got the lead in a film, and then got a manager from America who rang my phone up and said, "Let's represent her!"

What school rejected you?
RADA. If I had gotten in that year, I'd still be there now, and I wouldn't have done any of the work that I have.

Did you always want to be an actress?
I think when I first got serious and realised I'm gonna have to do something for a living, that was when I was 14. It was when I was going to after school drama workshops and that was the only thing that kind of stuck, and the only thing that I really enjoyed. And I didn't enjoy academia at all. So I thought, "Might as well give it a crack." And then I got really serious about going to drama school, having the three years of training, and then that didn't happen, and this took over, thank god.

When did you discover that you had something?
I don't know. I'm still waiting to be yanked out and be found out.

I suspect most people feel that way, no matter the field of work. 
Oh, completely! And self-conscious and wanting to better yourself.

So let's backpedal for a moment. In relation to your character in Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl, what was your high school experience like?
It was fine. I was really a bit depressed that people kept saying to me, "These are the best years of your life, better make the most of it." And I was like, "God, if these are the years of my life, then the rest is going to be shit. Ugh!"

That's what everyone says about college in the States.
American college sound painful, like I can't think of anything worse.

Financially painful.
Yeah, financially.

No, yeah, I'm definitely going to be broke by the end of it.
Oh yeah, you're always going to be broke until you win the lottery. College in America is just ridiculously expensive, like 50 grand a year or something?

Depending on the school.
That's craziness. We protested that it went up from 3 grand to 9 grand a year. But like no one could afford that1 My family couldn't afford that!

No one can afford it here. But wait, we're talking about high school.
My high school experience…eh, it was fine. I kind of did bare minimum to get through it. I wish I would have enjoyed it more and made the most of it, but I was just itching to get out as soon as I could. My high school was from 11 to 16, so soon as I got to year 7, which is the start of secondary school/high school, I was like, "Oh god. Five more years. And then four more years."I was just constantly counting down. And joining every club, which meant that I could get a couple of days off from school every single year. Every sports team, because I was like, "Oh, it's going to have a sports day."

Did your high school experience at all reflect the character?
I mean, not my high school experience. American high school seems a lot different from English high schools. But as a person, Rachel is really quietly confident, she likes herself, she's not riddled with any glaring insecurities. I liked myself, I think it's fashionable to be like, "Oh god, I hate this. Oh god, my bum's too small, blah blah."

I liked myself. Everything worked, I was a nice person. Even though you want what you can't have and what other people have to an extent, I was always quite content, and I think Rachel is that as well. And I think it's important to have more characters written like that. Especially teenagers, where a lot of the stuff that's out there is quite offensive. And you're constantly talking down to teenagers, and "This is how you are", like it's from a 50-year-old's perspective, who probably has loads of money and hasn't seen a child in so long.

You didn't feel Gomez-Rejon was talking down to you?
No, no, I just felt it was refreshing, and really honest and funny. I think after Bridesmaids came out, everyone's trying to jump on the band wagon and create comedy like that, and this just had its own voice and definitively comes from the unique consciousness of Jesse Andrews, who is the author and screenwriter.

Is identification with the character a prerequisite?
Yeah, I always try to identify with the characters, because I think honesty speaks volumes, and all my characters are coming from the prism of me. And I think that stands for a lot of actors. Unless you're playing a complete caricature, and it's in a very surreal world, where everything's heightened, then maybe you can get away with more of a caricature. But when it's grounded and honest, then I think it has to come from an honest place within you.

You've found success at a relatively young age.
I think I've peaked. I'm done, fuck it now.

You may be right. Has all this nonsense set in?
I'm very aware that it can be a very fickle industry, and that I can be carted out as quickly as I was welcomed in. I'm always aware that this job could be my last and, I may be flavour of the month this week, but someone else is going to pop up, and then someone else. It's a conveyor belt within the influx of actors and actresses. And there's so many people that can do the same job that I'm doing.

So what's your plan-b if this doesn't work out?
Oh god, I'm fucked, I can't do anything else. I really can't. I think people get found out eventually…

You seem very worried about that.
No, I'm not worried, because hopefully people think I'm good and want to see me work more and I'm not carted out as soon as I hit 30, and I'm no longer attractive to people. I hope that my acting has more volume than the way I look, and I think there's a lot of actors and actresses that get by just purely on physicality rather than substance. I really hope that that changes, because, you know, I don't want to be sexy. I don't want to be known as a sex symbol. I just want to be known as a good actor. There's so much importance put on that these days, especially how you're perceived just doing press. Just as "Olivia," you're supposed to be a star already, and I'm not. I'm a very normal person, and I don't want to become this celebrity.

What you become is up to you.
But then there's people going, "Oh, Olivia, you need to get Twitter, you need to brand yourself, get the audiences in."

I would urge you to stay away from Twitter.
And if I stop getting roles because I've not got Twitter, then it's not the industry or the job I thought it was going to be.

Then you can go back to college!

Has the press been haranguing you?
Some people are like, "Oh well, now that you're on the cusp of stardom, what does that feel like?" And I'm like, "It feels terrible, it feels awful, leave me alone, fuckers!" [laughs]

People will either love or hate that sentiment.
I don't really care, as long as they believe me when I'm on screen.

That's noble. Most people want to be liked.
I want to be liked by my friends and my family and people that I love, I want them to think I'm a good person. I'm really nice to people. I'm not like malicious or anything like that.

So, I was on record and I said my sister does a really good impression of Kim Kardashian, and the next day the headline says, "Olivia Cooke Learns American Accent from Kim Kardashian." And I'm like, "Where the fuck have they got that from?" People love to just make their own shit up, honestly. That's not even a soundbite! That's not even what came out of my mouth!

But you learned your accent from ?
Well, we have a lot of American influx of TV and film in England, but I have an amazing dialect coach in Vancouver.

Actual training and hard work.
Yeah, so not watching fucking mindless television.

Have you ever actually watched that show?
I do like to put it on when I'm in hotel rooms. I'm just fascinated by the transformations from season to season, something is different about their faces.

Oh, not character transformations, but physical ones?
Physical, yeah. It's like they've got new things on their face.

You make it sound like an accessory.
It probably is, they've got loads of money. It probably is like an accessory.

And yet you're entering that world.
I'm fucking not, I hope not. That really scares me. Because I see it with kids - people my age, people that are 21, and you've not stopped baking yet. You're still forming. I have fucking acne at 21. My sister had really bad acne and had to go on Accutane, but now she's gorgeous and she knows it. She sends me pictures, like, "Look how gorgeous I am."

That's dangerous.
Yeah, she's a bit narcissistic.

And you?
Not so much.


Text Samuel Fragoso

me earl and the dying girl
samuel fragoso
olivia cooke