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Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke and R.J. Cyler at the New York premiere of "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" | Paula Schwartz Photo
Connie Britton and Molly Shannon at the Manhattan premiere of "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" | Paula Schwartz Photo
Connie Britton and Molly Shannon at the New York premiere of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” | Paula Schwartz Photo

Hugh Jackman was the surprise guest at the New York premiere of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” Wednesday night at the Landmark Sunshine Theater on the Lower East Side. Jackman walked onto the stage and introduced the film and director to a stunned audience that hadn’t noticed he was there. (Publicists told me he arrived to the theater and walked into a secret side entrance.)

From the stage Jackman said he loved “Me and Earl,” and after seeing the film, rang the director to ask what he could do to get the word out about the film. When Gomez-Rejon told him he’d like him to introduce the film at the Manhattan premiere, Wolverine obliged. After calling him one of the “great, most exciting directors out there,” Jackman added that he would be appearing in his next film, “Collateral Beauty,” co-starring Rooney Mara.

“I’ve done my job. You guys are in for an absolute treat!” Jackman told the audience before he introduced the director, who looks like a short, younger Javier Bardem.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon at the New York premiere of "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" | Paula Schwartz Photo
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon at the New York premiere of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” | Paula Schwartz Photo

(By the way, Jackman also has a connection to “Me and Earl,” as the voice emanating from a Wolverine poster in the heroine’s bedroom.)

Author and Screenwriter Jesse Andrews at the New York premiere of "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" | Paula Schwartz Photo
Author and Screenwriter Jesse Andrews at the New York premiere of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” | Paula Schwartz Photo

Based on the YA book by first-time novelist Jesse Andrews, who also wrote the screenplay, the cancer-kid story is equal parts comedy and tragedy, and deals with all the usual teenage preoccupations like awkwardness, popularity, college, sex, parents and loss, without being sentimental. “Me and Earl” was a bit hit at Sundance, where it picked up the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award.

At the New York premiere, the director – after Jackman’s intro – presented the cast and crew, singling out the movie’s three young stars. Thomas Mann plays Greg, the “Me” in the title, a high school senior who suffers from teenage awkwardness and claims to aspire to invisibility, which he partly achieves by not offending the various student cliques.

Newcomer R.J. Cyler plays his friend, Earl, a no-nonsense, big-hearted kid from the poor part of town. Greg refers to Earl as his co-worker, and the two share a passion for making movie parodies of classics, with wacky titles like “A Sockwork Orange” and “Don’t Look Now Because a Creepy Ass Dwarf is About to Kill You!!! Damn!!!” (“Don’t Look Now,” 1973).

Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke and R.J. Cyler at the New York premiere of "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" | Paula Schwartz Photo
Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke and R.J. Cyler at the New York premiere of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” | Paula Schwartz Photo

There is also a terrific supporting cast in Connie Britton, who plays Greg’s mother, a kind but somewhat ditzy mother who forces Greg to spend time with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who has leukemia. Molly Shannon plays Rachel’s mother, a frazzled woman who drinks too much wine and doesn’t know how to deal with her grief. It’s a tough role to play without being sentimental or depressing, but Shannon manages to balance the sadness with just the right amount of humor so it’s not a downer.

Connie Britton at the New York premiere of "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" | Paula Schwartz Photo
Connie Britton at the New York premiere of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” | Paula Schwartz Photo

The three leads have a natural camaraderie and chemistry on screen that seems to extend to real life. They chatted and hugged at the after party at Pravda on Lafayette Street. We spotted Cooke gently brush away hair on Mann’s forehead while they talked, and all three stars posed for photographs and mugged for the camera at a photo booth set up in a small upstairs room of the club.

Connie Britton, Molly Shannon, Gomez-Rejon and his mother, and Jesse Andrews also showed up at Pravda, where everyone partied well past midnight.

Other celebrities we spotted at the premiere included Octavia Spencer, Chris Abbott and Chelsea Handler.

Octavia Spencer at the New York premiere of "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" | Paula Schwartz Photo
Octavia Spencer at the New York premiere of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” | Paula Schwartz Photo

On the red carpet, I asked Britton how she got into her role as Greg’s mother, a different role from the sexy characters she usually plays. “I just had this vision of who this woman was, you know? It’s one of those things where I felt like I had met her before. That was really it, and it was a lot of hair and makeup and all that kind of thing.”

Newcomer R. J. Cyler, who described his character Earl as the “moral compass” of the film, charmed journalists on the red carpet and at an earlier press event. He has some notable scenes with Nick Offerman, who plays Greg’s eccentric sarong-wearing professor father, who foists his taste in exotic foods like cuttlefish and pig’s feet on Earl, who is game but often less than enthusiastic.

When I asked Cyler what it was like working with the more mature actors in the cast, he told me, “Literally every adult in this movie was hilarious to the point where sometimes I couldn’t breathe. Especially Nick. He has the funniest, driest humor you’ve ever seen. He’s also so smart. He uses jokes that use really big words, so that after you look up what these words are, you’re like, “Wow, that was really funny! I wish I called it then, but I’m a little late.”

R.J. Cyler, Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, Rachel TK and Connie Britton at the New York premiere of "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" | Paula Schwartz Photo
R.J. Cyler, Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, Katherine C. Hughes, and Connie Britton at the New York premiere of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” | Paula Schwartz Photo

I spoke to Cooke, a British actress best known for the “Bates Hotel” television series, about her future projects and she told me she will soon appear in the “The Limehouse Golem,” co-starring Alan Rickman. Set in the 19th Century, Cooke plays a theater actress surrounded by grisly murders.

She told me she was thrilled at the reception “Me and Earl” was receiving. She had to shave her hair for the part of Rachel, and although she has a lovely egg shaped head, she told me it was tough walking around bald where people singled her out and treated her differently. “It was hard to process because I’d never been treated like that before. It was a very humbling experience.”

Olivia Cooke at the New York premiere of "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" | Paula Schwartz Photo
Olivia Cooke at the New York premiere of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” | Paula Schwartz Photo

Olivia Spencer is not in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” but as an actress in “The Divergent Series,” she had some strong ideas about the teenage audiences, which she shared with me on the red carpet.

“They have strong opinions,” she told me. “They’re very in touch with social media. It’s a very different audience,” than from her other films, including “The Help,” which earned her an Academy Award.

As for her high school memories, Spencer told me, “I had a wonderful school experience I can’t imagine not having, which is one of the reasons I love this movie. It takes you back to those really beautiful, youthful moments that you know you’ll never get back, so I think it’s all about finding your path and understanding that the path will constantly change until you decide what you want to do and who you want to be.”

Katherine C. Hughes at the New York premiere of "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" | Paula Schwartz Photo
Katherine C. Hughes at the New York premiere of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” | Paula Schwartz Photo
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