RJ Cyler


HOMETOWN: Jacksonville, Florida. In Jacksonville, you’re raised with respect. Even if you’ve got beef with somebody, you still give them that flatline respect. Even if you’ve got to whoop their behinds sometimes.

BREAKOUT ROLE: As the titular Earl in Alfonso Gomez-Rejon‘s bittersweet Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award-winner Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015). Alfonso is a walking heart—have you ever seen a heart with legs?

UP NEXT: Netflix’s satirical War Machine, with Brad Pitt; Showtime’s send-up of the stand-up comedy world in ’70s L.A., I’m Dying Up Here, from executive producer Jim Carrey; Yann Demange‘s drug-dealing drama White Boy Rick, with Matthew McConaughey; Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, a teen-centric Cyrano de Bergerac.

EARLY MODES OF EXPRESSION: I started a dance group with my brother Broderick when I was 12. It was called TC2C: ‘”Takes Christ 2 Change.” When we were in high school and middle school, we were a part of this group called “the crew,” and there was no Christian group in our city, really, that did what we did. I used to make all of our mixes, but it would be mixed with stuff kids our age would gravitate to. It was just fun. I made some of my best friends doing that.

I was not good enough for school plays. I did drama in high school, and that was one of the only classes I didn’t do good in. I liked science and chemistry more than I liked drama. High school was just not a good time for drama. I think I took it for two years. This girl Ava, who was my high school crush, she helped me a lot during drama class, but it still didn’t do nothing.

WELCOME TO HOLLYWOOD: Kendall Park, my first agent in L.A., was like, “We’re going to make this happen, but you need to work your ass off.” I ain’t put my ass on in the first place.

A FAMILY AFFAIR: All of us are definitely creative weirdos. My mom is a chef, and she makes these crazy art pieces—people are scared to eat them because they look too good. Then my brother Broderick, he’s really good with drawing. He’s fashion-forward. Broderick should’ve been a costume designer or a fashion designer. [My other brother] Steven builds computers from the ground up. My papa, he taught me how to DJ. He used to be a DJ at a dance club in high school, so that’s where it trickled down to RJ.

My mama and my papa are my babies. At a certain age, you switch places with your parents. They go to the premiere of everything with me—I just like having my babies close. They’ve become so spoiled, goodness gracious. Everybody’s like, “You’ve got to stop giving them stuff.” But how do I stop? They’re my parents!

WORST AUDITION: There’ve been a couple. To be honest, it’s probably double digits. I passed gas in this commercial audition. I really don’t feel like it was my fault. I had a very eggy breakfast, because I was feeling like protein was the thing. When I went into the audition room, I think it was for Nike, I was ready. We were doing karaoke steps side-to-side to see how athletic you looked—one, two, three. On number seven, it just popped out, and I tried to keep the audition going, but then it was like, “I’m so sorry, y’all. It took me out of it. Let me just apologize first.”

ON I’M DYING UP HERE: My team sent me the show audition, and they were like, “It’s about stand-up comedy so you might be interested in it.” I was like, “Man, it’s about comedy. Of course I’m interested in it!” But then when I read it, it was actually a show that’s meant to grasp the inside look of how comedians view the world. There’s a line in the show, and it’s true, “Comedians are like alchemists, they take pain and make it into something beautiful.” That was something that I really had to grasp—even just being with the rest of my cast, some of them are really good stand-up comedians and that’s what they do.

Before we shot the series, they told me, “Your character [Adam Proto] is like the new Eddie Murphy. You remember when Eddie Murphy first came out?” I was like, “I wasn’t alive when Eddie Murphy first came out, but I get the gist.” I watched a lot of Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor’s stuff to get into the swing of who Adam would be when it came to comedy, [but] he does have an innocent tone to him.

A BORN COMIC: Jerron [Horton], the comedy consultant on I’m Dying Up Here, took me to this comedy place in Hollywood called Marty’s. He was like, “Just get up there and do five minutes. Talk about stuff. Try some of the stuff from the show. Get comfortable.” I got too comfortable. I did 20 minutes talking about my day and it worked.

TEAM BARB: Working with Shannon [Purser] in Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, I had to keep my fan-boy in check. In Stranger Things, she was the reason why the internet broke for a week and a half. You don’t kill Barb, dammit. And the fact that they did—oh, man. Working with Shannon was like working with my best friend. You can’t be mad around Shannon. She’s a light, to be honest.

FAVORITE FILM: That’s him. He introduced me to Midnight Cowboy. It became an unhealthy addiction. That’s what I used to go to sleep to. Unless I heard, [sings] “Everybody’s talkin’ at me,” my mind wouldn’t start to settle down and just chill.

FOREVER YOUNG: The most miserable people on earth are the ones who lose their sense of their childhood. We never grow up, if we’re honest. Our skin gets older, we get taller, but on the inside, we’re still a little kid. That’s why we find joy in the smallest things —we still have a favorite color, a favorite animal. It feels like since I got facial hair, I have to be mature. How about you smile a bit.

IF NOT ACTING: [I’d be doing] stand-up comedy, stripping, or making drop-top Priuses.

RETIREMENT PLAN: I want to move to Pittsburgh.

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