The photo crew is hard at work prepping for the arrival of Thomas Mann, the 23-year-old actor who stars in the newly released Barely Lethal and the upcoming Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. It takes a second for everyone to realize that the tentative young man, who just snuck in, is Thomas. He’s that unassuming.
Thomas' quiet confidence makes you feel like he’s going to be around for awhile. “You just like him from the minute you see him. It's hard to cut away from him,” says Barely Lethal director Kyle Newman. For this quality alone, it makes sense that he’s been consistently working since he started acting. It also helps that he’s a great actor.
His love of acting began while doing theater in his hometown of Dallas, Texas. He eventually got an agent and began doing commercials. With the support of his parents, Thomas moved to Los Angeles, at age 17, to give acting a serious go. A friend from acting class was already there, so he moved in with him and his family, to save money on rent. He received his first film role in It’s Kind of a Funny Story, opposite Zach Galifianakis and Emma Roberts after only a few months of auditioning. He’s been on a steady rise ever since. Next came Project X, Fun Size, Beautiful Creatures, Welcome to Me, and the recently released Barely Lethal. The latter, of which, brought him to Atlanta to shoot opposite Hailee Steinfeld, Jessica Alba, and a dream team of young up and comers.
“I made great friends on that film,” Thomas says, “Anytime you're working with a lot of young people it's a lot of fun and you just love hanging out off set.”
Newman echoed that sentiment. “There wasn't a day on the set of Barely Lethal that we weren't all having a blast. Thomas is just an all around great guy. It was such an honor to work with him.”
Thomas’ latest work, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, is already garnering incredible praise. It won both the Grand Jury Prize for Drama and the Audience awards at Sundance this year and sold for a record 12 million dollars to Fox Searchlight. Not bad for his first Sundance.
He plays Greg Gaines, a teenage filmmaker who befriends a girl with cancer. It is a character Thomas related to. “I just never read a character that sounded so much like myself,” he said. “It was more complex than a lot of coming of age scripts that I'd read. It spoke to me.”
That emotional connection was evident to everyone on set. “Thomas brought an honesty and realness to the character of Greg that is out of this world. It's really the commitment and passion for this movie that just poured out of Thomas every time he talked about the character Greg or was filming a scene,” said co-star RJ Cyler. The film’s director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon couldn’t agree more: “He just embodied this character, and because he was the engine of this entire movie, I had to make sure he was someone I could trust. He did a beautiful job.”
As for what’s next, Thomas isn’t sure. “To me it’s like a game or something. I feel like I've reached this level and I just want to get better and work with people I respect and admire.”
TM: The first time I read the script was about a year and a half before they even started casting. It was really funny but also about something very serious and I liked the gray area that the movie lived in.
TM: It was a really long process to get cast. And I met Olivia [Cooke, his co-star] the night before we auditioned to get the first day jitters out of our system. We had this intense bond right off the bat.JJ: What about the script for Me and Earl did you love?
TM: I had never read anything that sounded like the kind of kid I was in high school. He was funny but he was really insecure and had a lot of issues that he had to own up to. The characters were so human and sort of messy. No one is really good or bad let me start this question over. [He laughs]JJ: When you’re working on something heavy all day how do you leave that at the door?
TM: That's the thing. It wasn't heavy. I love the script so much because it was so funny while dealing with this really dark subject matter. And as an actor it's really fun to sort of play both of those things and make it flow seamlessly. There were some days that you had to really live in this solemn place but it was never really dark or lonely or sad. It was very emotional in a very uplifting way. I was there, surrounded by really talented people and everybody really trusted each other.
TM: Yeah, I've never had an experience like that. Everyone had some personal connection to the story and was there for the right reasons. No one was phoning it in or there for a paycheck. It was really inspiring to be there. And I think you can see that on screen.JJ: Did Me and Earl change you in anyway?
TM: In a way it opened me up. Greg sort of goes on this really amazing journey and I think I saw a lot of myself in Greg. I feel like he's got this wall up and he tries to keep everybody at arms length to protect himself and his feelings. I could relate to that in some ways and by the end he realizes, that if you want to have substantial relationships, you have to let people in and share yourself with them.JJ: Do you ever feel sad when you finish a movie?
TM: Yes, always. You can go into a dark depression after leaving a fun set. [He gets a little embarrassed and breaks into the most endearing laughter]
TM: I do. I feel like every job I make a few solid friends I keep in touch with. That's one of the best part of being in movies. Every set is so different and there's a completely new group of people who live a whole bunch of different lives.JJ: Who's on your target list to work with?
TM: Alejandro Iñárritu, Paul Thomas Anderson... any director that gets really great performances out of actors.JJ: What is your favorite genre to act in?
TM: It really kind of depends where I'm at. When I was going through Me and Earl I felt like it was a time that I needed something deeper. I needed to throw myself into something that was going to take all of my energy. It was very therapeutic and it opened me up emotionally. Now I cry when I see a sad movie. I never used to do that. It’s weird. I don't know, maybe it's just getting older.
Watch the trailer for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl below and see the film in theaters on June 12. Barely Lethal is currently in theaters and available on demand and on iTunes!