RJ Cyler on Mary J. Blige Playing His Mom on 'Scream' & the Relatability of 'Sierra Burgess Is a Loser'
Whether it’s on the big screen or the small one, RJ Cyler has never been busier and it’s been five years in the making. When the 23-year-old moved with his family from Jacksonville to California, the young actor knew he wouldn’t stop until his Hollywood dreams were realized.
“There is a humbling that comes with trying to be successful,” Cyler, whose breakout role in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, tells TV Insider. “It’s not an easy road. It’s not an easy industry to be a part of it. Acting isn’t really an industry to come into just for the clout, the attention. Even though some do, but you can tell the different when working someone who is actually passionate about it.
"It’s more than a way to make money," he continues. "These last five years every project I go on to, it’s so humbling because the last one could be the last project I ever do. But it’s not, so it’s like, ‘Yeah, let’s keep it rockin’.”
And there was a lot of rockin’ going on when Cyler found out Mary J. Blige would be playing his mom Sherry Elliot in the third season of Scream on MTV. Cyler plays local football star Deion, who hopes to secure a college football scholarship that will take him far away from Atlanta. However, his past may come back to haunt him as he becomes the target of a masked killer.
“If we’re all honest with ourselves, we’ve all sung Mary J. Blige relentlessly in the shower,” Cyler admits of the Grammy-winning performer. “Dude or woman, it happens every now and then. So, when I heard she’d be playing my mom it was more like, ‘RJ, try your best not to creep her out because you are a fan. But don’t be a fanboy right now because y’all working.
“It was really cool because she also has this very sweet composure about herself. She is one of the biggest voices in music, and she is just this humble person who is so sweet and loving. It was like rocking with my regular mom. I was like, ‘Hey, mama.’ It was too good. You’ll see it on-screen.”
There is no definitive date when the show returns, but we do know it will be a straight-up reboot, standing alone from the first two seasons. Cyler was honored to have a role on the series as a fan of the films.
“They would play it through Halloween. It is that good, let’s be honest,” he recalls. “But I don’t like answering the calls when they come into the house phone when I’m alone because of the movie. I had to deal with that as a teenager. Being a part of this rendition of this franchise is very cool. There are so many different flavors this season just like the first two seasons, it’s so sweet. It makes sense the whole fan base is like, ‘What’s going on now?’ But they are going to love the characters for season three as the others just as much. I’m really excited about that to give people a new flip on the franchise.”
Another project fans are anxiously awaiting is the Netflix original Sierra Burgess Is a Loser. He plays Dan, Sierra’s (Shannon Purser) best friend. Along with the young stars of the teen-centric film, the cast also includes Lea Thompson and Chrissy Metz.
“Shannon is the first person I ever heard break the internet off of passing away on a TV show. Barb broke the internet. Nobody does that. Plus, I watched Stranger Things,” Cyler said. “So that was already a win in my book to be a part of this film. That and the creative process. Our director Ian [Samuels] allowed the creativeness to come through and be as honest as possible.
“When we would play these characters and while we were filming, he would ask us a lot of the questions about how the characters would react in certain situations. Then you had this crazy intricate version of how he wanted the scene. And he would nicely tell you it wasn’t what he wanted by saying, ‘You know. Your version works, and I think we can use it somewhere, but let’s try it like this.’ Working with him and the whole cast was cool.”
Cyler felt the same energy between your typical group of high school friends shined through. They could relate to what their characters were going through. It gave him feelings of nostalgia back to Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.
“We knew we are weirdos and accepted the fact we are weirdos. We don’t care if people look at us for being weirdos. We don’t like the norm, which is why we are in this industry. We hate the norm,” he explains. “Sierra Burgess is one of the movies I’m mostly excited about. Just a story about teenagers. The roughness of how to grow up a teenager, especially nowadays. I feel like people crave for this high school feel movie or the love at a young age movie because we’ve all been there. Also, life that changes so much because the world changes so much. My high school experience is different from yours, or my mom’s or dad’s.
“So, to be able to play that honestly with the times is very important. Sierra Burgess definitely does that. Self-worth is one of the main components of this movie. I feel like, especially with my generation, we need a grip because we have a lot of followers. Not just Instagram, Twitter, etc. People don’t think for themselves anymore, especially my generation. My generation would look at something and see that’s what someone is doing and think they should do it. That’s really the worst way to live life.”
He describes Sierra as someone who sees herself as more than what other people see her as. Cyler believes there is a level of realness that comes with the idea Sierra is within all of us at one time or another.
“We’ve all felt we weren’t as cool as other people. Even though we’re still this beautiful person,” he reasons. “Her biggest enemy ends up being one of her best friends. It shows to knock down the barrier of the outward aesthetic. Just because you don’t look like me or are in the ‘cool’ group or wear these cool clothes… After we take away all these materialistic things, all we have is a human being and another human being. If we can talk and find common ground, we can build something bigger than ourselves.”
Cyler, who movie-goers can also see alongside Matthew McConaughey in White Boy Rick, likes to bring a relatability to all the characters he embodies. Often there is a humor to his roles with comedy playing an important part of his life. This comes to the forefront playing Adam Proteau, a hungry young stand-up comic who will do anything to make it on the Showtime '70s-set series I’m Dying Up Here.
“I think we take for granted how a laugh keeps us going. I feel like we should probably credit half of our existence to laughter,” he says. “This show changed how I deal with bad situations. They say that comedy comes from the darkest places. They say the best comedians go through the worse situations. They know how to change that into something beautiful. The show not just changed my respect on the craft but changed my respect on people who are actually doing this for a living.
“Being able to work with stand-up comics like Andrew Santino, Eric Griffin… then to look at an icon like [executive producer] Jim Carrey and say, ‘You know me. I’ve taken this away from you. Now what is this weird thing called your life.’ That’s what I’m Dying Here Up is. It shows the darkness that comes when chasing the dream of stand-up comedy. The unsureness. The volatility. You can be a f'ed up person and upbringing. An abusive father and brothers, losing a mom…. That, to me, is one of the most beautiful things is to do a total flip on the universe. You can have a really bad day, but you’re here smiling.”
He genuinely believes in his work, especially knowing it’s impacting others — particularly in playing Blue Power Ranger Billy Cranston in the latest Power Rangers movie. And if there is another film, Cyler wants to see the story continue with the same cast.
“I want to see the growth Jason has with his pa,” he shares. “In our movie they had the father-parent relationship like Mufasa and Simba… I want to see how deep in forgiveness and understanding both of them get with each other. They softened in the last movie, but I want to see how their relationship evolves. I also want to see more of the Trini character because there were a lot of good nuggets of who Trini is and how she could potentially be a part of the LGBT community.
“I want to see the development of that. Fan’s lives can change with that. Also, with Billy the possibilities of being a super hero on the autism spectrum. I recently went to Power Morphicon. I never felt so much love from such a big crowd people. Talking to each of them, whether they are on the spectrum or not, Billy related to them on some level. I want to continue to give that. I want to continue to give that person that makes them feel comfortable or find something in common. It gives them freedom of mind to chase what they want to chase.”
New dreams and goals are something Cyler continues to chase. And if his first five years in the industry are any indication, he is going to achieve them.
Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, Premiere, Friday, September 7, Netflix