Ah, the Hollywood mean girl. We love to hate her. Actually, we love to love her. After all, what would Heathers be without Heather Chandler? Gossip Girl without Blair Waldorf? Mean Girls without Regina George? Scream Queens without Chanel Oberlin? The classic archetype has been a scene-stealer for as long as I can remember, producing some of our favorite quotable moments coupled with iconic wardrobes. But given mean girls’ conniving and brutal behaviour, the big question remains: Why do we have such a fondness for these characters? Reneé Rapp has an idea.
Photo:Jonny Marlow; STYLING: Salvatore Ferragamo jacket; Cyril Studio earrings; Recreo Jewelry rings
The 21-year-old is two for two playing the mean girl. She landed her first role straight out of high school, starring as Regina George in Broadway’s Mean Girls: The Musical, a performance that earned her critical praise and the attention of Hollywood casting agents. When COVID shut down production and the theater world at large in early 2020, Rapp’s agent encouraged her to pivot into film and television. Shortly thereafter, she landed her next big role: the part of Leighton, an entitled freshman at the prestigious Essex College in New England, in HBO Max’s new comedy The Sex Lives of College Girls. “There’s part of playing this mean-girl stereotype that I think is just interesting to explore because it’s really easy to make [them] very surface mean, and there’s nothing behind it,” she says from her Los Angeles apartment. “But you also get to peel back layers and see that she’s more than that.”
When we first meet Rapp’s Leighton in The Sex Lives of College Girls—a show from Mindy Kaling about four student roommates navigating the trials and tribulations of freshman year—she is your classic mean girl: polished, demanding, and judgemental. But as we get to know her, the driving forces behind why she is the way she is (familial pressures and struggles with identity) come to the surface, revealing a multifaceted and deeply relatable character. “I think, for me, that was exactly why I took this job and chased this job. … I saw a huge and very personal and important part of myself in Leighton that I was really scared of when I was a kid. Being able to play that was the hardest thing in the world and also the most cathartic thing in the world,” Rapp says.
Photo:Courtesy of HBO Max
This being Rapp’s second-ever acting job, she felt anxious going into production, admitting imposter syndrome was a real thing at the time. She recalls moments of spiraling on set and leaving work terrified of being fired on more than one occasion. It ended up being another way for her to relate to her character. She likened her experience of being a total newbie on set to that of Leighton’s experience of charting the unknown as a freshman in college. Ultimately, College Girls served as a crash course in television acting for the North Carolina native, and she had to learn quickly not to get into her head too much. “When I was doing theater, you get an immediate reaction, so if you flop a joke, then you know. If you hit a joke, then you know,” she says. “So the… thing about filming that was hard for me to understand and [that] I hope I take into my life is you truly have to take everything with a grain of salt and just realize that not everyone is always worried about you."
It also helped that Rapp had the support of her incredible castmates and on-screen roomies, played by fellow newcomers Pauline Chalamet, Alyah Scott, and Amrit Kaur. The four bonded almost instantly upon arriving in Los Angeles as the city was entering its second lockdown. They would spend quality time getting to know each other with a card game that asked “some pretty deep questions” and found comfort in their shared nerves about working on the show. “I think that imposter syndrome is nuts and runs rampant, so working with them was such a blessing. I love them,” she says.
Photo:Courtesy of HBO Max
While Rapp found common ground with her character in many ways, Leighton’s polished style was not one of them. A self-described “East Coast fashion person,” Rapp’s sartorial proclivities are far from that of Leighton’s preppy look—think matching tweed sets, cardigans, and Gucci heeled loafers. The actress laughs while thinking back on her fittings with costume designers Salvador Pérez Jr. and Glinda Suarez.
“Leighton’s style is such a beast. It’s very opposite from how I dress in real life, so it was a challenge. Clothing is so important to me in terms of my comfort zone and how I carry myself. Sometimes, I would be in these clothes, and for me, this kind of ties into [Leighton’s] story a little too much, but for me, as a kid, I tried for a very long time to present a certain way, to keep things about myself on the back burner,” Rapp says. “It was scary to go back into a place that was, for me personally, so preppy and put-together and this type of girl. I think they nailed such a specific heightened world of this character, but for me, it was such a leap because it was really uncomfortable. But that’s acting.”
Jonny Marlow; STYLING: Salvatore Ferragamo jacket; Cyril Studio earrings; Recreo Jewelry rings
When I ask Rapp about her future aspirations tied to acting, she goes back to her first love: music. From a very young age, Rapp was dead set on being a musician, a pop star in fact. Nobody, not even her father, could tell her otherwise. “Acting is something that I didn’t think I was qualified to do,” she tells me. “I never thought I would get a job straight acting because I’ve been singing my whole life, and that’s my little niche.” Mean Girls: The Musical offered Rapp the best of both worlds. While she still has an appetite for Hollywood (“I would love to be in the Marvel universe”), she has her sights on a solo music career, too, which she reveals could be happening soon. “I need to be doing music as a part of my life because I am a very different version of myself when music is not a part of my life,” she adds.
Perched on her couch, Rapp lights up knowing she has a lot to look forward to—her impending music career, her big TV debut, the Ferragamo red carpet look she has planned for the show’s L.A. premiere the next day. Not to mention, Leighton’s introduction onto the long-standing list of beloved mean girls. I certainly can’t wait to watch it all.
The Sex Lives of College Girls is now streaming on HBO Max.
Photographer: Jonny Marlow
Stylist: Jared Ellner
Hairstylist: Marty Harper
Makeup Artist: Dana Delaney