Broadway star Reneé Rapp transitions into the world of television with her role in the new HBO Max show The Sex Lives of College Girls. Written by comedy queen Mindy Kaling, Rapp’s television debut showcases her versatility and comedic chops through her character Leighton, an Upper East Sider who is used to getting what she wants. Rapp joins us to discuss her new role on the show, her spectacular time on the Broadway reimagining of one of cinema’s most iconic comedies Mean Girls, and her future projects surrounding her love of music.
How has this year been for you now that things are getting back to a pre-lockdown normality?
To be blunt, this year has been a rollercoaster. Between the pandemic, filming and turning 21, it’s been all over the place. I’m a strong cocktail of scared and grateful. There have been high highs and low lows. I’ve learned a lot, not only the lingo people use on sets (which, by the way, is confusing — pray for me) but about myself, too. Acting forced me to be vulnerable in ways I haven’t been before. Yes, I’m still young and learning about yourself is inevitable, but this puts a fast-track on things. All this to say I’m grateful that I was in such good company during this last year. My friends, castmates who have become friends, family, and my team have been there for me every step of the way. I couldn’t have done this without them.
You’re starring in the new HBO Max show Sex Lives of College Girls. What can you tell us about your character Leighton?
Well, Leighton is a grade A insert insult here. She comes from the Upper East Side of Manhattan where she’s been accepted and coddled for being the brat that she is. Her harsh zingers and sarcasm make for a fun character to play, though. When Leighton gets to Essex, she brings that shrewd demeanour with her, but it isn’t met with the same ease. She’s forced to come to terms with her identity and who she really wants to be. I think Leighton has the capacity to be a good friend, she just isn’t willing to be quite yet. The change of environment is good for her, but it comes at the expense of others.
The show centres around the female gaze and gives a relatable yet comedic insight into the realities of college life. In what ways do you see yourself in both Leighton and some of the other characters on the show?
I see myself in a lot of these characters. I overshare like Bela, I’m an anxious person like Kimberly, and I get myself into messy situations like Whitney. When it comes to Leighton, I see a lot of myself in her. For me, I would just show up on set as myself, add some less-than-admirable qualities, comedic timing, and Leighton was born. So naturally I’m in there. Leighton is also deeply insecure, which — go figure — I am too. She struggles with her sexuality similarly to how I did as a kid. Our showrunner, Justin, sat down with Midori (Francis) and I and said ‘Okay, how did you come out, what did that look like for you, and what were you afraid of?’ After that conversation, boom, our stories were in the script. It was incredible.
The series is co-created by the iconic Mindy Kaling. What was it like working with and getting to know her?
Mindy is a genius, of course. But the coolest thing about Mindy is that she’s a real fucking person. When she enters a room, she carries this confidence that is seriously electric, but she’s also got this openness and ease that relaxes you. I hope what I’m saying is making sense, but I will never forget meeting her. I am a very anxious person, so my first days on set were particularly nerve-wracking. We started into a scene and she’s hard at work so I’m like, ‘okay shit, I need to have my game on,’ then between takes she starts talking to me about shoes and making small talk. I really appreciated that — that small thing of making conversation really helped me calm down.
What were your reactions when you first read the script?
When I first read the script, I was so excited. I love sarcastic dry humour, and that was painted all over the page. The pilot is so strong on paper. I was like, ‘cool, we could do horribly and it would still be funny.’ It gave us room to play and bring ourselves to the characters.
Now that the series is out, how has it been seeing reactions to the show pour in? Any notable moments?
It feels surreal. I just feel lucky to just be a part of this group. Not only are they an insanely talented bunch of actors, but they’re amazing people. I learn so much from being on set with everyone. I pretty much just watch what Alyah, Amrit and Pauline do with starry eyes. One of the notable moments was getting my dad’s opinion on the show. He had this huge cheek-to-cheek smile, which, if you know my dad, you know the man has an amazing smile, and he said “The supporting cast makes this show. They are so strong.” Couldn’t agree more. From Chris and Illia in the coffee shop to Mekki, Connor and Sierra at the Catullan, we’re in some serious good company.
This is your first television series after years on Broadway. How was the shift of performing live on stage versus for TV?
I thought that I would struggle with the style of acting, being that stage acting is so much bigger than the intimate style of a television set. What I realised was that I’m a much smaller actor than I think, and I owe an apology to everyone I acted with on stage because I now know I was likely giving them 50% of what I thought I was.
Speaking of which, you’re widely known for your role as Regina George in the Broadway show Mean Girls, a musical adaptation of the film. Looking back, what did that role mean to you both personally and professionally?
Mean Girls shaped a lot of who I am today. Working there, I was equally as spoiled in company. I would watch castmates with the same starry eyes that I now watch the girls with. Tina, Lorne, Casey and Telsey took a huge chance on me. They gave me that opportunity which opened the door for all of this, and I don’t take that lightly. I had just graduated high school and was thrust into this full-time job with professionals who I admired deeply. When I got College Girls, we had to ask the Mean Girls team for the OK being that I was technically still under contract. They were so supportive. In that moment, I remember realising that my run with the show was over and I broke down. I had my greatest and most crucial moments of growth in that theatre. Everyone embraced me with love and open arms. I cried, laughed and pinched myself every single day. I carry those friendships and memories close to my heart.
Was musical theatre and acting always something you wanted to pursue? How did you first discover this love?
Honestly, no. I never thought I was cut out for this line of work. I’ve always admired actors, but I didn’t think I was good enough to do it. I thought you had to be Meryl Streep, well-respected and serious. I’ve always wanted to sing, though. When I was in high school, my parents saw I was struggling mentally and in school. They sat me down and we decided I should try to go to an arts school for my Junior and Senior year. I ended up going and majored in Musical Theater. I had previously done shows here and there, but I didn’t take it seriously — I just loved to sing. My high school theatre director Corey Mitchell got me more interested in the art and I started doing shows at school. It led me to the Blumey Awards, which led me to the Jimmy Awards which led me to Mean Girls which led me here, to College Girls. So, I suppose I’m an actor now. Meryl Streep and me.
Growing up, who were some of your creative inspirations?
Frank Ocean, Beyonce and Jazmine Sullivan to name a few. Frank Ocean is everything to me. He’s a poet and well ahead of his time. In high school my best friends and I would listen to Frank every single night in the car, windows down, speakers blasting. No one talks during the Nights beat switch. It is religious and we take it very seriously.
As you continue to pursue your passions in both theatre and film, what do you look forward to for the future of both industries?
I look forward to seeing my friends running shit. Gen-Z is often picked apart, but I tell you what, we don’t give up. We lift each other up, call each other out, and push to create opportunities.
Besides acting, what else do you do to keep busy?
Music is my first and greatest love. I’ve been writing and recording since I was 17, and it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. In learning a lot about myself this job has shown me how badly I need music in my life. Straight acting is fun, don’t get me wrong, but in a perfect world, I’ll get to fuse the two.
Where do you see yourself going next?
Hopefully, next I’ll be a full-time recording artist who is in some sort of dramatic movie-musical and some spy-secret-agent movie. Big dreams, big dreams.
The final two episodes of the first season of The Sex Lives of College Girls will be on HBO Max starting 9th December.