The very first shot of the 2024 musical reimagining of “Mean Girls” is a vertical frame. Two characters, Janis (played by Auli’i Cravalho) and Damian (Jaquel Spivey), film themselves singing a song that sets the stage for the story to follow. They’re troubadours for the TikTok set — and this is a “Mean Girls” for a new generation.
The Cady Heron, Regina George, and Aaron Samuels of the original film, released in 2004, had never seen an iPhone — those wouldn’t debut for another three years. “Instagram,” “Twitter,” and “Snapchat” would have sounded like gibberish. Karen was just a name, and Donald Trump was just a business mogul.
Twenty years later . . . well, things are different. We’ve seen not just a technological revolution, but a cultural one. More Americans have become more aware of how rampant racism and discrimination — from microaggressions to hate crimes — are in this country. And while we still have a long way to go, people have a greater understanding of the harm caused by failing to adequately represent a diversity of identities on screen.
In 2004, the original film did make jokes about racial stereotypes (“If you’re from Africa, why are you white?”), but it didn’t go so far as to cast a person of color in any of the main roles. (Actually, that was a joke in the original movie, too: Kevin G asks Janis if she’s Puerto Rican. “Lebanese,” answers Janis, played by Lizzy Caplan, who’s white.)
The new “Mean Girls” cast is notably more diverse than the original, and the cast tells POPSUGAR that they’re grateful for the ability to bring their characters into 2024 by integrating more of their individual identities.
“I got to bring a little bit of myself to the character,” says Bebe Wood, who plays Gretchen Wieners. “I was talking with [director Arturo Perez Jr.] and he was like, ‘Wait, I heard somewhere that you’re Latina . . . We should just add something in there.'”
“[I]t was exciting to add just a little nod to my heritage within the role.”
The addition to the script was small — a single mention of her abuelito — but for Wood, the impact was huge. “I’ve never been able to play Cuban American before,” she says. “So it was exciting to add just a little nod to my heritage within the role.”
Avantika, who plays Karen Shetty in the new film, was similarly grateful to be able to embrace her background on screen. “It really meant a lot when . . . at the initial table read, [screenwriter Tina Fey] was like, ‘Is there anything about the name like Karen Smith that you want to change?'” Avantika says. “And I was like, ‘I’m South Indian, I’ve never gotten to play someone who’s openly South Indian, and I speak Telugu at home; would it be possible to bring in the last name from my culture?’ . . . And so we decided on Karen Shetty. That’s really special to me that [Fey] gave me the space and freedom to bring that.”
Karen isn’t the only character to get a new name: Janis Ian is now Janis ‘Imi’ike, reflective of Cravalho’s Hawaiian heritage. Cravalho wants to get to a place where diversity in film is the rule, rather than the exception. “Every film that I’m in, I get asked about: ‘Why is representation important in films?'” she says. “Thank you for asking me that question — but can we move on a little bit? A space that I’m trying to move out of is being asked always about, ‘How important is it to you to be the first pioneer?’ I am excited to open the doors and just break through. [But] I don’t want to be the first.”
This name-claiming is especially meaningful in a film where name-calling and misnaming cause so much harm. The Plastics, “fugly slut,” “dyke” (in the new version, updated to “pyro lez”): they’re all names and labels doled out like candy-cane grams, and the students of North Shore High feel the burn.
“Maybe you don’t label me and I won’t label myself and I can just be whatever I want.”
Spivey says that he tries to ignore labels that other people stick on him; they aren’t the truth, he says. “Even in the film, Regina calls Karen stupid, so therefore Karen feels like she’s stupid. But I have a strong feeling if Karen didn’t listen, she wouldn’t feel stupid. You know what I mean?” Spivey tells POPSUGAR. “So for me, I think a lot of people can be like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re a plus-size queer actor.’ I am, but I’m also just an actor. So maybe you don’t label me and I won’t label myself and I can just be whatever I want.”
This sentiment is echoed by this generation’s Regina George, Reneé Rapp. Rapp is openly bisexual (and has hinted in prior interviews and on social media that her Regina might not be as straight as the character’s relationships with Aaron Samuels and Shane Oman might indicate). But she also makes clear that only she has the right to comment on her sexuality.
“I’ve come out a lot of different times in my life and with a couple of different things, and it recently has changed a lot for me,” says Rapp, perhaps referring to her portrayal of Leighton Murray, a college freshman who comes out as a lesbian on “The Sex Lives of College Girls.” “But I cannot tell you how many times I’ve received comments in the last month or two that are just like, ‘Oh, congrats on [coming out] again,'” she says, her tone changing to the vocal equivalent of an eye roll. “And I was like, bro, actually fuck you. You suck.”
There’s power in claiming and coming into your identity. And the people who try to put you in a box or use your individuality to hurt you? Rapp is right: they suck.
Angourie Rice says she’s learning to let go of the opinions and expectations others have of her — not unlike her character, Cady Heron. “When I was 17, I had a really great year in terms of work and publicity, and it was my final year of high school and I graduated. And that felt like a really successful year for me. I think when you’re a young person working in the industry and you get success at a particular point in your life, there’s maybe a pressure to sort of stay at that point in your life,” she says. “[You think], ‘Oh, that’s when I got the most validation, therefore I should be like that always.'”
But Rice is looking to grow and sees how relying on external affirmation for her sense of self-worth could be holding her back. “For me, [I’m working on] releasing that constant need for validation because I got it so much at this particular point in my life,” she says. “I’m not 17 anymore.”
Stepping into the role of ultimate teen heartthrob Aaron Samuels came with similar pressures for Christopher Briney. But in playing Aaron, “I just tried to be Chris,” he says. “I really wanted to break free of expectations of what I thought people wanted to see when they see Aaron Samuels.”
It takes a special kind of environment to be able to foster so much freedom and vulnerability in the actors’ performances — and the cast says they felt supported by one another immediately.
“The friendships came easy. It was so easy, so fun to work with these people. I loved it so much,” Rice reminisces. “I think also we were all so committed to making the movie the best it could possibly be, and I learned a lot from both Jaquel and Auli’i. Auli’i stands up for herself so much. Jaquel is one of the funniest performers I know. And so just being in a room with these two people and learning so much from how they work and who they are was a treat.”
Spivey agrees. After all, he says, Fey set the tone from day one that the whole film is about high school — that you have to have fun for it to really translate. As he puts it, “It’s an actor’s dream to be able to step into a space and feel comfortable enough to play — and to play as much as you can and discover.”