Owning Her Power: Reneé Rapp, Regina George, and Compassionate Strength

Originally published on Dramatics.org
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No one can accuse Reneé Rapp of method acting. The emerging star of Broadway’s Mean Girls, who brings the scheming Queen Bee Regina George to life onstage, wore a huge smile when she walked into the New York coffeeshop to meet me for Dramatics. Despite having never met me before, she embraced me in a warm hug.

And, though it was Wednesday, she was not wearing pink.

That’s not to say Rapp isn’t committed to her character. When onstage, the Thespian alum embodies Regina — her duplicitous friendships, her calculated manipulations, and her determination to control everyone and everything around her.

Revisiting high school isn’t much of a stretch for Rapp. The actress graduated from Charlotte’s Northwest School of the Arts, home of Thespian Troupe 5634, one year before making her Broadway debut, stepping into Regina George’s high heels at 19 years old. Rapp stood in for original star and Tony nominee Taylor Louderman for three weeks in June, before returning to the role full time in September.

SUDDENLY A STAR

Rapp’s launch to Broadway stardom was swift and startling. But the newly minted leading lady seemed anything but a prima donna. She appeared calm and grounded — though she confessed to being highly caffeinated and feeling like she hasn’t slept in weeks.

Rapp began performing at the age of 4, giving concerts to her family and neighbors in front of her fireplace. She loves soulful pop music, listening to Aretha Franklin and Erykah Badu, Whitney Houston and Beyoncé. Roles in high school theatre — Big Fish (Sandra Bloom), Urinetown (Pennywise), and All Shook Up (Miss Sandra) — followed, with induction into the Thespian Society in 2017. That same year, Rapp traveled to the International Thespian Festival, where she got to meet Thespians from across the U.S. and attempt her first college audition. “I fell flat on my face,” she remembered, quickly adding that the experience taught her how to manage pressure. “That was such a good precursor to college auditions and now auditioning professionally.”

A pivotal moment for Rapp came at the June 2018 National High School Musical Theatre Awards, commonly referred to as the Jimmy Awards. Despite being sick — she claimed there are photographs of her in sweatpants lying on the floor backstage — she won Best Actress for her performance of “When It All Falls Down” from the musical Chaplin. “It was when the Jimmys happened that I was like, ‘I would like to pursue this.’ Before that, I don’t think I ever thought I would be doing this as a profession,” she said, but performing on a national stage felt “so right and so good.”

SO FETCH

That feeling followed Rapp to the audition room for the musical adaptation of Mean Girls. After just three weeks of rehearsals, Rapp made her Broadway debut, wheeled onstage while standing atop a cafeteria table, with two fawning classmates by her side.

“I was squeezing my thigh muscles as hard as I could!” Rapp said of her first moments onstage, when naïve new student Cady gets her first glimpse of the all-powerful Queen Bee. “Being wheeled out on that table is either hit or miss. It’s hard to stay stable.”

That moment was “pretty unreal,” Rapp recalled. “Up until that point I was like, ‘Go, go, go, and don’t think about it.’ It was a huge moment for me in my career and really in my life. It was a game changer.”

Rapp was taking on a role that has been in the pop culture canon ever since Rachel McAdams first brought it to life in Tina Fey’s 2004 film. The name Regina George is now synonymous with plotting and scheming, double-edged compliments, and the often quoted “Get in, loser, we’re going shopping” and “Whatever, I’m getting cheese fries.”

Following her entrance, Regina introduces herself, coolly informing listeners, “I don’t care who you are. I don’t care how you feel.” She is true to her words, manipulating friends and bullying classmates without batting a perfectly mascaraed eyelash. But the teenage tyrant is more than a spiteful girl with a bad attitude. Bringing Regina to life involved thought and reflection — and for Rapp, it’s personal.

“I think Regina comes across as an easy track. You’re going onstage, being a little sassy, and walking off. But behind the stage, Regina is really hard to do, because you have to be the most confident person in the room at all times. If I’m feeling anything less than 100 percent, it is the hardest thing in the world to go onstage and act like that. But it also has taught me a lot about Regina tendencies.”

Rapp is no stranger to the Regina Georges of the world. Bullying through group texts and social media started when Rapp was still in fifth grade, and it continued into high school, sometimes targeting Rapp or her friends. Rapp instinctively wanted to “fix everything.” She turned to her mother for support and was encouraged to stay out of it. Rapp remains close with her family today, Facetiming with them before each performance or during intermission.

But she’s not drawing on anger or resentment to play Regina. Instead, Rapp said she understands that everyone — including herself — struggles with insecurities and acts out at times, “whether we want to admit it or not.” Examining the motivations behind bullying behavior has also taught her resilience and enabled her to create her own closure for unhealthy situations. “I can understand nobody’s doing this because they feel great about themselves,” she said.

Regina’s prowess is in full effect in the song “Apex Predator,” as she struts through the mall with her entourage of Plastics by her side. Cady, unfamiliar with the politics of girl groups, begins to grasp just who has befriended her while a cowering chorus describes Regina as “queen of the beasts,” someone who can smell her classmates’ fear and inspire them to “sweat and pant and shake.”

Rapp seizes on the song to demonstrate just how calculating Regina is. To her, there’s no doubt that Regina knows exactly what she’s doing when she belittles and dominates others. “I wanted to be very clear for my sake and also for other people’s sake who are watching: This is someone who is completely aware of just how rude she is and who is carefully manipulating every little thing about herself and the people around her to try and make herself feel better.”

This clarity is important to Rapp because of how many young girls and teenagers see the musical. Rapp explained that if Regina were not so self-aware, those audience members might think her actions were acceptable or, at least, excusable. “It’s hard to understand because it hurts,” Rapp said, “but that’s something I wanted to come across with her character: She is intelligent in a really manipulative and bad way. This girl will hunt you down because she feels bad about herself.”

Tapping into Regina’s insecurities makes Rapp more mindful of relationship dynamics. “It makes me want to treat people better, going onstage and being so vicious every single night.” She recognizes how Regina-like patterns can sneak into real-life situations, if on a less theatrical scale. “I feel so much more aware of myself because sometimes when you’re feeling bad about yourself, you put that on somebody else, and that’s not fair.”

BEING A BOSS

Mean Girls opened on Broadway during the rush of the Me Too and Times Up movements, as women began publicly claiming their power in unforeseen ways. Rapp referenced a part of the play when Cady expresses remorse for her dirty tricks, and Regina cuts her off, saying, “Never apologize for being a boss.” Despite Regina’s vicious tendencies, this line retains a message that Rapp hopes resonates with the audience.

While she does not condone Regina’s unwillingness to hold herself accountable for toxic behavior, Rapp does think that line raises important points about owning one’s personal power — which Cady learns to apply in a more positive way. “I think it’s a really great piece of advice,” Rapp said. “I see little girls at the stage door every night who are so enamored with the story and the show. And every single young girl I see, I say, ‘Have a great night, and don’t ever let anybody tell you what to do or how to feel.’”

Recalling moments when she doubted her worth and felt forced to qualify, justify, or excuse herself needlessly, Rapp savors these opportunities to encourage young audience members to stop withdrawing. She credits a strong support system of family and friends with helping her realize that she is better off being herself. For Rapp, that means singing Beyoncé instead of a sweet love ballad, and even recording her own EP, a blend of R&B and classic pop that Rapp describes as a soundtrack to the past year of her life. It means owning and embracing her body — her height, her weight, and her voice. And it means bringing her authentic self to the audition room.

Rapp admitted that, at first, she wanted to mimic other girls’ audition styles and be “a tiny little girl in a dress and character shoes.” But she realized she performed better — and got jobs — when she felt like herself. “When you’re just trying to be your most vulnerable self, that’s exactly what people want in an audition room,” she said.

Rapp arrived at both Mean Girls auditions wearing jeans, a graphic T-shirt, leather boots, and a blazer (black the first time, pink the second). “I’m not a little Disney princess musical theatre girl. I’m a tall girl. I’m a bigger girl. I don’t have a tiny little voice. I have a very loud voice. I stay true to myself since I graduated high school.”

She hopes younger actors will do the same. “Whatever you identify as or whatever you don’t identify as, do not let anyone limit the world that you create for yourself. That is unrealistic. Don’t bring anybody down if you’re feeling bad about yourself. Understand how to lift yourself up. Dress how you want. Never apologize for being a boss.”

 

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