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Four women share a dorm room — and freshman year escapades — in Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble’s new HBO Max comedy, The Sex Lives of College Girls. One woman in the quartet is the unavoidable mean girl in the bunch: Leighton, a wealthy blonde who constantly and haughtily makes it be known that she considers everyone else barely worthy of her time and attention.
Playing her is Reneé Rapp, an up-and-coming talent who already had perfected her mean-girl chops portraying Regina George in the Broadway musical version of Mean Girls.
“I think with Leighton, you love to hate her,” says Rapp, 21, who brings snide with a side of funny to the role in The Sex Lives of College Girls, which premiered on Nov. 18 and drops new episodes Nov. 25.
“Leighton’s a very bigoted girl who comes from a very rich and wealthy family on the Upper East Side of New York,” continues Rapp of her character. “Her experience going to college is that for the first time, she’s out of the comfort of her own home and her own situation and being able to walk into every room and have agency and have space. For the first time, that’s being challenged a bit.”
Leighton is also hiding a personal secret that she continues to grapple with as the season progresses. “You kind of start to see her unravel in a way,” says Rapp. “That’s very scary for her but kind of cathartic to watch — because this person needs to be rocked. She doesn’t make great decisions nor is she necessarily a kind person. But as you start to peel back some of the layers, hopefully she becomes not as judgmental as she has been in the past.”
Rapp grew up in Huntersville, North Carolina, outside of Charlotte, and acted in high school theater productions before eventually moving to New York, where she won the part in Mean Girls. She played the role from mid-2019 until March 2020, when Broadway shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was later announced that Mean Girls would not re-open on Broadway when theatrical productions in New York resumed.
She auditioned for Sex Lives a few weeks after her time in Mean Girls came to an end. “It was a long, lengthy process of callbacks and [meetings] over Zoom in the middle of the pandemic,” recalls Rapp, who won the part in September of last year and shot the series over the course of nearly six months, both on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank and in upstate New York at Vassar College. “It’s a gorgeous campus. I was living out my Hogwarts dream,” she adds.
Rapp talked to The Hollywood Reporter about working on the HBO Max series, moving to Los Angeles from New York, and her love of music.
How do you like L.A.?
I’m growing to love it. It’s interesting. I’m from North Carolina and I know now that I found the North Carolina in L.A. because I live in sleepy little Burbank, which is amazing, but also sometimes I never leave my house.
How would you describe the show for someone who hasn’t seen it yet?
It’s literally chaos. It’s a very chaotic, messy portrayal of four women’s lives in college for the first time out of the house. I think you get to see there are wins and losses, and a lot of times you get to see their losses raw and in real time. It’s just a fucking mess.
Did you and your three lead castmates, Pauline Chalamet, Amrit Kaur, Alyah Chanelle Scott, become close?
We’ve known each other at this point so long, and we’ve truly grown up together it feels like. Some of my favorite memories are of messing around, and I know that’s not really productive necessarily to the show or the work process. We formed an a capella group. When the four of us would start to get really delirious at 4 a.m., we would walk up to the crew and say, “Do you want to hear our song? Yeah? No?” And we would do it anyway.
Was that just a onetime thing or did this little singing group keep going?
We were pestering people and being a bit annoying. It ended up working out in our favor as it just made us closer. We started out with “You Are My Sunshine.” And it became a thing. I would ask our DP, “Can we sing the clappers? Take one, take two, three.” And then we would start singing those. That’s when people started to get really annoyed. We started to sing everything.
What was Mindy Kaling like to work with?
She’s a powerhouse. Whenever you see someone who is a comedy icon, you see how effing funny she is. And meeting her for the first time, I was taken aback by how much of a businesswoman she is too. She has a very palpable energy and she owns the room.
Did you have any intimacy coordinators on set for the sex scenes?
Yes, we had an intimacy coordinator, Kelly Flynn, who we would all probably agree is crucial to the show and its success and our mental health and well-being. Kelly was always there with us, talking us through everything on the phone with us days before we would film something. And for me that was really helpful. I have a lot of anxiety, and I would have days where I would be very nervous and Kelly would be very receptive and say, “Hey if this is not the day to do it, it’s not the day.” And that made me more comfortable to film the scene, knowing I was in good hands and had someone to look out for me.
You’re also pursuing your music career in addition to the show?
Yes. My music career is why I moved to New York in the first place. I love pop R&B. That’s my first love. I’ve been singing since I was in diapers, and I used to host shows for my family and I would get on the coffee table and ask everybody to be quiet and I would sing.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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