If you were familiar with Reneé Rapp before she showed up on HBO Max’s The Sex Lives of College Girls, there’s a good chance you know about the extremely niche world of national high-school-musical awards competitions. Back in 2018, Rapp won at the Jimmy Awards (the year Vulture happened to cover them in depth), which led to her casting as Regina George in the Broadway musical of Mean Girls. When that show closed during the pandemic, Rapp started auditioning for film and TV roles and joined Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble’s college comedy as Leighton Murray, an uptight legacy student at the show’s fictional Ivy League–esque Essex College.
Leighton is a bit like an older Regina in her casual blonde meanness and tweed-forward wardrobe, but as the series begins, she’s also hiding in the closet, not telling her roommates or her family about her interest in women. Rapp, who is now 21, identifies as queer, and after a discussion with Noble about her own sexuality, she saw some of her experience reflected in her character’s. She spoke with Vulture about figuring out her identity alongside Leighton, shifting her career during the pandemic, and the surreality of getting the college experience entirely through pretending to go to college on TV.
You were performing in Mean Girls right up until Broadway shut down in March 2020. How long after the shutdown did you first hear about this show?
About a month and change into the pandemic, I had a call with my agent, who said, “Hey, you’ve been delayed to return to this show for a couple more months. I think you should start auditioning for TV and film.” I was like, “Cool, cool, are you sure I can do that level of acting?” I had no faith, but I was flattered that she thought I could do this. I did two self-tapes, didn’t get either one, and then the third one was for The Sex Lives of College Girls. I believe I got that in June 2020, and I’ve been with the show now for quite a long time.
When you were auditioning, did you imagine you would eventually go back to Mean Girls? It wasn’t announced that the musical wouldn’t return until this January.
I had no idea. My dream, once College Girls worked out, was that I would go back and do a couple more shows and finish out Mean Girls. I know that’s a perfect-case scenario, and I had gotten permission to film College Girls from Tina Fey and Lorne Michaels and the whole Mean Girls team. The day Mean Girls closed, I was on the phone with some of my friends from the show, and I lost it. I was an emotional wreck. I didn’t realize the emotional gravity it had on me. It really shaped me.
It does feel like Leighton is a slightly older version of Regina George if she had never learned the lessons she learned in Mean Girls. Did you approach playing her in a similar way?
I’d love to tell you I’m a methodical, actor-savvy, book-reading bitch, but I’m so not. I was just like, I know she is struggling with her identity, and I know what that experience looks like and feels like and how it has shaped my life. I know Leighton is brash and has a lot of tendencies similar to Regina, but it was really just an approach of “Do it as it happens and see where it goes from there.” That was helpful because I am still technically college-age and, I guess, still in college. A lot of these things we’re talking about on College Girls I’m experiencing in real time.
A big part of Leighton’s arc is her figuring out her sexuality. What was it like to figure out how to play that in real time?
I thought it would be the thing I knew because I came out when I was pretty young and was fortunate to have a group of friends who, all six of us, ended up being queer in some form. I don’t know how that happened in the middle of North Carolina, but I owe a lot of my comfort in my identity to my friends Justin and Eliana. But that part of Leighton, which I thought would be what I knew, ended up being the most difficult. It was like vomiting out my deepest, darkest fears about my own internalized homophobia. It made for some very emotional days.
Our showrunner and EP Justin Noble was very graceful and would sit down with me and Midori Francis, who plays Leighton’s love interest, Alicia, and say, “As two young queer women, how do we model this to fit your lives and experiences?” So a lot of those Leighton lines with her saying things like “I just want to be me. I don’t want to be the gay cousin,” those were hard for me to say because those are exactly my words. I’m actually quite excited for my family and people to see that because I tend to think I came out when I was younger and I’m comfortable now, but I realized I’ve avoided a lot of those tough conversations.
How would you prefer to identify your sexuality?
I usually just use the term queer. I’m 21, and there will be days that I go to my partner and be like, “We need to have a conversation because I think I’m this.” And then I’ll come back and be like, “No, I’m this.” It’s a queer, evolving story. What I think is beautiful about this younger generation is that we have more grace about finding your identity and how these things change and loving that part of yourself. Filming this was tough in the best way, and the reason I was most excited for the show ended up being the most difficult thing. But I feel very able to openly explore that part of myself in the conduit of a comedy series. I can still laugh about my trauma. Like, that sucks, but it’s funny in the way we deliver it!
You said you were “technically in college.” Are you in a program?
I’m not. Life is my collegiate experience at the moment, and let me tell you, it is kicking my butt. I’ve never been one to thrive in structural education settings. I decided college was not the best fit for me when I was 18.
What does it feel like to be acting out college life on a TV show, separate from actually experiencing it?
I was just talking to Alyah Chanelle Scott, who plays Whitney, about it, and she went to the University of Michigan and had the whole state-school, party, find-yourself experience. I don’t regret the decision not to go, but I do feel like it would have been fun to have a grace period of four years to figure myself out, as opposed to figuring it out in real time while playing a college girl who is herself not figured out. That does make me envy the college experience. I want to, like, rage! And I never did that because I started working at Mean Girls and the pandemic hit and now we’re here. So I’m ready to rage if anybody wants to.
A lot of the show depends on you and your co-stars having a realistic roommate dynamic. When did you all meet?
We met over Zoom in October 2020. We finally got together in person that December. We were in masks, six feet apart, in this hotel in Burbank where we were staying. It was really jarring! But it has proved to be a thing that brought us together because as you see our characters meeting onscreen, we were meeting and getting to know each other in real life. The only time we spent together was on set. We weren’t allowed to hang out with each other outside of work and then when we finally were, we were so damn tired we couldn’t do anything.
Was there a moment when you felt things really clicked?
I turned 21 in January, and we all got together secretly — well, it’s not secret anymore. Amrit Kaur, who plays Bela, and Pauline Chalamet, who plays Kimberly, made me dinner, and Alyah baked a cake for all of us. It was very special. I knew then that these people were good friends.
You’ve obviously sung a lot professionally. Do you imagine Leighton has a good singing voice?
If you took her to a karaoke bar with two Tito’s shots and two limes, you would get the most beautiful rendition of “If I Were a Boy” by Beyoncé. She’s the kind of person who’s like, It’s not really my thing, but let me walk over to the mic and tear it up. I would love for that to happen. Also, Alyah can sing her ass off, so I think Whitney and Leighton should have an aggressive duet.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.