Reneé Rapp on wanting to be "bisexual Justin Bieber" and what she wants for her Sex Lives of College Girls character Leighton
It wasn’t exactly Renée Rapp’s plan to become an actress — she wanted to be Beyoncé. But growing up in Huntersville, North Carolina, she took every opportunity she could to be on stage — that meant transitioning into musical theater. She even won a 2018 Jimmy Award, the National High School Musical Theatre Award. But when it was time to consider her future, her parents gave her two choices: go to college or get a job. She returned with a structured plan. “I’m going to transfer to musical theater school. I’m going to try and get a job working on Broadway. I’ll live in New York, I will do music there, and that’s what I’m going to do,” she recalls over Zoom from her home in Los Angeles. Not only did she do it, but she made her Broadway debut as Regina George in Tina Fey’s adaptation of Mean Girls. Not bad for a first-time role.
Her time as Regina was cut short by the pandemic, but it wasn’t long until she booked a role on her first TV series — HBO Max’s college comedy The Sex Lives of College Girls. For the past two seasons, she’s played fan-favorite Leighton Murray, a snobby, well-to-do lesbian who has been coming to terms with her sexuality. Though Rapp identifies as bisexual, she says, “A lot of [Leighton’s] journey is reflected in my life, specifically because it’s coming from me.”
Read more: The reinvention of Dove Cameron
While The Sex Lives of College Girls has been taking off, Rapp’s music career has been percolating, as well. In November, she released her debut EP Everything to Everyone, and since then, her catchy post-breakup anthem “Too Well” has earned upwards of 12 million Spotify streams. And Rapp is just getting started. “I’ve been just kind of plotting my whole life to do this,” she laughs.
In an interview with AltPress, Rapp talks about her dream storyline for Leighton, wanting a collaboration with Frank Ocean, and finding romance in her TikTok DMs.
So you wanted to be a musician before you wanted to be an actress, right?
Yes. 100% I never thought I was going to be an actor. I thought I was a horrible actor. I was so worried every single day of Season 1 [of The Sex Lives of College Girls]. I was like, “I’m getting fired from this job.” I haven’t been fired — a huge win for us.
Your songs straddle R&B (“In the Kitchen”) and alt-pop (“Too Well”). Do you have a specific genre direction you’re leaning toward moving forward?
I’m trying to do exactly in between. I would like to have my own lane to do that. I feel so incredibly influenced by R&B. Pop ballads do nothing for me. R&B ballads do. But intricate pop writing does a lot for me, so it’s kind of in the middle. I definitely want to lean more toward not pop production on my project. Like, I don’t want anything to feel hella vanilla. That’s so tired to me.
“Too Well” is quite pop-leaning, and it’s become such a hit.
The first six months, I said, “There’s no motherfucking way that that song is ever seeing the light of day.” Now it’s out, and it’s the single. [It’s] the song everybody likes, which everybody told me would happen. Everybody was like, “This is what’s gonna happen.” I’ve heard Ariana Grande hates her biggest songs, so I was like, “Well, I’m fine.”
Do you still hate it?
I’ve been told not to say that I hate it, so I love it.
What’s your songwriting process like?
All my friends joke, “We need updates on Reneé every 12 hours,” because there’s so much shit going on emotionally. Maybe I just put myself through horrific situations on purpose, which I’m actually super okay with. My breakup bought me a car. I’m good on it. Like, I’ll go through another one. Not really, but … everything is a mess right now. That’s okay.
Which artists are you most inspired by?
Kacey Musgraves has a huge influence [on me] songwriting-wise, even though she’s a country artist. She’s just a storyteller.
To be honest, my pitch when I wanted to get signed to Interscope was: “I want to be bisexual Justin Bieber.” So I’m trying to do that, but in a younger era — his “R&Bieber” era, but a little more girly. I’m really just taking it from a lot of shit and trying to make my own little lane in it. Somebody who did that so well is Billie Eilish. She took the things that she loves — alternative music, pop music, and hip hop — and was like, “I’m creating my own lane.” That is exactly what I want to do.
In terms of music, have you started working on an album yet?
Yeah, I’m working on an album right now, and then we’ll hopefully tour this summer.
You’ve been getting a lot of flirty TikTok duets and propositions. Have any of them worked out?
Are you in a relationship with one of them?
I have no idea. It wasn’t a public proposition. A lot of the public propositions scare me. That’s like a little joke because then they get taken too seriously.
[The Sex Lives of College Girls / Courtesy of Katrina Marcinowski/HBO Max]
Onto The Sex Lives of College Girls — how did you land the role of Leighton?
It was May or June of 2020. I got an email from agents that were like, “Hey, you should audition for this.” I had only done two or three self-tapes before then for acting, and they weren’t good — at all. To be clear, my audition for The Sex Lives of College Girls wasn’t good, either. I saw a breakdown of the role and I was like, “Ah, a bitch. Yes, my type.” Then I saw that the bitch was gay, and I was like, “Yes! That makes me want to do this,” because that wasn’t a part of my life that was public. It was to people who knew me and knew me intimately, but also at the time, I was in a relationship with a man. So if I wasn’t talking about being gay, nobody knew that I was, right? Because that’s not how I was perceived. So I sent in a video in June, and then I was pinned for the role a couple of days after. I was on hold for the role for a few months, then I did a callback, and then I got the job. It was just all on Zoom.
How much of your journey as a bisexual woman has been reflected on the show?
Oh, my God, everything. A lot of this stuff is so parallel to my life. The only difference is Leighton identifies as a lesbian. But even being a bisexual woman, I’ve totally had sex with men where I’m like, “This should end — soon.” I’ve been in relationships with men for years on end, and I still felt that way.
Have any specific scenarios from season 1 or season 2 been taken from your real life and into the writers’ room?
No, but at the same time, my friends all joke that I’m a “method actor” and I don’t know it. Because whatever Leighton is going through, I actually do end up going through. Like, this entire last season, I had my whole “ho era.” I didn’t have chlamydia, but I had a “ho era.” I had a “ho year,” it was great. But I feel like anything she’s going through, I’m going through, so maybe I’m more of an actor than I think.
Leighton’s preppy style has been a dominant force on the show, and you said in an interview “no more plaid” for her. Are we going to see a style evolution next season?
I want that. Is that going to happen? Probably not. I’m so particular about the clothes that I wear. I just wish she had some swag. Sometimes she dresses like a fucking 50-year-old woman in the 1960s and I’m like, “If that’s your vibe, buy into it.” But I’m personally not buying it. I would like a little bit of a shift. Also, cunty lesbians I know don’t dress like that. I am not Hillary Clinton. I have the same white woman effect, but no. It is as if Nancy Reagan was a lesbian.
Do you have any idea what direction Leighton’s storyline will take next season?
I mean, if it was up to me, she would end up being a songwriter. She would study abroad in France, would fall in love with some French girl, and she would become a pop star. Then, she would retire, have kids, move to Nantucket, and do something weird and cute. That being said, nobody listens to my ideas. I don’t know.
[The Sex Lives of College Girls / Courtesy of Katrina Marcinowski/HBO Max]
Who’s your least favorite Sex Lives of College Girls character?
God, it changes so much. My favorite is [Gracie Dzienny’s character] Tatum. I know she fucked up, but I’m rooting for her comeback. My least favorite is anyone who hurts Alyah [Chanelle Scott’s character Whitney]. Anyone who has ever come for Whitney, you’re on my fucking list, and that list is running deep.
You’re set to reprise your role as Regina George in Mean Girls, but not on Broadway. How do you feel about it being made into a musical film?
I think we can all probably agree that musical movies can be so incredibly redundant. I’m not blind to that, nor do I disagree. I think we’re lacking so much original work. The cool thing about Mean Girls — what makes me want to do it and what makes me excited for it — is Mean Girls was such a big part of my childhood. It was such an influential movie to me as a kid because I was 3 when it came out. It was something to the generation before me, it is something to my generation and I think that this Mean Girls era is what it will be in a musical version to my generation. I hope that’s what it is. I just want it to be cunty and hot.
When it comes to music and acting, who do you dream of collaborating with?
I want to write and do a song with Frank Ocean. I want to do something with Jazmine Sullivan. Ideally, one day I want to do something with Beyoncé. I want to write with Kacey Musgraves. I want to meet Justin Bieber, but I’m too afraid.
I want to maybe do a full movie one day, but after I’ve won a Grammy. Then I want to do an A24 film that somebody crazy directs. Maybe I’ll do an A24 film that Alyah [Chanelle Scott from The Sex Lives of College Girls] directs, actually. That’s my goal.