It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years since the original “Mean Girls” movie tried to make fetch happen. Tina Fey’s adaptation of Rosalind Wiseman’s 2002 book “Queen Bees and Wannabe” became an instant classic and boosted the rising stars of Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams and Amanda Seyfried. It was then adapted into a stage musical that premiered on Broadway in 2018 with a script by Fey, music by Jeff Richmond and lyrics by Neil Benjamin. Now, that musical has been adapted back to the screen with first-time directors Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr. at the helm.
As everyone knows, “Mean Girls” tells the story of Cady Heron, a teen who goes from being homeschooled in Africa to attending a jungle of a different sort – high school in Chicago. The new version keeps the same iconic characters and introduces a new cast that makes the roles their own. School queen Regina George is now played by Reneé Rapp, who also played the role on Broadway, while Angourie Rice takes on the role of Cady. Hilariously dimwitted Karen — the role originated by Seyfried — is portrayed by Indian actor Avantika and insecure Gretchen is played by Bebe Wood. “Moana” star Auli’I Cravalho and Tony nominee Jaquel Spivey steal scenes as Janis and Damian, Cady’s new friends who also double as narrators. And Fey and Tim Meadows reprise their roles as school faculty from the first film.
The result is a vibrant, fun ride for a new generation that highlights the timelessness of the story. It’s made all the more impressive by the fact it marks the feature directorial debut for Jayne and Perez, who are married in real life. The two co-created “Quarter Life Poetry” and previously write and directed the short film “Less Than One,” in which Jayne also starred.
Warning: Spoilers for the new “Mean Girls” movie to follow!
This is a property that has touched so many people. What was your first encounter with “Mean Girls” and what did it mean to you?
Jayne: It came out when I was in high school, and it just became part of our language. My friends and I would, everything we would say is from “Mean Girls.” You could have an entire conversation just in “Mean Girls.” It’s a story that doesn’t speak down to teens, especially teen girls. It didn’t speak down to us or make our emotions feel silly and really made me feel seen.
Perez: It’s impossible not to see it. And it’s hit a chord for a long time. I don’t even know when I first saw it — I must have been in Canada. I moved around so much, I kind of felt like Cady.
Jayne: People always talk about what character they relate to, and we always say he was Cady because he was always the new girl!
Perez: It’s true. I identify very much with being the new kid and not knowing where to sit at a table.
If Arturo was Cady, I have to ask — Samantha, who were you?
Jayne: I think I was probably a mix between Cady and Damien because I was in theater. I also felt like Gretchen a lot of the time; I just wanted to fit in and be liked. But I think that’s the beauty of these characters — any which day, you can feel like any number of them.
Does anyone ever admit they’re Karen? Or maybe they don’t know?
Jayne: Karen has such great outfits and amazing makeup that part of me wishes I were Karen!
You’re right — and actually, Karen is pretty self-aware.
Perez: And sometimes I think Karen can be the smartest person in the room.
Jayne: Let’s all try to be more Karen in 2024!
In adapting a stage musical, you also knew changes had to be made in bringing this new iteration to the screen. What were some of those conversations about the songs to keep and cut?
Perez: There were countless conversations. And we tried many different things — nothing was safe. At one point we had cut “Apex Predator,” and we were like, “What are we doing?”
Jayne: Broadway is such a specific audience — it costs a lot to see a Broadway show and it’s only in New York or where it’s touring. We wanted to connect with as many teens as possible, and in order to do so we really had to update the palette of the musical and make it more pop or what teens would listen to. Jeff and the musicians did a great job in making it sound accessible and fresh. And some songs were just super Broadway, like “Stop.”
Perez: There were so many tears shed for “Stop.” That was the last one to go and it was really hard. I really wanted a crack at that.
Jayne: We love “Stop.” It’s a classic Broadway song and it plays so well on stage. But it wasn’t advancing the story. In cinema, you don’t have three hours. It has to be tight; it has to keep moving.
Was there anything you knew you wouldn’t cut?
Jayne: We were really adamant about keeping “Sexy” in, even though it doesn’t necessarily advance the plot.
Perez: You figured out a way to put a little bit of plot in the middle of the song so that they couldn’t touch it.
In the stage musical Regina has a line where she sings “I never weigh more than 115.” There was speculation over whether that line would be in the film, especially as Reneé has been upfront about her own struggles with body image. I noticed it is not in the film and was wondering what sort of conversations were had when updating material in a world where times have changed in the last 20 or even 5 years.
Perez: We had open, safe conversations about everything. I think we all knew the responsibility of the moment.
Jayne: It was important to us and everybody to update this in a way that resonates with teens now. Luckily, the way we speak about bodies has come such a long way. Things that flew back then would not fly now. Weight should absolutely not be tied to popularity or any of that. Those updates are really important. Also, Tina has two girls, and she has a really solid barometer for what flies these days.
Because it is a different time, you had to incorporate such things as social media and Tik Tok — was that fun? Did it require some research?
Jayne: Definitely. I’m not a huge Tik Tok person — for a while I followed this one baby who said, “thank you” and that was it. So we had to do a bit of field research. We actually went back and spoke to drama students at Art’s old school.
Perez: We’d have discussions about what high school is actually like. They told us some things that were… oh my God. It’s hard out there.
Jayne: I think the biggest thing is kids are nicer to each other’s faces now but vicious behind your back. And technology can make it hard — you see someone has read your text but they don’t respond. And you see them on social media and know they’re responding to other people but ignoring you.
Perez: Social media has made it hard. On Friday nights, I thought I wasn’t getting invited to things and that was hard enough. But now you can see it and know.
Jayne: But we all agreed we didn’t want to overdo it with technology. We didn’t want to have everyone on their phones all the time or constantly be using filters or tech. We wanted those moments to have impact when we did use them. So we looked for places to incorporate it into the film — like “Sexy” starts as a makeup tutorial.
I think the change that got the biggest gasp in my screening is a throwaway line that indicates Mr. Duvall and Ms. Norbury are a couple.
Jayne: That was all Tina and when she sent us those pages, I literally screamed. Arturo goes, “What’s wrong?”
Perez: I think I was in the other room, and I heard her gasp and I thought, “Something horrible has happened — or something amazing. I can’t tell which.”
Bringing back Tim Meadows and Tina Fey for their roles is hilarious — was that always the plan?
Perez: We always hoped Tina would sign on, but it took a little convincing. It wasn’t for sure going to happen but as the film started to come together and she saw what we were doing, I think she was like, “Oh shit, I actually want to be in this.” And Tina, from the beginning, wanted Tim Meadows back.
Speaking of bringing people back, Lindsey Lohan’s cameo is just perfect. Do you remember when you found out you were getting her?
Jayne: I don’t remember the exact moment, but I remember the feeling when I learned Lindsay was going to be a part of it. Everyone was so happy — there was a special energy that day.
What was that day on set like — did everyone show up, even if they weren’t called?
Perez: It was very NDA-heavy and only on a need-to-know basis. I think it had sprinkled to some of the cast. I actually do remember a couple people snuck in that day, now that I’m thinking of it.