Angourie Rice is ready for her ‘Mean Girls’ exam

Angourie Rice is ready for her ‘Mean Girls’ exam

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Four black-and-white photographs loom over Angourie Rice’s shoulder as the Australian actor logs on for a mid-December video chat from her Melbourne home. One image captures Santa Monica Pier in the early 20th century. Another shows an Old Hollywood studio lot. Below them sit images of a vintage Los Angeles gas station and the Hollywoodland sign in its full, 13-letter glory.

Rice, 23, has been exposed to the business side of Hollywood for nearly a decade, appearing in three Spider-Man films, booking a slew of prestige television gigs and, now, playing Cady Heron in the “Mean Girls” movie musical that hits theaters Friday. But she still struggles to reconcile the Southern California she romanticized as a child half a world away, while glued to “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Rebel Without a Cause” and “All About Eve,” with the sprawling metropolis she now experiences as a working adult.

“I don’t really understand how it functions as a city because it seems so scattered,” Rice says with a sincere blend of curiosity and consternation. “I’m just trying to figure out what L.A. means to me. Every time I go, I’m still confused.”

Rather than chalk up those feelings to culture clash, Rice remains fixated on uncovering the city’s soul. The Southern California-themed collage on her wall is one piece of that project. She also took it upon herself to recently read Ross Macdonald’s L.A.-set whodunit “The Zebra-Striped Hearse” and Joan Didion’s “The White Album,” a collection of essays that encapsulate 1960s California.

It’s a cerebral mind-set befitting a cerebral actor. Rice was 11 when she made her feature film debut in the Australian apocalyptic thriller “These Final Hours” and — in a dash of overachievement she relays with sheepish laughter — memorized not only her lines but the other actors’ dialogue, too. To this day, she still annotates her scripts the same way she would a book. This past fall, she published her first novel: “Stuck Up & Stupid,” a modern-day retelling of “Pride and Prejudice” she co-wrote with her mother. Rice also has used her book club podcast, “The Community Library,” to ruminate on hundreds of texts since launching the show in 2019.

End of carousel

“She’s thoughtful, she’s very thorough, and she’s studious,” says Reneé Rapp, who plays the queen bee bully Regina George in “Mean Girls.” “She’s taking things seriously, and I think it’s really reflected in her work.”

That intellectual outlook made Rice a natural fit for “Mean Girls” protagonist Cady, the calculus whiz portrayed by Lindsay Lohan in the Tina Fey-penned 2004 movie. This remake — adapted from the 2018 Broadway musical, which featured a book by Fey and score from Jeff Richmond and Nell Benjamin — also gives “Mean Girls” a social-media-fueled refresh that speaks to Rice’s generation. And the comedy’s fish-out-of-water premise, as Cady learns about high school cliques and quirks after moving from Kenya to Illinois, posed a fitting test for an Aussie actor who, as a teenager, spent many months away from home studying her craft on American movie sets.

“I love Cady because I connected a lot with her story of walking into an American high school setting and not understanding or knowing anything about how it worked,” Rice says. “I was in a movie called ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ — had no idea what homecoming was. So it’s one of those experiences that I really understand.”

Born in Sydney, largely raised in Perth and named after the New South Wales village of Angourie (pronounced “Anne-Gary”), Rice grew up with a theater director father and playwright mother who dutifully immersed both of their daughters in the arts. Music was particularly present: Rice’s father was in a band, and her mother enjoyed sitting at the piano, playing a selection from her musical theater songbook — think “Les Misérables,” “Little Shop of Horrors” and “West Side Story” — and encouraging the family to sing along. After school, Rice would follow her father to the rehearsal hall and, from time to time, find a quiet spot to watch “Mean Girls” on her portable DVD player.

Rice got her start as a child actor in Australia, working on commercials and low-budget films, then made her Hollywood breakthrough at age 13 as the whip-smart daughter of Ryan Gosling’s hapless private eye in the 2016 action-comedy “The Nice Guys.” She went on to play Peter Parker’s tightly wound classmate Betty Brant in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and reprised the role in the blockbuster sequels “Far From Home” and “No Way Home” — a spoiler-averse exercise in preserving on-set secrets that proved exhilarating, if isolating.

“It’s very exciting to see it on the other side,” Rice says. “But there’s something quite lonely about seeing something everywhere that you were a part of and knowing that you can’t share.”

Between Marvel Cinematic Universe voyages, Rice appeared in Sofia Coppola’s Southern Gothic drama “The Beguiled,” starred in a “Black Mirror” episode and honed a Delco accent for the murder mystery series “Mare of Easttown,” in which she portrayed the grief-stricken daughter of Kate Winslet’s titular detective. Although Rice showed off her vocal chops as a garage band singer in 2021’s “Mare” and a theater-loving teen in the 2023 limited series “The Last Thing He Told Me,” she still was surprised when Fey slipped into her inbox to discuss the lead role in the movie musical.

In an email to The Washington Post, Fey says she gravitated to Rice for the role of Cady — a goody-two-shoes who turns two-faced amid a plot to topple her high school’s social hierarchy — because of the “deep intelligence” she shares with the character. “Cady needs to be very smart,” explains Fey, who also wrote the new film and reprises her role as Cady’s calculus teacher. “Angourie really delivers that.” Co-directors Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr., meanwhile, relished Rice’s turn as a duplicitous straight-A student in the 2022 dramedy “Honor Society.” “When we saw that,” Jayne says, “we really were able to visualize her in the role as Cady.”

Rice charms in conversation, with agreeable earnestness and an uncanny knack for cracking herself up. While her on-screen personae tap into that inherent innocence, she also excels at inhabiting characters with an over-it edge and deep-seated insecurities — qualities that made her all the more prepared to ace her naive-to-nefarious “Mean Girls” exam.

Yet Rice hesitated to enroll at North Shore High. First, she had little formal training as a musician (even if she does play the violin and ukulele, and indulges in “Just Dance” on Xbox). The rest of the “Mean Girls” cast, on the other hand, is populated with vocal powerhouses such as “Moana’s” Auli‘i Cravalho, Tony nominee Jaquel Spivey and Rapp, the budding pop star who also played Regina on Broadway. Stepping into Lohan’s shoes to retell a cult-classic tale came with its own imposing spotlight.

“I knew so many people were going to be watching, and I was really nervous about that,” Rice says. “But I was working on the songs, and every time I sang a particular part in a song, I would get chills. I was like, ‘I want to chase that feeling. I want to keep doing that.’”

“Everybody is probably going to talk about how sweet she is,” Perez adds, “but I think we should also talk about how brave she was to take this role. The pink high heels you’ve got to stand on? Holy s—. Everything she did, she did it with such humility.”

Although Rice had the chance to see the stage show in Los Angeles last winter, days before she flew to New Jersey for filming, she decided against it. “It would be too much,” Rice remembers thinking. “I would see it and I would go, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing? I can’t do this. Look at them. Look at me.’”

But as Rapp notes, Rice “has a certain innocence that is her in real life just as much as it is on-screen.” So channeling Cady’s wholesome nature came honestly for an actor who spent her weekends baking treats to share on set and knitted herself a pink wool sweater to wear on Wednesdays (copying the movie’s characters). Ultimately, her naturalistic performance and serene singing center Jayne and Perez’s stylish, candy-colored spin on the “Mean Girls” mythos.

“We have all of these things that really bring this film down to earth and make it feel tactile and real,” Jayne says, “so that when we break out into these musical sequences, it feels like seeing the world of these characters in a break from reality. I think what Angourie brought to this film was that groundedness.”

As Rice turns the page, she admits to occasionally having an unreasonable obsession with wanting to do it all. Case in point: She recalls rushing to her mother in tears when, amid her burgeoning acting career, she had to drop math and French from her high school course load. (“I loved school,” Rice unsurprisingly acknowledges. “It was very important to me.”)

So, to manage her calendar, Rice has adopted “choose joy” as her mantra for 2024. That means spending all the time she can in Melbourne — she still hasn’t cracked Los Angeles, after all — while devouring more books, restocking the “Community Library” catalogue, taking a dance class or two, and completing her second novel.

Where does acting fit in that calculus? To the ever-deliberate Rice, it’s part of the equation — but not the only solution.

“I have this healthy fear of, ‘I might not get another job, ever,’” Rice says. “If I put all of my self-worth into my acting, I would be a very unhappy person if that was all taken away. So I need to find other things in my life that give me value. Maybe that’s why I baked bread every single weekend [while shooting “Mean Girls”] — because I was like, ‘I have control over this. I can make sure that this loaf is good.’

“You don’t know if you’re going to get the next big thing. You don’t know if you’re going to get an award. You don’t have control over it. But you do have control over choosing things that you love to do.”

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