Interview: In Mean Girls Movie-Musical, Auli'i Cravalho Breaks the Mold as Janis

The actor talks about redefining Mean Girls for a new generation while preserving its biting humor and heart.

Auli’i Cravalho doesn’t need your permission. By being versatile, imaginative, and standing on her own terms, she’s proving she can take any role and turn it into an enduring cultural touchstone. Rising to popularity in Disney’s Moana, Cravalho has benefited from the confluence of a screen and stage career in Prime Video’s The Power opposite Toni Collette, Hulu’s Crush, Sunset Boulevard at the Kennedy Center, and Evita in Concert in the West End to name a few. This month, she takes on one of her most significant projects as an adult yet: redefining Mean Girls for a new generation as Janis, the wounded and wry misfit narrator of the Tina Fey movie-musical.

The new film features an updated script that successfully integrates songs from the 2018 Broadway show and often breaks the fourth wall, making it all tart but sweet. Cravalho is an undeniable standout with her supercharged vocals, which are at their best when showcasing the hurt behind Janis’s disdain.

TheaterMania caught up with Cravalho to discuss getting to know her character, what working with Fey taught her about leadership, the experience of playing the courageous Janis, and more.

Mean Girls
Jaquel Spivey plays Damian, Angourie Rice plays Cady and Auli’i Cravalho plays Janis in Mean Girls from Paramount Pictures.
(© Jojo Whilden/Paramount)

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

One of the biggest differences between the original film and this one is that Janis is now one of the narrators. Did that affect your process as an actor or pose any challenges?
This film is an amalgamation of the classic and the musical that was on Broadway. Luckily, we now get to sing our feelings. The music itself gives us a deeper look into each one of the characters, and I loved that process. I was able to get even deeper and really figure out who Janis was. Being the narrator of the story between Janis and Damian [Jaquel Spivey] was really special. We start the film with this gorgeous one-take that begins by saying this is a cautionary tale. And if you try to climb the ladder of this high school hierarchy, you might just get burned. You’re along for the ride.

Actors often infuse their characters with secrets. Was that the case with Janis, and if so, is there something you feel comfortable sharing?
The background that I did on Janis was that she is in a single-parent household. She grew up with just her dad, which means that she doesn’t understand the female cattiness that sometimes goes on. “I’m just like, oh, I can compliment you, but it’s backhanded.” She’s like, “Say what you mean. I can’t read you right now.”

Another thing I imbued was the background between Janis and Regina. Regina was a bad friend and called her lesbian, but my inner hurt was that Janis did have a crush on Regina. The fact that Regina threw that right back meant there would be hell to pay, which is why she’s so dead-set on revenge.

Janis is a promising visual artist, so did you resort to anything visual to make the character your own?
Thank you for bringing that up! Yes, Janis has a very specific art style in this film. She sews on top of her paintings, and I won’t spoil it, but the visual of that is that the fabric is like feelings, and she’s etching her feelings into her artwork. To get myself into character, I was graciously given a lot of freedom with my makeup. I worked with my makeup artist, George, so you will see that I have some crazy eyeliner, glitter, and rhinestones.

Auli’i Cravalho as Janis in a promotional poster for Mean Girls
(© Paramount Pictures)

I saw that and thought, “I need to up my makeup game when I interview Auli’i.”
[Laughs] It’s just fun, and Janis is also in high school. This is the time to play. And something that I really admire about her is that she knows who she is. She would rather sit alone or sit with her best friend Damian than have to fit in with the cliques or fit in with, God forbid, the Plastics. So, there was a lot of leeway, and it helped me get into character.

Janis’a big moment with I’d Rather Be Me shows her self-awareness and highlights the importance of having a safe forum to discuss feelings and shameful secrets. What’s a lesson from the film that your younger self would be happy to embrace?
If I had an anthem like “I’d Rather Be Me” in high school, I would absolutely be belting that out. Janis has a unique perspective on high school. She knows that life is bigger than this, and when you’re in high school, everything is so important, like, “Who are my friends? What does it mean? What clique do I belong to and just show that maturity?” With “I’d Rather Be Me,” I also got to flip the bird a lot, which was very fun. So, from an hourly standpoint, I was like, I did that so much that the line producer had to be like, “Please tone it down. Otherwise, we’re writing from PG-13 to the next one, like we can only have so many.”

Did working with Tina Fey make you reflect on how to be a better artist and leader?
I’ll tell you a little bit about her. She speaks in a quieter voice, which is a power move on set because it’s so hectic, but everyone needs to lean in and quiet the work to hear her, which is a boss move. So, I learned a lot from Tina. Not only do you know from her incredible comedic timing, but she also has an ease and a deadpan delivery that’s funny every single time, so I loved watching her work in that aspect. But she also curated a lot of powerful women on that set. We had Samantha Jayne, one of the directors, and Mary-Mitchell [Campbell] on music across the board. I could find people to go to to feel safe and to ask questions. I always feel safer and am more likely to ask questions when other women are on set.