Twenty years ago, a movie called Mean Girls fundamentally shifted pop culture with its countless quotable lines and deeply honest depiction of what it’s like to be a high school girl. Since then, the movie has been adapted into a Tony-nominated Broadway musical, which has now been adapted into another film.
One of the stars of this new movie musical is Bebe Wood, an actress and musician who’s taking on the role of Gretchen Wieners. Wood spoke with Observer about everything from working with Tina Fey to the process of bringing a song to life on camera, and if her enthusiasm is any indication, Mean Girls is sure to be totally fetch.
You’re 22, so you basically grew up with the original Mean Girls. How would you characterize the movie’s impact on you? Was there ever a time when you weren’t aware of it?
I was three or four when the original came out, so I think it’s always just been a staple. Mean Girls represents high school. Even though we were just small tots, it’s a pillar for our childhoods and our teenhoods and our lives, just in a different way. When it was time for me to approach high school at least, I was still turning to Mean Girls.
You play Gretchen Wieners, and given that this is a multilayered adaptation, you have a few performances to look up to. How much inspiration did you take from Lacey Chabert’s Gretchen in the original movie versus Ashley Park’s Gretchen on Broadway, or any of the other Broadway Gretchens?
Sadly, I never actually saw the Broadway musical! So when I auditioned for our musical adaptation, I was actually pretty unfamiliar with the music in general. Of course, I watched my fair share of YouTube videos to see Ashley Park’s portrayal, and obviously Lacey Chabert is just such an icon. Lacey’s performance felt untouchable, as well as Ashley’s. I wouldn’t ever want to invade those performances, but you want to honor the past, and you want to honor the character. I think Tina [Fey] is just such an incredible writer that the character speaks for herself, she’s written so well and so much of her personality is hidden within the text itself. So much of my job as an actor is already done for me just by working with Tina.
I didn’t want to overthink it, because that’s such an easy thing to do. It’s so easy to be freaking out a little bit. The trap that one can fall into is overanalyzing “How can I make my performance different?” and you stray entirely from the character. I just wanted to put an emphasis on staying true to the character, honoring the Gretchens of the past, and trusting that I will make it my own.
What was the audition process like?
I got an email asking me to send in a tape, and I was thrilled to see Tina’s name on the project. I had worked with her in the past, so I was so thrilled by the idea of working with her again. I put myself on tape with my coach, and that was it really. I just sent it in off into the void, as so often is the case as an actor. More often than not, you just never hear anything! I didn’t hear for months, and then I got an email that was like, “Hey what are you doing tomorrow? Can you meet with the directors of Mean Girls on Zoom?”
I logged on, and the first person I saw was Tina. It was kind of a magical moment, because she was my first scene partner as a professional actor ten years prior [in 30 Rock]. She said, “Hey Bebe, do you remember me?” and I was like, “I’m so confused, but of course I remember you! How and why do you remember me?” It just went really well, it was such a good meeting. I was so moved by my meeting her again, also during such a milestone moment. It was literally around ten years to the day of my becoming a professional actor, so it was really special to share that moment with her. I never thought I would get the part, and then a couple days later I get the call.
You get your own solo song in the film, “What’s Wrong With Me?” What was that process like, from recording to filming?
It was super cool! Our music team is incredible. I went into the studio, we recorded “What’s Wrong With Me?” a couple times, and then I asked them what the filming set up was going to be like, if there was going to be choreography. It was going to be one of the only numbers that was a little smaller, so I asked if we could do it live on the day, because there wouldn’t be a lot of movement, and they said, ‘Let’s do that!’ We tossed the recording that we had, they put together an amazing track, and on the day I wore a little earwig and they played all of the music in my ear. I just sang it live. Because it’s so intimate, it’s so raw, it’s really a window into Gretchen’s internal world, it felt like if we could do it live, we should do it live. And we did, and it was great, and it was a really lovely challenge. Of course, it’s daunting to know that whatever you’re singing is just how it is in the movie, but I’m really happy we did it that way.
Mean Girls was initially going to be a streaming release limited to Paramount+, but now we get to have it in theaters. Are you excited to have it be an experience where people can enjoy it with a crowd?
Absolutely. While we were filming it, I was like, “This should really be in the theater . . .” It’s so cinematic, the way it’s shot is just so unique and innovative and cool. Ari Robbins, our camera operator, was the camera operator for La La Land, so visually, imagine all of the cool things that can come from his hands. He really is a genius on the Steadicam. One of our directors was saying that they want the camera to feel like a character in this story, and I think that’s so cool. I’m excited that people can see that on the big screen, because it really pulls you in. It’s going to make the experience so much cooler for people who are big fans of the original, big fans of the musical, or maybe even have no affiliation with Mean Girls whatsoever. It’s captivating.
Mean Girls obviously has plenty of iconic moments, but did you have a favorite that you got to act out yourself?
That’s hard, it changes every day. We talked about the iconic lines a lot and things that we were excited to say, but I think “Glenn Coco” was an exciting moment. I was there for that, Gretchen is obviously sat at the desk when the candy grams are being passed out. To see the whole “you go Glenn Coco” unfold before my eyes was surreal, at the very least.
Fashion and looks are also a very big part of Mean Girls, so was there a favorite outfit that you wore as Gretchen?
That’s another really hard one! For me, it’s probably a tie between the Santa costume and the cat costume, but I think the cat costume might take number one. There’s just something about that cat costume. I didn’t want to get out of it. The wardrobe team were like “Are you okay? It shouldn’t be comfortable.” And I was like “No, I love it in here.”
Is there anything else you want people to know about Mean Girls before it premieres in theaters?
Right now, not a lot of people have seen the movie or fully know what it is, and that’s exciting to me. I’m excited for people to go in not fully knowing what this is and what this is going to be. It’s filled with so many cool twists and surprises. I think Tina and [Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr.], our directors, have found so many ways to surprise and delight the audience and keep things fresh.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.