Damian, Janis, and Cady all looking through the bushes in 'Mean Girls'

Why Damian and Janis Are the Perfect Narrators for an Updated ‘Mean Girls’

Updating Mean Girls as both a musical and a new movie couldn’t have been an easy task. But the new film, by Tina Fey and directed by Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr., succeeds in taking us back into high school with Damian (Jaquel Spivey) and Janis (Auli’i Cravalho) as our guides.

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Damian and Janis were iconic characters in the original 2004 movie, and they remain so here. As the film’s narrators, it’s these two who guide us through the story, telling us all about the Plastics and what happens when Cady Heron (Angourie Rice) comes to school.

Talking with Spivey and Cravalho, it is clear that their love of musicals helped in bringing Damian and Janis to life in this new take on the comedy classic. “Well, I think the excitement for me was presenting this story with musical elements, but still in the film, I think gives a lot of access when it comes to the world of musical theater,” Spivey said about bringing to life the Broadway show on screen.

He continued: “I think when people think of theater, they think of Broadway. And if we know anything about Broadway, we know what’s unaffordable. And I think that there are a lot of young people, there are a lot of people in general who love the art form, have respect for it, but can’t really see it. So for us to be able to present these performances and for it to come to your town at a price that I hope you can afford, and if not, then maybe, you know, when it comes out on DVD or streaming, that you can get to it, but that it gets to you.”

Spivey is right, theatre is a collective art form and it is often limited to those who can afford it so movies like Mean Girls help to get shows to more audiences. “And specifically these characters, characters that represent the art freaks, the underdogs, the weirdos, all those things that I think people really need to know that they exist. Even in a world of film and television, there can be somebody who’s a person of color. Or maybe just somebody who’s different and they have a place. I think we’ll be able to give them that with this film.”

Cravalho talked about her own love of musicals and how it played into her approach with Janis. “I love musicals. I love music in general and how you can tell a story through song and that is no different in this film as well, these characters, but with this added music, like you get to know what’s going on in their head,” she said. “They’re singing their emotions and that feels really fresh. And I love Samantha Jane and Artur Perez Jr., our directors for making that choice and being like, ‘no, we’re gonna lean into also singing live because that pays homage to live performances that we know and love from our Broadway musical as well.'”

Bringing high school back to life

Like the original film, Mean Girls (which opened at the August Wilson in New York) succeeds in fully transporting us back to high school.

“It kind of felt like theater camp,” Cravalho said of the process of filming in an actual Catholic school. “We lived all so near to each other. We saw each other every single day. We literally went to school, we took over classrooms and divided them in half so that we could have our own green rooms. So we could talk to each other through the walls. We were in a Catholic school, so sometimes we’d be using the bathroom and we’d be like, ‘Can someone watch the door? It’s a little creepy in here.’ It was really fun. We’ve also transformed those halls into for instance, ‘Revenge Party.’ There’s this whole dream sequence that makes it seem like Lisa Frank threw up on those walls. So we we made those hall feel like home for like a month and a half, almost two months that we were there.”

For Spivey, it helped to have the tangible aspect of Mean Girls at his disposal. “Coming from the theater world, the world of imagination, a little box has to be a car, a couch, a house, a lamp, a dog,” he said. “It was nice to be in a world where if it’s something tangible, it is what it is. If we’re taking a drink, it’s actually a drink. If we’re, if I’m on a jazzy, I’m on a jazzy going through a cul-de-sac in a real neighborhood in New Jersey at midnight. And as an actor and this being my first movie, I think it’s very helpful when you’re actually in the world that you’re supposed to be in because it makes those performances that more honest, I think theater has all that work of ‘I have to convince you, but I also have to convince myself.’ And with this one, I think film does majority of the work where I need to convince you how this character feels. But the world around it, you get to see because all of these talented people came together to help create it.”

Updating Janis and Damian for a new generation

There are things in the 2004 Mean Girls that haven’t necessarily aged poorly, but have lost a certain relevance. There needed to be changes to make these characters grow with the times and adjust them to fit with a more modern telling of the high school takedown. When I asked about playing this new and improved Janis, Cravalho talked about the joy of letting this Janis be who she is unapologetically.

“I really like my character because, and I’ve been lucky to play other female characters like this before, that she decides to push the envelope,” she said. “She wants to be her own person and ‘I’d Rather Be Me,’ she looks straight down the barrel. I got to break the fourth wall and I’m speaking to the audience, I’m talking to you that I’d rather be me than be with the Plastics. I’d rather be me than have to try to fit into other clicks and I think it’s a really great question to ask that I ask myself and everyone can ask it themselves of who would I’d be if I didn’t care what anyone thought of me? And I think Janis is that personified. I had a lot of free reign with her clothing and with her makeup and I wanted her also to be proud of who she was. There is that joke in the ’04 film of like Lebanese and lesbian, which is really funny. But lesbian was kind of used as a derogatory term. And now we reclaim that, right? Like, you can call me a pirate lesbian, that just means I’m a hot lesbian. Fine, fine, I’ll take it.”

Spivey’s take on Damian is completely his own. Which is hard to do after Daniel Franzese said some of the most iconic lines from the film that are still quoted to this day. What makes Spivey’s take on Damian so good is that those quotes do still exist in the film but he has completely made them his own and unique to his take on Damian.

“I think my first approach was to not watch any other material of Mean Girls. Be it the film, a cute little slime tutorial if you know what a slime tutorial is, or listening to the album,” he said. “I literally took the drafts that we were sent from Tina and that was my material. That was what I had, that was my map. And for me, I also had to remember while I am such a fan of the original, to copy it is to insult it. And I would never wanna do that. As an artist, it’s an insult to myself to not be seen, to not give this character from my honest perspective. So for me it was ‘Who is Damian now? Who is Damien as a Black man?’ I mean, a lot of things about my existence go into these characters because then it becomes them.”

Spivey went on to talk about how his own experience informed his specific take on Damian. “He probably won’t do this the same. His side eye might be different, his movement might be different. Who’s raising him, where does he come from? It’s little things that the audience may never know. I think sometimes they look at these characters and they take it at face value,” he said.

“But I think a lot of work as an actor goes into it. Even talking to costume and being like, ‘That looks like something he would’ve pulled outta his mom’s closet. I wanna wear it.’ Like a lot of the jewelry he wears, they look very much like this could have been his or this could be his grandma’s and he took it out of her house on the low. There are just those little things that, I think, and especially to be given permission from Tina, from Arturo and Samantha Jane to really find him for myself. It was exciting and queerness in 2024 is different. Being plus size in 2024 is different. And all of those things I think go into who Damian is now.”

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Mean Girls is in theaters now.

(featured image: Paramount Pictures)


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Rachel Leishman
Rachel Leishman (She/Her) is an Assistant Editor at the Mary Sue. She's been a writer professionally since 2016 but was always obsessed with movies and television and writing about them growing up. A lover of Spider-Man and Wanda Maximoff's biggest defender, she has interests in all things nerdy and a cat named Benjamin Wyatt the cat. If you want to talk classic rock music or all things Harrison Ford, she's your girl but her interests span far and wide. Yes, she knows she looks like Florence Pugh. She has multiple podcasts, normally has opinions on any bit of pop culture, and can tell you can actors entire filmography off the top of her head. Her work at the Mary Sue often includes Star Wars, Marvel, DC, movie reviews, and interviews.