By Sara Radin
She's All That was one of the first teen movies I ever saw in theaters. I was 10 years old and immediately felt connected to Rachael Leigh Cook's artsy Laney Boggs. I figured, if she could go from being an art freak and social outcast to being pretty and popular — and win over the hottest guy in school — then maybe I could, too. More than this, Zack Siler came to represent everything I assumed I should want in a man. I started to believe that if I became good looking enough and wore the right clothes, I could mold myself into the attractive and submissive woman that kind of guy would want.
The movies of this time period were formidable in my own coming of age experience as I consumed all kinds of messages about femininity, relationships, and sexuality, which were always told through the male gaze. But in the wake of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, I’ve recently spent time re-watching many teen classics I once loved, like She’s All That, in effort to better understand how these movies shaped my self-image, as well as my intimate relationships with men. Seeing these films again has brought on a wave of complex emotions including nostalgia, joy, and disappointment — and now, at age 29, I can see how they were deeply problematic. Knowing what I know now about Hollywood’s gross failings, is it possible to still enjoy these films? I’m honestly not sure, but what I do know is that they can serve as a reminder of where things once were, how far we’ve come since the 1990s, and that there’s still work to be done.
Today (January 29) marks the 20th anniversary of She's All That, and though it's been a few years since she's watched the seminal teen flick from start to finish, Cook still has a lot to say about the experience and the film’s complexities. Below, the actress reflects on the film that made her an overnight "It girl" and its cultural impact then and now.
MTV News: How does it feel to be celebrating the 20th anniversary of She’s All That?
Rachael Leigh Cook: I'm hugely nostalgic so it makes me happy that people still want to talk about it 20 years later. It means that that three and a half weeks we spent shooting in 1999 was a good use of my time. I have nothing but positive, warm feelings and memories from that shoot.
MTV News: Were there any aspects of Laney’s character or story that you personally connected with?
Cook: What I felt at that time was really in line with the character. I was 18 when we shot it and a senior in high school. I didn’t have a typical teenage experience in my own life, but I still felt the highs and lows of being a teen through Laney’s experiences. Also, being new to Hollywood made me feel like a bit of an outsider since you never really feel like you know what you’re doing in the beginning.
Clea DuVall, Rachael Leigh Cook, and Tamara Mello in 1999's She's All That
MTV News: Let’s talk about the scene when Laney gave Misty a makeover. She was such an art bully. What was it like to film that scene?
Cook: Art bully is a really good term. I feel like that should be the name of like a clothing brand. That scene was a lot of fun to film. I had worked with Clea Duvall before. We made a movie together about two years prior to She’s All That called The Defenders, which was a remake of a very old TV show where we played sisters who are very much united. In this case, playing such a different dynamic was enjoyable and she's terrific to work with.
MTV News: How have the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements opened your eyes to the ways films of that era were sexist?
Cook: The male gaze is definitely inherently part of many of those story lines and I wouldn't recommend making the movie as is today. But also, I think the point of She's All That was that Zach Siler’s character did something very wrong, and that’s the point, but he suffered very minor movie consequences to learn about the error of his ways. The biggest failing of the movie is that technically Laney should have said, "No, I'm not going to be with you because what you did was too terrible, even though you apologized and learned from making a mistake." But you could also make an argument that Kevin's parents in Home Alone should've probably spent a couple nights in jail.
MTV News: Are there any parts of She’s All That that feel particularly problematic now that you’re seeing it with a different perspective?
Cook: Do movies have to be more socially acceptable? Do they need to lead by example now more than ever? Yeah, it does seem more critical now and it should have been more critical then. I don't think that this particular movie got it so wrong that it's worth a really sort of dragging it over the coals, but there should have been possibly greater consequences.
MTV News: If the film was made today, and through the female gaze, what do you think would be done differently?
Cook: There would be a gender reversal. If you made this movie about a male who goes through the same thing.
Laney on prom night
MTV News: Millennials are obsessed with nostalgic media. How would you feel if She’s All That got a remake?
Cook: I think it would be cool. There's no reason not to. It's strange to call it a remake because we're a remake: She's All That is Pygmalion. These tropes are not new.
MTV News: Recently, I realized that Lil' Kim was in the movie. It had such an amazing cast. Do you still talk to anyone?
Cook: I knew Gabrielle Union before we shot the movie because we worked with the same management company, and she's just as lovely as you can imagine. I love running into her but we don't see each other very often. I do see a Tamara Mello who played Chandler, one of the popular girls. She and I are neighbors and mom friends. But funny enough Usher’s character and mine had almost no crossover. I don't think Lil' Kim and I had more than one scene together because we were from different worlds in the movie.
MTV News: What was your favorite part of doing the movie?
Cook: I got to experience a very movie version of high school. I had stopped attending my normal high school during sophomore year because it was just too hard with the work schedule. I did get diploma from my original high school in Minneapolis, but it was through patched-together independent study and taking online college classes as credits. So the fact that I got to go to a prom and graduation, it might've been fake, but it was good enough for me.
MTV News: Were you on set when the scene with the pizza pubes was filmed? I’m guessing those were fake pubes but that scene still gets me every time.
Cook: That's a very effective scene. The guy with the red hair who is in it can act beautifully, and I actually see him pretty often. His name is Chris Allen. He's a great actor and he's one of my brother's best friends. He was the best man in his wedding. I've known him forever. We also worked with the same management company. I'm sure that the scene followed him further into his life then he would’ve liked. But my takeaway from that movie is that Chris did a great job, but do I need to watch the scene again? I'm good. However, I had to watch it the other week for an interview and it was way more disturbing than the first time I saw it 20 years ago.