He’s All That is at least the ninth film to adapt Pygmalion for the big screen. But behind the scenes, Addison Rae’s acting debut is more Cinderella than George Bernard Shaw.
“That’s the thing that’s fascinating about Addison,” director Mark Waters, known for aughts hits Mean Girls and Freaky Friday, explained on the phone to Mashable this week. “She just came out of nowhere.”
“This person, who is ‘just a social media star,’ is she going to be able to pull this off?”
Rae, for those unfamiliar, is one of the more quietly ultra-famous people on the planet — having made the leap from total unknown to mega-celebrity in just the last two years. The almost 21-year-old starlet, who helms He’s All That as the well-intentioned but in-over-her-head social media mogul Padgett, fittingly came to Hollywood by way of the internet. She launches her acting career this weekend with Waters’ film on Netflix, which, yes, is a gender-swapped reboot of the popular 1999 rom-com She’s All That.
“That was the big question mark,” Waters explains of his decision to direct the project, which Rae was already tied to before he signed on. (It’s penned by original screenwriter R. Lee Fleming Jr.) “This person, who is ‘just a social media star,’ is she going to be able to pull this off?”
Rae has pulled off bigger feats before, to be sure. In July 2019, as a soon-to-be freshman at Louisiana State University, she began posting videos of popular dance trends to TikTok. By that fall, Rae’s clips were appearing on “For You” pages the world over, and she had relocated to Los Angeles. There, the rising star began collaborating with members of the then-emerging Hype House, a “content creator collective” still boasting some of the biggest names in influencing.
Today, Rae has nearly 83 million followers on TikTok, with another 38 million on Instagram and close to 5 million on Twitter. She’s the highest-paid TikTok creator according to Forbes, with plenty going for her off the platform too. She has countless corporate sponsorships, including serving as the main spokeswoman for American Eagle; a flourishing friendship with the Kardashian-Jenner family, having appeared on Keeping Up with the Kardashians in its final season; a dance-pop single complete with an elaborately choreographed music video; and finally, this feature-length movie on Netflix opposite co-star Tanner Buchanan, known for his role on Cobra Kai.
“The very first thing I did was go to the app store, download TikTok, and start following Addison Rae.”
What makes Rae a lightning-rod for public attention has been tough for people to pin down — though talent agents, marketing experts, and aspiring performers everywhere are trying. She’s the first person to successfully turn TikTok fame into a major acting role, and replicating that fairytale for the internet age has become an enduring quest for those in the business of making celebrities.
For Waters, it took confirming Rae’s star potential in-person to convince him she could carry a movie.
“The very first thing I did was go to the app store, download TikTok, and start following Addison Rae,” Waters says — likening his experience of exploring the Gen Z-dominated platform in his fifties to watching a movie in a foreign language. He says his daughters, ages 15 and 19, helped him understand Rae’s TikTok persona. “But it wasn’t until I finally met with her, that I was like, ‘Oh. OK. So she’s incredibly charming.’”
Credit: KEVIN ESTRADA/NETFLIx
Charm is well and good, but authenticity and believability were at the forefront of Waters’ concerns when directing Rae’s performance. He’s All That’s success, Waters says, hinged not only on the multi-hyphenate talent’s likability translating to film, but also on Rae’s ability to let her larger-than-life personality bow to a fictional character.
“It’s definitely always a different feeling, working with someone in a scene who is newer to acting.”
“We needed to make sure that she had the right pitch to her performance, which was something we worked really hard at,” Waters says, emphasizing the importance of audiences seeing Padgett the character before Rae the social media personality. For example, she was asked to leave her signature “Hey y’all!” TikTok greeting out of the film.
“It’s definitely always a different feeling, working with someone in a scene who is newer to acting,” Rachael Leigh Cook tells Mashable.
Cook, who starred as art nerd-turned-prom queen Laney Boggs in She’s All That, returns in He’s All That as a new character — Padgett’s mom Anna Sawyer. Although Cook didn’t know Rae from TikTok prior to filming — “I’m not cool,” she jokes — the experienced actor says the newbie’s talents were immediately apparent.
“I think Addison is definitely a stronger actor than I was when I started in 1995, for sure,” Cook says with a warm laugh. Cook arrived in Hollywood by a more traditional avenue, having made her screen debut in The Baby-Sitters Club before appearing in numerous films, including Waters’ 1997 film The House of Yes, for Miramax.
“I have such gratitude to everyone who got me through my early acting days, because I was pretty terrible,” she says. (For those interested, Matthew Lillard, who played the self-absorbed reality star Brock Hudson in the original film, also appears in He’s All That with a role that lets him dance again. “It made my year,” says Cook.)
Credit: KEVIN ESTRADA/NETFLIX 2021
Per Waters, Rae had to absorb years of acting lessons in just eight weeks. Much of that work, he says, had to occur over Zoom thanks to the pandemic. Even when it came time to cast the rest of the roles in He’s All That, Rae completed screen-chemistry tests with Buchanan and the other actors entirely virtually.
“We were having people read with Addison, and watching them on different screens in different rooms and just kind of imagining them together,” Waters recalls. “We still ended up I think making the right choices, but it was definitely a stickier process than usual.”
“We still ended up I think making the right choices, but it was definitely a stickier process than usual.”
Despite the myriad challenges of starting production on He’s All That — including a brief uproar involving the potential closing of a COVID-19 testing site at Union Station in Los Angeles to accommodate filming — Rae, Waters says, was a practical acting pro by the time another social media star arrived on set.
Kourtney Kardashian, who appears in a small role as Padgett’s marketing mentor Jessica Miles Torres, has only two scenes in the movie. Both of them involve her speaking on the phone with Padgett while effortlessly pedaling a stationary bike.
According to Waters, Kardashian, who hasn’t acted since her single-episode arc on One Life to Live in 2011, was “really, really nervous.” So, Waters says, “Even though Addison isn’t [physically] in those scenes with her, Addison did come on set those times. She’s actually sitting right off camera reading with her.”
Credit: KEVIN ESTRADA/NETFLIx
It’s quite the image: A revered queen of the Instagram era being coached by a reigning TikTok princess on the set of a real movie. As social media and entertainment continue to co-mingle, the trends we see online — those largely shaped by Millennials, Gen Z, and younger — will continue to emerge on the big screen, either in stories like Padgett’s or through casting for characters like her.
For aspiring actors, it’s eminent proof of Hollywood’s glass slipper — evidence that an anonymous someone can became a movie star seemingly overnight. Of course, that Rae is an affluent white woman speaks volumes to the privilege that positioned her to achieve such magical success. Still, the TikTok star’s lead casting in He’s All That marks an important first for the industry.
“Talent comes from anywhere,” Waters says of his plans for casting in the future. “I’m open to whatever intrigues me. If someone has that spark or that charm that catches my eye, then I don’t really care where I’m seeing it.”