Lili Reinhart Never Had a Backup Plan

February 11, 2020   |   Written by Jessica Chia

A fan favorite on the wildly popular teen soap Riverdale, Lili Reinhart has major movie stardom in her sights. And if you ask nicely, she just might read your horoscope.

There are approximately 22 million people who would love to change places with me at this moment. And not only because I am perusing the 263-item and I’m guessing billion calorie menu at the Cheesecake Factory, one of the anchor tenants of the Grove, a Los Angeles shopping center. It’s because I am about to break bread (well, fried macaroni-and-cheese balls) with 23-year-old actor Lili Reinhart, America’s reigning CW and Netflix sweetheart. It was her idea to meet at the Factory when our original plan, a hangout in L.A.’s Pan Pacific Park, got rained out. Refreshingly, Reinhart is not vegan, gluten-free, keto, or on a macrobiotic diet. She is a self-described picky eater and considers this a treat. “No one wants to go [here] with me,” she says, excitedly, when we sit down. Though Reinhart is dressed unfussily, in a faded black tee, Topshop denim jacket, jeans, thin hoop earrings, and a taupe baseball cap pulled over her buttery blonde hair, she is promptly approached by a woman at the next table.

There’s a lot the cap isn’t hiding. Off-screen, Reinhart’s eyes look as wide, upturned, and full-lashed as a Disney princess’s; her clear, milky complexion is dotted youthfully with freckles; and her dimples seem to take turns showing off: a slight divot in her chin, then twin creases that show up on either side of her face when she’s amused.

The woman leans over and asks Reinhart if she is on TV. Reinhart’s lips tighten, and a wince flickers at her eyes, but she gives a polite smile and nods slowly. The woman plows on. Her son is a big fan, she says, motioning to a grinning boy beside her. He’s an aspiring actor, and they’re in town from Texas to give it a try. Reinhart relaxes a bit. She asks what part of Texas they are from, sincerely congratulates the boy on his endeavors, and turns to resume our interview. Reinhart says this moment — and others like it — is more full circle than she would care to admit.

“It’s funny. I went to this Cheesecake Factory with my mom when I was, like, 15,” she says. “We had flown in for an audition. I was sitting at the table over there, and I remember I got the email that I didn’t get the part.” Also around that time, Reinhart recalls spotting Zac Efron in a doctor’s-office waiting room and surreptitiously snapping a photo of the actor. “I feel so gross about it now,” she says. “It is flattering, but it also makes you feel like a zoo animal. Even when I’m sitting in the cast greenroom, if [someone is] holding their phone up like this, I’m like, ‘What are you doing?’ I’ve become very paranoid.”

Whether she likes it or not, this much is certain: Reinhart is swiftly becoming a marquee name in Hollywood. Last year she appeared alongside Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Julia Stiles, and Keke Palmer in the feminist hit Hustlers. This year she’s starring in Chemical Hearts, the onscreen adaptation of the YA novel Our Chemical Hearts. And she’ll continue her central role as Betty Cooper in Riverdale,a take on the Archie comic series (with more romantic trysts, third-wave feminism, and murder mysteries than readers of the original strip will remember). Four seasons in, Riverdale is a full-on phenomenon, complete with Comic-Con appearances, Met Gala invitations (for the female leads, at least), fan merchandise, and apparently the kind of fame that means you can’t eat fried delicacies in peace.

I ask what she thinks about that F-word: fame. She changes the subject. “Cute boots,” she remarks. I am flattered and launch into a monologue about how much I love Primark, specifically the one in Madrid, before realizing what she’s done and ask her once more to talk. About. Fame. “It’s so weird,” she says, finally. “I don’t really think about it until I’m around people. I don’t think about it until I see young women, because those are the people that recognize me. Then all of a sudden, I become very aware.”

True to her word, I notice Reinhart physically tenses up every time a teenage girl — or worse, a group of teenage girls — nears us. But when she’s not on high alert for high schoolers, Reinhart is unguarded to a degree I would not expect from any stranger, much less one whose privacy is under constant scrutiny. For starters, she texts me directly, rather than having an assistant or manager handle our communication (standard for most celebrities).

Later that night, we decide on a meeting location for the next day. “As long as we go somewhere with eggs, I’m happy,” she texts, before we settle on Dialog Cafe in West Hollywood and push back the time — neither of us feels like showing up before 9 a.m. Reinhart has an ease and openness in conversation that makes talking to her feel more like a slumber party than an interview. She volunteers thoughts on cute babies (just her goddaughter, for now), romantic love (something she prefers to fall into rarely, and fiercely), taking a spouse’s surname (she favors hyphenation), and being the “grandma” of her friend group.

“When I get drunk, my friends act like it’s a national holiday,” Reinhart says. She offers up snippets from her camera roll and Instagram direct messages: photos of the hot-air balloon ride her boyfriend, Cole Sprouse, took her on for her birthday, and a dog she wishes were up for adoption — a shaggy shelter pup with no eyes. And just when I think I couldn’t feel any more like the real-life Veronica to her Betty, she asks me if I want to go shopping.

Reinhart leads us by memory through a sprawling Barnes & Noble, up to two flights of escalators, then over to the left and back toward the windows, until we end up in the self-improvement section. Reinhart used to come here with friends, back when she first moved to L.A., and spend time poring over books like The Secret Language of Your Name. She tells me the provenance of her given name: Daniel and Amy Reinhart of Cleveland fell in love, got married, and named their second daughter after the actor Lili Taylor. There wasn’t any special connection. “They just liked the spelling of her name. It’s the French spelling.”

Reinhart drags a dictionary-thick tome from the shelf. “This is a book that I own,” she says, handing it to me. It’s as weighty as a textbook — it has to be, because it guarantees deep and profound knowledge about absolutely everyone, based on their date of birth. She helps me look up mine, which is hilariously titled the Day of Sensual Charisma. Hers is September 13, which the book has ordained the Day of Passionate Care. She reads the entry aloud. “Resilient determination. That sounds about right,” she says. “This part is very true: ‘They may face great obstacles to their success, but not for a moment will the outcome be in doubt for them.’ I always knew this is what I was going to do. I never had a plan B.” It might be difficult to imagine what the aforementioned “great obstacles” have been, considering the fact that she had landed her role on Riverdale by the age of 19.

But being young and female in just about any work environment can have its dark side. Reinhart was 16 when an adult work associate attempted to force himself on her. “I felt physically pinned down to the ground while someone dry humped me, basically,” she says. She has spoken publicly about the assault before — but in retrospect, she believes those statements were premature. “I think I shared my story…before I had really understood it,” Reinhart says. “I kept thinking of it as something physical, but it was more so a psychological abuse…that spanned a couple of months. I went along with it and was trying to get his approval because we were working together…. I wanted my work environment to be easy.”

She was also a minor at the time, being exploited by someone in a position of power. It’s clearly difficult for Reinhart to recount. When trying to recall details — how long it went on, whether verbal abuse was involved — she speaks evenly, but frequently pauses and tells me that that time in her life is “blurry” or that she’s “locked it away.” “What makes me hopeful is people like [Supergirl and Glee actor] Melissa Benoist sharing her story of domestic abuse with the world, because I think she helped a lot of people by doing that. When people come forward about a sexual abuse experience or physical abuse or them struggling with a disorder, they’re encouraging other people to not suffer in silence.”

Another personal obstacle Reinhart has been vocal about is mental health. She recently read an article she can’t get out of her head, about a child under the age of 10 who ended his life after being severely bullied. “Now more than ever, we need to be bringing the idea of mental health into schools and teaching it,” Reinhart says. “It’s about communicating clearly.” She recalls experiencing crippling anxiety when she was growing up. “I felt very alone. But I was not being bullied, which made it really hard for my parents to understand,” Reinhart says.

Her high school experience couldn’t have been more different from that of Betty Cooper, who drifts easily between cheerleading, running the school newspaper, and solving mysteries, with a cadre of unusually attractive friends by her side. “I went through a semester when I didn’t have any friends in my lunch period, and I didn’t want to sit in a huge cafeteria by myself, so I would find classrooms to go sit in alone, or spend time in the bathroom, just chilling,” she recalls.

By the time Reinhart began working (she supported herself as a waitress and a Pier 1 sales associate before she landed Riverdale), she was just trying to get through the week without having a panic attack.

Now that time in her life is growing distant. And she’ll get to go to prom for the first time, on this season of the show. “Three and a half years ago, I had no money. I didn’t have a love in my life like I do now. I didn’t have any sort of confidence that I was on the right track, and now I have those things,” Reinhart says. And her momentum shows no signs of stopping. The week after our interview, she filmed her first commercial for CoverGirl, which recently signed her as one of its faces. A forthcoming collection of her poetry, Swimming Lessons, will hit bookstores this May.

Pay, or equal pay, has been an issue and probably will continue to be. But Reinhart is prepared. “Cami [Mendes, who plays Veronica] and I have had to deal with that from Riverdale,” Reinhart says.

“Going into projects in the future, I’m much more aware of it. So is my lawyer.” She’s also learned from the experiences of women like Michelle Williams and Taraji P. Henson. “I was taking notes,” she says. “Taraji Henson had said something like, when she renegotiated for Empire, she knew her value to the show. She knew what that value was, and she demanded it.” Reinhart pauses, choosing her words, sounding more sure of herself with each sentence: “I do know the value that I bring as someone who attracts an audience. And I’m not going to accept less than what I think I’m worth. And it’s okay to fight for what I’m worth.”