You Haven't Seen What Lili Reinhart Is Capable Of...Yet
Teen Vogue’s October cover star talks boundaries, social media, and finding a career outside of Riverdale.
Lili Reinhart is really freaking famous.
She is break-the-Internet, can’t-go-outside-without-being-recognized, gets-asked-to-play-a-part-without-audition famous. Anyone who has followed the cult-like popularity of the CW’s hit Riverdale wouldn’t be surprised. But Lili is still new to her fame and all the trappings that come with it, which for her includes being offered roles on the spot.
“It’s weird to get direct offers now, rather than having to audition,” she tells me, on a Monday morning in a West Hollywood restaurant, the night after the screening of her movie Galveston. “But it also makes me feel kind of suspicious, like, ‘Why don’t you want me to audition?’ I still feel like I need to prove myself, very much so. You’ve seen me do Riverdale, but that’s basically all anyone’s ever seen.”
“All anyone’s ever seen” is Betty Cooper, a blonde, ponytailed pinnacle of Americana (which Riverdale has handily thrown into an upside-down world where murder mysteries put just a slight damper on the school play). But let’s make this clear: Lili Reinhart is not Betty Cooper. For one, Lili says she’s scrappier than her onscreen character. And Betty doesn’t have to learn how to deal with instant fame — she’s been a pop culture mainstay for decades.
Lili is navigating the intense machine of social media stardom — where every picture, like, or comment is interrogated (and often makes headlines). She always needs to be “on” and that doesn’t come easy to someone who is not a naturally public person. A Virgo, she likes, as she puts it, “to be in my own little space.” She is notoriously guarded about her personal life and is unapologetic about that. There is nothing to apologize for.
She knows who she is: an actor, an ambitious one, with movie sets and meaty parts on the horizon. In her view, her personal life should have nothing to do with memorizing lines and making call times. But she is famous in the Internet age where instant access serves as a gray area between feeling like you know a lot about someone versus actually knowing them. Lili knows where those boundaries are and she wants you to know where they are, too. And she wants to audition even though she says the process “sucks,” because “I want to show you that I can do more, rather than just get something handed to me.”
As she puts it, “You actually haven’t seen what I’m capable of.”
Lili was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. She excelled in musical theater after trying just about everything else. “My older sister played sports. I was the more artsy kid,” she explains, noting that she was “pretty bad” at both soccer and basketball. She cringes when she brings up joining the dance team. “I was just this awkward kid who didn’t know how to move my body and should not have been dancing,” she says. (To that point, her best friend, Austyn Vovos, respectfully disagrees. “She’s so hard on herself,” Austyn tells me. “She’s a good dancer.”)
In middle school and high school, she began booking parts on PBS specials and episodes of Law and Order. Her family moved to North Carolina when she was 16. When she was a junior in high school, Lili decided to finish school online to make time to audition even more. “I didn’t want to do anything else,” she says. “It’s not just a hobby. It’s what I want to do forever as a career. There was no Plan B. That was it. I needed to do that because my anxiety wouldn’t let me do anything else.”
But moving, she admits, was lonely. “I had no one to talk to, except for my family. No friends near me.”
She faced even more isolation when she came to Los Angeles at 18 and started the unrelenting process of auditioning nonstop. The five-month stint was a blur. She became physically sick from depression, moved back to North Carolina to prioritize her mental health, and spent another six months building herself back up so she could try again.
“I told myself I was going to go back to L.A. and try again,” she remembers. “After a year, if nothing happened, I was going to go to makeup school because that seemed like the only other thing I was passionate about.” It’s a skill she learned from watching YouTube tutorials; a love for M.A.C. eyeshadows morphed into mirroring the special effects she saw in horror movies, in part because watching films in the genre served as a good distraction for her anxiety, as did practicing with liquid latex and colored paint.
A month after heading back to the West Coast, Lili was cast in the now-beloved Riverdale, the campy, fun, CW drama featuring two rival biker gangs and an untold number of serial killers running loose at any given point in time. The show is full of current-era faves and throwback icons: Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes), whose dad (Mark Consuelos) is a crime lord (he’s the one who frames good old Archie Andrews (KJ Apa) for murder). Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse) is a newly inducted member of his dad’s (Skeet Ulrich) gang, the Southside Serpents. Betty Cooper is supposed to be the “girl next door,” and while her character is earnest and ambitious and the editor of the school paper — she also has a dark side. She is anxious, tormented by her mother (Mädchen Amick), their gnarled family history, and a sinister serial killer who knows a little too much about her, if you catch my drift.
Lili actually auditioned twice, first with a self-tape that was rejected. The second audition took her further; it was at the studio test that she first met Camila, who would eventually play her onscreen BFF, Veronica. “She was the only person in the room who was really quiet, just kind of in her own world,” Camila told me about Lili. “I think she was just so focused and nervous for the audition. And just a little shy — she’s reserved at first when you meet her. But I remember looking at her like, That’s Betty; she’s Betty.”
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, the show’s creator and showrunner, says the Warner Bros. executives had the same reaction: “Even though Riverdale is a darker, subversive take on the Archie characters, [Lili’s] essence just screamed Betty Cooper. She has a lot of contradictions, but the big thing is there’s nothing we can’t write for Lili that she cannot do. She’s sort of fearless.”
The show has thrown a lot of obstacles Betty’s way, and if the trailer for Season 3 (premiering on October 10) tells us anything, it’s that things are not going to slow down any time soon. But Lili has made a few requests for the new era of Betty Cooper: For starters, no more “Dark Betty,” which she feels isn’t so much a plot point as it is a punchline now, and a path she doesn’t want to go down again.
“I think it kind of became a mockery of itself,” she explains of the alter ego that requires a black wig and lingerie to transform bubbly Betty into a full-on vamp. “It was supposed to be this dark side of her that she wasn’t able to express otherwise, and it just became this weird sexual thing that people didn’t really understand.”
Every creative decision Lili makes matters and she knows that. Playing a character as iconic as Betty, and at this level of exposure, runs the risk of being typecast for the rest of your career. Lili, aware of that possibility is already thinking about life after Riverdale. “I don’t want to play Betty Cooper my whole life,” she adds. “I’m ready to play different characters.”
As it is for many actors, fame is as awesome as it is upending: For all the perks, it also comes with a flurry of new realities. Lili doesn’t go to the airport without first worrying about what she should wear in case she’s photographed. She’s tried to keep her relationship with costar Cole Sprouse private, but it’s something she’s pressed about constantly. The two recently went to Paris together, but fans and paparazzi found out about the trip almost instantly. “I wish I had been able to see Europe before being recognizable because our show is so popular there,” she muses. (The CW released Riverdale episodes on international Netflix accounts shortly after they aired stateside.) “I was not able to enjoy Paris because of [the paparazzi], and I really wish I had just gone and done my own thing, explored museums, but I couldn’t. It was too overwhelming.”
In many ways, Cole serves as a port in the storm. A former Disney Channel star, he’s navigated this whole being-famous thing since he was a child. From an outside perspective, the definitive start of their relationship is murky; the two made their red carpet debut as a couple at the 2018 Met Gala, but aren’t set on turning themselves into a “thing” any more than they need to. “I keep my relationship private because it’s just between two people, and that’s the way it should be,” Lili explains. “It’s not like I’m trying to dangle my relationship in front of people’s faces like, ‘you don’t know anything about us.’ It’s just, you don’t need to know. People feel like they’re owed that, and you’re absolutely not owed anything by me.”
What we do know about the duo is often seen through what they choose to share on their own accounts, which includes photos Cole takes of Lili, whom he has called his muse. “I like to go on adventures with Cole,” she tells me. “Truly, adventures. He takes me to places where I’m like, ‘How did you find this?’ He’s made me see these things that I would have never seen otherwise. It’s escapism, which is so beautiful and wonderful.”
Most of her fans, she notes, are understanding about what privacy means to her, and while she tries not to focus on comments and questions, some slip through the cracks. In September, Lili made headlines when she responded to someone on Twitter who called her “so 2013 Tumblr.” “No, no… I tell him to touch me ~everywhere~ and then we eat Chinese food. Get your facts straight, Emily,” she tweeted.
“It’s like, you wanted attention, here you go.” she remembers now. “I was on set, sitting in my cast chair, read that tweet, and decided to respond. It wasn’t a thoughtful process. It was just like, I’m going to f*cking stand up for myself. I rarely look at my comments, but when I do, it’s like… if only these people knew that I was actually seeing what they were saying.”
She doesn’t try to make a habit of sounding off against haters, but sometimes she just becomes what her best friend calls “the most raw form of herself. She’s not trying to be anyone else.”
For her part, Lili says she is guided by her own boundaries when it comes to what she does and doesn’t post: “It’s very much a constant balance of what do I share? What do I not share? I want to be authentic, but I also don’t want to give everyone parts of myself that they don’t need to know about.” Instead, she focuses on photos of her goddaughter and her dogs as well as her own baby photos and memes she finds amusing. “I’m mostly just trying to show the goofy and happy side of myself,” she says. Even if I’m feeling sad, I try to keep everything positive.”
It’s easier said than done. Of all people, Lili knows that it’s impossible to keep everything positive, that highs and lows come to everyone no matter how great their life might seem online. Make no mistake, however, she doesn’t want to be known as “the girl who talks about depression because I’m a lot more than that.” But even that is proof positive that small details about a person do not amount to their totality.
For Lili, fame is a byproduct of her success more than it is a marker. She knows that the minute she says something worthy of a soundbyte, it will be made into a headline and the narrative will run away from her. It’s a machine she cannot control and she should not be expected to. She could eschew social media or she could live-stream every moment of her day — it wouldn’t matter. People will feel like they know her more than they really do.
Navigating this level of fame is not something Lili signed up for when she began auditioning for school plays, and it seems that work is the exact thing she’s relying on to help pull herthrough. “More than anything I want people to see me act,” she tells me. She already watches her own work with a critical eye, telling me she thinks, Oh, I could have done that better, when watching Galveston, in which she co-stars alongside Elle Fanning and Ben Foster. (She is in exactly one scene, during which the camera holds itself tightly to her crying face.) She counts Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Stone’s careers as heights she’d like to reach — Aguirre-Sacasa likens her to Michelle Williams, who got her start on Dawson’s Creek — but Lili’s not holding herself to anyone’s trajectory but her own.
More than anything, Lili Reinhart is a 22-year-old who really loves her job; she comes most alive when discussing the work itself. Talking to her, you get the sense that if it weren’t for the work, she wouldn’t choose to be famous on her own, and that she’s not in this for the likes or the swag or anything else that comes with being a TV star first and an actor second.
“I know what my limits are,” she says. “I know that after Riverdale, I don’t want to do another 22-episode show because it really does take up your entire life, and as a 22-year-old, I want to be able to do other things.” That includes learning French, adopting a dog, and taking on roles that challenge her. In short, that includes anything she sets her mind to.