Rachael Leigh Cook Indulged Us By Answering All of Our Josie and the Pussycats Burning Questions

In honor of the 20th anniversary, Rachael Leigh Cook put her cat ears back on to dish on the film's cult classic status, attempting to sing and being put in "movie jail" after its release.

By Tierney Bricker Apr 11, 2021 10:00 AMTags
Watch: "Josie and the Pussycats" Turns 20: E! News Rewind

Forget nine lives, these pussycats are livelier than ever 20 years later.

Directed and written by Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan, Josie and the Pussycats became one of the early aughts' biggest box office bombs. Released on April 11, 2001, the movie grossed just $14 million and was panned—sometimes savagely so—in almost every review. The experience scarred the directorial duo so much that they never helmed a movie again

But here's the thing mostly male film critics failed to realize at the time: Josie and the Pussycats—which starred Rachael Leigh Cook (lead singer Josie), Tara Reid (drummer Melody) and Rosario Dawson (bassist Val)—was supposed to be weird and wacky and wasn't really meant for them. Alan Cumming and Parker Posey were deliberately and deliciously over-the-top as cackling villains Wyatt and Fiona. DuJour was the perfect satire of the cultural obsession with the cookie-cutter boy bands of the era. The music, as the kids would say, slapped. And, most importantly, it resonated with young girls who watched the movie and would go on to become the movie reviewers. 

Over the last two decades, Josie and the Pussycats has become a generation-defining cult classic, simultaneously being ahead of its time with its take on consumerism and the state of pop music and yet a perfect encapsulation of the Y2K era, Carson Daly cameo included.

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In honor of the 20th anniversary, Rachel Leigh Cook, who took on the titular character's cat ears—though Letters to Cleo's singer Kay Hanley provided the vocals, more on that later—two years after her breakout role in She's All That, hopped on the phone with E! News to talk all things Pussycats, copious amounts of body shimmer included.

From the music superstars who auditioned for the movie (Beyoncé was almost a Pussycat) to the pressure of being the industry's "It girl" to the "movie jail" she was put in after Josie and the Pussycats' release, nothing was off limits with the actress, confirming for us that she will always be our punk rock prom queen.

Alex Alonzo/ E! Illustration

E! News: I was surprised to find out you were only 20 when you filmed this. I remember watching She's All That, which was a very important movie for me in my adolescence, and thinking of you as so poised and mature and adult. But you really were just a baby when you made that and Josie.
Rachael Leigh Cook: I really was! I might've been occasionally or at least onscreen, again occasionally poised, but I was a moron, for real. There's a lot of acting going on there. I was not nearly as mature as I was pretending to be, let me be very honest about that.

E!: So you were 20 years old when you filmed Josie. What do you remember most about that time in your life?
RLC: Well, I turned 20 on that movie, so it's very funny. I remember we all celebrated by going to dinner at the Italian restaurant we loved to go to across from the hotel we were all staying at. I remember that Tara insisted on everybody eating and drinking absolutely everything. We ordered probably everything off the menu. I remember the owner of the restaurant wanted his son to marry Tara. He was just around and doting on us and we stayed there well after they closed. They kept the restaurant open for late for us. That was a very fond memory, just speaking of that age and how it was then.


But in terms of the filming, I'm not proud of it as an indicator of my professionalism or lack thereof, but I remember that our directors, who were young and fun, they even got frustrated with us because we just laughed so much throughout the whole process. They were really wonderful to work for, but I bet we were kind of pains at the time because we were having too much fun together.

E!: You can definitely see that chemistry between the three of you onscreen. Was that connection immediate?
RLC: Truthfully, I didn't really expect it or hope for it, but it was certainly a gift and a welcome surprise. I didn't audition with either of the girls. I met Tara at a dinner in town because she was living in L.A. and we got along well enough and were just off to the races there. And I think that American Pie was through Universal as well, so she was grandfathered in through that. Rosario apparently met with the directors in New York, but I don't really know her casting origin story. So the fact that we all happened to get along as well as we did, frankly, that could've gone another way, but I felt very lucky and I still do to this day.

Marc Platt/Riverdale/Riverside/Kobal/Shutterstock

E!: And the list of people who auditioned for this movie is crazy. Beyoncé, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes and Aaliyah all read for the part of Val, which ultimately went to Rosario Dawson. Did you do a chemistry read with any of them or even know at the time that they were all auditioning?
RLC: Yes, I did not meet Beyoncé. I would've remembered. I did get to meet Left Eye, she was incredibly beautiful and talented. There was a wealth of people who wanted to do that movie who I would've been incredibly lucky, and I was incredibly lucky, to just be in a room with.

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E!: Going back and watching, it's really interesting seeing just how weird and satirical and ahead of its time the movie was in many ways, especially for that era. So when you were first hearing about this project and checking out the script, was there a lot of buzz around it at the time?
RLC: If there was a certain buzz or perceived reaction to the script and to the writer and directors take on this faction of the Riverdale world, I wasn't aware of it. I just knew I liked the script and I think Deb and Harry get one thousand and one percent credit for the movie. Tara, Rosario, Alan, Parker, the whole cast, I feel like we were incredibly lucky to be there, but they made the movie work if it did in any way. Harry and Deb are just cool kids. They're forward-thinking, maybe too much so for that time. They just have great taste.

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E!: They directed Can't Hardly Wait as well, which I absolutely love. You originally met them while auditioning for that movie, right?
RLC: I did. I remember Deb and Harry sort of saying in the room, like, "That was great. I hope that we see you again if this doesn't work." They sort of alluded to the fact that I did a really good job, but that it wasn't probably going to go my way. I think they were already in negotiations with Jennifer Love Hewitt, who is obviously perfect in that role. I had no name at all at that time and I'm just lucky I went in for it. It just goes to show every no can turn into a yes in another way.

E!: Were you auditioning for She's All That around the same time?
RLC: She's All That was very shortly after that.

E!: So obviously that explodes and everyone puts the "It girl" label on you. At the time, is that really daunting or exciting? Does a pressure come with that about what your next move has to be to maintain any momentum?
RLC: You know, it's very hard for me to describe that time in my life. The most basic way I can put it that makes any sense to me will probably make about as much sense to you, which is just that as soon as I could wrap my head around the notion that as many people had seen the movie as they did, and how my life changed and how my life was going to change thereafter, that moment was already sort of rolling back with the tide. That was a lot more comfortable for me. I think I chose not to acknowledge it because it's not something that a normal person understands how to take in, process, appreciate, any of those things. It's just too surreal. The fact that it was "happening" did not land until, you know, that edge of the ocean was way out there, if that makes sense. That's a terrible analogy, but by the time it sort of landed with me it was probably a good 10 years later and I was just trying to make my way in my career on a day-to-day basis. And that's sort of the way it felt ever since. Was there a lot of pressure to that moment? Probably. Was I paying attention? No, absolutely not. [Laughs.]

Marc Platt/Riverdale/Riverside/Kobal/Shutterstock

E!: So after that, Josie is your next major leading role in a studio film. Did you feel any pressure taking on that role and were there any discussions, like, "Hey, can you sing?"
RLC: OK, the story about the singing is very funny. I would never in a million years be cast if they were making that movie and I was 20 now because there's too many people who are triple-plus threats. I could not play an instrument. I could not sing. I do not know why they cast me in this role when I think about it! But I remember because Babyface produced the music for the movie and Harry and Deb were big music buffs. So I remember after I had been cast, for some reason, again back then this was the sequence of events and this says a lot about their commitment to my being in this movie, we went to Babyface's studio and I remember him sort of saying, "Look, don't worry. If you can carry a tune, we can work some magic and you're singing in the movie." And I was like, "Alright, I'm going to be singing in this movie!" And I went in the booth and I did my very, very best and I got a call the next day that I would not be singing in the movie. I tried, I really tried! I was like, "I'm not fired? Cool."

E!: But you did learn how to play guitar?
RLC: Yes! I remember very clearly that that movie with Sean Penn where he plays a jazz musician [Ed's note: 1999's Sweet and Lowdown]. I heard this from a couple of musicians we trained with for the movie—but but he's not doing apparently an incredible job of mimicking actual playing and he was coming under fire for that. So they were saying to us, "That's not going to be you guys! You're going to be able to play these very simple chord progression songs." They were very committed to that element. It was a great time. I can't play to save my life. My son's learning to play "Happy Birthday" on the guitar and if he gets confused I'm like, "You're on your own!" It's tough! When you learn something in a borderline-crisis rush situation, it flies right back out of your head.

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E!: Looking back, the outfits in this movie are what girls who were flipping through Delia's ads were drooling over. At the time, did you guys feel like, "We look amazing, these looks are the s--t, body glitter everywhere!"
RLC: Everywhere. It was years before all the glitter left my life. I'm just lucky my eyebrows grew back. [Laughs.] But no sane person should go around dressed like that! But it was completely perfect and fashion-forward for that. The occasional vintage tee was definitely not something I was a stranger to. But Leesa Evans, the costume designer who is wildly successful, her vision, like the broad-scale vision of the whole movie and it being larger than life and so colorful and exciting and different, how she knew how to dress each of us differently and yet cohesively, she's just an incredible talent.

Marc Platt/Riverdale/Riverside/Kobal/Shutterstock

E!: OK, this is random, but I once posed a question on Twitter asking for people to share the photo of a celebrity they had brought to a hairstylist as inspiration to which they should've said, "No, don't do that. Professionals aren't doing your hair every day." And I can't tell you how many people shared a photo of you from this movie. 
RLC: What?! Oh my god. That makes me so happy. I don't have even slightly red hair and I was very excited to do it, just as a fresh out of my teens experienced bad-decision-maker, I couldn't wait to do something else possibly detrimental to my hair. The red was incredibly difficult to keep in. You wash your hair once when you have red hair and you could look like a sick, pink-haired rabbit the next day. It's just really hard to keep going, especially at the level of vibrancy we needed for the movie. So halfway through, we actually switched to a wig. It's kind of hard to tell, but at times, you can. But yeah, nobody should've taken that photo to their hairdresser. I know because I lived it for a couple of months there.

E!: I read an interview you did where you said you felt like you were put in "movie jail" after Josie and the Pussycats. What was that response like when it came out, especially during a time when people were so fixated on the box office numbers.
RLC: Truthfully, I gave absolutely zero thought to how much money something made. I was aware that She's All That had made quite a bit of money and I hadn't done something for a studio that was released I think as widely. But I just don't remember looking at how much money it had made. It wasn't something I was savvy enough to be thinking about. It only became apparent in that I had fewer options. But my career had always had peaks and valleys even on a much smaller scale before that, so I just didn't really think about it very much. I was very much interested in pursuing a career that looked a lot like Parker Posey's actually, I was making close to three, sometimes four independent movies a year. So I didn't feel like I was any less busy, I just knew that the movies had smaller budgets. But it wasn't until the indie scene then began to shift and dry up even a little bit that I knew things were not in the very best place for me personally.

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E!: So in terms of "movie jail," it felt like you were shut out of both bigger budget movies and indies?
RLC: It definitely felt like movie jail, for sure. And then in the industry everyone started doing TV and I was lucky enough to work on a TV show for three seasons, with Eric McCormack, and I solved a lot of fictional crime (Ed's note: TNT's Perception) and that was tremendous. But I definitely felt like the movie jail thing was real.

Marc Platt/Riverdale/Riverside/Kobal/Shutterstock

 E!: Over time though, Josie transforms into a cult classic and people are rediscovering it while new generations are finding it and appreciating the humor. But I do think it really was a definitive movie for girls growing up at that time, but without the Internet or the reach of a streaming service, they didn't really have a space to come together and share their connection to the movie.
RLC: That's so true. If it had been released now, word-of-mouth could've made it bigger. Back then, it leaves theaters and, you know, you're not going to rent it unless somebody told you to.

E!: There would probably be a DuJour TikTok challenge if this movie came out on Netflix today.
RLC: Completely.

E!: But when did you start realizing the reaction to the movie had shifted?
RLC: Funnily enough, my brother was in college when it was released and I think the year after it came out, not knowing that he and I were related, they studied the movie in one of his film studies classes, as to why people didn't get it. And so that sort of made me feel like there was a chance that the right people were seeing it as much as I wasn't hearing about it very often. Apparently, the film department at UC Santa Cruz and a couple other select people were like championing it. The fact that it got to the point that we are talking about it 20 years later, I guess word-of-mouth works.  It's just a long path.

E!: Looking at the reviews, the majority of film critics at the time were men and they did not like this movie.
RLC: Totally. They did not get it at all.

Marc Platt/Riverdale/Riverside/Kobal/Shutterstock

E!: Do you think that was a major part of the disconnect as well, when the people who are considered tastemakers at the time are older white men who the movie probably isn't for?
RLC: Yeah. But it's very easy if somebody doesn't like your movie to sit back and say, "Yeah well, we weren't making it for you anyway." You should say to yourself, "This probably wasn't for me, but it's still a good movie." It did feel very damning that people who were supposedly incredibly savvy weren't getting it. It didn't feel great. That landed with me more so than the money part. But when people who are funny people who are in-touch people, when they were getting it, it was really validating. I always knew we were proud of the movie that we had made, so it's not like it was keeping me up at night, let me be very clear about that!

E!: Finally, everything is getting a revival or reboot now, including a few of your past projects, like She's All That and The Baby-Sitters Club. And The CW's Riverdale did their take on Josie and the Pussycats. But would you ever consider putting on the cat ears again for a reunion?
RLC: I mean, what's funny and the reason that of course that it lives on The CW is that these characters in that world are immortalized at a certain age. I welcome and love the fact that I am part of what will now be a long legacy of people playing that role, I feel really honored. So who's to say who will be the next one and is it who's next or is it a revival? I don't know. That's up to the Riverdale franchise. I just feel lucky that we got to make such a cool, irreverent take on it. It's still surprising to me to this day that they let us make the version of it that we did because I'm not even sure they knew that that's what was coming.

Josie and the Pussycats is streaming on HBO Max.

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