He Goes Here: Mean Girls Star Jaquel Spivey's Damian Contains Fabulous Multitudes | Playbill

Special Features He Goes Here: Mean Girls Star Jaquel Spivey's Damian Contains Fabulous Multitudes

Spivey doesn't sing as much in the movie adaptation of the musical, but he's not bothered.

Jaquel Spivey and Auli'i Cravalho in Mean Girls Jojo Whilden/Paramount

Jaquel Spivey says when he writes his memoir, the Mean Girls chapter will be titled “My Light at the End of the Tunnel.”

“To get to tell a story of a fat, Black, queer person who is happy about the world around him and loves himself unconditionally and walks through the world with his head held high—it was the perfect segue into finding Jaquel again,” he tells Playbill.

That happy character is Damian, Mean Girls’ least mean character and most loyal friend to Janice (played by Auli'i Cravalho) and Cady (Angourie Rice). Spivey is taking on Damian in the story's newest iteration, a screen version of the 2018 Broadway musical (itself based on the hit 2004 film) hitting movie theatres January 12.

And as for finding Jaquel again…well, that’s because Spivey hit most of our radars in a decidedly less happy story, the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning musical A Strange Loop. Spivey earned himself a Tony Award nomination starring as Usher in the musical’s Broadway premiere, bringing writer Michael R. Jackson’s often difficult and harrowing story of a young, fat, Black, queer musical theatre writer struggling for some semblance of self-acceptance in a world that seems to hate him.

“I had such a great experience on Broadway,” he says. “But after a while, when you’re playing a character that’s in such a dark place, it starts to weigh on you even if you yourself aren’t in a dark place. It really started getting difficult for me.”

And it wasn’t just an emotional toll. Spivey says his performance was physically taxing too—he was on stage for most of the show's 90-minute runtime and sang a majority of the show's songs. “I was using a character voice,” he reveals. “Michael and the music team had a sound in mind, and I wanted to deliver that as best as possible. But going over a year without being able to use your actual tone is kind of tough.” Mean Girls, he says, was a totally different experience. “It was nice to be in a place where they’re like, ‘What do you sound like? Let’s find out what this character sounds like through you.”

READ: Critics Sound Off on the Mean Girls Movie Musical

In fact, Spivey left his fingerprints all over this new screen Damian. He cites original Mean Girls film star Daniel Franzese as an inspiration and the one who started it all, but Spivey wasn’t interested in recreating that performance for the story’s second screen outing. Spivey’s Damian is uniquely 2024, with a confidence and nuance that is all too often missing from onscreen queer representation.

And of course there’s something else that makes Spivey’s Damian stand apart. “It’s very obvious that Damian is Black in this movie,” Spivey shares. “I say that proudly.”

He’s not the first Black actor to take on the part. Both DeMarius R. Copes and the late Darius Barnes understudied the role on Broadway. “They were the first to really show Damian as a Black man. To be able to bring that to the screen is a huge honor,” says Spivey. Now that the show is available to be performed by schools, they’ve no doubt been joined by countless other pioneering Damians, too.

To Spivey, the character is about more than making audiences laugh—which he does throughout his screen-stealing performance, to be clear (you will get to hear Spivey’s takes on “You go, Glen Coco” and “She doesn’t even go here!”).

“I think Black queer representation, especially for a plus-sized man, is very scarce,” he says. “And when you do see it, it’s either the joke or the punching bag. In this iteration, he’s neither. He’s funny, but he’s not here for your amusement.”

Jaquel Spivey performs at Curtain Up Broadway Festival in Times Square Michael Hull

Surprisingly, Spivey’s 2024 take on the character was partially helped, he says, by some initially disappointing news. Two of Damian’s big numbers from the Broadway version of Mean Girls—"Where Do You Belong?” and “Stop”—were cut from the screen adaptation. Spivey didn’t even find out the songs were gone until the first day of rehearsal, and he’d auditioned for the role singing the former.

But Spivey used it to his advantage. “I wouldn’t say I’m bitter because I feel that in this world of Mean Girls, Damian is not your theatre gay,” Spivey explains. Instead of being heartbroken with the cuts, Spivey decided to use the opportunity to widen perceptions about gay and queer people. “Queerness doesn’t have one look and one existence. There are a lot of queer people out here who don’t even like Broadway. That sucks for them, because they should love it—but everybody has their own thing.”

Spivey says it also helped him address another quirk of queer representation that can be unintentionally damaging. Gay people are not put on earth to entertain the people around them. “Sometimes queer people put on the show because they know that we often entertain people with our existence,” he says. “I didn’t want Damian to feel like he had to always be on and to always entertain and be like, ‘Oh hey, I’m gay. Miss thing? Boots the house down!’ That’s cute, but sometimes people don’t talk like that. I happen to be queer, and that doesn’t come with me needing to perform for you.”

The character transformation, Spivey says, was all part of working on a Mean Girls that has been decidedly adapted for a 2024 audience. “That’s Tina’s writing,” Spivey explains. “She understands that 2004 and 2024 are very different.” The biggest way that plays out in the new screenplay is that, while it's still being about teenagers being terrible to each other, the students of North Shore know there are certain lines that are off limits—most noticeably homophobia. The original film makes a major plot point of Queen Bee Regina George bullying Janice as being a lesbian. The new film features a more nuanced take on this particular backstory. Fey told the New York Times that she made that particular update because she knew even the queen bees of 2024 would get flack for that from their peers. The children are learning—even the mean ones!

Spivey says this new Mean Girls gives the kids of today a model for being a bully without having to be hateful to gay people, which (in a roundabout way) is almost touching. “You can be a bitch without being queerphobic,” Spivey says with a twinkle in his eye. “People do it every day.”

That element lets this Damian be a little more loud and proud, a little more unapologetically himself—and that’s especially poignant to Spivey. “I grew up in North Carolina,” Spivey says. “I know what it’s like to walk down the hall and have a group of jocks laugh and snicker, but I sashayed anyway. Damian does that, too. I hope it encourages some kid out there to keep being their best true self.”

Happily, it turns out this is a piece of Spivey’s Damian that comes from the actor himself. “We get one life. I’ll be damned if I spend time worried about y’all. I’m gonna have a good time while I’m here.” Luckily for us, Jaquel Spivey does, in fact, go here.

Photos: Reneé Rapp, Christopher Briney, Ashley Park, More Star In Mean Girls Movie

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