Rachael Leigh Cook has been starring in films since she was 15 years old. From her days as a teen star to her breakout success in movies like She’s All That and Josie And The Pussycats, acclaimed indies, and TV roles on shows like Psych and Perception, the actor has amassed an enviable filmography. We sat down to speak with her via Zoom to discuss her new Netflix rom-com Love, Guaranteed, co-starring Damon Wayans Jr. Cook was even a great sport when we weathered some terrible computer connectivity during our chat, drinking tea and chatting about life in Hollywood, her inability to perform stunts, and almost getting stuck in a car that was leaking gas during a shoot.
Rachel Leigh Cook: I was lucky enough to be part of the inception and the process for the whole thing throughout this movie. I thought of the premise for this movie all at once. And I brought it to my manager, and he was like, “Huh. Interesting. We would need some writers.” Because, obviously I’m not. [Laughs.] And he luckily represented this incredible team of Liz Hackett and Hilary Galanoy. And I went, “Wait a second. I know the name of Liz Hackett. She’s one of my favorite people who I follow on Twitter.” And Hilary always came up as recommended, and I just hadn’t done the deep dive on her. She’s also incredibly funny and such a force to be reckoned with intellectually. These are both just incredibly smart and capable and funny women. And I was so thrilled that they even wanted to meet with me, let alone think that my idea was any good. And so when we met and they said, “We’re into it. Let’s do this,” and they were willing to write a dense four-page treatment on spec to go pitch, I was beside myself. I was so happy. I was so excited that they liked the idea. And they had just written recently a movie for Netflix called Falling Inn Love, so they were in very good standing over there, because Netflix was very excited about that release. And it went on and performed very well for them. So yeah. We were in—you know, the expression is “development hell,” but this was an absolute dream. From that pitch meeting, we were shooting about eight months and change later.
The A.V. Club: How much of this character was in your mind? Or was it just the germ of the premise?
RLC: This is where I give Liz and Hilary a ton of credit, because I thought of the premise of the movie, but I knew that I had painted myself into a corner a little bit when I realized that I had given the most interesting character away—to what goes on to be Damon [Wayans Jr.]’s role. This man who is world-weary and a touch bitter, for lack of a better way of putting it. And kind of disillusioned about love. And so I had to think about, where could my character be coming from? Luckily, Liz and Hilary were really able to round that out and create a character for me to play—someone who is sort of gun-shy about falling in love, having been burned when she was younger. Someone who gave herself to the avenues in life that were serving her better and more and more fulfilling, and that was her professional life. And I’m fully aware that it’s the utmost trope of romantic comedies to have the female protagonist to say, “I don’t have time for love! I just have to work!” But if you look at it through the lens of somebody who is afraid to walk towards something because they’ve been hurt before, I think that’s a lot more honest and relatable and real, and something I certainly understand.
AVC: You’re in almost every single frame of the film. Was this an exhausting shoot?
RLC: Uh yeah, Alex. The next time I think of a movie, I’m definitely going to think of one that I can appear in less, just so I can sleep a little bit more. [Laughs.] I remember when I first started acting, my actor friends telling me, “You really want to be number five on the call sheet. That’s the sweet spot, because then you’ll only work three days an episode of a seven day shoot. And you’re inextricable, yet present.” But I don’t know, this is the way the cookie crumbled, as it were. I’m a sucker for a rom-com. That will probably never change about me. I hope that my tastes can branch out a great deal further, but yeah. There’s something about this genre that just feels like home to me.
AVC: Was this your first non-commercial or non-short role?
RLC: Yes, and if you watch the film, which I would recommend for the performances of everyone else involved, but not myself, you could tell. You could tell that it’s very much my first role. I feel like every time I’d walk into a scene, the very basic, you know, actor-y questions that you’re supposed to ask yourself as a character being, you know, “Who am I? Where was I? What do I want?” It looks like no one has ever even posed these as questions to me. [Laughs]. Like, I come in, I exist on film, and then say some things, and then kind of disappear in the scenes. I am so appalled by my acting in that movie, but I still think it’s a delightful movie. So I feel very conflicted about it.
AVC: Being so young at the time, is it hard to remember exactly what the process was? Or is it burned into your brain because it was the first big thing?
RLC: I remember a fair amount about the process. I remember our director, Melanie [Mayron], telling me when we were near wrap that she thought I had a future in the business. And that really stuck with me and gave me a great deal of hope for myself. And I wonder to this day if she hadn’t said that, if I would have stuck with it.
AVC: If she had been like, “All right kid. Nice try.”
RLC: Yeah, no. She was like, “If you keep working at it, you’re going to do good.” She was very realistic about it. She was like, “You’ve got a ways to go, but you can do this.” And God help my parents, I listened to her.
AVC: Seems like it worked out all right for you.
RLC: I’m sure I would have debated you about that some days out of town, though.
AVC: That was a starring vehicle for Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Brad Renfro, who were both already child stars at that time. Was it eye-opening seeing the way that they were handled and dealt with when you were on set?
RLC: Yeah, and they couldn’t have been two more different human beings. I mean, as much as people who were—I think Jonathan was not even 13 at the time, I think Brad was 13, and I was 14, 15. I don’t know. I remember Jonathan talking to our set teacher about politics and tax brackets. Like, incredibly adult things. And Brad would tell me about how his dad would teach him to hustle pool in Knoxville and was just, you know, a true... I don’t know how to put it. He was brilliant, but there was just this totally lawless quality about him. He was just this live wire. So the idea of putting these two in a movie, it should have worked like gangbusters. But I don’t know. Trying to make that book into a movie again is always going to be difficult.
AVC: Did you at least enjoy your time on it? Or was it still sort of surreal?
RLC: Oh, my god, yeah. I believe that I got cast in that movie off a sort of momentum. That’s what they like to call it, as you full well know, in our industry. Like, people haven’t even necessarily seen your work, but the right person says something nice about you to the next right person, and then you can get the next job. And when you’re young, the pool is so full of people, but one comment gets you the next, and then the next. I feel like I just kept fooling people for a while.
AVC: You had done mostly these broad, kid-friendly studio comedies at the time. And then, along comes this low-budget, pitch-black indie. Do you remember at the time thinking, “Oh, this is a different world?”
RLC: Yes. I could tell by the way that the movie was shot. I remember thinking—and I was probably 17, 18 at the time—“There’s not as many people around here.” The crew just felt a little bit smaller, but I did a deep dive on Parker Posey’s career after working on that movie and getting acquainted with her from being a reference point of what I needed to play in these scenes, and the gaze from which I knew that these scenes would be filmed. I was aware of the piece that I was in, and that I was not a child anymore. And I blame that movie for a lot of the career decisions that I made in the years following that. [Laughs.]
AVC: How so?
RLC: Because the indie scene was so strong, and its voice was so loud within the industry. I just wanted to be in that club. I just wanted those people who I revered to accept me into their fold. And they did so, because it seemed like I was going to maybe bring them a little bit of box office by proxy. And I don’t know if that held any water, but that’s the way things worked back then.
AVC: Because your scenes are separate from the main cast, did you get to interact much with them?
RLC: No, not at all. My manager at the time, when she heard that the film had been accepted into competition at Sundance, I believe, she said, “Oh, you’re going.” I remember strongly thinking, “I worked on this for about three days, if that. Not sure that I’m invited.” But she was a wonderfully, “Oh, we’re invited”-kind of personality, which I am not. So we were a decent balance as a team at that time. And I went. I remember watching the movie and being completely blown away by the performances of all of the actors in it, and of Parker just being so welcoming to me. And I kind of instantly worshipped her. She was the ultimate cool girl. And when I found out years later that she accepted her role in Josie And The Pussycats, I still couldn’t quite believe it.
RLC: I feel incredibly grateful to have been a part of that movie for many reasons, especially in retrospect. The fact that it was a huge—you know, the budget was not small—what was going to be, Universal hoped, a big movie for them. And somehow, they gave one of the title roles to me, and I cannot sing at all. I don’t play guitar. I have no idea. I never, ever—with the number of triple threats that are out there now—ever would have been cast in this movie. Not even close. I mean, the fact that it happened? I feel like I have the equivalent of, like, survivor’s guilt, that I somehow got this role. How did this happen? But I love that movie. I hope that it holds up over the years, because it’s got a very serious place in my heart, still.
AVC: A lot of people on staff here are big fans of it. There’s something so warped and campy and fun about it. When we spoke to Missi Pyle for this feature a couple years ago, she talked about the hotel you guys stayed at during shooting in Canada, and how it seemed like every single actor in Canada was staying at the same place.
RLC: So this is true to this day: There’s always a million actors staying at a hotel called The Sutton Place in Vancouver, BC. And funny enough, while I was filming Love, Guaranteed, I struck out my door one morning for my pickup, and I was going down the hall, and I felt the door down the hotel hall open in front of me. And I looked up in my blurry, not-awake state to just do the, you know, obligatory “hello, neighbor” sort of smile at whoever was going to be there, and it was Gabriel Mann from Josie And The Pussycats, who plays Alan M. And he just went, “Cook?! Shut up, oh, my god!” And he was exactly the same. He hasn’t changed a bit, which made it that much weirder. And it was so bizarre, because—just to completely out myself—when we made Josie, I turned 20 on that movie. And I was turning 40 on Love, Guaranteed. So it was 20 years to the week since we had all been there together.
AVC: The barrage of personalities on that set. Not just people like Alan Cumming and Parker Posey, but Tara Reid at the height of her Kardashian-level fame.
RLC: Oh, my god, Tara never disappoints. She was the most vibrant, full-tilt, brutally honest person you could ever want to meet. She’s sort of an object lesson in how to live, if you ask me, with my Midwestern ways—like, I really need a friend like Tara. But yeah, Missi Pyle, oh my. Missi killed that movie. Her and Paulo Costanzo—who is still a dear friend of mine to this day, we were texting last week—I think steal so many of the scenes in that.
AVC: It would be hard to steal scenes from Alan Cumming.
RLC: That’s never happened. No one has ever done it.
AVC: Missi was very complimentary of you and mentioned you couldn’t have been nicer, but you were also sort of at the height of fame then, and she mentioned it didn’t seem like it was always the easiest thing for you to handle at that time.
RLC: The way I’ve always felt about my career or its trajectory was I was lucky enough to start working. I somehow kept working. And then this one thing I did, a lot of people seemed to see. And by the time that landed with me, people were saying, “Why can’t you do that again?” And I was still just sort of realizing that that thing had happened. So it was like this sort of after-the-fact experience. It felt very retroactive. And also, I wasn’t raised to be attentive to that. It was just about go try to work, and be a cog in the wheel. And do your best. So when later it became clear to me that it mattered if people spent money on movie tickets, that was sort of a new world for me. In terms of what Missi is saying about I “wasn’t comfortable with it,” yeah. I never, ever was. I was completely not comfortable with being recognized on the street. I didn’t understand that I had an image that I need to quote-unquote “uphold” or “deliver on for people.” I was a shy person in a very public world. And I didn’t know how to handle it. I think I do only slightly better now.
RLC: What I love about that show is that it showed me how to work hard in a way that I didn’t really understand in the years before. Eric McCormack, just every week, put on a clinic about how to be a professional, and how to bring it in different ways, and how to push yourself. And I am friends with him to this day. I’m very grateful for that experience. I like to say we solved a heck of a lot of fake crimes.
AVC: When you say the show, and Erik McCormack, showed you how to work hard in new ways, can you give me an example?
RLC: I don’t think I had ever worked on something where we had to film more than, I’d say, the most I had probably ever done was three and a half pages a day. And that’s embarrassing to admit, that I don’t come from a theater background the way that Eric did. I’m mortified by having to speak to groups of people. I’m very afraid of—I couldn’t even give a toast at a dinner party. I’m a mess. Like, you and me? Like, we’re cool. But when there’s three more people here who I didn’t know, whoo. Prickle sweats. Can’t do it.
So the idea of being on and having to do—some days—nine and a half pages of my character giving exposition of, “So wait a second! You said that you were going to be here at 4:30 on Tuesday afternoon, when really it was here, and so-and-so said that you were going to such-and-such at town hall.” Like, of all of these characters who I’ve never even seen face to face. We block-shot two episodes at once, which means all the days in the interrogation room, we’d shoot that whole thing over the course of two days. It doesn’t matter where it happens in the episode or those two episodes, it’s all just happening right now, probably out of order because we’re going to shoot your side first, then Eric’s, and we’re going to knock it out. That was just incredibly challenging. The learning curve was very, very steep for me. And luckily, we got there. We solved all those crimes, Alex. We really did.
RLC: I love that you know about Robot Chicken. I haven’t seen that many episodes, to be totally honest with you. I’ve probably seen half of the ones that I’ve done, if that. I still can’t believe—I don’t want to use the wrong terminology, but I love the sort of geek cred that I get for working on that show. I met Seth Green when we were both in our very early 20s. I want to say, very early. Because I think I met him before Josie And The Pussycats. We met at Sundance a couple years before that. He plays everyone’s favorite DuJour band member in Josie. And he and I have remained friends over the years. He and his wife, Clare, live not even half a mile that way. And so, I always just feel lucky when I get invited into their fold, and I get to play and record for them. They make me feel like I’m good at it, even if maybe I’m just a convenient hire.
AVC: A neighborly hire.
RLC: Whatever it takes, right.
AVC: You’ve done a lot with them. Is there a voice or something you did for that show that stands out, either because it was one of the weirder ones or more challenging?
RLC: Oh, man. Some days I get there, and I look at them, and I say, “Seth? Matt? I can’t do it.” And they will phonetically write out, you know—maybe one week it was three sentences in Japanese that I’m sure I completely mangled. But they have such a “It’ll be great. And if it’s not great, it’ll be funny” kind of way about them. Seth is a genius, for real. I feel lucky to have him in my life.
AVC: You’ve talked a lot about this role, but something I’ve always been curious about: When you’re doing a movie with a huge teen/young adult cast running around, are there hormones bouncing off all the walls during the shoot?
RLC: Alex, if you’re right, none of them were directed at me. I don’t want to kill anyone’s buzz, but Freddie and I have actually talked about the fact that, look, you go to work, and filming a rom-com—it’s a job, right? Your coworker is your coworker. But any actor who tells you that there isn’t, like, a spectrum of vague human interest in the other person is lying. And Freddie and I, we’ve laughed about it since, because we just don’t have that, personally. Like, I remember him saying at a convention a couple years ago, going, “I mean, I like you, but it’s weird how I just don’t like you.” And I’m like, “I know! Isn’t that great?” He’s like, “Yeah!” [Laughs.] I think I’m saying it wrong, so I hope you don’t even include that, but just like, we didn’t have—we had a chemistry that worked onscreen, but we had very pal, bro-y energy. Or not bro-y. We had very just-friends energy together as people.
But yeah. In terms of that thing, it changed my life from opening weekend on. It was just the most bizarre thing ever.
AVC: I read that oral history of the dance scene that HuffPost did a few years back, where you talked about how you were—
RLC: Oh dear!
AVC: —so glad you didn’t have to be a part of it.
AVC: Were any other awkward moments or things you were glad you didn’t have to do?
RLC: Wow. So many things. Yeah, not to brag, but I do almost none of my own stunts. I’m about job creation, Alex. That’s what I’m about. Yeah, I didn’t do the dance. I remember in the show Perception that I did with Eric, in the pilot, my character is supposed to be this unbelievable daredevil who goes too far to catch the bad guy, right? So at one point in the pilot, my character jumps off a second-story fire escape and tackles somebody. Now, thank you for keeping a straight face for most of that description, because yeah. It’s kind of a ridiculous idea, but we filmed it. But not after I stayed perched and, like, cowering on the edge of this fire escape with a giant two-story high inflated airbag that was going to catch me, in a harness, ready to jump about 10 feet into it. [Laughs.] I could not even do it. I had to psych myself up for probably 30 minutes. I watched the take after I finally did it, and I was so afraid, I passed out midair, and you can see my body go limp as I fall. And they couldn’t use it. They just had to use the stunt girl doing it. It’s so pathetic. [Laughs.]
AVC: That’s a rare thing, passing out mid-jump.
RLC: It’s legit sad. I like to to think that I could do it now, because the second take, I was like, “Oh, I lived.” But I remember I sort of woke up by hitting the giant airbag that caught me. It was remarkably pathetic.
AVC: But you literally made yourself pass out. That’s fairly impressive in a certain way.
RLC: Not supposed to happen. I think that they knew that they had spent entirely too much money on that stunt, which was not going to be sustainable for the duration of a series. We weren’t shooting Alias. You know what I mean?
It was—well, let’s just say it became very clear that we were not shooting Alias. [Laughs.]
RLC: That was so much fun. I remember knowing of the deep fandom for that show going into it and feeling pretty intimidated by that, going in and being the new kid. And it was only originally set to be one or two episodes, so when they invited me back, I was shocked, thrilled, surprised. You name it. It wasn’t a serialized show in any way at that point, so that felt really good. As anyone who has watched it knows, it’s very nostalgia-heavy. So I think that’s the way I got invited to come on board, and then was lucky enough to be asked to stay on for a while, which was sort of unprecedented at that time.
AVC: Since it hadn’t really gotten into the serialized stuff yet, when they asked you back, was it always just sort of, “Hey, let’s do one more,” or were they saying, “We’ve got this idea for something a little more involved.”
RLC: They always like to be able to change things on the fly, to an extent. So I think I was only booked in blocks of two or three episodes here or there, because it was always pending my availability. And they were always really able to be light on their feet, because of the... I don’t know what the word is. Not the content of the show, but by design of how they set up that world.
AVC: That show has sort of become famous for just how familial the cast and crew were with each other. Did it seem like coming into a well-oiled machine of people that really enjoyed being there?
RLC: Yeah, absolutely. And I was lucky to have known Dulé Hill prior. We made She’s All That together and had some rapport from that. Even though it had been close to 10 years since I had seen him. So it felt like seeing an old friend, but I definitely knew that I was walking into his backyard. And it’s always intimidating to walk into, like you said, such a well-oiled machine. Especially in the comedy space, which is not where I was coming from as directly.
AVC: But did you find you took to it?
RLC: Oh god, as far as the results, I’m my own worst critic, so don’t ask me. But the expression in the industry is always, your callback is your feedback, and they called again. So I’m just going to take it at face value.
Autumn In The Vineyard (2016)
Summer In The Vineyard (2017)
Valentine In The Vineyard (2019)—“Frankie Baldwin”
RLC: Yes, that was great fun. Those movies sort of marked as my foray, truly, into development and producing in a more active way. And that’s been incredibly rewarding. Working for Hallmark has been just an absolute blast. It works with my lifestyle as a mom, and as someone who loves to go away, work hard, and then come home and be with my family. So I absolutely loved that experience.
It’s a little bit sad working for Hallmark, though, because after the couple gets married, that’s sort of the end of the line, unfortunately. [Laughs.] Or, I wouldn’t call it unfortunate, but they definitely like to button up a storyline. And I will continue on with other projects for them this year, I believe. The project that I developed for their Christmas slate was announced, but we’re still waiting on an approved final draft, so it’s a little bit TBD. But I feel good about that happening as well.
AVC: I have to ask, though: Autumn and then Summer, to Valentine? You broke the seasonal theme.
RLC: We tried! It was originally going to be Wedding In The Vineyard. We were just trying to give the people what they wanted. But I think that name had been taken somehow, and it had to fit into their Valentine’s Day slot, so here we are.
RLC: I’ve got to say—and believe me, I’m not trying to take up your whole day talking about me, because, gross—but I was just thinking, “I have had some incredibly random roles,” and I cannot believe that we have not talked about this weird movie that I did called The Naked Man with Michael Rapaport. He, personally, is responsible for the two weirdest movies I’ve ever been in. That and 29 Palms—I can’t even tell you, but if you’re in for some good, random fare and you needed a deep cut, if this movie isn’t weird enough? Naked Man and 29 Palms. And The Big Empty with Jon Favreau. Holy bizzaro. My indie phase was full-tilt.
AVC: Well, now you’re going to have to tell me more about The Naked Man. It doesn’t even seem to be available on DVD, let alone streaming or rental.
RLC: Dude! How has no one ever talked about what a completely strange movie that was. J. Todd Anderson, who is the Coen brothers’ storyboard artist, wrote a movie called The Naked Man. It stars Michael Rapaport. I can’t even believe that this happened and got made and is a movie that people can watch. It’s about a chiropractor who, after a vision quest, begins moonlighting as a professional wrestler to talk about the dangers of spinal cord damage, and also avenge his wife’s murder. That’s what the movie is about, and I’m in it, and it’s a real thing. So there.
AVC: How did you get involved in that?
RLC: It was shooting in Minnesota. I auditioned for it like any other role. I somehow got it, and then Michael from there roped me into doing the movie 29 Palms with him a couple years later with Jeremy Davies and a great ensemble cast, there. But super weird. That was sort of a bag-of-money movie, but it was incredibly abstract. None of our characters had names. Back then, if I read a script and it seemed weird, I was like, “Where do I sign?” I just wanted in on it.
AVC: I assume that mentality led then to the third one you mentioned as well, with Jon Favreau?
RLC: Yeah, The Big Empty. I wouldn’t even quite know how to begin to describe that. Jon Favreau is fantastic in that film. And I think that it, in a strange way, actually holds up. But completely, completely irreverent. Man on a quest in the desert movie.
AVC: That one at least seems to be available to watch [via Tubi —Ed.]. Do you remember the process of shooting?
RLC: I remember one of the only dangerous moments I could say I’ve ever had on a set happened on that movie. My character, Ruthie, gets kidnapped and tied up in the back of a flatbed truck to a patio chair, which is then secured to the truck. And I was really bound and couldn’t move. I’m not acting that I was tied up by ropes to this chair. And then I was on the truck. It’s just parked and sitting there. And they’re having a dialogue about where my character is going to need to go or be taken or what have you. And I started smelling gas, and I got really, really freaked out. I got brought out of there very quickly, but yeah. It was not a great moment.
AVC: Yikes. Glad they got you to safety.
RLC: Anyway, I’m so sorry to bring up the weird stuff, but I was like, “I know what we’re going to be talking about!” So I think that I just had to scratch that itch. I apologize.
AVC: That’s better than the last one I was going to ask about anyway. Let’s keep it weird.
RLC: Thank you. I prefer to whenever possible.