Avantika Wore Uggs to Her High School Graduation

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

To see the dorm room behind her — a stuffed lion sitting on her bed, a pink Raising Cane’s T-shirt flung casually over the door of her standard-issue wardrobe — you’d think Avantika Vandanapu, known professionally as just Avantika, was your typical college student. In many ways she is: She is not above following a social-media trend (“I got a sunset lamp because I saw that everyone was doing it on TikTok”), and she has the same gripes about communal bathrooms and the dating scene as most college students. But she already has a lifetime of career experiences under her belt, having taken her first professional film role at the age of 11 in the Bollywood film Brahmotsavam. By 16, she was making history as the first actress of South Asian descent to lead a DCOM, Spin, in which she plays a high-school student turned EDM DJ.

And now, at 18 going on 19 (her birthday is January 25), she’s her generation’s Karen in the new Mean Girls musical movie. It’s fitting since Karen was always her favorite character in the original. “It’s okay to be unaware,” she says. “You can’t always control people’s perception of you. Sometimes it’s okay to let go of that inhibition and really not give a shit, because I think she doesn’t. And I love that about her.” Avantika’s Karen is expansive; she speaks in a breathy drawl and brings in her own South Indian identity into the character, giving the sense that Karen is less empty in the head and more just wrapped up in her own internal world.

First of all, we need to discuss your dance sequence during “Sexy” in Mean Girls. It’s made you the subject of several stan tweets. What was the process like?

I loved shooting that number. I grew up dancing, so it was really nice to have a dance moment in the movie because singing was a bit of a foreign thing for me. Karen has a lot of physical comedy. We wanted to lean into that. The dance feels like a call back to the early 2000s. In a way, it also felt like an homage to live theater. Our directors wanted to keep it as one take, but that meant everybody had to do a lot of rehearsals. There was a lot of pressure to not mess anything up. But I loved the way it turned out at the end.

It’s also not your first time working with Reneé Rapp. I loved your Sex Lives of College Girls episode! How’d you get cast with her in Mean Girls?

At that point, I was not doing anything for Mean Girls. After I had shot Sex Lives of College Girls, Reneé and I had gone to dinner about a month later. And at that point, the Mean Girls ball had started rolling. I asked her if she was reprising her role as Regina, and she was like, “I am, why are you asking?” And I was like, “I low-key am auditioning for Karen right now.” But I wouldn’t say Sex Lives was connected — no one on there knew.

What drew you to the project and to Karen?

I was always a big fan of the movie, like everyone, and Karen’s my favorite character from the original. I’ve never been a fan of glamorizing the bad guy in movies. I think there’s so much pride in remaining a nice person despite it all. I think Karen epitomizes making the best out of your circumstances. She may be naïve, but she’s quite kind, I think. So I’ve always loved her. As someone who is Indian, who doesn’t get the chance very often to play roles like this, it was a no-brainer to be able to play my favorite character in one of my favorite movies of all time — and something that I knew inevitably was going to be so important to our community.

How did you bring your identity to the role?

I would start with the name. Tina had asked me at the beginning of filming if I had any interest in a name change for Karen — maybe something like Karina or Kiran — and I was like, “I don’t think that’s necessary at all.” Karen stands out as she is. But I asked if we could do something with her last name. It was an amazing opportunity to use not just a South Asian, but a specifically South Indian last name. Opportunities for brown women in this industry are few and far from many, so we don’t really have the privilege of specificity. When you get the chance, you jump on it for your own people. In terms of the overall character, it was important for me to not be conscious either of steering far away from Amanda Seyfried or of really leaning into it. I think both would be a disservice to the legacy she left. Naturally, by virtue of being a different performer, tonally, the characters are going to end up being different.

You’re a multi-hyphenate — what’s a rule you follow that applies no matter what you’re doing, whether acting, singing, dancing or producing?

Pour your heart into it. You’re not going to see any results unless you do. You have to be prepared to make sacrifices, whatever you do. Yes, you can have your cake and eat it too, but not in the early stages of anything. I’ve always walked into a new field or new passion being like, There are things I’m going to have to cut out of my life. That is inevitable. And if I don’t love this enough to warrant doing that, then I shouldn’t be here.

You’re also currently a student at Columbia. Is there a rule you follow to keep it all together with classes and homework?

“Stress is the illusion of control.” I have it written on my wall. I’ve had bad anxiety, and so early stages of my life, where I had to balance school and work, there was just a lot of stressing and a lot of frantic energy accumulating around, like, Am I going to be able to do this, am I gonna be able to do that — things have always worked out for me. It may not have worked out the best; I got my first “B” ever on a transcript. I was like, It’s fine. It is what it is. At least I did both. Whereas if you showed 10-year-old me that, she would have been like, This is atrocious. This is embarrassing. You can’t control a grade that you’re gonna get. You can only control the amount of effort you put in. And if you have control over something, then you shouldn’t be stressing about it because it’s in your hands.

What is a rule that you would want Karen to follow or a rule that she inspires you to follow?

It’s okay to not be so self-conscious all the time. It’s fine. You can’t always control people’s perception of you. Sometimes it’s okay to let go of that inhibition and really not give a shit, because I think she doesn’t. And I love that about her.

You’ve performed in Bollywood and Hollywood. Is there a rule you follow when evaluating a potential opportunity?

This is really generic: It just has to make me feel something. I am a deeply emotional person, so more often than not, it’s not very hard to make me feel something. But I do have to feel something, and I have to see a point to it. Usually I’ll be onboard if both of those boxes are ticked.

Is there any etiquette that is common on a Bollywood set but not in Hollywood or vice versa?

Working in Bollywood often feels more like a family-run set. You’re gonna go over time inevitably, and everyone’s gonna be okay with it. It’s very much like bartering and negotiating with your family. There are pros and cons to that: You’re gonna feel a lot more comfortable on set. There’s more affection, more love. But I also think it means boundaries can get crossed. In Hollywood, things work on a more structured schedule and in a more organized fashion. So it feels more like a work environment. It feels more like you’re doing a job, but I think there’s also a level of predictability to that that you don’t often, in my experience, find in the Indian film industry.

What about the etiquette around food on set?

In India, you get chai delivered intermittently. We don’t really have craft services. You just get this man who walks around every two hours with a massive plate of food. If you’re in a take and that man decides to walk in, then everyone else is getting food, you’re not getting food. No one’s saving anything for you; that plate is getting cleaned. It’s usually either corn — we do buttered corn in India with spices like chili on it — or we do samosas. We do something called bread pakora, which is so unhealthy but everyone loves it. It’s a bread sandwich deep-fried in batter. And onion pakora, fried onions. It’s usually a lot of heavy food because people don’t have time to have a proper meal on set, so you do need to be getting in as many calories as you can when you do eat. And in America, we have craft services — chips, chocolate, you know.

What is the last app you downloaded on your phone?

This app called iStrip+, and it is because the lighting in my dorm is really bad, and so I got a sunset lamp because I saw that everyone was doing it on TikTok and you need an app to control the colors on the lamp.

The Plastics have a lot of very strict rules about what you can and cannot wear — so what is your personal No. 1 fashion rule?

I will rarely wear a button-up and button it all the way to the top. I think I just look stuffy. I don’t think I can pull it off. So I will not do that. And this isn’t really a rule, because I do own one pair of sneakers, but beyond that, I doubt I will get more sneakers. It’s just not my vibe.

Wait, you don’t wear sneakers?

I own only one pair. I pull on sneakers and I feel like an impostor. I’m like, What are you doing? Who do you think you are with your baggy jeans and your sneakers? You’re not cool enough. So I just take them off. They don’t fit my vibe.

What sneakers do you have? And what shoes do you wear when you want to be comfortable?

I’m a really big Uggs fan. I wore Uggs to my graduation. I walked the stage to get my valedictorian medal in Uggs, and everyone who looked at the pictures was like, “What is wrong with you?” I have six pairs of Uggs. Or I’ll do a boot or a heel. I have so many heels. I’m really gonna develop major scoliosis because of it. It’s already begun, low-key, but I love heels. And my sneakers are Nike Kyrie Infinities. That’s the line. I bought them only because I play a basketball player in a show that I have coming out on Amazon, so I had told the people that I play basketball, but I don’t. When I booked it, I was like, Shit, now I have to go and learn. So my dad and I went to Dick’s Sporting Goods, and we’re like, “Let’s find the cheapest pair of basketball shoes.” So we found these and we’re like, “These are kind of fire.” Hence the purchase.

Do you have a rule around sending gifts?

I’m chronically a terrible gift giver. My love language for giving and receiving is acts of service. If I love you, I will do things for you. I’ll drive to your place even if it’s 4 a.m. But my No. 1 rule for gifts is don’t go by price, go by thought. I know that when I receive a gift, I really couldn’t care less about how much it cost. It’s easier to make an expensive purchase, but they would appreciate something that’s a little bit more well thought of.

What about canceling plans — what’s your etiquette around that?

I’m not a big flake. Recently, though, with school and everything, I have become really terrible with maintaining plans and keeping up with my calendar. My go-to is always to reschedule. It hurts my feelings when people cancel a plan and then don’t bother rescheduling it — I’m like, “Oh, so you were looking for an out.” When I cancel on a plan, I always make an effort to make sure that that person knows that they were not the reason for why this plan was canceled. I am the problem, not you.

You’re on a college campus. Do you think it’s okay to ghost after one date?

The college dating scene is really bad, I just have to say. Ghosting is tough because you’re probably going to see them around campus. So I would say don’t do it because it’s just gonna make things awkward for you. You don’t want to be shit-talked by some random man who has nothing better to do to his entire friend circle because he got ghosted and he doesn’t have the balls to take it.

What is your No. 1 rule for splitting the bill with friends?

Okay, I’m a big Splitwise fan. I love Splitwise; I think it’s so much easier. I think individually keeping track builds a lot of resentment. Money should be fairly simple. That being said, if we split it the day of, in the moment, always Venmo immediately. Just get the Venmo out of the way. Don’t let people ask you twice.

What is your best rule for engaging with people at parties?

I always talk to somebody like I’ve known them for years, and I always appreciate when people at parties are warm and comfortable around me. Even if it’s just engaging in small talk, I try to make it feel like we’re like old friends catching up after a long time and I think it leaves a really good taste in people’s mouths. Party environments, especially in this industry, can feel so vain and surface level and network-y — just really superficial. So I think making people feel like you guys are already friends, you’ll always start off on a good note.

Do you have a different approach to college parties?

You have to go through the standard questions: What major are you? What year are you? What hall are you in? Usually ,that’ll lead to, “Oh, you’re in this dorm hall — do you know yada-yada-yada?” The way I start off with new people at college is usually with mutuals, especially in the freshman class. It’s so small — I know for a fact we must have mutuals.

Do you have a roommate?

No, I have a single.

What rules do you have for your dorm room?

I just say no outside clothes on the bed. That being said, every single one of my friends has done it. I have done it. I am currently sitting on my bed in my outside clothes. Sometimes you’re just so tired — what are you gonna do about it?

What rules do you wish people were following in the communal bathrooms?

Take your hair out of the drain. I actually don’t care if you want to stick your hair on the shower walls. Everyone does it. But take it out of the drain. For men, put the friggin’ toilet seat down, please.

Now that you’re a New Yorker, what is your No. 1 rule for walking on the street or the sidewalk?

If you’re going to go on your phone, don’t do it in the middle of the sidewalk. Walk to a corner and then do it there. Everyone’s walking so fast. I walk fast, too, so I always make sure that I step aside and get out of people’s way if I want to go on my phone.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Avantika Wore Uggs to Her High-School Graduation