Lili Reinhart’s Been Through Heartbreak. She Wants To Tell You About It.
After a tumultuous year, Lili Reinhart is learning to swim through the pain.
“I am not the human being I was four months ago,” Lili Reinhart says during a recent Zoom call. The 23-year-old actress recently moved into her first home in Encino, CA, where she’s spent most of the last five months sheltering in place. It’s there that she’s been bonding with her beloved adopted puppy, Milo, widening her social group (“I recently befriended a porn star!”), and musing over her two forthcoming, intensely personal projects: Swimming Lessons, her debut book of poetry out September 29, and Chemical Hearts, an achingly tender teen drama streaming August 21 on Amazon.
Together, Swimming Lessons and Chemical Hearts act as a double feature introducing another side of Reinhart to the world. Best known for her starring role as Betty Cooper on the wickedly popular CW series, Riverdale, Reinhart has also had memorable turns in the 2016 indie Miss Stevens and 2019 hit Hustlers. While her new work feels more personal than anything else she’s ever done, it also feels like an organic evolution from not only her prior roles, but also her lived experience. Which is why, in order to understand this new Reinhart, it helps to understand the old Reinhart. And by “old,” I mean young.
Born in Cleveland, OH in 1996, Reinhart was always an entertainer. From an early age, she was given votes of confidence by her family and friends to pursue a career in acting. She started going to open calls in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh before she was even a teenager, which led to booking her first short film in New York City in 2010. Reinhart’s interest in acting is so innate that she doesn’t remember asking to audition, or having to beg her mom to drive her eight hours to New York City from Cleveland to audition — it was just something that was understood. “My mom really believed in me for some reason,” she says. “I think I need to ask my mom, ‘How could you have so much faith in me that you drove eight hours to New York in your blue minivan, as I made you listen to Glee songs the whole day, which I'm sure was just fucking miserable?’”
Reinhart moved to Los Angeles at 16 to live in a house with other young struggling actors, where she booked a few indie roles (Not Waving But Drowning, Kings of Summer) and a recurring role on the short-lived TV series Surviving Jack. “It was depressing,” she says of her experience in L.A. as a teenager. “When I first moved to L.A., my anxiety was so bad that I was throwing up every night.” Between the anxiety, depression, and rejection, Reinhart considered giving up acting. Her perseverance paid off, though; at the age of 19, she booked Riverdale, and was instantly hailed as an “overnight success.” At that point, Reinhart had already been a working actress for half her life.
“You see someone's success and you're like, Oh shit, it came so easy to them,” she says, remembering the narrative around her career’s ascent. “No. It didn't. Between [12 and 19] I was struggling being told no. I was broke. I was mentally unwell.” And though being cast on Riverdale would somewhat quickly solve the first of those two problems, mental health issues aren’t ever going to be resolved overnight; they take time and care to address. Which is why, with Riverdale having so totally occupied the past four years of her life, it’s only now, during the pandemic, that Reinhart has been able to find a moment to really reflect. “This has been the first time in four years where I've been able to like stop and process the immense life changes that I've gone through,” she says.
Reinhart is speaking to me perched atop an oversized couch, one of the few pieces of furniture in her still-sparsely decorated living room, her new home seems like the perfect blank slate to move forward from what she tells me felt like a “black tunnel [that] was never going to end.” She says, “I couldn't see the light. I was like, I feel like I'm dying. It was fucking rough, and there's no other way through it than just through it. I've seen a lot of people when it comes to heartache and grief and breakups, and they try to get that void filled with sex, with coke, with food, with drinking, [but] the void is still there. I took the road less traveled and just dealt with my shit. I had to face my own pain head-on.”
Pain — from heartbreak, from loss, from trauma — is something Reinhart is unafraid of exploring in her work. In both Riverdale and Hustlers, Reinhart’s brought depth to a perky girl-next-door character, exploring the many facets of teenage girlhood. Chemical Hearts, though, offers a different look at how pain manifests in a person, and that’s exactly what Reinhart loved about it, that it wasn’t a “niche 16-year-old drama,” she says. “If I was going to do a high school movie, it was going to be raw and emotional. In Riverdale, everything is go, go, go. It's very in your fucking face all the time. This movie is not like that. It's very pulled back — more grounded, more settled, and there's more silence.”
Based on a YA novel by Australian author Krystal Sutherland, Chemical Hearts is a movie about first love. It’s also about the type of extremely painful breakup that might make someone going through a breakup of their own turn away in order to protect themselves. But not Reinhart — that’s exactly what drew her to it.
In Chemical Hearts, Henry Page, a genial guy played by Euphoria’s Austin Abrams, narrates his tragic love story with new student Grace Town, played by Reinhart. Henry never thought much about love until Grace transfers to his high school and is recruited to join the school’s paper as his co-editor-in-chief. Henry falls hard for the mysterious figure and her tattered copy of 100 Love Sonnets. While Henry is the kind of guy who seems to crave his very own manic pixie dream girl, the movie — and Reinhart — steer clear of that trap by making Grace live up to and beyond the state of reverie he finds himself in when he’s around her.
The movie’s writer and director, Richard Tanne, says Reinhart was perfect for the part, but tells me, over the phone, that she brought something more than just her acting abilities. When he met her in Vancouver, “she was very unassuming,” he says, “and very determined to make a meaningful piece of art. I remember feeling very encouraged that we both wanted to embrace the darkness and the tragedy that permeates the book.” The two agreed that adding threads of darkness from romantic films like Blue Valentine, Blue Is the Warmest Color, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo would speak to the type of teen film they each wanted to create.
The result is a profoundly melancholic love story, more The Virgin Suicides than The Kissing Booth, in which just as much communication happens within uncomfortable silences and precisely composed shots as it does from the dialogue. As Grace, Reinhart speaks sparingly, conveying deep grief in subtle, but powerful ways. In order to transform into the broken-hearted girl who shields herself from the world, Reinhart went a little method (“I'm not Daniel Day-Lewis”), and fully embraced her own recent experiences with loss — a painful breakup, and the end of a friendship — to really let Grace take over.
“It was a delicate balance showing this girl who's very clearly grieving, but not portraying her as a bitch,” Reinhart says. “A girl doesn't have a smile on her face [and] people say, ‘Smile.’ It's like, fuck you.”
Reinhart would probably love to say “fuck you” to a few people — or rather, a few thousand. As much as she has tried to keep her private life private, her on-again-off-again romance with her co-star and always-friend, Cole Sprouse (that W Magazine cover was a year ago), has led to intense public scrutiny, with countless complete strangers weighing in with uninformed opinions about highly intimate matters. To be honest, “fuck you” would probably be a polite response to some of what has been left in Reinhart’s Instagram comment section. And on top of all that, Reinhart is dealing with the very real turmoil associated with leaving a relationship.
“The last couple of months have probably [been] the most emotional few months of my entire life and my therapist [told] me, ‘Your body's going through withdrawal from love,” she says. “‘You're used to having this exchange of happy chemicals between you and the person that you're with.’ In moments of my life, I have dropped every ounce of pride that I had just to be like, Love me. Please take the pain away for a day, a second, an hour, just so I can feel that fix again.”
As she says this, Reinhart is leaning casually on the back of her couch. The more vulnerable she gets, the more comfortable she looks. Make-up free in a white T-shirt, her damp, naturally curly hair slightly frizzing around her face, Reinhart doesn’t seem like a media-trained actress, practiced in providing polished soundbites: she seems free and open, like an artist.
Reinhart wrote a lot of poetry on the set of Chemical Hearts, using the time between takes to express herself in a different, still creative way. And even though her life has been imitating art for years now — “When I was 18, I actually considered being a stripper at one point,” she says, referencing Hustlers — it does feel oddly like fate that her debut book of poetry will be released at around the same time as her starring role as a young writer and poetry lover. Is it art imitating life, or is it just...life? Whatever it is, it’s overwhelming. “The most vulnerable thing I've ever done is publish a book of poetry where it's basically my innermost thoughts and feelings written down in what, I think, is a beautiful form,” she says, almost laughing at the idea of her future trolls “judging the shit out of me for it.”
Reinhart’s ability to laugh off internet trolls comes courtesy of years of experience. Just recently, she gracefully handled Instagram commenters critiquing her appearance, asking if she was pregnant because she uploaded a bathing suit photo — she’s not, she just doesn’t have an “inverted stomach” and doesn’t let a scale dictate her life. She’s used to the negative attention now, and learning how to handle it has clearly made her stronger. It also means that she doesn’t care if she falls short of anyone else’s idea of what a poet is. “I don’t even call myself a poet,” she says. “Writer,” however, hits the spot.
Whatever she calls herself, Reinhart’s entry into poetry comes from what she calls “typewriter poetry” — think, the relatable and quotable work you’ve seen on your feeds, by writers like Tyler Knott Gregson, Michael Faudet, and Lang Leav, that combines the aesthetics of a handcrafted note with the lyrical qualities of your favorite song about heartbreak. Reinhart and Leav, a Cambodian-Australian novelist and poet who rose to fame on Tumblr and Instagram for her relatable love poems, first connected on social media, and have now forged a virtual friendship. Leav recently asked Reinhart to write the foreword for her upcoming book, September Love, about — what else — relationships, heartbreak, and secret desire. “The foreword she wrote was achingly heartfelt and personal,” Leav tells me via email. “It was as though her voice was always meant to be part of the book.”
Leav also praised Reinhart’s Swimming Lessons, as well as her ability to exist creatively despite the public’s judgmental eye. “Her poetry is so raw and honest. It possesses an ethereal quality that is rare and wonderful,” Leav says, continuing, “In a small way, I can relate to some of her experiences over the last few years, being a woman and in the public spotlight. Social media can at times be vicious and cruel. It is such a hyper-moralistic and deeply hypocritical culture. I am amazed at how Lili handles it all with so much maturity and grace.”
The introduction to Swimming Lessons is an example of Reinhart taking control of her narrative before an unwelcome one can be imposed upon her by readers; in it, she makes it crystal clear that her writing is not simply a personal confession. Betty Cooper isn’t real, and neither is the Lili Reinhart that exists in her poetry — the emotions are the only truth that matters. Though Reinhart does write about the grief of a broken heart, she cautions that this shouldn’t be read as a commentary on one particular relationship — even if she can’t stop the world from thinking that. “I felt the need to write that because I was scared — and I am scared — that people are going to try and create their own idea of what my love life looked or looks like,” she says. “I'm not saying, My boyfriend fucked another woman. I'm saying, I felt betrayed.”
But Swimming Lessons doesn’t just offer tantalizing glimpses into Reinhart’s romantic history, real or imagined, it has a deeper emotional core, one hinted at in the book’s dedication. Reinhart says she wrote it for her Nana: “She passed away two years ago. She would've loved this. She loved hearing me sing as a kid. This book is like me singing. It's my voice coming through in a written word.”
Using her voice creatively is a skill she’s honing off the page, too, with future film and TV projects. It would be easy for Reinhart to just put her name on a film and sit out the tough conversations, but instead, she’s leaning in. Reinhart hints at an upcoming project with Netflix, where she’s signed on to produce a film with a Black woman director. Working on projects with powerful women isn’t new to Reinhart — she’s worked with four women directors and has an all-women team — but she’s now more conscious of making sure her future projects are diverse in ways that go beyond gender-inclusivity. “Asha [Bromfield, who plays Melody on Riverdale] made such a good point, where there's an idea that if you have one Black person in your movie, you're good, you've covered all the bases. As if one Black person is representative of the entire race,” she says, incredulously. “That was striking to me, because I wasn't looking at it that way, because I'm fucking white, and I wasn't asked to look at it that way.”
But now she is forcing herself to look at it that way, and using her institutional power to uplift others. “I'm a white woman and I want to make my films diverse,” she says, adding: “I produce specifically making sure that when I do have a character that isn't white, it's not in any ways boxing in or contributing to a stereotype that already exists. I think that's what I can do from my position.” Reinhart, who came out as bisexual this June, says this also applies to LGBTQ+ roles and actors, too.
“I've made a point to make this time in my life, this pandemic, this quarantine helpful for me in some way,” she says. “I very much have looked inward and really worked on myself and I can feel myself having grown a lot. Even just the way I'm thinking is different and I'm less judgmental and I'm more open to meeting new people. I've gone out of my way to try to better myself as a human being.”
Filming on Riverdale’s fifth season begins soon, but Reinhart has her sights set beyond the series as she continues to shape her acting and producing career. But that doesn’t mean she’s done with writing: She already finished her second book of poetry. And when it comes to sharing even more of herself with the world, she says: “I’m ready.”