What the Hell Happened to Rachel Leigh Cook?
Usually articles in the “What the Hell Happened” series start off with a brief paragraph intended to show what a big star the subject used to be. This career high point will then typically be contrasted with either a corresponding low point of the subject’s current status. But the rise and fall of Rachael Leigh Cook isn’t anywhere near that dramatic. Aside from her one hit movie, she is probably best known for having smashed eggs with a frying pan in a long-running public service announcement. Cook’s not so much a fallen starlet as a child actor who could have been a bigger star than she was. All the same, we’ll still ask the question…
What the hell happened?
At the age of seven, Cook made her acting debut in a public service announcement for foster care. At 10, she began doing print modeling. She appeared in a national ad for Target and was pictured on the box of Milk-Bone dog biscuits. It’s hard to say who is cuter; Cook or the puppy.
As a teenager, Cook began auditioning for movie roles. She quickly made the transition from the pet aisle to the cineplex.
Cook made her acting debut in the big screen adaptation of Ann M. Martin’s series of novels, The Baby-Sitter’s Club. The title tells you everything you need to know on this one. A group of seven young girls form a babysitting club which leads to various adventures. The plot for the movie was culled from three novels which weren’t actually written by the creator of the series. In the movie, the girls decide to form a day camp for the kids they watch.
Critics were lukewarm on The Baby-Sitter’s Club and it tanked at the box office. It opened the same weekend as Mortal Kombat which was the number one movie that week. Way down the list, The Baby-Sitters Club opened in ninth place behind Apollo 13 which had been in theaters for two months by that point. Over time, The Baby-Sitter’s Club has found an audience as fans of the books discovered the movie on home video.
A lot of the girls in The Baby-Sitters Club continued working. But none of them went on to the heights that awaited Cook.
Later that year, Cook played Becky Thatcher in Disney’s adaptation of Mark Twain’s novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The movie gave Huckleberry Finn equal billing with the title Tom and Huck. Jonathan Taylor Thomas, was still in his teen heart-throb stage when he starred as Tom Sawyer. Brad Renfro, hot off John Grisham’s The Client, played his friend Huck.
Stephen Sommers, who cowrote and coproduced this movie, had previously written and directed an adaptation of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for Disney two years prior. The casts are completely different so there is no direct link beyond being from the same studio and Sommers’ involvement.
The Adventures of Huck Finn had done marginally well enough for Disney to let Sommers take another shot at Twain. But Tom and Huck was a miss with critics and audiences. It opened near the bottom of the top ten once again putting Cook in ninth place at the box office sandwiched between flops like Sudden Death and Dracula: Dead and Loving It.
This was bad news for Thomas and Renfro, but for a newcomer like Cook, it was a victory to be cast in two major motion pictures. Sure, it would have been nice if one of them had been a hit. But her previous gig was co-starring with Snoopy on a box of dog treats.
The following year, Cook starred in the short film, 26 Summer Street which played at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival. She also appeared in a less-artsy comedy starring Tom Arnold and David Paymer. In Carpool, Paymer played the kind of uptight dad who panics when his sick wife asks him to drive the kids to school. Cook played Paymer’s son’s dream-girl who also happens to ride in the carpool. Tom Arnold, during the brief period in the nineties in which he was cast in lead roles, played a loveable loser who hijacks the car and takes Paymer and the kids hostage.
Carpool was directed by Arthur Hiller. Yes, the same guy who made The Out-of-Towners, Plaza Suite, Silver Streak and The In-Laws also directed a Tom Arnold vehicle. By the mid-nineties, Hiller had fallen on hard times.
Critics weren’t kind to Carpool. John Artl of The Seattle Times wrote “Watching a Tom Arnold movie is like getting trapped in a room with a barking dog for 90 minutes.” Even Ty Burr, who gave Carpool a mixed review, called the movie “Hard to hate, but just about impossible to like.”
Unlike Cook’s previous movies, Carpool didn’t open at the bottom of the top ten. It missed the top ten completely landing in 13th place behind Alaska which was in its second week of release.
1997 was a big year for Cook. She started showing up in tons of TV movies. The first of which was Country Justice (aka Family Rescue). George C. Scott starred as a grandpa who has to take matters into his own hands when his granddaughter is raped. Cook played the granddaughter who was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. Former Brat Packer, Ally Sheedy, played the no good mom.
In true TV movie fashion, the boyfriend, played by Don Diamont, begins stalking Cook who is pregnant with his child. The stress causes Cook to go into labor and she has a son. Diamont sues for custody of the baby and wins, but Scott has had enough. He kidnaps the baby and becomes a fugitive great grandpa. Yes, it’s all as pulpy as it sounds. And it’s damn near impossible to turn off once you get invested in it.
Next up was the CBS miniseries, True Women. The series adapted the 1993 novel of the same name. The story runs five decades covering events from the Texas Revolution through the Civil War and into the women’s suffrage movement. The cast included Dana Delany, Annabeth Gish, Angelina Jolie, Tina Majorino, Michael York, Tony Todd, Powers Boothe, John Schneider and Charles S. Dutton. Cook played Jolie’s character as a teen. It was also the acting debut of Hilary and Haylie Duff who appeared in uncredited roles.
Cook continued playing the younger version of 20-something actresses in her lone theatrical film of the year. The House of Yes starred Parker Posey as an unstable woman obsessed with Jackie Onassis. Cook appears briefly as Posey’s character in flashbacks. Tori Spelling, Freddie Prinze, Jr. and Geneviève Bujold costarred.
The movie was well-received at the Sundance film festival. Overall, reviews were mixed to positive. Despite decent reviews, The House of Yes never received a wide release.
Rounding out a busy year, Cook popped up the made-for-cable movie, The Defenders: Payback. The movie featured E. G. Marshall reprising his role from the courtroom drama that aired in the late sixties.
She also played a model who may actually be the anti-Christ in the Omen rip-off The Eighteenth Angel.
Cook’s name appeared in a lot of credits, but unless you were the kind of person who watched a lot of made-for TV movies in the late-nineties, you may not have noticed her. But odds are good that if you turned on a TV around that time, you probably saw Cook smashing up a kitchen with a frying pan in an anti-drugs public service announcement.
The spot was an update of the long running “This is your brain on drugs” PSA which had been running since 1987. Originally, the new spot was supposed to feature a male teen wielding the frying pan. But the director thought it would be more effective with a female spokesperson. Cook was reportedly enthusiastic about the job because she thought it was for a good cause.
Thirty years later, this PSA is still one of the things Cook is best-known for. Cook revisited the ad in 2017 with a new political spin.
As enduring as the egg-smashing public service announcement turned out to be, Cook was still an unknown. Maybe her face was familiar, but most audiences couldn’t put a name to it. The last 90’s were filled with the kind of roles young actresses take while they are paying their dues. She appeared in an episode of the sci-fi anthology show, The Outer Limits, played an uptight hall monitor in the coming-of-age drama, All I Wanna Do and portrayed a teenage Holly Hunter in the dramedy, Living Out Loud. Cook continued building her indie cred with little movies like The Naked Man which starred Michael Rapaport as a violent chiropractor and The Hi-Line in which Cook plays a girl who discovers a family secret.
In 1999, audiences finally learned the name of that cute, angry girl they had watched smashing eggs on their TV sets for the last couple of years. Rachel Leigh Cook and Freddie Prinze Jr. costarred in the teen romcom She’s All That and it made them both famous. For the last several years, most movies aimed at the high school crowd were sly horror movies with casts cobbled together from TV shows on the WB. She’s All That was the first movie in a while to go back to the John Hughes playbook right down to an ugly-duckling metamorphosis worthy of Molly Ringwald. Just a few months later, Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger would cater to the same audience with 10 Things I Hate About You.
Critics were dismissive of the update on Pygmalion. But the target audience of teenage girls who wanted to believe that with the right make-over, they could date Freddie Prinze Jr. weren’t concerned about the movie’s tired cliches. It was all new to them anyway. They showed up in droves making She’s All That a hit at the box office. The movie grossed over one-and-a-half times its budget in its opening weekend alone. It held on pretty well too with six weeks in the top ten. That was enough to make She’s All That the 38th highest grossing movie of 1999 which may not sound all that impressive, but for a low-budget teen movie released in January, it’s a win.
Audiences were also getting to know Cook on the small screen. A month after She’s All That opened, while it was still hanging out in the box office top ten, Cook appeared in several episodes of the WB drama, Dawson’s Creek.
Cook’s character on the show was an actress who played a character based on Katie Holmes’ character in a movie directed by Dawson. Holmes’ character resents the actress portraying her after she poses nude for an art class. Enrollment in high school art classes tripled the day after that episode aired, I bet.
Opportunities like She’s All That don’t come around very often. Most actresses, if they are lucky enough to star in a Hollywood movie, wait their entire career for a movie that connects the way She’s All That did. But that’s only part of the trick. If you want to be a movie star, they key is to follow up your star-making role with another hit movie that reminds audiences what they liked about you in the first place. Adding to the difficulty level, Cook’s big break came at a time when there were a lot of big teen movies.
In addition to She’s All That and 10 Things, 1999 also saw the release of American Pie which unleashed potential competitors like Mena Suvari and Tara Reid. Additionally, every actress on a youth-oriented TV show like Dawson’s Creek or Felicity was trying to break into movies. The years that followed would usher in a glut of teen movies not seen since the heyday of the Brat Pack. Just as those young actors learned in the 80’s, teenage audiences are a fickle lot. Each new class brings along a new batch of high school crushes. If an actress like Cook makes the transition to adult roles too soon, she runs the risk of alienating her fan base. Wait too long and you will be typecast as a teen dream girl.
It’s a difficult balancing act and as we’re about to see, Cook didn’t quite pull it off.
One of the problems with following up on a star-making role is that movies take a while to make. Odds are, your next movie in theaters will be something you agreed to do before you were famous. You can bet Cook wouldn’t have agreed to a three-episode appearance on Dawson’s Creek after She’s All That. And she may not have signed on the dotted line for the American remake of the 1971 thriller, Get Carter either.
The original British crime drama starred Michael Caine as a London gangster who returns home to investigate the circumstances of his brother’s “accidental” death. The American remake stuck to the plot of the original movie and retained Caine for a supporting role, but recast the lead with Sylvester Stallone. The former Rocky had been desperately trying to reinvent himself as a dramatic actor now that his days as an action star were dwindling, but the Get Carter remake didn’t do him (or anyone else) any favors.
If Get Carter had been any good, it might have offered Cook a chance to branch out beyond teen romances. Instead, it was panned by critics and flopped at the box office. After a third-place opening, the remake sank like a stone grossing less than half of its bloated budget. That was worse news for Stallone than it was for Cook, but if she was ever going to capitalize on She’s All That she needed to do it soon.
In 2001, Cook had several opportunities to strike while the iron was still relatively hot. Unfortunately, none of these movies connected with audiences. She started off a busy year with a supporting role in the tech thriller, Antitrust. Ryan Phillippe, who by 2001 was well on his way to becoming “the other guy in I Know What You Did Last Summer“, starred as a gifted programmer who goes to work for a shady company run by a Bill-Gates-stand-in played by Tim Robbins. Antitrust opened in an abysmal 12th place at the box office.
Next up, Cook appeared in the British comedy, Blow Dry. The movie starred Natasha Richardson and Alan Rickman as a couple of divorcees who enter a hairdressing competition. The movie’s marketing focused heavily on Josh Hartnett who played the couple’s son. Bill Nigh portrayed the defending champion and Cook played his daughter and a love interest for Hartnett. Blow Dry received a limited release in the US which didn’t amount to much. The idea was to recreate the success of writer Simon Beaufoy’s earlier movie, The Full Monty. But Blow Dry was a Half Monty at best. Maybe a Quarter Monty.
If Cook was looking to enhance her star power, her best chance was with the musical comedy, Josie and the Pussycats. The movie was based on the Archie comic book about a girl group that performs pop songs while wearing cat ears. The characters had previously appeared in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Cook starred as Josie with Tara Reid and Rosario Dawson as her band-mates. Alan Cumming and Parker Posey played villainous record label executives who try to exploit the girls.
Josie came out just as the bubblegum pop movement that started with acts like Britney Spears and NSYNC was losing steam. The movie actually satirized the music scene of the time including an extended cameo by Total Request Live host Carson Daly playing himself, but the movie was marketed more like the American version of the Spice Girls than the clever parody it actually was.
Reviews were mixed, but the box office results were decisive. Josie and the Pussycats bombed. It opened in 7th place and grossed less than half of its budget. Over the years, it has developed a small cult following on video. But at the time, Josie was seen as evidence that Cook couldn’t carry a movie.
Cook appeared in a couple other movies that year that very few people actually saw. The Western Texas Rangers was written by John Milius who had intended to direct it himself. When the movie was picked up by the Weinstein Brothers, Milius was replaced as director. The cast included then-hot young actors like James Van Der Beek, Ashton Kutcher and Dylan McDermott. After the movie was completed, it sat on a shelf before ultimately being dumped in theaters with no support.
Rounding out 2001, Cook also appeared in the thriller Tangled which had nothing to do with Rapunzel.
Frequently, people will say of an actor, “they were never interested in being a movie star”. I usually find this to be disingenuous. If you don’t want to be a movie star, it’s pretty easy to avoid giving the appearance of someone trying to be a movie star. Just don’t star in movies. If Cook didn’t have any interest in movie stardom, she probably wouldn’t have taken leading roles in movies like She’s All That or even Josie and the Pussycats.
Having said that, Cook’s career choices are not those of a mainstream Hollywood actress. Her interests were clearly in the indie scene. Even after She’s All That when Cook could have (and arguably should have) been landing leading roles in rom-coms, she was making quirky comedies. So I’m somewhat open to the argument that Cook wasn’t all that interested in being a big A-list movie star.
You may remember Cook as being a bigger star than her filmography would suggest. That’s likely because the actress was all over the place post She’s All That. Audiences may have missed most of Cook’s movies, but she was unavoidable on magazine covers. In 2000, Cook appeared in music videos for New Found Glory and Daniel Powter.
Post Pussycats, Cook settled in to an indie movie niche. In 2002, she appeared as part of an ensemble cast in the Tarantino-esque crime drama, 29 Palms. The movie followed a bag of money from one eccentric character to the next. This is the kind of movie where none of the characters have actual names. Cook played The Waitress, Jeremy Davies was The Drifter and Chris O’Donnell was The Sidekick, wait that’s not right. I’m sorry, O’Donnell played The Hitman.
By 2003, Cook seems to have embraced the art house oeuvre. She appeared in several indies like Bookies with Nick Stakl and Lukas Haas and 11:14 with Henry Thomas and Hilary Swank.
Cook also appeared in the infamous caper comedy Scorched which starred Alicia Silverstone and Woody Harrelson as disgruntled bank employees who independently decide to rob their place of employment on the same night. John Cleese costarred as a local millionaire who has wronged both Harrelson and Cook.
Scorched was filmed two years prior. When it was finally released, it played in a dozen theaters for three days and grossed roughly eight thousand dollars which is probably less than they spend on craft services. Even in the realm of little independent movies where box office isn’t everything, earning back less than 1% of your production costs is a problem.
In 2004, Cook married actor Daniel Gillies who is probably best known for The Vampire Diaries and its spin-off The Originals. According to Cook, the couple got engaged after dating only five months and were married just a couple of months after the engagement. We often see actresses put their careers on hold to raise a family. But Cook and Gillies didn’t have children until 2013. Cook told People Magazine “There was just so much more both of us wanted to do. We wanted to travel and accomplish a lot more in our professional lives.”
What Cook did in her professional life was mostly television. She appeared in the 2005 mini-series Into the West and had a recurring role on Las Vegas. She also did voice work for Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts video games.
In 2007, Cook returned to mainstream movies with a supporting role in an adaptation of Nancy Drew. Emma Roberts starred as the famous girl detective. Most of Cook’s other movies went direct-to-video. On TV, Cook has had recurring roles on shows like Titan Maximum and Psych. She costarred with Eric McCormack on the cable series, Perception.
So, what the hell happened?
Today, Cook and her husband have two young children. Both are still working actors although you are unlikely to have seen much of anything Cook has done recently unless you watch a lot of TV movies. After the surprise success of She’s All That, Cook had a brief window in which to cement her status as a movie star. If that was a goal, it didn’t seem like she put a lot of effort into it. Instead, Cook spent her time making quirky (and usually poorly reviewed) independent movies.
Cook’s window of opportunity was narrow and it came at a time when there was a lot of competition for parts. The success of youth-oriented movies in 1999 minted several potential young stars who were all fighting for the same roles. Then the studios flooded the market with copycat movies that turned audiences off completely killing the market and the hopes of many would-be movie stars.
But Cook largely sidestepped the pitfalls of being a teen movie queen. She went the indie route instead and it seems like it suits her just fine.
Posted on July 12, 2017, in Movies, What the Hell Happened?, WTHH Actress and tagged Josie and the Pussycats, Rachel Leigh Cook, she's all that, The Baby-Sitter's Club. Bookmark the permalink. 33 Comments.