It’s hard to bring Beanie Feldstein down.
Over a lengthy conversation to promote her new movie “How to Build a Girl,” her first shot at carrying a film on her own, Feldstein oozes optimism.
She prepares and executes her acting gigs like an eager student in a coveted class, she says. Lifelong bonds are forged with fellow classmates. Her career, though she’s hesitant to use that word to describe her four years of professional experience, is a knowledge quest. Not even an ongoing coronavirus quarantine is enough to suppress her optimism — she sees it as time to spend in grateful reflection in her Los Angeles childhood home, where, she says, she’s been looking at photos and marveling that she is the subject of a story in Variety.
There is one moment of discomfort in an otherwise sunny discussion, what Feldstein calls a “sore spot.” The notion, one she’s heard since she first took to musical theater at age 6, has haunted her through the years. It’s a dubious suggestion that she finds counter to the reason she loves being an artist.
“The only thing I ever heard when I was younger, because I was chubby and I love to sing, was ‘Have you ever played Tracy Turnblad?’” says Feldstein, now 26. It’s a reference to the lead character in the John Waters cult film-turned-hit Broadway musical “Hairspray,” who is described as a “pleasantly plump” teen who spends her days longing to appear on a national dance variety show.
“I love [“Hairspray”], but for some reason, I heard that so much growing up that it became a sore spot for me,” says Feldstein. “Why can I only be this? I can be anything I want. What about the baker’s wife in ‘Into the Woods’? Or Winnifred in ‘Once Upon a Mattress’? Or one day, Amy in ‘Company’? What about all these other roles I would love to play, and why am I excluded from them because of my dress size or whatever it might be?”
In hindsight, the resistance to typecasting has been Feldstein’s saving grace. Though she has appeared in only a handful of films, she has portrayed characters not defined by or reduced to body type, or Hollywood’s often one-dimensional lens on young womanhood. She has worked almost exclusively with female directors or producers. She has learned, she says, that no part is worth it unless it has “a theme or ethos that women deserve to be as complex, vulnerable, rowdy, funny, warm or sad as much as [in] any other story that’s been told.”
Her résumé backs this up. The younger sister of Jonah Hill unsurprisingly got her start in comedy, as the two bring an observable similarity in their emotional eagerness, along with a talent for gliding off the handle into humorous outrage.
Feldstein landed a role alongside Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne in 2016’s “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” just six weeks out of college. She played a defiant coed in the Greek system fighting for her right to party as hard as the boys. Her next role, and biggest signal boost, came in Gerwig’s acclaimed 2017 directorial debut, “Ladybird.” There, she subverted the best friend archetype, playing a theater geek who will not go quietly when her partner in crime (Saoirse Ronan) branches out in search of more popular pastures. With “How to Build a Girl,” Feldstein turns full punk rock rebel as a teen who leaves a bedroom postered with literary heroes in pursuit of a career as a poison pen music journalist.
“It’s a triumphant story where this girl, who might be a bit bigger and is swimming in her hand-me-down clothing, gets to go on this sexy adventure and debunk all of those expectations of someone like her,” says Feldstein.
Gerwig compares Feldstein’s work to “the most special sleepover party. We’re all cozy and safe and also getting away with something.” That optimism is the real deal, says the director, who attributes it to Feldstein’s radical kindness.
“She has a heart of gold, but there is nothing boring or sanctimonious about her. It’s joy — not a kind of happiness that is separate from sadness. It’s not pollyannaish. It contains what’s hard about life in it,” Gerwig says.
Younger Beanie’s distaste for the idea that it was “Hairspray” or nothing is understandable. At her community theater on Pico Boulevard in L.A., the possibilities were endless. She sang Fyedka’s solo in “Fiddler on the Roof” at age 7, and played Yente, whose age range is 50-60, at 8. She landed the part of Conrad Birdie in “Bye Bye Birdie” at 9.
Feldstein grew up confident she would be a stage performer. Despite her brother’s fame, she never conceived of a career in Hollywood, where she says she’s benefited from recent moves toward inclusion in the industry. The new openness came with a healthy dose of fear for someone who found herself sitting at a table read less than two months out of school.
“I was especially lucky to be entering this industry at a time when things were growing at such a rapid rate and people were being welcomed in at such a rapid rate,” she says. “We have so much farther to go with inclusivity, but that was happening when I started. I thought, why would I shut myself off from these opportunities just because I don’t know if I can do them? I don’t take it lightly, because I know how many talented people are out there.”
“I thought why should I shut myself off from these opportunities just because I don’t know if I can do them?”
Feldstein has been fully immersed in movies for five years, a love affair that crystallized with “Lady Bird” and Gerwig, whom she calls her mentor. The transition from the stage to filmed work, she admits, is partly attributable to volume.
“I started auditioning for film because, for any given theater audition, there are about 40 for on camera,” says Feldstein. “That ratio of production. It takes so much to create musicals, and how many parts for someone your age? Someone your vocal type? There are so many specifics.”
She got the script for “How to Build a Girl,” which IFC is releasing on digital May 8, while performing in Bette Midler’s smash Broadway revival of “Hello, Dolly!” in late 2017. Though she was used to casting sessions with “20 people behind a desk, one camera and one shot to nail it,” she was shocked to get an invitation to London to read for the thoroughly British project.
The film is based on the novel of the same name by Caitlin Moran, directed by Coky Giedroyc and mounted by three women producers. Over two days of taped auditions, Feldstein was wined and dined, and toured parts of London that represented the period in which the film takes place. She came armed with a binder including an annotated script and research, not unlike the kind she carried as a sociology major at Wesleyan. She’s often teased for having one on set, she says, but not on this trip.
“They set me up for success in the most beautiful way, and I was so touched,” says Feldstein. “I called my mom on the way home and said, ‘I don’t know if I’ll get this. It’s such a British story and an experience of a working-class girl in the Midlands, and if they don’t want me for it, I completely understand that.’”
Months later, she was working a part-time job in a shop in Wolverhampton, a city near the dead center of England that Feldstein says has “an end-of-the-world feeling,” to help nail the regional accent. Her character, Johanna Morrigan, is a 16-year-old aspiring writer whose embarrassing appearance on a national daytime chat show leads to an opportunity at a London tabloid, where she gleefully rips musicians and becomes a star in her own right. The tale is loosely based on Moran’s life, and has a message consistent with Feldstein’s creative mandate.
“It’s intoxicating,” says Feldstein. “She gives us all, but specifically teenage girls, permission to make mistakes. And for those mistakes to be folded into your personhood. I loved that. Caitlin’s brilliance is that she wants everyone to do that for themselves. It’s easier to forgive other people, but not yourself. You are not defined by those phases, but they do make you stronger.”
Feldstein will next portray another complex woman: Monica Lewinsky. She’s tight-lipped about the Ryan Murphy project, part of his “American Crime Story” anthology, which is centered on Bill Clinton’s impeachment.
Gerwig says we’ll have to wait decades for Feldstein to reach her “full power,” culminating in a return to the Broadway show in which she was first cast.
“I think there will be lots of peaks, but there are roles she’ll grow into, which I can’t wait for,” says Gerwig. “The umpteenth revival of ‘Hello Dolly!’ and she’ll be Dolly, in an emotional and triumphant return to the show that was her Broadway debut.”