Over the last four years, Beanie Feldstein has marked herself out as one of the best young actors in Hollywood. She brought scene-stealing energy to her first professional film role as Nora in Bad Neighbours 2, perfectly nailed one of the funniest moments of Lady Bird as sweet best friend Julie and injected Booksmart’s overachieving Molly with a fiery determination.
Now the 27-year-old is cementing that position with a brilliantly infectious performance in How To Build A Girl, an adaptation of Caitlin Moran’s semi-autobiographical novel. Feldstein, in her first solo lead role, plays Johanna Morrigan – a not-so-popular but intensely passionate teenager from working-class Wolverhampton who gets swept into the world of music journalism after answering an ad in fictional rock paper D&ME looking for “hip young gunslingers”.
“I feel a lot like Johanna waiting for D&ME to call her,” Feldstein laughs when she picks up NME’s call. “I’m just lying in my parents’ house waiting for their landline to ring.” She’s referring to a scene where, in a mirror image of girls waiting for crushes to call in old teen movies, the new rock writer sits slumped at the bottom of the stairs, eyes fixed on her own parents’ landline, waiting to hear from her editor after filing her first feature. The phone never rings.
Like that fresh take on an old trope, much of Johanna’s story feels like something we’ve not previously seen on the big screen. While most iconic journalism films through the ages – Almost Famous, All The President’s Men, Citizen Kane – have focused on men, here is a young woman at the centre of the story, finding her voice both in her writing and in her life itself. It’s thrilling to see, as Feldstein agrees.
“To see a teenage girl from a council estate in Wolverhampton having a full, incredible, lucrative career is very exciting and unique,” she says, her passion for Johanna tumbling through her speedy speech. “The fact that it’s specifically journalism, which is such an exciting, energetic, bright world… I think it’s really important to share her story and hopefully inspire other young women.”
For the role, the LA-born-and-raised Feldstein had to do something that even a lot of Brits would find hard – adopt a Wolverhampton accent. She does an admirable job, slipping up just a few times across the film. To get it so right, she moved to Wolverhampton and worked in a gift shop called The Shop In The Square and spent all of her daily shifts speaking in the accent.
“I am not someone who stays [in character the whole time],” she says. “I’m a laugh and a cookie between takes type of person so to stay in the accent for six, seven, eight hours a day was remarkable. I could never have played this character without finding that immersive time in Wolverhampton.”
One encounter with a customer while on her accent-building mission reminded her how important it was to get Johanna’s voice just right. “A woman walked into the store and she started talking, and in my half-baked accent I said, ‘Are you from Wolverhampton?’ Feldstein recalls. “She looked horrified and was like, ‘No, I’m from Dudley.’ I looked up at Charlotte, who owns The Shop In The Square, like, ‘Huh?’ When the woman walked out of the store, she started laughing and was like, ‘Dudley’s like 10 minutes down the road.’ So I think the real lesson I learned as an American is my understanding not only of the plethora of British accents – just the sheer number of regional specificities there are – but also the link to identity that it brings.”
Playing Johanna might have been an educational experience for the actor, but she says her character has plenty to teach those watching her too. “She goes through such a journey in this film and she doesn’t always do the right thing,” Feldstein explains. “But I think the one lesson Johanna could show us all is to continue to love the world. She loves the world so much, even though she has to adjust her tactic when she adopts this alter ego named Dolly Wilde.”
The flame-haired, top hat-wearing, outlandish-dressing Dolly Wilde becomes Johanna’s professional character – at first, it’s just a fake-it-til-you-make-it façade the 16-year-old adopts but later, Wilde twists into a more villainous role. Dolly might not be a permanent part of Johanna’s story but trying on her personality helps her discover more of who she really is. “As a society, there’s this language of dismissal around phases,” says Feldstein. “How To Build A Girl celebrates those phases. It says those phases do not define you but they can be folded into the fabric of who you are and be a part of your story in a way that’s important. It’s a part of your growth and it’s a really beautiful part of life.”
As someone who grew up acting – not professionally, she points out, but in musical theatre productions – Feldstein has had the opportunity to try on lots of different personalities herself, which she says had a similar effect on her as Dolly did for Johanna. “I played thousands of characters growing up, I was either the youngest character or the 12-year-old playing the grandma,” she laughs. “Theatre is such a confidence-boosting creative outlet so I think participating in many different roles definitely shaped who I am, and certainly in my professional life I absolutely feel that. I think every role I’ve been so beyond lucky to play is a part of myself naturally that is pushed to its extreme, sort of brought out of its shell more. It’s definitely helped me grow as a person and helped me contextualise and frame my adolescence and my childhood.”
So far, the star has had the opportunity to play a series of young women who are brilliantly written and relatable and true-to-life in their complexity. Auditioning for and taking those roles, she says, has been directly influenced by the degree she obtained from Connecticut’s Wesleyan University. “I studied sociology in college and I think there’s no way for me to detach that sociological lens through which I see the world,” she explains. “That’s just a part of who I am now. I ask myself, ‘What is this giving to the world?’ It doesn’t always have to be serious, but I think I like to be part of things that gently shift our society, hopefully in the right direction.”
For Feldstein, it was Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird that changed everything for her. The Oscar-nominated movie not only catapulted her to a whole new level of respect and recognition but transformed how she thought about her acting. “It completely changed my life,” she says now. “Greta is my inspiration in so many ways, but I think she also set the standard of what I want my career to be, what roles I want to take, what projects I want to be a part of.”
In Lady Bird, Booksmart and now How To Build A Girl, the actor has been able to work with teams populated by smart, creative women – something that she says has set another precedent for her future work. “We have so much further to go as far as not just women but inclusivity of all aspects,” she notes. “[So far], I’ve been lucky enough to be on very inclusive sets and I also want to be a part of pushing that inclusivity way further.”
- Read more: How to Build A Girl review: Caitlin Moran’s coming-of-age rock critic story is irresistible
Recently, Feldstein spoke to Variety about rejecting typecasting as a way of increasing that inclusivity. “Why can I only be that thing?” she remarked of being pointed towards roles of bigger women. “I can be anything I want.”
“I am a supremely confident person when it comes to height and my body,” she says over the phone today. “So often in the media that I grew up with, with any bigger girl, the narrative was either specifically around her body or she was delegated to the sideline. I’ve made a point in my roles to choose characters where either her body is not the defining feature of her or it’s not even referenced at all.”
She points to Booksmart’s Molly and a scene where she’s being made fun of by two male classmates. “They’re like, ‘She’s beautiful. She’s just so annoying.’ I think that’s iconic and that’s a shift because 10 years ago that would have been a different theme.”
Coming up, Feldstein has two films in the works – The Humans and Merrily We Roll Along – and a role playing the much-vilified Monica Lewinsky in Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story. Much later in the future, she says she hopes to follow in the footsteps of her previous collaborators Greta Gerwig and Olivia Wilde and make the move from acting to writing and directing too.
“What’s so special about being an actor is that you get to learn from so many different directors and crews, and take tidbits from everyone,” she says. “I’ve only been acting in films for about five years, which is crazy – it feels like a short time and a long time – so I feel like I’m still in the collecting phase. But I don’t think you can be on an Olivia Wilde set and not be deeply inspired so I guess the answer is yes [I want to do that], but not yet.”
‘How To Build A Girl’ is streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime Video now