It’s a familiar story: Two actors are cast in a film that hinges on their relationship, be it a romance or a close friendship, and they’re suddenly tossed together on set and required to create a believable emotional bond. Maybe they get to have a dinner together first, or even a rare rehearsal period, but more often than not, stars need to craft an on-screen affection out of little off-screen reality. That was not the case for “Booksmart” stars Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, who did something extraordinary to prepare to play best friends in Olivia Wilde’s lauded feature directorial debut: They became actual best friends.
Wilde’s film, which debuted at SXSW in March and is finally hitting wide release this week, follows overachievers Molly (Feldstein) and Amy (Dever) as they navigate the final days of high school. Intellectually gifted, as the title implies, the girls have spent their teenage years together, hitting the books, working hard, beefing up those resumes, and preparing for the fruits of their academic labors. They also haven’t had much fun, though their tight bond has always brought them joy and understanding, and when they realize how much they’ve missed out during their high school years, they set about making their final night as seniors as wild as possible.
As they embark on some seriously wacky adventures, it’s Molly and Amy’s friendship that keeps the charming, very funny film grounded. They’re the heart of the film, and that came from loving each other both on screen and off (and a little something called “actually living together,” Method acting at its most fun). Their first meeting was a planned lunch with Wilde, and both agreed that even in the earliest moments of their friendship, it was, as Feldstein happily recounted, “instant magic.”
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“It was almost like you’ve met someone before, that’s how well we got along,” Dever said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “‘Booksmart’ was just getting going, and we were so excited to start. At the lunch, we were talking about ideas and going back and forth, and Olivia had mentioned possibly—” Feldstein cut in, remembering Wilde’s fateful words, “She said, ‘It would be great if you guys could live together!'”
The pair trade off answering questions, and yes, just like best friends, they’re totally at ease finishing each other’s sentences. “And we were like, ‘Wait, could we?,'” Dever remembered. The idea struck a chord with the actresses. “I think we just pushed our plates forward and were like, ‘Is that a real thing?,'” Feldstein said.
For the duration of rehearsal and production, Dever and Feldstein shared an apartment in West Hollywood, an experience that Dever deemed “a dream.” “It was incredible,” Feldstein said. “It was such a crucial part of my experience of making the film. I wouldn’t change a single thing about it. I thought it was so important to Molly and Amy coming to life, and our film celebrates friendship and we took that so seriously. We both love our girlfriends so much and our female friendships matter to us so much that we were like, ‘We owe it to them and we owe it to each other and we owe it to Olivia to get this right,’ and living together was just the icing on the cake.”
The minutiae of sharing an apartment — from brushing their teeth next to each other every morning or listening to Kacey Musgraves while doing it — only helped fuel their bonding process. “I remember, one day we had rehearsal together, but for some reason, we met each other there, but we both showed up with a coffee for each other,” Dever said. “I knew her coffee order, her chai order! Extra chai, almond iced latte. It was just important to be around each other no matter what we were doing.”
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Screenwriter and producer Katie Silberman recently told IndieWire that Wilde’s casting of Feldstein and Dever instantly made her job easier and better. You can’t fake what they have. “It was so incredible, because it’s not only something that you can’t fake — that kind of chemistry is un-fakeable — but it’s also something that doesn’t happen often in general,” Silberman said. “It’s hard to find an immediate best friend that way. The fact that the two funniest, best actors in the world, who then needed to be best friends, became best friends, it feels like a small miracle.”
The “instant magic” that came with their first meeting didn’t just lead to a friendship, it helped inspire a pair of lived-in performances from both stars. “When I met Beanie, I immediately fell in love with her, and I think she’s one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met in my life,” Dever said. (Next to her, Feldstein broke into a huge smile and called Dever “my angel.) “You can’t really pretend to have chemistry with a person.”
Feldstein added, “You can’t fake chemistry and you can’t fake trust. I think that’s such a big thing, too. I trust Kaitlyn whole-heartedly, in my personal life and on set together. There was just this inherent trust and a language between us. We knew what each other was thinking, we knew what we had for breakfast that day, we were just in sync.”
While the film has drawn many comparisons to other buddy comedies — most notably “Superbad,” which stars Feldstein’s own brother, Jonah Hill — the stars leaned on lots of inspirations to bring “Booksmart” to life. “I think that ‘Bridesmaids’ opened the door for female comedy and female friendships in so many ways,” Dever said. “Olivia had a screening of ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’ for all of us to watch. It was like the day before we started shooting, just to get us into the gear of that sort of tone of movie we wanted to make, and amplify that sort of tone.”
The cast and crew also boned up on films and shows like “Clueless,” “Mean Girls,” “The Breakfast Club,” and “Broad City.” Dever and Feldstein named other big references that Wilde and her stars talked about when it came to their own whipsmart characters, like Lisa Simpson and Matilda. “The unrelentingly brilliant girls that are kind of unashamed and unapologetic in those ways,” Feldstein said.
As funny as the film is, Feldstein knows that even great comedies require dramatic chops. Working alongside someone she loves as much as Dever freed her to go deep into those parts of the performance, too. “You wouldn’t think that with a comedy, that you would have to become so vulnerable, but I think comedy is actually really vulnerable,” Feldstein said. “You’re really putting yourself out there. And there’s also some really tender and heartbreaking moments in our film that, if I didn’t feel like I knew Kaitlyn at my core, we wouldn’t have been able to do it.”
While Dever and Feldstein’s real-life friendship makes for a damn cute story, Silberman — who was on set most days — says that the effect it had on everyone else involved in the film was the real gift. It made everything better, not just Feldstein and Dever’s performances.
“It doesn’t happen if you don’t show up totally open and open-hearted, and that’s what they both did,” Silberman said. “If either of them had been at all holding back or nervous or hadn’t given themselves fully to both that relationship and the process, you would’ve felt it and it would’ve been kind of a snowball effect, where then everyone ends up closing themselves off. When your two leads show up ready to work and so prepared, but also so full of love for everyone and open and available for that kind of closeness and intimacy, it makes the entire set and the entire crew follow their lead.”
Another big bonding point for the duo: their indie film bonafides. Both Dever and Feldstein “broke out” with roles in lauded indies, with Dever earning acclaim for her turn in Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Short Term 12” (which seemed to have been entirely populated with stars-in-the-making, from Dever to Brie Larson, Rami Malek, and Lakeith Stanfield) and Feldstein bursting onto the scene in Greta Gerwig’s Best Picture contender “Lady Bird.” Their sensibilities and values are similar, and “Booksmart” tapped directly into that.
“I think you get the best outcome when you have no expectations,” Dever said. “We weren’t talking about, ‘Okay, so everyone’s going to love this film, so we really have to make it good,’ it was just, ‘No, let’s make this as honest and real as it can be,’ and it was the same thing Destin did with ‘Short Term 12.’ When you all are working towards one thing, and working to make it the best it can be, with teamwork and no one’s judging anybody, and no one is trying to be better than anyone else, that’s when I think the best movies come to life.”
And while the accolades for “Booksmart” have been nearly overwhelming, both stars are intent on holding on to the personal side of all that hubbub the same way they approached the film itself: together.
“Both ‘Lady Bird’ and ‘Booksmart’ are films that, if I could have seen them at age 17, they would have changed my entire life,” Feldstein said. “‘Just the fact that they’re both brilliantly smart women who love each other so much and want to go have fun and prove that they’re fun, everything about the film is something I would have loved to see, and I am so proud to be with Kaitlyn on this journey. I feel really lucky.”
Annapurna Pictures and United Artists Releasing will release “Booksmart” in theaters on Friday, May 24.