Even in strange times, Beanie Feldstein remains relatable. The actress is spending the lockdown engaging in the kind of activities that may feel familiar to many: She’s holed up in her childhood home in Los Angeles alongside her parents (and their English bulldog Jackie, who Feldstein refers to as “the love of her life”). She’s bingeing “Ozark” and “Little Fires Everywhere,” working out, and keeping up with pals via Zoom happy hours. She’s enjoying spending time with her family, but misses her girlfriend, and she’s not sleeping very well. Social media has proven to be something of a salve, and she’s carefully sharing important news items and trying to spread information about best practices during the pandemic.
It’s that accessible quality that has turned Feldstein into the coming-of-age comedy’s most reliable contemporary star. Between roles in Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” and Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart,” Feldstein’s best work has found her playing complex teens on the cusp of something more. Her latest, “How to Build a Girl,” a loose and lively adaptation of writer Caitlin Moran’s autobiography of the same name, finds her working in similar territory, but with a big twist.
Set in mid-’90s England, filmmaker Coky Giedroyc’s rollicking feature follows Feldstein as Moran surrogate Johanna Morrigan, who’s thrust into the wild world of rock criticism when she nabs a gig writing for a London-based punk zine. Johanna, however, is a bit of a dork, the kind of gal who proudly sports a dog-shaped backpack (her family breeds pups!) and says things like “I am blessed with a rich internal life!” without a hint of irony. But as she starts to embrace her new world — and snippy alter-ego “Dolly Wilde” — Johanna has to decide what kind of girl she really wants to be. And she has to do it alone.
“‘Lady Bird,’ ‘Booksmart, and ‘How to Build a Girl’ feel like this trio of incredible life-changing, female-centered coming-of-age stories that I’ve gotten to be a part of,” Feldstein said in a recent interview with IndieWire. But, she noted, there is one big difference with her latest film: Johanna doesn’t have a best friend like her characters in those other films, which means that Feldstein, while in a familiar genre space, was saddling up for her very first solo lead role.
“Her journey is so vast, and it was also alone,” Feldstein said. “I was so used to and so in love with the process of being alongside someone else, the dynamic and the learning experience and the process [of making ‘Lady Bird’ with Saorise Ronan and ‘Booksmart’ with Kaitlyn Dever], they were my favorite things. I got to go on a journey with them, and this script kind of looked at me and it was like, well, what if she’s alone? What about those girls who don’t get those best friends at fifteen? There’s so many girls like that out there, too, and they deserve to have their stories reflected back to them.”
In the film, Johanna does find one charming workaround to this problem, spending lots of time talking to a bedroom wall posted with pictures of her heroes, including Sigmund Freud, Sylvia Plath, Julie Andrews, and David Bowie. Each photo comes to life (which is why the film’s IMDb page includes a slew of amusing, if unexpected cast listings, like Gemma Arterton playing “Sound of Music” heroine Maria von Trapp), and they offer Johanna the kind of guidance a BFF might provide.
Asked who she’d put on her own “God Wall,” Feldstein offered some of her favorites: Carole King, Adele, Eleanor Roosevelt, Sandra Oh, her mom (“of course!”), Melissa McCarthy, Mama Cass, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Stephen Sondheim.
And, while Feldstein is too sweet to ever say such a thing, that wall might also have room for some of her previous parts, like loyal Julie of “Lady Bird” fame and ambitious Molly from “Booksmart.” Those roles still shape everything Feldstein does, especially Gerwig’s Best Picture nominee, which Feldstein starred in just months after graduating college. That’s the standard every other project has to meet.
“To be a part of something that feels so true to who they are? Some people don’t have that in their lifetime as a storyteller or as a filmmaker or as an actor or as a creator,” she said. “To be a part of making something that you genuinely feel would be your favorite thing, even if you weren’t a part of it. The whole experience set the bar so high for me, and set the expectations of what I wanted out of each project.”
Feldstein recalled feeling an instant “jolt of connection” after reading “Lady Bird” the first time, and she wasn’t eager to jump into another project without that same feeling. Though she’d previously read the script for “Booksmart,” once director Olivia Wilde approached her with an updated screenplay, Feldstein said she felt that jolt again. It has happened one more time, she added, with “How to Build a Girl.”
“I was sitting in my apartment in New York in the special chair that I had read ‘Lady Bird’ for the first time in, and I felt that jolt,” Feldstein said of her first reading of the screenplay. It was great to feel that way again, but also “intimidating,” and she recalled telling her agent that she had “never felt more scared of anything in her life.” She Skyped with the all-female creative team (she loved that) and they soon flew her to London for an extended in-person audition.
On her last night in London, Feldstein and the team went out to dinner, with Moran in attendance, too. It remains one of the best creative experiences of her career, she said, even though she hadn’t scored the role yet. “I called my mom on the way home and I was like, ‘Mom, I don’t know if I got this part, and I completely understand if I don’t, but I just had one of the most beautiful dinners with these women who are all completely exceptional and creative in their own way,'” Feldstein said.
The project filmed in England in the summer of 2018 (just a few months after Feldstein had wrapped “Booksmart”) and premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last September. IFC Films picked it up soon after, and readied for an early summer release date, nearly a year to the date after “Booksmart” hit theaters. In the wake of the global pandemic, the distributor pivoted to a VOD release.
“The whole industry is in a process of figuring out what feels right and what is the best for each film,” Feldstein said. “I am trying to see the silver lining of it, which I really think is bright, which is that more people will stumble upon it or be looking for something to watch than maybe if if the world wasn’t in this very unpredictable, unprecedented time. It’s a really perfect, hopeful story to be showing right now, because Johanna feels so stuck in her circumstance, but she’s so imaginative and optimistic and joyful.”
Feldstein was mum on her other upcoming projects, including Richard Linklater’s ambitious time-spanning “Merrily We Roll Along” project and her starring role as Monica Lewinsky in the next season of “American Crime Story.” Instead, she turned the conversation to the current moment.
“The whole world, but also our industry, has sort of hit the pause button,” she said. “I feel like the goal is everyone healing. I still look forward to the next day I’m on a set, but my primary goal is for everyone to heal.”
“How to Build a Girl,” an IFC Films release, hits VOD on Friday, May 8.