There can be few more positive signs of industry change than the filmography of Beanie Feldstein. Her first feature credit was in 2016; it was also the last time she worked on a big screen project with a male director. She is now at TIFF with her fifth film, How to Build a Girl, as she rides high following the breakout success of Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart this summer, and she may be the first new star to emerge in a new era of opportunity.
“It is sort of extraordinary,” she marvels, well aware of the path the industry had walked before her. “I’ve been so lucky to have entered my working life at a time when these stories are actually being celebrated, and created by women themselves, rather than being simply about women.”
She is Johanna in Coky Giedroyc’s How to Build a Girl, a British schoolgirl whose passion for writing leads her to the pages of the early-90s music press. When she discovers that cynicism sells, she creates an alter ego as Dolly Wilde, eviscerating the bands she’s writing about and exploring her sexuality through an especially debauched industry, but the traps of her lifestyle soon catch up with her. It’s based on a bestselling book by the British journalist Caitlin Moran, who had lived a version of Johanna’s life as a 16-year-old.
Feldstein was brought to the U.K. to audition—and had to quickly get to grips with a thick regional accent. After two intensive days, she was invited to dinner with Moran by Giedroyc and the producing team of Debra Hayward and Alison Owen. “It was one of the most special dinners of my life,” she says. “I looked around at these different women that had a clear, beautiful vision for the story they wanted to tell. I hoped I would get the role, but I had such a remarkable time meeting them in any case.”
It was only later that she realized they wouldn’t have invited her to dinner if they weren’t going to cast her. “It’s funny, because I guess they had already decided that it was going to be me.”
DEADLINE: You have a thick Wolverhampton accent in the film. It’s a very specific regional accent in the U.K. How hard was it to master?
BEANIE FELDSTEIN: I’m not going to lie to you: it took so much. I’m not a wizard with accents. I know so many actors are. I’m somewhere in the middle. I have an OK ear, but I’m not a magician, like Saoirse Ronan. When I worked with her on Lady Bird, it was like she could do anything. I have to learn and study to get it right.
It started with the audition, just skimming the surface. Once I got the role, I went to Wolverhampton for three weeks and I worked in a store there, speaking in the accent the whole time. That’s what definitely kicked it into high gear.
I also had two brilliant coaches with me during the process. I’m not usually someone who immerses myself in that way. I’ve never done anything of that type. But this accent was so regional, and you really had to be there to hear it. Coky knew it would be the only way to do it right.
DEADLINE: Were you able to fool the locals?
FELDSTEIN: By the end, yes. At the beginning, definitely not. It was pretty miserable at the beginning. The girls working with me at the shop, they were very kind, but also really stern with me. They’d be like, “Nope, you said that wrong.” I really came to appreciate it.
DEADLINE: What resonated with you about this script when you read it?
FELDSTEIN: When my agent sent it to me, he said he didn’t want to tell me anything about it; he didn’t want me to go in with any of his thoughts or create any expectations. So, OK, that was really exciting and intriguing. The second I read the first page—the first scene—I could see myself in it. I don’t know what right I thought I had—a girl from West Los Angeles—to envision myself in this tiny local library in Wolverhampton, but I could just see myself there.
By the time I called him back, I said to him, “Look, I’ve never been more scared of anything in my life. It’s daunting. But it’s incredible, and Caitlin is lightning in a bottle.” The script just flew off the page. Her spirit and her imagination and her voice was all so clear. It was thoughtful and funny and heartbreaking. I said, “I’ve never been more scared of anything, but I have to try.”
DEADLINE: Did you speak to Caitlin early on?
FELDSTEIN: I actually met her. The flew me to England for three days to audition. There were basically two really intense days of auditioning. I’ve never worked with a creative team like this. They were so kind and giving in that they wanted me to have the best audition I could possibly have. So instead of making me go and stand in front of them for hours on end and be scared and stuff, they were like, “We want to take you out to dinner. We want to walk you around the area. We want you to feel relaxed with us and comfortable.” It was unlike any other audition experience I ever had.
And at the end of that weekend, I met Caitlin and we all had dinner. Looking back on it, it’s very funny, because I guess they had already decided that it was going to be me. But in my head, I was like, I’m just auditioning, and I get to meet her? Have dinner with her? What’s going on here?
We ended up having this six-hour dinner. Literally—six to midnight. It was one of the most special dinners of my life. I looked around at these different women that had a clear, beautiful vision for the story they wanted to tell. They were so giving. I remember calling my mom on the way home, to say that I hoped I would get the role, but I had such a remarkable time meeting them in any case, and I hoped we’d find something to work on in some capacity. They really are a special group of women.
DEADLINE: The book is semi-autobiographical. Did you feel the weight of telling a version of Caitlin’s story?
FELDSTEIN: You know, when I first read it, and when I auditioned, I think I didn’t quite understand the full extent of it. And then when I went to film and I was meeting people in London, when I said I was working on How to Build a Girl, people were like, “Oh my God. Caitlin.” And the response was so intense and kind of scary at the same time.
I had been living in sort of a blissful land where I was like, I can do this. And then all of a sudden, I got to England to start the prep and the shoot and everyone was like, “You’re playing Johanna Morrigan?” So I didn’t feel the weight of that expectation until I was there, which I think is good, because I had the beautiful privilege of really approaching her as a pure character, but then also always having Caitlin there as the source material. She was so beyond generous and giving with me.
Looking back, it was really surprising they let an American girl read for this purely British story that is so beloved by so many people. But I think as far as my approach to Johanna, I did really see her as a fictional character, albeit with so much heart and the essence from Caitlin. I just approached it as a completely new person with a very similar ethos and trajectory, if that makes sense.
DEADLINE: Was she an easy character to fall for?
FELDSTEIN: She was. I mean, I think there’s many things we don’t share. Specifically, the way we speak, obviously. But I think my biggest connective tissue to Johanna is her optimism. She is eternally, ruthlessly optimistic. And that is something that I also very much feel. It’s very natural to who I am. At the end of the day, I had that to just jump off and build up everything else on top.
But oh my God, she is just so delicious. She’s just a delicious character in every sense of the word. She’s so soft, so sweet and edible, almost. Just adorable and loving and full of imagination and kindness. And then she makes some poor decisions and she risks her life a little bit more, but then she’s delicious in a different way. She’s naughty, you know? It was the most clear and daunting journey I’ve ever gone on with a character, because the start, the middle and the end are so vastly different, which was so exciting but also a huge undertaking.
DEADLINE: The film is written by a woman—Caitlin Moran—directed by a woman—Coky Giedroyc—and produced by two women—Debra Hayward and Alison Owen. You’ve made five films, and four have been directed by women. How much of that has been design, and how much, do you think, represents a changing of the tide for the telling of women’s stories?
FELDSTEIN: It’s truly a beautiful thing that four of the films I’ve made have been directed by women. It is sort of extraordinary.
For me, it’s always about the person that I’m going to inhabit and the story she is within. They have to be stories that feature complicated, beautiful female characters. Not just mine, but all of them. I want to be a part of inhabiting a full and rich human being. I think that’s what every actor wants.
I think I’ve been so lucky to have entered my working life at a time when these stories are actually being celebrated, and created by women themselves, rather than being simply about women. So not only are women’s stories being valued, but they’re being given to women to create, or are started by women creating them.
It’s very special to me that I’ve worked with this many female directors, and female creative teams. I truly left my audition for How to Build a Girl in awe of two leading female producers, a female writer, a female director, and an entirely female-centered story. I never want to go back. Once that bar is set, it’s what I want to continue to do.
I think Lady Bird set that bar for me early on. Greta [Gerwig] set that bar so beautifully high. I think that there’s one thing that I see as a thread between the movies I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of, even though the tone and the characters and the storytelling is so different. I have often said of them, “I wish I had this story at 16. I wish I had seen this movie at 16.” There is no greater example of that than How to Build a Girl. It would have been life-changing for me at that age. Any time I got scared to do it, I would think about being 16 and how meaningful it would have been to have this story in my life.
DEADLINE: You’re next going to be playing Monica Lewinsky in the third season of American Crime Story. That show is renowned for rewriting the media narratives of world-changing events.
FELDSTEIN: There are no words for how honored I am to be taking that journey with that group of people at the helm. I can’t even fully comprehend it’s happening. I’ll have more to say once we’ve filmed it, but the work Ryan Murphy does is just so important, and the way he champions the people around him is so beautiful and empowering. And Sarah [Paulson] has always been my idol, and the person whose acting I admire more than anyone else in the world. To get to create this story with her is remarkable.
My respect and deep, deep admiration for Monica is beyond words. We haven’t met in person yet, but I’m really excited to start on this show.