Beanie Feldstein plays the best friend so well, it’s easy to mistake her for one. This may explain why, meeting in a London hotel to talk about her new film, I land on my mini break as the first topic of conversation.
There is a point to going on about Porto (v. nice for a weekend away, would recommend). J.K. Rowling lived there and the city is a treasure trove of Harry Potter influences from Hogwarts style architecture and college kids who wear capes in 25-degree heat (we got great weather, thank god).
“Oh my god, I’m taking a pilgrimage now!” exclaims Beanie, “I only came to the books when I was 20 when there was a class at my university about Harry Potter. But now I am an obsessive.” She did that for larks, not extra grades by the way. Similarly, at high school, her idea of a summer holiday was theatre camp, which she attended for seven years.
We continue talking like this, trading pop cultural favs like BFFs on Gilmore Girls, her favourite show. Beanie, 25, with a fulsome laugh and an easy familiarity, makes things comfortable like that. Charged with describing her character in her latest film, she invokes the holy trinity of good girl geekery: Hermione Granger, Lisa Simpson and Matilda, of Roald Dahl’s Matilda.
The film, Booksmart, is about two overachieving best friends in L.A., smug in the knowledge they are bound for Ivy League colleges while their basic schoolmates are heading to nowheresville.
But in actor-turned-director Olivia Wilde’s totally fresh teen comedy, Molly (Beanie’s character) and Amy (the also mighty Kaitlyn Dever) are horrified to discover that the other kids have also notched up excellent grades while partying like filthy animals. Incensed, Molly and Amy embark on an odyssey to have the best last night of high school ever to hilarious, genre-redefining effect.
It’s a peach of a gig for Beanie, pitched exactly in her sweet spot of playing Type A, but make it funny. Molly is eye roll intolerable but her friendship with Amy, who is queer, is where Booksmart’s funny bone meets its beating heart. The film, by the way, wears its progressiveness super casual. It is never, praise be the four female scriptwriters, dry about sexuality or any of the other ways it leads the R-rated teen comedy out of the dark ages. Some of this, it turns out, is Beanie relevant. She has a British girlfriend; her queer identity, she says, a recent development.
Other changes are afoot. Beanie Feldstein always thought playing the sidekick was her lot. That was the supporting role in Neighbours 2, where she showed physical comedy chops reminiscent of her brother (Jonah Hill – he doesn’t go by the family name). She was happy, too, to be “side banana” (her words) to Saoirse Ronan in Ladybird.
But later this year, she takes the lead in How to Build a Girl, about a young writer from Wolverhampton who toughs it out in the male-dominated music mag London. It meant nailing a Midlands accent and doing the kind of things the girls in Booksmart missed out on. “I had to be super brave,” she says of the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in the adaptation of Caitlin Moran’s novel. “Gryffindor-level brave.”
I’m not just saying this because I am now her best friend, but I suspect she’ll come top of the class in that, too.
I love your reference points for your character in Booksmart. She’s Type A – is this you?
Oh, I definitely am a Type A person. Type A is very practical and controlling and a planner. Maybe a non-Type A or Type B is a bit more loose and spontaneous. I’m not really any of those things [laughs]. But I don’t have such an intensity about it as Molly does. She’s unrelenting and prickly and fierce yet when she’s with Amy alone she’s so free and so loving and so supportive and giving. I loved that juxtaposition.
Why was she so prickly?
I have a lot of friends and family members who are very intense. And I was so fascinated by their intensity growing up and finally, I realised they are extremely insecure and vulnerable and that’s their armour. They don’t let people in because they are nervous. I was really intimidated by Molly at first and then when I realised all I had to do was expose her vulnerability. I feel much more comfortable in that space than a tough guarded space.
Why do you feel more comfortable there?
That’s just who I am. I am a very open human, I should really be more guarded [laughs]. I am very much like an open book, heart on my sleeve type of person.
What was important about this film for you?
It was so fresh to see two women at the centre of a comedy who were beyond overachieving and bright and yet never competitive. And to see that dynamic between one queer girl and one straight girl at such a young age, I just had never seen anything like it.
Did you discuss how to approach that dynamic?
Absolutely. Amy’s one of the two centres of the film. And representation is important but it’s not only about doing it, it’s about how you’re doing it. Amy is not in the film to be the queer character. And she’s not in the film to only be a representation of sexuality. We always say it would be the seventh thing you’d say about the character. She’s an activist, she’s going to Columbia, she’s going to Botswana to make tampons, she’s obsessed with Molly, and oh yeah she’s also queer and wants to hook up with this girl. That was also hugely important for me as someone who is queer. I am in love with my girlfriend and I love her so much but my sexuality doesn’t define me. It’s kind of the fifth thing I would say about myself, if not further down the list.
Growing up as a queer person, I sought out gay narratives in teen films and TV. Did you?
I have a sort of unique journey in that way, in that I didn’t really care about anything romantic or anything like that growing up but it wasn’t until I met my partner now that I had this – oh, this is who I am – I’m madly in love with this woman, this is who I am. So it’s been a more recent moment for me and it wasn’t that I wasn’t saying anything in high school. It was just that I hadn’t come to that realisation yet.
Oh, thank you. Yeah, it wasn’t that I was ever keeping anything in or not admitting something to myself. I just hadn’t figured it out yet [laughs].
Can we talk about How to Build a Girl? How was Wolverhampton?
Well, I feel such a deep connection to Wolverhampton. I met so many people in London who didn’t even know where it was. I lived there for three weeks and I worked in a shop, this feminist utopia and co-op of 25 local female artists. They taught me how to use the register and they’d yell at me if I got my accent wrong, because I asked them to.
You’ve said you had to be brave for this role. How so?
My character starts as this really kind, sweet, optimistic, young fresh spirit, who goes through this intense journey with hate. The movie is a lot about how hate can shape you and change you and age you. My character is a rock critic on a music magazine and she feels pressured to become more hateful in her writing. All the boys there say she’s too nice, she has to be meaner. She dyes her hair, adopts this pen name and becomes tougher. And she’s also very promiscuous and does all of these things that I would never do [laughs].
You’ve had a couple of conversations with your brother in print on similar themes. He struggled with…
You seem to have made a decision…
Not to be plagued by that.
Tell me about that decision.
You know you can have the same exact upbringing as someone and yet leave adolescence feeling very different. We don’t feel the same way about ourselves and he’s very open about that. I always had such a singular passion in musical theatre growing up. I found a lot of confidence from performing because not only did I love it but I knew I could do it. But also I knew I didn’t look like what society was telling me to look like. There definitely were some years where I was plagued by it but then eventually I was like I can’t…I’m not even close to that. The further away you are from something, the easier it is to let it go. I always knew I was beautiful, I thought I was beautiful and I wasn’t really plagued by that anymore.
Booksmart is in cinemas 24th May.