Beanie Feldstein isn’t one of those actors who are nothing like the characters they play. Like Molly in Booksmart, or Julie in Ladybird, the actress exudes 100 percent sincerity and enthusiasm in real life.
The same goes for her leading role in the new film, How to Build a Girl. Johanna Morrigan is a 16-year-old in '90s England who has aspirations to be a great writer. She's willing to do anything to get out of her small town, and uses her chutzpah to land a job at a music publication, where she outwrites all the adult male journalists who underestimated her talent.
Despite coming from a different background, Feldstein saw herself in the character.
“She’s so passionate and that is my favorite quality in a human being, someone that is deeply committed to something and puts their all into everything and works hard,” she tells EW. “I feel so intrinsically connected to this girl. I just can feel her, I know her. I was so moved by her journey. And I was also incredibly intimidated by it. I remember I called my agent back and I was like, ‘I've never been more scared of something in my entire life. I have to try.’”
Director Coky Giedroyc, who helmed this movie based on Caitlin Moran's best-selling novel of the same name, knew she took a risk in choosing an American actress for the film, when the story and the rest of the cast — including Alfie Allen and Emma Thompson — are based in the U.K. She “saw a hell of a lot of British actresses” when casting in her native country, but Giedroyc kept coming back to Feldstein’s “magnetic” performance in Lady Bird.
And working with her was a “joy,” the director says.
“She was literally like a ball of light at the center of this production,” Giedroyc tells me. “I've had this before a few times in my career where someone just raises everybody's game, and she was that person for us... It's a privilege to work with her.”
Feldstein isn’t afraid to go for it, which makes her compelling to watch. In Booksmart, she and Kaitlyn Dever are catalysts for chaos as overachieving high schoolers, while in How to Build a Girl, Feldstein is just as daring flying solo as the lead. You can’t take your eyes off Johanna, even when she’s making a fool of herself looking like a virgin magician in her new outfit, or telling off an entire group of people while wearing only a garbage bag as a bathing suit.
Francois Duhamel/Annapurna Pictures
Her talent got her the role, but Feldstein’s work ethic and kindness offscreen are what lingered. Not only was the actress always on time or early and knew all of her lines, she actually worked in a shop for weeks in Wolverhampton, where the movie is set, to perfect the accent. She gave every single member of the crew a present at the end of filming. And then, there were the binders.
“She had loads of binders, and color-coded notes, and also highlighters,” the director says.
Feldstein finds her reputation slightly embarrassing — “they love to make fun of me about my binders,” she says with a laugh — but her over-preparedness was necessary to keep up with the fast-paced production that shot scenes entirely out of order.
She also adds, “I was so grateful to be given an opportunity... For me, it is very important to treat that opportunity with respect.”
It’s safe to say that after this movie, Feldstein has cornered the market on teen movies. “My little trio of coming-of-age films,” as she calls Ladybird, Booksmart, and now, How to Build a Girl. It’s impressive, given that she says she’s only been seriously working in Hollywood for about five years.
While Giedroyc says Feldstein has that “movie star quality,” the actress is just as happy to play the sidekick.
“I genuinely have always loved and thrived on supporting another character's journey. That has always been such a gift to me in my life,” she says. “I grew up doing musicals, and that was kind of the way musicals, especially traditional musicals, are structured. That was often the role that I was playing. And I loved it. I'm a person that loves community and I loves people.”
She especially sings the praises of past costars like Dever and Saoirse Ronan. Despite being older than the two, the 26-year-old calls both of them her “idols” for teaching her how to lead a film.
“I don't think I could have done How to Build a Girl if it wasn't for my experiences on Booksmart and Lady Bird,” she says. “To watch Saoirse was such a life-changing experience and even though she's younger than me, I look up to her so much because of the way she led that film with such grace and warmth.”
Ultimately, it’s Feldstein’s passion for stories about young women that made her drawn to these three films centered on teenagers. Although she had material like Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants growing up, she’s still adamant that “we are still so lacking in stories for girls and for teenage girls that are rich and complex and freaky and heartbreaking and compelling.”
“Specifically with How to Build a Girl, if I had this film and saw someone with any part of me, like my tone of voice, and my body, and the choices that she makes,” she continues. “If I had seen a girl go through those experiences at 14 or 16, I think I would have changed the way I looked at myself in society and fit in.”
More than just validating girls, Feldstein says the film celebrates them.
“Through her writing, [Caitlin Moran] looks at teenage girls and she doesn't just say, ‘I see you,’ but she says ‘And you're magic,’” Feldstein says. “That second kind of component of her writing that is so meaningful to women when they read it, to say, ‘Not only do I see you and I've had those experiences, but they're magical, they're important to the world.’ And I needed to hear that. So I hope the audience hears it too.”
How to Build a Girl debuts this Friday in select drive-ins, cable VOD and digital VOD.