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Californian Beanie Feldstein, breakout star of two of the most charming and fêted indie coming of age comedies of the last three years – Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird and Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart – had, until the summer of 2018, never heard a Wolverhampton accent in her life. Understandably.
Yet when the 27-year-old was given the script for How to Build A Girl – this week’s fun and quirky adaptation of Caitlin Moran’s semi-memoir about a 16-year-old Johanna Morrigon trying to get off her Wolverhampton council estate and make it as a rock critic – she knew, instinctively, that the part was hers.
“It makes no sense,” laughs Feldstein, her voice bright, warm and fizzing like sherbet down the dodgy landline of her childhood home in Cheviot Hills, Los Angeles, where she was raised alongside her brother and Wolf of Wall Street star Jonah Hill by their costume designer mother and celebrity business manager father, “but I just knew Johanna.”
It’s testament to Feldstein’s hold on Hollywood that while How to Build a Girl’s producers scouted across Britain for the perfect lead, they chose Feldstein instead, sending her to work incognito in a Wolverhampton souvenir shop for three weeks to nail the accent. Director Coky Giedroyc (Carrie’s War) had seen a preview of Ladybird in 2016, in which Feldstein plays the adorably earnest best friend to Saoirse Ronan’s Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson, and was impressed.
So, it seems, was everyone else: Feldstein was soon cast as Minnie in Hello, Dolly! On Broadway opposite Bette Midler before picking up a Golden Globe for her gloriously nerdy Molly in Booksmart. This year will also see her star as Monica Lewinsky in Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story – for which Feldstein is in close contact with Lewinsky herself, a producer on the series – and begin filming on Richard Linklater’s ambitious filmed musical Merrily We Roll Along, for which Feldstein (a bold, pitch-perfect voice among her many gifts) will be filmed over a 20-year period, alongside her best friend from high school Ben Platt.
Along the way, Feldstein, who usually lives in New York, has accumulated millions of adoring fans who see her as a young Amy Poehler or Kristen Wiig: hilarious, relatably goofy, and a poster girl for female friendship. She still interacts with her former colleagues at the Wolverhampton gift shop on their employee Facebook group, and when presenting an award at the 2020 Oscars she introduced herself on stage – possibly an Academy first. Young girls sprint after her on the street begging Feldstein to become their best friend, too, while parents look on approvingly, pleased to see Feldstein play unapologetically whip-smart, witty, kind and authentic role models on screen.
The actress, who says she was fed musicals and comedy by her parents from a very young age (even dressing up as Fanny Brice for a Funny Girl-themed third birthday party) is carving out a niche for herself with parts that celebrate, rather than downplay, a woman’s intellect. Always the teacher’s pet, she was so desperate to appear precocious that aged three she asked Jonah to write a complicated phrase on a piece of paper, which she then took to her parents, pretending she’d written it.
Her careful plan blew up in smoke after her horrified mother read the words: “F--- you.” Eschewing drama school, Feldstein studied Sociology at university instead, before side-stepping into Hollywood with her very first acting roles in 2016 comedy Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising and an episode of American sitcom My Wife and Kids. The roles were minor, but they were enough to get Greta Gerwig’s attention.
Feldstein glows with a star quality we don’t often see: a vigorous self-confidence and unbreakable, infectious optimism. Last year, she wrote a viral essay about “Grief Glasses” following the death of her brother Jordan, who died in 2016 aged 40 of a blood clot in his lung. “The colors bleed together more vividly. But they are somehow more than they ever were before. More visceral. More vibrant. More present,” she wrote of the altered way the world presented itself with grief glasses strapped to her face.
Feldstein also inspired fans with her 2017 essay asking friends to stop complimenting her accidental weight loss (“I don't want anyone to feel that a change in appearance is an open invitation to comment on someone's body…I am genuinely comfortable with my unwavering chubbiness.”), while also quietly making an impact on the LGBTQ community through her public relationship with Liverpudlian How to Build a Girl producer Bonnie Chance Roberts.
“I’ve always really known who I am and have a very strong moral centre,” says Feldstein, firmly. “I’m a very positive and gregarious person and, while internet trolls exist, I try not to let people get in the way of that. I tend to get out of the world what I put in.”
It’s unsurprising, then, that the actress connected so deeply with How to Build a Girl’s Johanna, who navigates life with a tireless zest for life, purity of intent and indestructible self-esteem, equipped with bright purple hair and a black top hat. Feldstein even has a “God Wall”, just like her character, plastered with pictures of pop culture icons with words to live by: Steven Sondheim, Sandra Oh, Carole King and Barbra Streisand.
The actor even shared a version of Johanna’s “epiphany”, in which the character realises it is much better to write “one true thing”, even if no one reads it, than hundreds of snarky, sensationalistic reviews of bands to sell more papers. “I had mine at the same age as Johanna, when I didn’t get a part in the school choir. I remember creating this motto for myself which was, ‘They either want The Bean or they don’t want The Bean’. It was simple and powerful, and I thought I just need to stay my honest self and people can either take it or leave it,” says Feldstein, who is so unafraid of what people think she carries a stuffed dog around with her everywhere, and is often laughed at while passing airport security.
Crucially, the film, which also stars Game of Thrones' Alfie Allen and Emma Thompson, was important to Feldstein for its message to young women. “I think so often with young women specifically, we talk about them “getting over” phases and we dismiss them. But How to Build a Girl celebrates those phases. The journey was important, each phase was important, and we’re going to let each self line the fabric of our identity, but they won’t define it.”
Before Feldstein hangs up the phone to get stuck into her favourite, very British pastimes – watching Gavin & Stacey and Call the Midwife, and re-reading Harry Potter – I ask her if she is nervous about the film at all. A pause, and then, solemnly: “My colleagues at the Wolverhampton gift shop were so concerned I wouldn’t end up doing a Brummie accent. I promised them I would make it Wolve!”
How To Build A Girl will be released on Amazon Prime Video on July 24