Warning: This interview contains spoilers for How To Build A Girl, available on VOD May 8.
“She directed most of Harlots on Hulu,” Feldstein recalled in a phone interview with Refinery29. “She sat me down and was like, ’I’ve directed 90 sex scenes. I got you. I know exactly how to do this. You are in control. If you ever feel uncomfortable, if you ever want to stop, take a break, take a moment, call me over.’”
Unlike Feldstein, her character, Johanna Morrigan, doesn’t have a circle of wise women to guide her through life’s difficult moments (unless you count the cutouts of Jo March, Cleopatra, and Elizabeth Taylor who stare down and talk to her from her bedroom wall, Harry Potter-style). Friendless, save for her brother Krissy (Laurie Kynaston), she faces adversity down with a blend of cheery optimism and bravery that left Feldstein in awe.
“This is a girl who hasn’t had the privilege of having a best friend yet,” Feldstein continued. “I was so lucky to find my people — by high school I had found my tribe. But not every person finds their community so young. How did they get through adolescence? How did they go through the world?”
Based on the 2014 semi-autobiographical novel by Caitlin Moran (who also wrote the script), How To Build A Girl is a fresh and funny coming-of-age tale, the kind that has become almost synonymous with Feldstein’s career. This is her third major collaboration with a woman director in as many years, first as Julie in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, followed by a turn as Molly in Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, and now, as 16-year-old aspiring rock critic Johanna in How To Build A Girl.
When we meet Johanna, she’s a lonely teenager daydreaming about boys in her West Midlands suburban high school library. Inexperienced but voracious, she conjures her desires in vivid detail, an intensity she brings to every aspect of her life. So when a call for submissions leads her to nailing a job as a junior writer for music magazine D&ME in London, she doesn’t just accept. She literally invents a brand new personality to suit the task. Dolly Wilde is everything Johanna wishes she could be: a self-proclaimed “sexual explorer” with a mane of fiery red hair and a penchant for tophats, she’s fearless, bold — and a little too reckless with her words. As Dolly forges a blazing path into the future, Johanna realizes that maybe she doesn’t need to be someone else to be successful. Maybe she was built right all along.
Ahead, Feldstein describes her own journey towards self-acceptance, and why standing in a bikini made of trash bags made her happier than anything she’s ever done.
Refinery29: How are you doing? Where are you right now?
Beanie Feldstein: “I’m holding up. I’m in Los Angeles, in my childhood home. I’m looking at my wall — I have this bulletin board wall in my room I started when I was 10 years old, and I made a rule a while ago to never take anything down. So I can literally see the layers upon layers of my life.”
That’s so in line with this movie! What's on your board?
“So many things! Posters and musical playbill photos, clippings from my high school’s newspaper, drawings, and ticket stubs. Just so many memories.”
I first saw the movie at the Toronto Film Festival back in September but watching it now, I felt so struck with nostalgia and empathy for my teen self. Do you think this time is making us more self-accepting?
“I'm currently living at my parents’ home, so there's a natural sort of reflection that comes with, being in your childhood room. It's definitely a time where we’re all kind of trying to make sense of the world, and what I love about How To Build A Girl is that it honors the phases, which in your adolescence, are kind of looked down upon like, Oh, that's just a phase. The movie gives the audience a chance to be kinder to themselves and maybe take a step back.”
Do you feel kinder towards 16-year-old Beanie?
“There are many middle school moments that [I look back on] like, Ohhh no. I think Caitlin Moran’s magic is she not only says to teenage girls, ‘I see you’, but she , ‘You're magic and you're special and you're creative and you're so valuable to the world.’ That's so rare. I wish I could have seen this movie or read [the book] when I was younger. But actually, filming it made me feel brave because Caitlin wrote Johanna doing some really outlandish things that are very outside Beanie’s comfort zone. I always say I could never be a Gryffindor because I’m not brave, but at the end of this shoot, I was like, Maybe I’m a little bit Gryffindor now?”
“I had never done a lot of the things that I was called to do in this film. That was really challenging and exciting as an actor, but really meaningful on a different level as a person in the world.”
What were some of the things that you were nervous about taking on?
“The accent is the first thing that comes to mind. I had done British accents growing up, like in community theater, but I had never been called to do one that’s so regionally specific. I had never done an accent for a film before, let alone my first true solo lead.
“But even if you look at the wardrobe — I had never worn clothes like that. It was a fun, amazing kind of collaborative journey to bring the visual representation of [Johanna’s] growth to life. But I was very nervous.”
The Dolly Wilde costumes are so good because they really capture that feeling of being 16 and thinking you look so sophisticated and hot but now you look back like, What the fuck was I thinking?
“Putting shorts over tights — like why, teenage girls? Somehow that stops at like 19 or 20. I love it, it’s so Artful Dodger. But the story is based on Caitlin’s novel, which is loosely based on her life. She showed me many pictures from that era, and she really did wear that, top hat and all. Along with Stephanie Collie, our costume designer, we were really hell-bent on the costumes being as true to [Johanna’s] circumstances as we possibly could be. She really only buys like six or seven pieces, but she then rotates and combines them in different ways. And the same thing with makeup. I kept being like, She wouldn't wear foundation. If you want to make yourself over and you don't have the finances to do it, you're not spending money on foundation. You're buying an eyeliner and a lipstick because that’s going to get you the farthest.”
You’ve been open about your own struggles with body image and weight loss. One of the things that stands out in the film is that there’s no mention of Johanna’s body. She’s just feeling herself, and no one’s there to make her feel bad about being plus-size.
“I love this character because she’s written to be a girl who is not small, but [the story] is not about that aspect of her. It’s wonderful to give this journey to a person you might not always see at the center of a story, especially in a movie. And to then flip it to say, We’re not going to focus on that. It was so meaningful for me to play and go back to the brave moments. There’s a pretty epic one towards the end of the film where for the first time her weight is sort of brought up behind her back in a very cruel way by the guys that she's working for. And she comes out wearing a bikini made of trash bags. We actually figured out how to create a bikini out of two plastic bags — the key is to have plastic bags with handles.
“Talk about brave and triumphant! I think that monologue was my favorite moment. If I had seen that when I was 14, it would have changed the way I went about the world. Seeing this chubby girl in a bikini literally made out of a trash bag coming at her adversaries, wiping the floor with [those boys] through her intellect and her passion. It would have been mind-blowing to me at that age.”
How did you feel as Beanie standing there in your trash bag bikini?
“I loved it. That was a really crazy day. We shot this movie fast and furious, and we only had that fancy estate for one day. We didn't film that scene until like two in the morning, and it was one of the most kind of exhilarating filming moments I've ever had because these guys who I love as people in my life were in the hot tub, and it was so painful to hear them say those kind of brilliantly cruel lines. It was also one of the scenes I did for my audition, which I was always get a little extra sparkle from because I just feel so grateful to be given this opportunity.”
What was it like filming all those sex scenes?
It was wild, but I just felt so taken care of by her and the whole crew. I met all the boys that day, and they were all super kind and respectful. I love the way they edited it and brought it to life. It’s so unfiltered and uninhibited and we wanted to capture that in the film because it's such an important part of adolescence and teenage girlhood that isn't often given the bandwidth to explore. When I was growing up, there were network TV shows at 8:00 p.m. that would talk about teenage boys masturbating. Yhat was never ever spoken about with girls.”
Between Lady Bird, Booksmart, and How To Build A Girl, you’ve gotten to star in three major coming-of-age films about women. How do you think that’s shaped your career trajectory?
“I feel an immense amount of gratitude for my life — specifically my working life, I've only been out of college for five years, and I got to do Lady Bird so early in my working life. It just set such a high bar in my head. I always wait to get that feeling that I felt when I read Lady Bird. With Booksmart, and then definitely with How To Build A Girl, I had this sort of jolt of adrenaline and connection when I first read the script, that kind of heart swelling feeling of like, I know this girl, and if I get to be this girl, that would be one of the greatest opportunity that has ever been given.”