Beanie Feldstein of Booksmart on Being “Built Happy,” Musicals and (of Course) Llamas
“It’s very rare for me not to connect with people. It’s subconscious: I feel connected or I don’t. Every now and then, I’m wrong. And it hurts. But I think I just sort of know. I just love deeply.”
We’re on the patio at one of Beanie Feldstein’s favourite brunch spots. It feels transplanted from Los Angeles—which is to say there is a shocking dearth of deep-fried dishes. But the mechanical roar and shudder from a nearby construction crew, the buildings and the presence of Beanie* herself place us very clearly in New York. Chelsea, to be exact. And when in Chelsea with an impossibly charming actress well on her way to attaining her dream career, you talk about llamas.
* Author’s note: It’s journalistic convention to refer to a subject by his/her last name after his/her first appearance, but it feels wrong to do so with Beanie Feldstein. Beanie—a name her late brother gave her when she was a baby named Elizabeth—fits better. It’s like if Coca-Cola were a person, you wouldn’t call her Cola; it’s too broad and generic. No, you’d call her Coke.
“I loved llamas growing up,” says Beanie. “My second screen name ever, my second email, was pinkllamas12. My favourite colour, my favourite animal, my favourite number.”
As far as conversational tangents go, this isn’t that random. Beanie, whom you’ll recognize from playing the so-loyal-it-hurts best friend in Lady Bird along with the so-loyal-it’s-hilarious best friend in this past summer’s instant high school classic Booksmart, was talking about apartments in New York. This led to talk of dogs. Big dogs, specifically, and how, what with a roommate and all, she can’t get one at the moment. Helpfully, I asked if she had considered llamas. “They’re also quite tall.” Ha ha.
And so we spoke of llamas.
As it turns out, we each have one piece of llama trivia. Mine hasn’t exactly been fact-checked, so I’m concerned that my llama anecdote will contradict hers—and wouldn’t that be awkward? Rule number one of celebrity interviews: Don’t argue with the talent (especially about llamas).
“From what I read when I was 11, you have to have at least two llamas,” she says. “Because if a llama doesn’t get attached to another llama, it’s going to get attached to you and then be violent with anyone who comes near you. But if you have two, they’ll get attached to each other.”
My tidbit is that instead of using sheepdogs (or maybe in addition to using sheepdogs…my knowledge of shepherding practices comes almost exclusively from Looney Tunes), shepherds will sometimes put a llama in with their flock. So long as that llama remains singular, it will defend its little woolly cousins against all comers—will literally flatten any coyotes that come sniffing around. But if that llama has a llama friend, it could give a shit about those damn sheep.
The point of both of our anecdotes is the same: Llamas have very powerful feelings. And as such, they provide an imperfect yet apt metaphor for who Beanie is (minus what are clear co-dependency issues on the part of the llama).
“I love deep,” Beanie tells me later. It might be the truest statement anyone has ever made. In the hour we talk, Beanie uses the word “love” approximately 60 times. If she mentions someone—a director or past co-star or anyone—she’ll first list specific reasons why she loves them. And hers isn’t the “Oh, Marty Was Such a Thrill to Work With” kind of talk show praise that celebrities usually dish either. It sounds genuine—like everyone is a friend she met at camp and can’t wait to tell you about.
“It’s very rare for me not to connect with people,” she says. “It’s subconscious: I feel connected or I don’t. Every now and then, I’m wrong. And it hurts. But I think I just sort of know. I just love deeply.”
She just knows herself, too. And I get the sense that, more importantly, she likes herself. That’s a big part of why she can be so positive about pretty much everything. That might sound like she’s a typical millennial, pumped full of untested self-esteem. But it’s not like that. It’s a choice, and it’s one that doesn’t go unchallenged. After all, one assumes that being a plus-size actress in Hollywood comes with certain pressures that can be anathema to self-acceptance.
In a brief essay for Refinery29, she wrote about how precarious and hard-fought self-love can be, at least when it comes to her body. After unintentionally losing weight after a stint on Broadway, she noticed how many comments and compliments she was getting about her looks. “It really messed with my head,” she wrote. “After years of pain, I had finally found such a beautiful peace, one that most people, no matter what size they are, don’t have […]. But here’s the issue: When everyone started telling me I looked smaller, I lost my beautiful mindset that took decades to find.” Her self-acceptance and confidence don’t come from outside; they come from her own self-awareness. She has a healthy understanding of her talents as well as her weaknesses.
“When everyone started telling me I looked smaller, I lost my beautiful mindset that took decades to find.”
Her upcoming film, How to Build a Girl, is based on the novel by Caitlin Moran (“so charismatic and so effervescent and magical”). Beanie plays a girl named Johanna, who is “so different from Caitlin.” The character and Moran do, however, share a pretty similar biography. They are both music critics from the British town of Wolverhampton and speak like it. It’s not an accent that comes naturally to anyone not from Wolverhampton; it’s an accent that even her girlfriend, English film producer Bonnie-Chance Roberts, couldn’t help her with. “It’s not just a British accent,” she says. “Coky [Giedroyc, the director] was like, ‘Even as Londoners, we don’t know how to do that accent.’”
“I’m not an accent savant like some people,” says Beanie. “Saoirse Ronan is brilliant in every way, but her work with accents is so insane. I approached it academically.” She’ll tell you, without self-deprecation or false modesty, that she is neither the most creative nor the most intelligent in her family. But she is the most academic.
“I know the moment I got the part,” she says. “I was Skyping with the producers before I went to London for my audition. And they were like, ‘We looked all around for someone from Wolverhampton to play Johanna.’ But they couldn’t find anyone and so they were looking all over the U.K. I was like, ‘If you’re not casting someone from Wolverhampton, then anyone would be doing an accent.’ And I saw their heads cock, and it was the right thing to say.”
Bold, right? But then she had to work to nail Moran’s accent—which took a three-week immersion in Wolverhampton-ese while embedded in one of the town’s female-run shops. She said it was awkward at first, since she was under orders to speak in the accent well before she had it down, but what’s a little discomfort if it means getting to work with someone like Moran?
“She is everything I would want to be as a woman,” she says. “I just couldn’t believe that they chose a Jewish girl from Los Angeles. And I think in my core they saw something in me that Johanna has, which is like an eternal optimism.”
And like with her character, it’s an optimism that has been tested. As a good sociology grad (Weslyan ’15), she knows that her life has been privileged: raised in Los Angeles by well-off, creative parents; a famous older brother (named Jonah Hill); loads of natural talent and charisma. But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t had challenges or faced grief.
Her oldest brother, Jordan, was a manager for Maroon 5, Robin Thicke and Elle King. He died at the end of 2017 from a blood clot in his lung. “It’s unbearable at times,” she says. “But it doesn’t linger in me. I mean, my tragedy lingers in me every day. My grief is something that I am alongside every single day. But it doesn’t present itself as depression or sadness.”
“It’s unbearable at times. But it doesn’t linger in me. I mean, my tragedy lingers in me every day. My grief is something that I am alongside every single day.”
There’s a difference between eternally optimistic and blindly optimistic. She knows that life is hard and things are shitty. And it’s hard to keep a big heart from getting hurt every now and then, but all the pain isn’t pointless. “I found myself unwillingly in a new club,” she wrote in an essay for InStyle. “It is a club full of suffering and questioning but is also a community of people who have a truly broadened perspective on the human experience.”
And while it doesn’t make up for the loss, that kind of perspective is helpful when your job is to inhabit different human experiences. “I think one of the most beautiful lines I got to say in Lady Bird was ‘Some people just aren’t built happy,’” she says. “I was really struck, because I have no words for how much I miss my brother, but I think that I am just built happy.”
After reading all this, you shouldn’t be surprised that Beanie is a theatre person. She fell in love with Funny Girl before she was old enough for kindergarten. She spent most of 2017 on Broadway starring in Hello, Dolly! with Bette Midler. (Bet you can’t guess how Beanie feels about her.) Theatre—musical theatre, specifically—might be the only thing she loves more than…all of the other things she loves.
“I think one of the most beautiful lines I got to say in Lady Bird was ‘Some people just aren’t built happy.’ I was really struck, because I have no words for how much I miss my brother, but I think that I am just built happy.”
Considering how many theatre nerds there are around the world, there are relatively few true theatre people in Hollywood, but you know them when you see them: enthusiastic, touchingly game, often improbably good at accents (spoiler alert: Beanie can talk like a native of Wolverhampton now) and probably on the verge of tears (happy or sad) at this very moment. “They are people with the biggest hearts,” she explains. “I’ve never met a more hard-working people than the theatre community. Broadway is a slow burn of commitment.”
Maybe the size of their hearts helps with the required energy as well as her craft. She’s not a method actor. She connects to her characters through empathy, through inherent understanding and love.
One final observation: Beanie’s first breakout role was in Neighbors 2. She played a freshman student who started a wildcat sorority with Chloë Grace Moretz. In her next two major roles, she was a senior in high school. “And, now, in How to Build a Girl I’m 16,” she says. “I’m Benjamin Buttoning, which is funny because I’ve always felt like an old soul.”
Beanie passes as a teenager, of course, especially since we’re used to seeing 25-year-old high-schoolers in pop culture. But I think she keeps getting younger and younger in her roles as a corrective. Even though she’s only in her early twenties, we regret that we didn’t find her sooner, that we weren’t friends with her in high school. So, we’re going to force her back there. We want her in our musicals, films and lives for as long as possible.
Actually, maybe we’re the llamas in this metaphor.