This year, Beanie Feldstein became immortal. First in Episode Two of FX’s vampire comedy, What We Do in the Shadows, when her character gets chomped. “Wowie-zowie!” she gasps. “Is this like a Tony Robbins unleash-the-power-within thing?” The reaction is quintessentially Beanie: an innocent thrilled by the flush of adventure.
Then it happened on the big screen, with her star-making turn in May’s genre-upending high school buddy comedy, Booksmart, where she played a good-nerd-gone-bad the night before graduation. How to Build a Girl, based on Caitlin Moran’s semiautobiographical novel about a teenage music critic in Nineties Britain and due later this year, should seal the deal.
Feldstein’s gotten good at achieving the fantastical. It took her only three films to level up from sidekick status, a feat for a 26-year-old who “grew up deeply, embarrassingly obsessed with musical theater,” she says at her favorite diner in her hometown of L.A. After graduating from Wesleyan University with a sociology degree, she won a small part in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, as a hooligan who cosplayed as Rosie the Riveter. Her second flick was a whiff, but her third, Lady Bird, had audiences Googling her name — “Beanie” was bequeathed by a nanny who called her “Elizabeanie” — to learn about the girl playing best pal to Saoirse Ronan’s title character.
“This is a dream I didn’t know I had coming true,” says Feldstein. Broadway, not Hollywood, was the plan. When Feldstein turned three, she asked her costume designer mom and accountant dad for a Funny Girl-themed party, so tiny Beanie could hold court in a leopard jacket and pillbox hat, just like Barbara Streisand. “Sums me up as a human being,” she says with a laugh. Soon after, she joined community theater and sang in three to five musicals a year from ages five to 22 — a first-grader rehearsing till 9 p.m. like a gymnast prepping for the Olympics. Emotive and bouyant, she made an impression, especially because as a child, she spoke with a rasp. “I sounded like I’d been smoking for 50 years,” she says. Then she was diagnosed with vocal cord nodules, and, at 9, lost her voice completely. It took months of surgery, speech therapy, and scribbling on a dry erase board before she could speak, let alone sing. Refurbished Beanie 2.0 warbled in a higher pitch but simply saw it as a test of her resolve. “It was a clear life moment for me,” says Feldstein. “I was like, ‘I am a singer.'”
As this was Los Angeles, TV producers would ask Feldstein to audition for pilots, but her parents decided their daughter, a homework geek who loved eating lunch with her teacher (“It sounds sad, but my friends were there too”), should stay off-camera at least until she finished high school. Even after her older brother Jonah Hill began to make movies, she never imagined herself in Hollywood. “I always felt like I was on the wrong coast,” Feldstein says. Her bat mitzvah theme was “vintage New York,” featuring vaudeville and top hats and congratulations scribbled on Western Union telegrams. Ten years later, she was singing alongside Bette Midler in a Tony-winning Broadway run of Hello, Dolly!
“Anyone who’s known us forever [knows], in real life, Beanie’s the star,” says Hill, who last year got a forearm tattoo that cheers Hello, Beanie! “She’s very strong and she won’t waver from that. Her infrastructure is like, she’s known who she was since she was 13, 14 years old.”
“I would agree with that,” says Feldstein. “He actually asked me, ‘[How is it that] we grew up in the same house, we have the same parents, and yet I don’t have the same confidence that you had as a kid?'” Today, in fact, during the most intense publicity tour of her life, the only thing that makes her feel awkward is wearing photoshoot spackle to her normal breakfast joint. Groans Feldstein, “I never wear makeup.”
Feldstein remembers her family’s sudden plunge into fame. In August 2007, she came home from performing arts camp to find billboards for Superbad hovering over L.A.’s streets. “Is that Jonah?!” Feldstein recalls thinking. “My silly, goofy, brilliant, thoughtful big brother was everywhere!” Her parents brought her to a screening, but she was too young to see the R-rated hit again on her own, so she snuck into a theater. “That’s literally the last rule I broke in my life.”
She’s conflicted when people call Booksmart the female Superbad. Yes, they’re both hilarious tributes to friendship, albeit for two radically different generations. (Feldstein adores today’s “politically involved, socially involved” teens — if she’d played high-school roles when she was actually in high school, the parts wouldn’t have been so feminist.) Plus, her character, Molly, a dogmatic valedictorian determined to play her first game of beer pong, vibrates with the same intensity as Jonah’s swaggering Seth, an authority more commonly found in dictators than insecure students. “You have to be vulnerable to play a character like that. I think that’s something Jonah and I have in common.”
Still, calling a movie the female anything implies the default is male. The sociologist in her rejects that. “Micro-moments where you change the rhetoric change society,” says Feldstein. “So I’m simultaneously like, ‘That’s so nice!’ and also ‘We should stop doing that.'”
How to Build a Girl has been the biggest test of her range. To play Moran’s brilliant, identity-seeking teenage writer, she first had to conquer a British accent. That took three weeks working undercover in a store in Wolverhampton, plus the ear of her girlfriend of a year, English film producer Bonnie-Chance Roberts. (“She’s magic,” Feldstein beams.) Then she had to get comfortable wearing outrageous Britpop glam. “Corsets and fishnets and crop tops and thigh-high boots!” says Feldstein. “Things that I would never do if my life depended on it!”
Scratch that. The only thing she’ll really never do is star in Hairspray. “Growing up, the only thing I ever heard because I was chubby was, ‘Have you ever played Tracy Turnblad?'” Feldstein says. “Never, ever, ever, ever.”
Now that audiences know “The Bean,” as she jokingly calls herself, Feldstein is psyched to maintain the same pace from first grade: the perpetual motion of practice, perform, repeat. As if to prove it, she blots her mouth and stares at her napkin in horror, eyes flooded with mock panic. “I forgot I was wearing lipstick, and I was like, ‘What’s wrong with me, I’m dying!’ ” Never fear. The indestructible Beanie Feldstein is here for good.