Life & Culture

Beanie Feldstein: she's more than just Jonah Hill's little sister

The break-out star of Lady Bird stars in the must-see film of the summer: Booksmart, a funny movie about friendship - specifically women's friendships.


Beanie Feldstein is a vision in red. The 25 year-old actress is perched on a sofa in London’s Soho Hotel, sporting a bright scarlet dress and black platform trainers decorated with hearts. Glancing around her, she giggles at just how she matches the room. If there’s a chance of her sinking without trace into the primary-coloured soft furnishings, her career is going in the opposite direction. After a role in college comedy Bad Neighbours 2, she struck big as Julie, best friend to Saoirse Ronan’s schoolgirl in Greta Gerwig’s Oscar-friendly Lady Bird.

Effortlessly, stealthily, she’s moving out of the shadow of her brother — actor, writer and lately director Jonah Hill, who is almost ten years her senior. Ironically, she’s in town to promote Booksmart, a vibrant new comedy from actress-turned-director Olivia Wilde that feels like the spiritual cousin to Hill’s breakout 2007 movie Superbad. While that was a coming-of-age comedy about two male nerds (Hill and Michael Cera), this is the female equivalent, as high-schooler swots Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Feldstein) realise they have one night to cut loose before graduation.

So has her brother seen Booksmart? “He has not seen the film yet. He will be seeing it in four days! He’s like, ‘I can’t believe I haven’t seen it.’ But he really wanted to see it in the theatre with a big crowd and because of his work schedule and where we were, there was no way for him to do that. So he’s coming to the premiere in LA which is so exciting.” What about Superbad? She’s seen that, right? “I haven’t seen it since I snuck in to see it when I was 12. So it’s been a while…” It’s an endearing image: the little sister of Jonah Hill covertly catching his film without parental guidance.

The comparison, she says, is that both films are a celebration of friendship. “The reason everyone loves Superbad and the reason it stands the test of time is not for the jokes, which are hilarious, but it’s because of the genuine love between those two characters and their real committed friendship.” Then comes the slight (and very polite) ticking off. “I think we should get to our place in our society where we’re not saying that female movies have to be the ‘female version’ of male movies. I think that we are coming to a place where they should just be…movies.”

Said with such softness — there’s a warmth to her chatterbox manner — I hardly feel admonished. Feldstein describes herself as “a huge feminist” — she majored in sociology — and when she speaks on such issues, she does so with clarity, calm and intelligence. She doesn’t want to carve out female-driven films that are exclusively for women; it’s about creating art for all. “Men should know that they can very much relate to female stories, just as we’ve always related to male stories, because we’ve been asked to do that forever.”

Like the recent Eighth Grade, another high-school film seen from the perspective of a young girl, these are relatable stories, whether or not it’s been years since you were last in a classroom. “I think Booksmart is so great because it’s such a celebration of inclusivity but in such a natural easy way,” Feldstein continues. “It’s never going to beat you over the head with it. It’s never going to shove a specific message down your throat. It’s just going to present you with a very vibrant cast of characters that anyone can relate to.”

I wonder whether Feldstein’s own high school years were anything similar? Born Elizabeth Feldstein — Beanie originated from a nickname culled from a British nanny, who called her ‘Elizabean’ — she was raised Jewish in a sort-of-showbiz family in Los Angeles. Her father is an accountant in the music industry (crunching numbers for rockers Guns’n’Roses, among others), while her mother works as a costume designer. If Booksmart shows just how kids gravitate towards their cliques, Feldstein very much ran with the theatre crowd when she was young.

“I think in general the theatre community — at my high school anyway — was such a loving, inclusive group of people,” she says. “And typically a very academic group of people. We tend to be very focused on school, with the performing arts.” Attending Harvard-Westlake, a “pressure-cooker, rigorous, academic school” — past alumni include Jake Gyllenhaal, Shirley Temple and former White House Chief of Staff H.R. Halderman — she schooled with “an incredible batch of highly achieving human beings”.

Nevertheless, she immediately recognised her own educational experiences in Wilde’s film. “What I love about Booksmart, which was very similar to my high school, is everyone has their social group and their friends, and there wasn’t this intense animosity between them. Whereas in other films you’d say there’s always the classic lunchroom scene — the jocks, the nerds and the weird stoner kids. And my high school was much more like [the] classroom in the movie, where everyone has their group and their chatting and they’re making small judgments about each other, but there are no real classifications between them.”

Is she glad that she’s not a teenager now? “Yes and no,” she muses. “There’s such an added pressure of social media, and everything is so immediate. But at the same time, I think this [current teen] generation is so loud, in a beautiful way. They’re so outspoken. They’re not letting life happen to them. They’re being a part of their society at a much younger age than I was. I sort of lived in my high school and familial world until I was 18, and then I was like, ‘Oh, I’m a human being in a larger society that I need to take in.’ Whereas people are having these realisations at, like, 14, 15. Even before they can vote in the US, they’re engaged politically, they’re engaged socially, in a way that I think is inspirational.”

While still at school, she made her screen debut in ABC television comedy My Wife and Kids, but it wasn’t until Feldstein graduated from Wesleyan University in 2015, that her career began in earnest. Small roles in Netflix prison drama Orange Is The New Black and sitcom Will & Grace were followed by her Broadway debut in a 2017 production of Hello Dolly! alongside the inimitable Bette Midler (Vogue even dubbed her “the next Bette Midler”, something of “an honour”, says Feldstein). Intriguingly, she followed this with Lady Bird and now Booksmart, both empowering directorial debuts for well-known actresses. A coincidence?

“I don’t think it’s coincidence,” she says, shaking her head. “I think that I only ever want to be part of projects that really speak to me and really fill me up. And when I read them, I feel like, ‘I can’t wait to see this movie even if I don’t get to be a part of it. I’m so thankful that I got to read it and I can’t wait to see it.’ And so I think for me as a young woman, adding to the cinematic landscape with female stories about young women that are brilliant and unique with such different tones and such different ideas and moralities, I feel incredibly lucky but I don’t think it’s a coincidence.”

This sisterly feeling looks set to continue with her next film, How To Build a Girl, an adaptation of journalist Caitlin Moran’s 2014 semi-autobiographical novel. Feldstein, with full on Black Country accent, will play Wolverhampton teenager Johanna Morrigan, who moves to London in the 1990s to become a music critic and “full-time lady sex adventurer”. “Three days after we wrapped Booksmart, I was in Wolverhampton working in a store, to get the accent,” she informs me. Called The Shop in the Square, it’s a cooperative where twenty-five female artists sell their work.

After the “team effort” that was Booksmart, she suddenly felt a little alone without her co-star. “I was like ‘Where’s Kaitlyn?’ all the time! I replaced Kaitlyn with Caitlin, which was very funny.” It’ll be the first time she takes a solo lead. “I’ve never been more artistically fulfilled in a very unique way than with learning that accent and immersing myself in that experience of living in Wolverhampton and being a part of Caitlin’s journey and trying to bring it to the big screen. I’m really excited for people to see it.”

It feels like she’s been building up to this moment, that it’s the next step, I suggest. “Especially as a young woman it took me a long time to come to terms with this – you have your own agency in your career. You don’t have to say ‘yes’ to everything. You can really be a part of choosing the stories you want to tell.” She’s taken inspiration from mentors like Gerwig and Wilde. “I refuse to be complacent about my own career. I want to be a part of things that feel like the next step and feel like a very specific journey in the stories I want to tell.” With that, our time is up. “Enjoy the rest of your day,” she beams.


Booksmart opens on May 27th


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