Beanie Feldstein on Playing Monica Lewinsky: ‘She Is a Triumph’
Coming off a buzzy starring role in the Toronto Film Festival’s “How to Build a Girl,” the “Booksmart” breakout is ready to graduate to the meatiest roles of her career.
Beanie Feldstein, as 16-year-old burgeoning music critic Johanna Morrigan, sobs quietly in a bathroom. She’s just been laughed out of the office by the snobbish lads of an indie rock magazine, having submitted an agonizingly earnest review of the Annie soundtrack for print in their alt-weekly. She’s perched under the sinks when she hears a voice: It’s Björk, coming alive inside a framed poster on the bathroom wall. “Rooms like that need girls like you,” the musician coos to Johanna, urging her to turn around and tell ‘em all off. In Feldstein’s newest starring vehicle How to Build a Girl, everyone—even Björk—is rooting for her.
It isn’t hard to see why. So far, Feldstein’s Hollywood persona has always been half of a duo—weeping to boy bands beside Saoirse Ronan’s Lady Bird or showering compliments upon Kaitlyn Dever’s Amy in Booksmart. But in How to Build, Feldstein’s Johanna goes at it solo. She’s an ambitious teen who hails from the shabby city of Wolverhampton, England, and dresses like an overzealous cabaret extra: top hat, fishnets, Cleopatra eyeliner. As the newest addition to the Feldstein repertoire, Johanna is an equally shiny firecracker—she’s just a lone one.
“I was like, where is my buddy? I’m so used to being on a set with my girl,” Feldstein says of tackling the role. “I went directly from being in LA, living with Kaitlyn on Booksmart, to three days later living in Wolverhampton. It was a very quick turnaround.”
Adapted from Caitlin Moran’s autobiographical novel, How to Build follows Johanna, a ‘90s British teen who acts as the movie’s titular build-a-girl and center of gravity. We meet her in a daydream: She’s bored sick by her drab existence, doodling in the library and fantasizing about a life worthy of a romance novel. Her reverie becomes reality when she pursues and somehow scores a plum job as a rock music critic, and the rest of the film busies itself with charting the highs and lows of her Cinderella-as-catty-journalist success story.
Lacking a sidekick, Johanna receives encouragement from a cast of imaginary mentors and cheerleaders: Sylvia Plath, Julie Andrews, Sigmund Freud, Jo March—each of whom hang in magazine clippings on her bedroom wall and, like Björk, come alive to egg her on. “It is really the story of a girl who doesn’t have a best friend, and also doesn’t really have her mother present,” Feldstein says. “She doesn’t have anyone telling her to maybe take the top hat off, or maybe not kiss that guy.”
Unlike Johanna, Feldstein is seemingly surrounded by friends. She’s part of a core young Hollywood cohort, including prominent names like her Lady Bird costar Lucas Hedges and her “real-life best friend” Ben Platt. Together with Platt, Feldstein will star in the film adaptation of Merrily We Roll Along, an ambitious production from Richard Linklater set to shoot in increments over the next two decades. “I can’t wait for 2040,” Feldstein laughs when asked about the project. “I think it makes people really reckon with their own humanity in a funny way. I’m like, ‘I’m sorry to make you think about 20 years from now!’”
But these shared projects and tight-knit group of friends, Feldstein insists, haven’t stopped her from worshipping her own Johanna-esque wall of idols. These include Barbra Streisand and Eleanor Roosevelt (“I’m, like, obsessed with her”), Carole King and Stephen Sondheim (“the soundtrack to my life”), and also Sandra Oh, who Feldstein tried to stalk after finding out How to Build was shooting in the same London building as Killing Eve (“Oh, Cristina Yang? There is no one better in the world”).
Soon, Feldstein will have the chance to play another, more polarizing modern icon: Monica Lewinsky. The role will appear in the third season of American Crime Story, which is set, rather audaciously, to tackle the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Alongside Feldstein, Lewinsky herself will help produce.
“She is a triumph,” Feldstein says of the former White House intern and current activist. “I am so, so honored to be portraying her. And to be doing it with Ryan Murphy is out of my wildest dreams. He is sort of the king of television, and his work is so profound.”
It’s a chewy role for a Hollywood up-and-comer, providing the one-two punch of propelling Feldstein’s career while shaping the public perception of a real-life woman—one who, despite finally being offered a voice in the triumphant wake of #MeToo, still tends to be a punchline for many a Twitter troll. To make matters more complex, the new season is set to premiere on FX in September 2020, just weeks before the election.
“The facts and the details are all exactly as they’ve always been, and yet we see it completely differently now,” Feldstein says, reflecting on the all-too-familiar scandal. “I’m honored to be a part of bringing this story to light right now, and hopefully getting to frame her in a completely new way for the next generation.”
Production for the season will begin in January, and Feldstein has already messaged with Lewinsky, who she describes as “ridiculously wonderful” to speak to. “I have 100,000 questions for her,” she vows, adding that with Lewinsky signed on as a producer, “It’ll be really incredible to watch someone be a part of telling their own story.”
Playing a version of Caitlin Moran in How to Build, Feldstein reflects, was a useful stepping stone to her work on American Crime Story. Like Lewinsky, Moran is “a feminist hero” and real woman who Feldstein could dig into and make her own. And as Feldstein continues to graduate as an actress—moving on up from supportive friend, to bookish ringleader, to independent artist, to polarizing public figure—it surely won’t be long before we’re enthroning Feldstein with feminist-hero status of her own.