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Beanie Feldstein sheds 10 years and puts on a British accent in ‘How to Build a Girl’

Ed Symkus
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The Daily Herald

For about 21 of her 26 years, Beanie Feldstein has had a dream: to be an actor on Broadway. That dream came to ecstatic fruition in 2017 when she landed the part of Minnie Fay, opposite Bette Midler’s Dolly in the Broadway production of “Hello, Dolly!” But by then she had already become involved with acting in film and on TV, and her fast-moving career trajectory is likely going to keep her away from the stage for the foreseeable future. But she’s sure not complaining.

Critics and audiences were captivated by her performance as best friend to Saoirse Ronan’s title character in “Lady Bird,” she was Golden Globe-nominated for her costarring role as the brainy Molly in “Booksmart,” and now she has the lead role as a lonely British teen who’s thrown into the glitzy world of rock journalism in “How to Build a Girl.” Up next she’ll be playing Monica Lewinsky in the third season of “American Crime Story.”

But during a phone chat from New York, where she’s riding out social distancing days with her parents, her focus is on “How to Build a Girl,” based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Caitlin Moran, and directed by Coky Giedroyc. The story follows nice 16-year-old British girl Johanna Morrigan (Feldstein) as she tries to find some direction in her humdrum life, lands a spot as a writer for a rock fanzine, then gets so caught up in the wild scene, she goes through some less-than-nice personality changes.

Q: How have different projects come your way in recent years?

A: “Lady Bird” was an audition. I was moved by the script, and when I read for the character of Julie, Greta (Gerwig) read Lady Bird’s lines with me. “Hello, Dolly!” happened through “Lady Bird.” My character in “Lady Bird” sings, and the week we were filming those scenes I got an email saying the producers would like me to audition, and I got the part of Minnie Fay. With “Booksmart,” I was reading for a part that no longer existed in the final version of the film, then while I was doing “Hello, Dolly!” I got a call from my agent saying (director) Olivia Wilde wanted to meet with me. We met and talked about it, and she said she wanted me to play Molly. For “How to Build a Girl” my agent said, “You need to read this script and I’m not telling you anything before you read it.” So, I sat down in what I call my script-reading chair in my apartment. I talked with the creative team and with Coky, and they flew me to London to do a formal audition. Then I was back in the States waiting for the call, and got it, and was over the moon.

Q: You pull off a convincing Wolverhampton accent. How did you perfect that?

A: Coky and the producers came up with the idea to find me a job in Wolverhampton. There’s a place called Shop in the Square, which is a group of locally based female artists that sell their work in a cooperative style. They asked the women there if they would be willing to take in a little L.A.-American girl, and teach her the Wolverhampton accent, and I worked there for about three weeks, which is how I developed the accent. The rule Coky and I crafted was the moment I stepped in for my shift till the moment it ended, I had to speak in the accent, whether it was talking to customers, or on the phone, or ordering my lunch during a break.

Q: Your Johanna starts out as one person, then goes through a lot of changes, from downhearted to chirpy to kind of nasty. Were those difficult transitions to make?

A: It was always important for me to remember that even though she might be wearing more outlandish clothes and a top hat and eye liner and she’s dyed her hair, inside she is Johanna Morrigan, even if she’s now calling herself Dolly Wilde. There is still this joyful, optimistic girl, somewhere in there. and when you look at her whole journey, you can understand how she got there. At first, she needs the job because her family needs the money. But the men that she’s working with are saying to this 16-year-old girl, if you want to keep working here, you have to be hateful. So, she starts to do that. And as she says, once you’re on the dark side, your eyes adjust, and you don’t really notice how intense and nasty you’re being, because your morality has shifted. It was the greatest character arc that I’d gotten to experience.

Q: Yet the plot then goes in a different direction near the end. What are your thoughts on the messages of the film?

A: I think the film gives the audience permission to grow and change. That’s something we can all be reminded of, certainly as adults, but especially in your teenage years. You should try on different versions of yourself. They’re not all going to stick. They’re not all going to be perfect or always kind. But they don’t have to define who you are; they get folded into the reality of who you are. And you can become a new person.

“How to Build a Girl” will be available on most digital and cable platforms beginning May 8.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.