How Beanie Feldstein Made It to the Party

The star of Booksmart tries not to judge.

Photo: Marco Grob. Rixo lame blouse at; Striped skirt at; Earring by Alison Lou hoop at Styling by Diana Tsui.
Photo: Marco Grob. Rixo lame blouse at; Striped skirt at; Earring by Alison Lou hoop at Styling by Diana Tsui.

“Do you remember Izze?” Beanie Feldstein asks. She’s telling me about the night she discovered that she couldn’t, under any circumstances, mix sugar and alcohol. We’re talking about high-school parties, and one stands out in her memory above all the others. It’s not that she partied too much or too obnoxiously, but everyone has nights they look back on with a cringe that turns into a shrug.

“The reason I don’t drink is because I love a cake and a cookie, and I eat one every day,” Feldstein says matter-of-factly over dinner at Lalito in New York’s Chinatown. “I’m like, If I have my cake, I can’t have tequila.” On the night in question, she mixed a little bit of Izze, the carbonated fruit drink, with a lot of vodka. “I was running up to the second floor of my friend’s house and throwing my phone and being like, ‘I hate my phone!’ And then running back down and doing it again, like, ‘My phone hates me!’ ” she says, cowering in her seat. “Oh God, just a nightmare. Oy.

I let out an oof to commiserate and tell her that I too was probably the worst version of myself at 17. Feldstein, now 25, pauses — not to correct me, necessarily, but to make sure I understand what her oy means. “It’s not like I hate her or I’m mad at her, just, like, oy,” she says of her younger, drunker self. “She was going through it! I try not to judge.”

Feldstein has bottled up that feeling — of thinking about the unfortunate bangs you once had or the unfortunate way you once misbehaved, then letting out an oy and trying not to judge — and put it into her starring performance in the new comedy Booksmart, directed by Olivia Wilde. It’s the story of two best friends on a long night’s journey into day, a day that happens to be their high-school graduation. Booksmart takes the teen-movie trope of having one night to get laid and unspools it as a zany quest of two girls trying to make it across town to the last party of their high-school careers. It’s also the first time Feldstein — whose breakout role was as Julie in 2017’s Lady Bird — isn’t just the smiley, supportive best friend. As the Yale-bound Molly, she furrows her brow and pushes herself and her bestie, Amy, played by Kaitlyn Dever, to have a lot of fun that goes wrong in extremely amusing ways.

In early reviews, Booksmart has been called a “girl version” of Superbad, the 2007 hit that happened to star Feldstein’s elder brother, Jonah Hill. But really, it’s the first of its own kind of thing: a raucous comedy about two girls trying to figure out how to grow up without growing apart. “Someone very sweetly Instagrammed me and Kaitlyn and Olivia after seeing the movie in Boston and said, ‘I’m so jealous of the next generation because they get to have Booksmart as their sleepover movie,’ ” Feldstein tells me. “That wrecked me. I was like, That’s it.

For most of her life, Feldstein had two goals: to have kids (“I love kids”) and to be on Broadway. “Jonah is like an encyclopedia of cinema, and I’m like that with musical theater. I was genuinely just obsessively listening to the Into the Woods cast recording on repeat,” she says. “As you do at 12.”

Before she could make her Broadway dreams happen, though, she had to fix her voice. Nodules on Feldstein’s vocal cords made it sound husky, and she lost her voice for months. Her doctor told her that she’d somehow taught herself “to speak wrong” and that if she wanted to be a singer, she had to relearn the right way. So Feldstein said okay: “I went to speech therapy and singing therapy like five times a week.” She wrote her college essay about it.

She went to Wesleyan, and took a summer acting class at NYU, and landed her first movie (Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising), and then her second (Whitney Cummings’s The Female Brain).

But it was her third movie, Lady Bird, that bundled everything important to her — theater, friendship, Greta Gerwig — into the coming-of-age story of one madly desirous, madly precocious 17-year-old (played by Saoirse Ronan) and her mother. It’s rare for one line in a movie to land like a thunderclap, but Feldstein made it happen in Lady Bird, during a scene in which her character, Julie, argues with Lady Bird, her best friend, who missed their musical-theater rehearsal and skipped out on accepting her part. “There is no role of ‘The Tempest’!” Lady Bird yells. Julie, for the first time, snaps back: “It is the titular role!”

Feldstein’s performance as Molly in Booksmart stretches the ferocity of that one line reading across 100 minutes. The character can be harsh in public but goofy in private, as when she hangs out in Amy’s room after school. “Once I understood that she’s actually a really insecure person, I understood her on a deeper level,” Feldstein says, comparing the character to Sandra Bullock’s in Miss Congeniality, Lisa Simpson, and Hermione Granger. “I have a lot of friends throughout my life that I looked back on and thought, They’re such intense people. But it’s because they’re so insecure that they put up intense walls and they come at things really hard to put a protective shell around their insecurity.”

Feldstein met Wilde in 2017 when she was on Broadway in Hello, Dolly! and Wilde was in 1984. At Café Un Deux Trois, Feldstein and Wilde figured Molly out: Booksmart laughs with her but never at her. She makes declarations, not suggestions, and wears a plaid blazer as armor. The movie doesn’t make fun of how seriously Molly takes everything. To Wilde, too much comedy rests on women being self-deprecating. “It’s ‘Oh, look at how they’re a disaster in the world!’ You laugh at them,” she says. “Beanie’s comedy comes from the way she delivers material. It’s her intensity.”

The most important thing in Molly’s life is her exhaustively detailed plan for achievement: to go to Yale and become the youngest justice to ever sit on the Supreme Court. The second most important thing in Molly’s life is her friendship with Amy, who matches her ambition but not her militancy. It’s not that Molly has been desperate to party these past four years, but she realizes she’s left something unfinished. “We have one night left to study and party in high school,” she tells Amy, pitching the idea of going to a rager the night before Molly delivers the valedictorian speech at graduation.

As much as Booksmart is about getting to that party — and the yacht party, murder mystery, and near carjacking they get entangled with on their way there — it’s ultimately about two girls figuring out what’s going to happen when their lives aren’t tethered by the same shorthand and inside jokes about masturbation. Wilde describes it as a breakup movie of sorts: “In female friendships, there tends to be a little bit more ease with which we express our love for each other, our love and admiration. I think the challenge is to find ways to criticize a close friend and to accept criticism, because that, for young women, can feel like betrayal. In Booksmart, that creates this fissure. They haven’t dealt with that issue yet in their relationship.”

A big part of Booksmart is the way Molly pushes Amy to be more herself: “You’ve been out for two years,” Molly says as they’re lying on bunk beds, “and you’ve never kissed a girl!” When Feldstein was in high school, at the L.A. prep school Harvard-Westlake, she didn’t think much about relationships. At Wesleyan, she dated guys. “I was sort of like, Men? Sure. Then I met my girlfriend and I was like, Oh no, this is love. This is what being in love feels like.

There was no big coming out, no paragraphs-long Instagram post explaining how she now identifies. “I’ve dated many beautiful men who are wonderful, who I’m still very close to, but I am in love with this woman who changed my whole life,” Feldstein says. “I didn’t figure that out until last year. It wasn’t like I was in high school and feeling oppressed or plagued by understanding my sexuality.”

Her favorite part of Booksmart — an awkward make-out scene between Amy and a classmate — is about how clumsy it can be to figure all this stuff out. “For me, that could be two women, that could be two men, a gender-fluid person and another gender-fluid person, that could be a guy and a girl. It’s the depiction of real teenage anxiety and awkwardness and horniness and all of that. That is so beautifully depicted, and the fact that it’s a queer relationship is incredible,” Feldstein says. “It’s a universality of experience, but you’re depicting universality through a queer relationship.”

“I feel so green and so new and so lucky,” she continues. “Every second of every day, I’m like, You guys let me on this set? You cuckoo.” It’s the second of her films that she can’t wait to show her future children. “Maybe my kids will be like, ‘Mom, shut up. Go into your room. We don’t wanna watch your movie!’ ”

*This article appears in the May 27, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

How Beanie Feldstein Made It to the Party