Growing up, the musical-worshiping Beanie Feldstein was hounded by people asking the same question: When would she finally play Hairspray’s zaftig lead, Tracy Turnblad? “Around 12 or 14, I was like, ‘I will never play that role,’” says Feldstein, now 26, tells me over watermelon juice at her go-to neighborhood cafe, “because I can’t give people permission to see me as my body.” But setting that boundary was hard-won. While Feldstein was born with a preternatural “brazenness”—she claims that her younger self would’ve “eaten the 26-year-old me alive”—that confidence evaporated when it came to her physical form.
By the end of high school she stopped trying to eat the way everyone else wanted her to—and came to love what she’s deemed her “unwavering chubbiness.” She’s been schooling those who have tried to make her feel anything other than at peace with her appearance ever since. Whether it’s by issuing a warning to, “please stop complimenting me on my body” via personal essay, or having an ongoing and ever-evolving conversation about body image with those closest to her. “[Recently] someone said to me, ‘Oh, he’s so rail-y. He has the perfect body for clothes to drape on, he wears clothes so well.’ Well, I don’t agree with that ideology because I look great in clothes, I love clothes, and they don’t drape on me.”
Yet aside from Turnblad, there weren’t many starring musical roles of which she fit the part. She routinely found herself cast in a “character role” or “adding a little color and vibrancy” to productions. She learned then that casting according to type runs rampant in theater at all levels. “Sometimes you’re replacing people on Broadway and you literally have to fit into their costumes to get the role,” she says.
Film wasn’t wasn’t much different. Feldstein first made her mark as shy Julie in Lady Bird and then as valedictorian-with-a-vengeance Molly in Booksmart (albeit with ample screen time and chutzpah). And for a long time, she was cool with it. “I embraced it and I was like, ‘Wow, I get to support another character’s journey. My end goal in life only had ever been to be a supporting character,” she says.
But after novelist Caitlin Moran gave her blessing for Feldstein to star in the film adaptation of How to Build a Girl, Beanie Feldstein, Leading Lady, finally began to emerge. In Girl, Feldstein plays Johanna, a friendless teen who reinvents herself as a London music critic. For someone who considers friendship her North Star and still lives with her real-life childhood bestie, playing a loner had its challenges. “I was like, ‘If only [Booksmart costar] Kaitlyn Dever was here to be her friend!’ But she’s experiencing this loneliness we can all feel compassion for,” Feldstein says.
To prepare, Felstein retreated into isolation. She spent three weeks in Wolverhampton, England—where Girl is set—to master Johanna’s accent and to learn “every inch of her.” But unsurprisingly, the superlative best friend came away from the experience with a whole new tribe. Feldstein worked at what she calls, “this little feminist utopia of a store,” named The Shop in the Square. (Whose Facebook group she’s still a member, and avid stalker, of.) Throughout her time manning the cash register at the local female artist collective, Feldstein spoke solely in her burgeoning Midlands region accent, and spent off-hours in coffee shops spying on patrons and studying their dialect.
This wasn’t Feldstein’s first brush with going all-in for a role. While filming Booksmart she lived with Dever to get a jumpstart on their best bud rapport. Though Feldstein insists she’s far from method. “I am a snack and a laugh between takes kind of girl. I’m not staying in character, I can’t,” she says. But her immersionary training worked. “There were so many days where it was just me and Cleo the dog on the whole shoot. I’d literally never done that. In Booksmart there was only one scene where I was alone,” she says. “This movie is so funny, but it’s also really heartbreaking. And those scenes all came out of me. But in between takes I was just eating and laughing.”
Her next exercise in compassion and loneliness: playing Monica Lewinsky. In August it was announced that Feldstein had won the role of the once villainized, now vindicated former White House intern in Ryan Murphy’s Impeachment: American Crime Story. Lewinsky had always appealed as a character. “She grew up in west L.A. She was in theater. She’s Jewish,” Feldstein says, her voice dripping with duh. “I was even on this podcast, where we did a live taping at a bookstore in England, and they asked me, ‘What’s a story you want to tell?’ And I said, ‘Monica.’”
Instead of waiting for Hollywood to see things her way, she emailed her team, requesting to see all in-process projects on the formerly infamous figure. Three and a half weeks later she got a call from Murphy, she says. The part was hers, no audition necessary. (And while she’s yet to meet Lewinsky, it seems as if the anti-bullying activist more than approves of Murphy’s choice. Just last week Lewisnky replied to Feldstein’s tweet about her love of Joni Mitchell saying, “yet another similarity.”)
When her casting was announced this summer it was as if the entire Internet collectively rejoiced, but those closest to her felt a little… late to the party. “I forgot to tell anyone. So my brother [actor Jonah Hill] found out when it was online. He was like, ‘Do you have something to tell me?’ But I’m like a vault. If you say I can’t tell, then I will not tell,” Feldstein says.
Because as much as Feldstein gushes about the chorus of voices in her corner (like Hill, whom she calls “the smartest person I know,” and BFF Ben Platt, with whom she’ll film Richard Linklater’s Merrily We Roll Along over the next 20 years), she never seeks their counsel. “It’s an embarrassment of riches, but I don’t use them,” she says. She knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to ask for it. Or as she puts it, “I have a true center of knowing something is right. So very rarely am I teetering.”
The same applies to her personal life. In December 2018, Feldstein tweeted that she was dating Girl coproducer Bonnie-Chance Roberts. For Feldstein “coming out” was an afterthought, she was just shout-it-from-the-rooftops level in love. “I can’t not talk about her, because I’m so in love with her. Just because I act doesn’t mean I should have to stop myself from putting something online,” she says. “I can’t fake it. Whether it’s body, sexuality, or gender, we should give people permission to live their life in the way that they choose.”
To see Beanie Feldstein in conversations with actors MJ Rodriguez and Britney Young, head here to buy your tickets for our annual summit and awards ceremony in New York City on November 10 and 11.
Samantha Leach is the associate culture editor at Glamour. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @_sleach.