It's Not Just A Phase: 'How To Build A Girl' Is About A Teen Still Figuring It Out

May 8, 2020
Originally published on May 8, 2020 8:12 pm

Beanie Feldstein does not like the way teenage experimentation and growth gets dismissed as just a phase. "There tends to be the sort of stigma or judgment," she says, whether it's about dress, mood, makeup, or music choice.

What she loves about her latest film, How to Build a Girl, is that it gives teen phases the respect they deserve. "Those phases matter," she says. "It doesn't mean they're going to last, but they do matter. ... I think we could all be reminded of that lesson — especially adults."

How to Build a Girl is a film adaptation of Caitlin Moran's 2014 semi-autobiographical novel about an awkward teen turned music critic. Feldstein stars as Johanna Morrigan, a 16-year-old growing up in England in the 1990s. Johanna "hasn't found her people yet," says Feldstein, and her closest confidants are her heroes (Julie Andrews, Freud, Sylvia Plath, Karl Marx) whose pictures are taped to her bedroom wall.

Feldstein admits she sometimes felt nervous during filming, but found thinking back to her own teenage years helped: "I would just say to myself: Imagine if someone had done this for you — or if this film had an opportunity to be made — when you were 14," she says. "It would have changed my whole understanding of myself."


Interview Highlights

On what guides her in choosing projects

I was a sociology major in college. And I think that side of me — that side of my brain is really on high alert every time I read a script. ... I might ... be kind of enthralled by the idea of this director, or this actor, or this DP, or whoever it might be that is kind of intoxicating. But is this script important for the world? Is this story important to bring into the world? Is it going to change things? Is it diverse? Is it inclusive? All of those things. ... I really do make an effort to always come back to those questions that I feel like the sociologist in me would ask — or would hope that an actor would ask.

On her character Johanna

She's genuinely a happy and joyful, optimistic, imaginative young girl. But she's also fed up. ... She's busting out of her skin. She's busting out of her circumstance. She wants more. But at the same time, she's so joyful and she loves the world. And I think that was something I really related to. I think the most prominent connective tissue between me and the character are that I am also very, very naturally optimistic ... but that doesn't mean I haven't seen sadness or tragedy in my life. ... The film itself and the character, they just give you permission to feel multiple things at once.

On playing a teen character who hasn't found her people

Johanna is a young woman without her tribe. ... I was lucky; I had my musical theater-loving tribe. ... I was so lucky to find my people so early and to have a really loving, attentive, supportive family. But not everyone is that lucky. And that ebbs and flows throughout your life. And so I love How to Build a Girl because it celebrates those that had to go at it alone during their adolescence, and were kind of out there and paving their own path and being their own best friend.

On what the film taught her about forgiveness

I think [it] gives everyone permission to make mistakes and not feel defined by those mistakes. But to feel sort of empowered — to fold them into the identity of who you are so you can become stronger and learn from them. I feel like I learned so much from doing this movie in that, you know, you can be a little more forgiving of yourself sometimes — and it doesn't mean that you're excusing the behavior or the decision — but you can just kind of forgive and learn from it. ... You have to apologize when you've done something wrong, profusely and honestly, and then just continue to lead your life with kindness and just know: This is who I am today and you don't have to have it all figured out.

On Caitlin Moran's guidance about how to inhabit the character of Johanna

She said to me ... 'This is loosely based on my life, but it's not my life. And I am here for you whenever you want me, whenever you need me. ... But I also want you to feel free to create her as you inhabit her.' ... I just couldn't have been more lucky in that way. Because every question I need answered, she has answers to — and lived answers to — which is sort of the greatest gift to an actor. But at the same time, both Coky [Giedroyc, the director,] and Caitlin and the whole creative team never sort of said: Well, we need you to be like Caitlin.

On the day Moran came to rehearsal

I just froze. Like, I'm not being self-deprecating. I was awful. I was so nervous to have her in the room ... I was shaky and not locked-in. ... And Caitlin emailed me about an hour after we finished rehearsal and it just said: Do you like to swim? And I emailed her back, and I was like: I love to swim. And she was like, meet me at this place at this time on Saturday. And I met her at ... a women's only swimming pond. ... And we didn't talk about the movie. We didn't talk about the characters. She just got me out of my head. We just had, like, a heart-to-heart, a true friendship conversation where we got to know each other on a more personal level. ... I had this sort of remarkable, magical day with her. ... And I think it really kind of relaxed my soul and my heart. ... It was so unspoken and quiet, but it was really beautiful.

On why she wanted to make this film

I never saw a young girl who looked like me ... I never saw anyone with my body on-screen and I never saw anyone with my ethos on-screen. ... I just think there's so many aspects of Johanna's story that were never, ever given to me when I was younger. And whenever I was nervous, I would just think about if I could have had that film, how much it would have changed my sort of understanding of where I fit in the world.

Mallory Yu and Sarah Handel produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

You could say that actress Beanie Feldstein has made a bit of a career playing high schoolers on the cusp of adulthood. She made splashes for her roles in 2017's "Lady Bird" and last year's comedy, "Booksmart." And her new movie this year is "How To Build A Girl." She plays Johanna Morrigan, this misfit teenager who lives in a small city in the middle of England.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOW TO BUILD A GIRL")

BEANIE FELDSTEIN: (As Johanna Morrigan) I know what usually starts an adventure - the arrival of a mysterious hero - a Mr. Darcy, a Mr. Rochester, a Rhett Butler - who turns everything upside down. I'm not closed-minded, but finding the romantic hero of our age in Wolverhampton seems unlikely.

CHANG: The movie is based on a YA book that's also called "How To Build A Girl." Caitlin Moran wrote both the screenplay and the book. They're loosely based on her adolescence in Wolverhampton. I spoke to Beanie Feldstein the other day, and she told me she related to her character, Johanna Morrigan, primarily because they're both naturally optimistic. But that doesn't mean things are easy for Johanna.

FELDSTEIN: Johanna is a young woman without her tribe. She hasn't found her people yet. And I love "How To Build A Girl" because it celebrates those that had to go at it alone during their adolescence...

CHANG: Right.

FELDSTEIN: ...And were kind of out there and paving their own path and being their own best friend and, you know, to the point that she's so imaginative that she imagines talking to her heroes...

CHANG: (Laughter).

FELDSTEIN: ...On her bedroom wall. But really, she's just talking to herself in her head.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOW TO BUILD A GIRL")

FELDSTEIN: (As Johanna Morrigan) Well, I am now failed artist. When you're a failed artist there's only one thing you can do - you have to die.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Johanna, no.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) No, you must live.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) No, you have so much to live for.

FELDSTEIN: Karl Marx and Jo March are speaking back to her...

CHANG: Cleopatra, yeah (laughter).

FELDSTEIN: Yeah, exactly. But, you know, in some ways, it's a whimsical loneliness that you're witnessing when those scenes are happening, which I really love.

CHANG: You know, she eventually becomes Dolly Wilde. That's the pen name she uses. She's this sharp-witted teenage rock critic. And she comes to this realization that to stand out in this field, she has to be ruthless.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOW TO BUILD A GIRL")

FELDSTEIN: (As Johanna Morrigan) Pop has a new gatekeeper. And I will not let you through if you think it's acceptable to dress like work-experience vampires. Paul Simon looks like a toe someone drew a face on. Hippies, just so you know, there is no such thing as a didgeridoo player. That is a man mooing down a pipe.

CHANG: I'm just curious if you, as an actress, if you've had any moments like that in your own industry, where you had to step back and examine yourself and make a choice about the kind of person you wanted to be while you were trying to succeed.

FELDSTEIN: Yeah. I think that side of me is - that side of my brain is really on high alert every time I read a script.

CHANG: Hmm.

FELDSTEIN: And I always am thinking of, you know, I might be kind of enthralled by the idea of this director or this actor or this DP or whoever it might be that is kind of intoxicating, but is this script important for the world? Is this story important to bring into the world?

CHANG: Yeah.

FELDSTEIN: Is it going to change things? Is it diverse? Is it inclusive? I really try to - I'm not always perfect, but I really do make an effort. And I feel that "Lady Bird" really shaped who I am in this industry, both because I think, of course, it was the first time people saw me, but also for me as myself, I think working with Greta and watching her and then seeing the film...

CHANG: Greta Gerwig, the writer and director of "Lady Bird."

FELDSTEIN: Exactly. It showed me that I could actually be in something that meant that much to me, that that is possible. And so I always try to hold onto that feeling. And I think that holds me to a really good standard because "Lady Bird" is so - I mean, there's kind of - the expectations are too high in some way (laughter).

CHANG: Yeah, yeah. No, I hear you. You know, I'm struck - when I listen to you talk, I'm struck by how effortlessly you seem to exude sunlight because the message I came away with at the end of this movie is that pure exuberance and optimism can represent authenticity, too, that you don't have to be, like, this jaded person or this person who focuses on flaws to be taken seriously...

FELDSTEIN: Yes.

CHANG: ...Or to be considered a more real person, that you can be happy and sunny.

FELDSTEIN: Yes. It just is naturally who I am.

CHANG: Is your sunniness a liability sometimes? I'm curious.

FELDSTEIN: Oh, that's so interesting. You know, I don't think so in my adulthood. For me, it always comes back to gratitude. And I am always so truly thankful to have an opportunity to get to work with other people to create a story. That being said, in my adolescence, I remember being like, she's a lot.

CHANG: (Laughter).

FELDSTEIN: She's too much, you know? Like, that was definitely a thing. I crafted this saying for myself - I think I was about 17 when it sort of clicked - but I say - and I still say it now. I say, they either want the bean, or they don't want the bean.

CHANG: (Laughter).

FELDSTEIN: And that's my sort of motto.

CHANG: We want the bean, Beanie.

FELDSTEIN: (Laughter).

CHANG: I love that.

FELDSTEIN: And I think that is sort of, much more poetically, the final monologue of "How To Build A Girl." Emma Thompson comes in and graces us. And Johanna is sort of doing this bit where she's sort of speaking like Elvis. And Emma Thompson's character calls her out on it.

CHANG: (Laughter) I loved it.

FELDSTEIN: And she's like, are you pretending to be Elvis? Because there are times throughout the film where she's, like, doing Annie...

CHANG: Right, right, right.

FELDSTEIN: ...Or she does all these, like, voices. And I love the line - it's so simple, but she's like, I think this is who I am now, for now. And I think that's such a beautiful gift that I felt I was given, and I hope people take away from the film through those especially, like, kind of the last five, 10 minutes, is just you just have to be who you are in that day, on that moment. You have to take with everything that you've done, whether it's good or bad. You have to apologize when you've done something wrong profusely and honestly, and then just continue to lead your life with kindness and just know this is who I am today. And you don't have to have it all figured out.

CHANG: Beanie Feldstein stars in a new movie "How To Build A Girl." Thank you so much. You were so much fun to talk to. Such a joy.

FELDSTEIN: Oh, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MANIAC STREET PREACHERS' "SLASH N' BURN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.