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.