The characters in Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age film Lady Bird are so vividly drawn, and played with so much heart, that the audience leaves the film longing for just a little more time with the people onscreen. That’s especially true of Julie, the best friend of Saoirse Ronan’s title character, played by effervescent newcomer Beanie Feldstein. The relationship between restless, desperate-to-be-different Lady Bird and optimistic, introspective Julie is, in a sense, the film’s great romance. The longtime friends lose and find one another over the course of their 2002 senior year at a Sacramento Catholic school, ultimately reuniting in an unforgettable prom scene. As Feldstein told Yahoo Entertainment, that prom scene was just as fun to film as it was to watch. So was the scene where she and Ronan sob in a car while blasting the Dave Matthews Band; the scene where they perform a Sondheim musical; and the scene where they eat an entire block of cheese. Basically, Feldstein never wanted the Lady Bird shoot to end; when it did, she admitted, “I was crying so hard that I made Lucas [Hedges] come to my hotel room in Sacramento and sit with me, because I was so sad! It felt like the end of summer camp.”
Fortunately, the end of Lady Bird was just the beginning for Feldstein. In March, she made her Broadway debut opposite Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly!, after being recommended for the role by Lady Bird and Dolly producer Scott Rudin. And when Lady Bird opened to rave reviews in November, 24-year-old Feldstein was widely hailed as its breakout star. As the younger sister of Jonah Hill and best friend of Dear Evan Hansen star Ben Platt, Feldstein may be better prepared for the spotlight than most up-and-comers. Still, she never dreamed of a year like this one — because who could? In a conversation with Yahoo Entertainment early in December, the contagiously enthusiastic Feldstein shared behind-the-scenes stories about her most memorable Lady Bird scenes and talked about how she’s handling the whirlwind of sudden fame. (Editor’s note: This interview was conducted prior to the death of Feldstein’s brother Jordan on Dec. 22.)
Yahoo Entertainment: What has this experience been like from your perspective?
It’s been a truly remarkable time. I have always wanted to do Broadway, my whole life, but I never knew I’d actually make it — it’s a dream, it’s never been in the realm of possibility. So to be doing Hello Dolly!, it’s not just Broadway but it’s the most joyful, sort of classic Broadway experience with the most extraordinary company. And then Lady Bird — I really feel like I’ll never do anything as meaningful again. And that sounds crazy because I’m 24, but this film is magic. [Laughing] And the people in it and around it and bringing it into the world are magical, and extremely kind and extraordinarily talented, and I feel deeply honored to be in their company.
As a director, what kind of things did Greta do to help you get into character as Julie?
Greta emailed me some photos that time in Sacramento — streets, the outsides of stores — just to give us a sense of what that would feel like. I had been to Sacramento once as a kid — I grew up in California, so it’s the capital — but it was an in-and-out-type school trip thing, I didn’t really have a sense of it. So those pictures were amazing. And also, she made me a Julie playlist, which I still listen to all the time. There’s a lot of musical theater on there, obviously, a lot of Audra McDonald, but there’s also, of course, ”Crash Into Me,” and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” and Blink 182. Just the songs of the time and then songs that would be specific to Julie, Indigo Girls and things like that. And I would listen to it every single day on the way to work.
But what I think is so spectacular about Greta is that she’s simultaneously so specific and so universal. And I felt that even just with preparing for Julie; there were so many specific things that she gave me or that we found together that really helped Julie feel like someone you would know.
Was there a particular insight early on that you had where you went, ‘Oh, this is Julie?’
So, the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” was also on my playlist. I so distinctly remember Saoirse and Greta and I saying, “Well, Lady Bird would love John, and Julie would love Paul.” [Laughing] Like, they both love the same thing but in slightly different ways. And that was sort of a key signifier for us. So the scene where Lady Bird comes to find Julie at her apartment, the shirt that I’m wearing has Paul McCartney’s face on it. We put that in there as a thing just for us that we’d know was in there. And in front of her in that scene too, there are art supplies. Something we had talked about was that Julie is a drawer and a painter.
I love the way you and Saoirse physicalized your characters in opposite ways. Julie’s arms are often crossed and she’s hunched over a lot, while Lady Bird is always flailing all over the place.
Oh my God, I know, her physicality as Lady Bird is so genius. The hardest I’ve ever laughed was singing “Crash Into Me” with Saoirse in the car, but the second hardest I’ve ever laughed was watching her do “Everybody Says Don’t” [in the audition scene]. It will forever be one of my favorite things I’ve ever experienced in my life. [Laughing] The physical attack on that performance is genius!
So let’s talk about what you remember from shooting some of Julie’s big moments, starting with the scene where you’re snacking on communion wafers and talking about masturbation.
I love that scene so much. We did get permission to do it, because the wafers really aren’t consecrated. We asked! [Laughing] I remember, actually, that scene was one of my audition scenes, and Greta and I in my audition talked about this sort of intimacy that the two of them have together. And Greta was saying, they sort of enter into this dream state together — this sort of day-dreamy space, this little bubble of safety. And I was like, “Oh, it’s like pillow talk.” I lived with my best friend Gwen for four years in college, and at the end of the night when we were falling asleep we would talk to each other, and we couldn’t see each other, but we knew the other was there. And I remember having some of our best conversations each lying on our pillows in our beds, just completely connected to each other even though we were about to go to sleep. And she was like, “That’s exactly what it is.”
But that scene was so fun. I swear Saoirse and I even forgot we were doing a scene because we make each other laugh so hard. It’s so easy. And I think even physically, the way that we relate to each other — you can’t sort of fake that, being comfortable with someone. At least, I have not mastered the art of acting that; I think it’s just something you find with someone. And Saoirse and I just instantly clicked. She’s the most warm, delicious human and makes everyone feel comfortable. And I think that was really important to building the Juliebird — Juliebird! I like that actually! — the Lady Bird/Julie best friendship, in that, when you’ve been best friends with someone forever, you just are so comfortable with them, and you’re always sort of hanging off of each other.
In those last couple of scenes you two have together, the prom and the goodbye scene, it feels like you’ve been through such an epic journey together.
The prom itself was our last week in L.A., and then my last scene in the film was my last scene that I shot. I’ve never cried so hard! I was like, [mock crying] ”I just want to be with Lucas and Saoirse!” So I literally made Lucas come down from his room to come sit with me, because I was so sad. [Laughing]
Tell me about shooting that perfect prom scene.
So, OK: We dance so much in this film. Saoirse and I always joke that Lady Bird and Julie are either eating or dancing. For the prom scene, Greta was like, “We’re going to get a shot of you guys dancing.” And she always had music playing on set, whether it was a dance scene or even a classroom scene, there was always music to set the vibe that she would create for the day. And so she had a prom playlist that she was playing. And Saoirse and I are dancing and dancing, and we’re both looking at each other like, schvitzing. We’re sweating, and at some point we’re like ‘Have they called cut and we just didn’t hear them?’ We were dancing so hard for so long. Finally Greta calls cut, and we sit down and we were like, “How long was that?” And they were like, “It was forty minutes.” [Laughing] We went through an entire prom dance playlist and just danced our little booties off! But it was so fun. And we pulled Greta in for a moment to dance with us, with her prom dress on. It was a true magical moment. And I actually went to prom with my best friend, but Saoirse had never gone to prom. So it was a really fun, special day.
I also love when you’re back in Julie’s apartment and eating an entire block of cheese. Was that in the script?
That was in the script! Greta is just so genius. Poor Saoirse — I’m allergic to dairy and so all the food had to be dairy-free, the cheese and the cupcakes. Luckily communion wafers are naturally dairy-free! So we ate some vegan cheese and some crackers.
I remember the scenes where Julie and Lady Bird are separate, like the scene at the abortion assembly, all of those little moments, or even standing behind her and Odeya [Rush] in the church. We both hated it, because I just felt for Julie so much that she’s so close and yet so far from her best friend in those moments.
And if I’m being super honest, I was really nervous for that scene where Lady Bird comes to find Julie. Just because I’ve never really asked to be so vulnerable onscreen before. Most of the work I’ve done before has been more on the strictly comedic side, and also I’ve played characters that are really loud and boisterous and outgoing. And Julie was the opposite of that. She was so vulnerable and quiet and introverted. I felt like I owed it to Julie to get that moment right, because it’s such an important moment for her story in the film, and just a testament to Greta’s writing and direction to give the best-friend character a moment like that. I was just so struck by it when I read it for the first time, and then I felt such a responsibility to the character I was playing to get it right. And so I was really nervous! So when it was finished, and when we got to just laugh and eat the cheese, it felt like such a relief, the way that it would feel for Julie, having a night where you’re just sad on the couch and you’re alone, and then all of a sudden your best friend is there and you’re laughing and eating after being apart for so long. It felt like such a relief. Even the energy in the room just felt so different between when we finished on the couch and moved to the kitchen. So I remember feeling so happy to be back together, and to be laughing.
One of my favorite things about the film is how it honors the individual stories of the characters. Julie is the rare movie best friend who clearly has a life outside the main character.
And I love that the audience doesn’t see Julie’s home until that moment. I love that. It’s sort of illuminating all at once what Lady Bird has turned a blind eye to.
I have to ask you about performing Merrily We Roll Along. Greta said you staged five songs?
Yeah, so that was another way that I think we all really bonded, especially me, Saoirse, and Lucas, was that we were in rehearsal for those numbers — you know, the way you would rehearse your high school play. [Laughing] So it felt very much like we were putting on a mini-show. And that was definitely a moment of bonding before we started shooting. But it was honestly bonkers. Because I am the biggest musical theater nerd, I worship Sondheim. And so I was reading the script for the first time and I was just falling madly in love with every word, and every relationship, and the way that Greta writes. And then there was a musical in the middle of it! [Laughing] Are you kidding me? Did someone crawl inside my head and create something I didn’t even know I wanted? It was just insane.
And it was so special because Greta had her best friend from high school come down and help her stage it. So the two of them together were staging these musical numbers. It was just the most special thing I ever witnessed. And Mary [in Merrily We Roll Along] is a role I would love to play one day so to get to play her through Julie — it was so crazy to me. And “Our Time,” the song, has meant something to me for a long time, because it was — this is so dorky! — but it was sort of the anthem of the theater camp that I went to. [Laughing]
Did you ever get in your head about how you were Julie playing Mary?
That was actually something I thought a lot about, to get back to your earlier question about prepping. My singing voice has sort of an Ethel Merman-type quality, just like loud and strong and full. And I really had a strong sense that Julie would not sing like that. And also, I grew up singing and I had vocal issues as a kid, so I’ve had so much training. Julie, this is her first audition, so she wouldn’t have had any of that. So I really, as much as I could, I tried to strip away the brash sort of quality and round out my tone and create a sweeter sound. So I thought a lot about that, especially with the audition scene, because it had to feel so intimate and so different than Lucas singing “Giants in the Sky.” It was such a different tone and energy that I knew I had to bring. But once they were performing, I feel like, there’s a shift in Julie in that she feels confident for one of the first times. So I thought less about it when we were performing Merrily and more when I was thinking about her audition.
You’re very suddenly in the spotlight right now — an experience that can be very isolating and confusing in addition to being amazing. But it also seems like you have role models in your life who have been through this, like Ben Platt and your brother Jonah. Do you feel like you have more of a guidebook than most people? Or is it all still new and weird?
I think, probably both? I don’t know if that’s an OK answer. I’ve had the privilege of watching my brother most of my life, and now in the past year or two watching Ben. It’s just been so special for me to get to witness the world seeing them. And I don’t know if there’s ever a right way to handle it. Actually, Lucas and I talked a lot about this because [while he was promoting] Manchester by the Sea, he was doing this play Yen at the same time. And there’s nothing more grounding than doing theater, I think. Because it requires all of you. Every decision, everything I eat, the time I go to sleep, the people that I hang out with, where I have dinner, everything revolves around being the best that I can be in Hello, Dolly! And so it’s such incredible timing in that I get to promote the film and be onstage at the same time; it feels just like I’m still putting my head down and doing the work, and that’s been super stable and wonderful in that way.
Lady Bird is in theaters now.
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