“A 10-year-old could be a rock critic,” is just one of Johanna Morrigan’s priceless lines in the film How to Build a Girl, based on the semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel and screenplay by former U.K. music journalist Caitlin Moran. Another one? “I’m a rock critic now. I come from urban hell and I describe rock ‘n’ roll.”
Directed by Coky Giedroyc (Harlots, Oliver Twist), the film, set in the early ‘90s, stars Beanie Feldstein (Booksmart; Lady Bird) as a 16-year-old nerdy dreamer from a working-class family who wins a competition to be a rock critic by submitting a piece on “Tomorrow” from the musical Annie, which the staff think is a brilliant joke.
Transforming herself into the red-haired, top-hat-and-tailcoat-wearing Dolly Wilde, at the start of her first-ever interview with musician John Kite (Alfie Allen — Theon Greyjoy of Game of Thrones and brother of singer Lily Allen), she reveals her inexperience by asking such questions as “If you had to murder someone evil, how would you do it?” And “Which is the best Beatle?”
After a series of starry-eyed articles and getting fired, she reclaims the job by declaring, “If I want to get ahead, I’ve got to get a hate,” and proceeds to trash everyone, becoming a bit of a celeb herself.
How to Build a Girl, which also stars Emma Thompson, Chris O’Dowd, Jameela Jamil and Paddy Considine, will be distributed by Lionsgate U.K., and after premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival last month — where Giedroyc won the FIPRESCI Special Presentations award — is seeking a U.S. distributor.
Feldstein, 26 — sister of actor Jonah Hill and late music manager Josh Feldstein and daughter of Hollywood business manager Richard Feldstein — talked to Billboard about what it was like to play a young music journalist, what role music played in her upbringing, and getting a shout-out at a James Taylor concert.
I started as a music journalist in my late teens, so, of course, my first question has to be “If you had to murder someone evil, how would you do it?”
[Laughs] Oh my God, that’s incredible. I’d rather answer my favorite Beatle.
Like Johanna, you have a nickname [Beanie’s birth name is Elizabeth]. What were you like as a 16-year-old?
I’ve been “Beanie” since I was 3 months old, so “Beanie” was cemented by 16. I was a theater kid, a true thespian at my high school. I also worked on the school peer counseling club and I loved dance and choir. I was that kid.
You never uttered the phrase, “I’m not cool. I should just die,” like Dolly, did?
No. More in middle school was when I had that loneliness and self-doubt, but by 16 I was a little bit more situated, as a bunch of new people joined my high school who I became very good friends with, and I found my people. We always say that How to Build a Girl is really a story of a girl who doesn’t have a best friend. Me and Coky and Caitlin would say, “We wouldn’t have this movie if Johanna found true friendship, but she never quite does.”
It opens with “based on a true-ish story.” Johanna was a teenager in the ‘90s but amazingly didn’t know about popular music. You, on the other hand, grew up in a music biz family. Your brother managed Maroon 5 and your dad was also in the music business as an accountant for Guns N’ Roses.
It’s funny because people always say that, but think about what that means. [Laughs] My dad is doing taxes. [Laughs] He’s not creatively involved. He worked with musicians… Our dad never wanted to be cool. He wears his pants up to his belly button and his glasses were thick before thick glasses were cool. [Laughs]
He never took you to a Guns concert and put you side stage?
I was too young so I didn’t get to go… A lot of stories in my house start with, “You weren’t born yet.”
For Maroon 5 you were. Your brother managed them for 15 years.
My brother was remarkable at what he did and always had a very keen ear for music and really loved music, as did Jonah. I do too, but I grew up seeing musical theater, so it was a very different type of love, but still kind of an obsessive love.
Did you get the laminate and get to stand onstage, the way Johanna did?
I went to a James Taylor concert when I was about 11, and it was me and my mom, and my best friend and her mom, and we knew every word to every song. We were the youngest people there by like 30 years, and [the security guard] put the two of us to the lip of the stage and James knelt down and talked to us for a second. I forget if he high-fived us or he just said, “Hi girls, I’m happy you’re here,” or something like that. We felt so special.
Being an actor who has been interviewed, did you notice any parallels in the script to questions asked by journalists?
Not really, but I do have a real love for John Kite and how he sees right through her. Oftentimes, when I’m being interviewed by someone, I want to ask them a thousand questions [laughs], which is his instinct. I very much connected to Alfie’s beautiful portrayal of his instant connection to her.
Dolly is a unique character, even the way she describes to John Kite her first time on an airplane [“It’s always sunny above the clouds; however awful it is on earth, if you go high enough it’s always summer. Isn’t that amazing?”]
That was and continues to be my absolute favorite part of the book. The way that Caitlin describes her looking out and the wonder of seeing yourself above the clouds was always the passage I would read over and over to find Johanna. It truly embodies her genuine wonder and beautiful optimistic outlook on the world. She had a pretty tough go of it. She’s really scrappy and she’s really strong and deeply imaginative and optimistic.
I was envious how cute their bond was. What’s your most bizarre or chummy interview you’ve had?
I often think, “This person is so thoughtful and smart and around my age.” I like to be friends with everyone. I want to know everything about you. And then I’m like, “Oh, right, this is an interview.” I understand [Dolly’s] instincts to be kind with everyone. She’s a very open person, as am I.
I’ll end our interview by asking which is the best Beatle?