Beanie Feldstein brings the best friend to center stage in ‘Lady Bird’

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Beanie Feldstein plays Julie Steffans in this year’s stirring, soaring success “Lady Bird.” Cast as the lead of the school musical rather than her overzealous best friend, the titular Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), Julie is portrayed with a quiet confidence by Feldstein. Next to Lady Bird’s antics, she often steals their shared scenes with a depth of character not typical of the archetypal role of “best friend.”

“When I read ‘chubby girl who loves theatre and is a loyal friend,’ I was like, ‘yep that’s me,’” Feldstein told The Daily Californian in an interview.

Like her “Lady Bird” character, Beanie also found her own voice in the theatre. Growing up in Los Angeles, Beanie was born into a theatrical family: Her mother is a fashion designer and costume stylist, her father a tour accountant for Guns N’ Roses. Her older brother? He goes by the stage name Jonah Hill.

Beanie discovered her own love for acting and musical theatre from a young age at a Los Angeles children’s arts center. Her mother signed Beanie up for her very first part — the 18th Von Trapp child in what might be one of the most inclusive stagings of “The Sound of Music.”

The now-24-year-old actress has since made it all the way to the Broadway stage, singing alongside the likes of Bette Midler in the latest incarnation of “Hello, Dolly!” on the Great White Way. Though she debuted on Broadway before “Lady Bird” hit theaters, Beanie’s work on screen as Julie landed Beanie her part in “Hello Dolly!”

“I think of my life as sort of pre-‘Lady Bird’ and post-‘Lady Bird’ because it changed my life so much,” Beanie said.

Beanie says she was drawn to join the cast of “Lady Bird” in part because of the opportunity to work with Greta Gerwig on her first directing project. She shared her admiration for Gerwig’s previous screenwriting credits, such as “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America,” both of which also feature Gerwig as a central actor. This admiration for Gerwig’s unique vision led Beanie to sign on with the burgeoning auteur’s latest movie.

“This was Greta’s directorial debut, but you would never know it,” Beanie said. “It is so clear in knowing her how beautifully and uniquely she sees the world. She could not have been more giving.”

Like Beanie, “Lady Bird” also attracted several other up-and-coming Hollywood talents. Lucas Hedges, who starred in last year’s Oscar-nominated drama “Manchester by the Sea,” plays Lady Bird’s first love. Timothée Chalamet, surrounded by rumors of a potential Oscar nomination for his part in this year’s “Call Me by Your Name,” follows as her second love interest.

“Lucas and Timothée are both in this film, on the rise, and [Gerwig] was able to get both of them,” Beanie said, considering those recent credits. “I think we will look back on this and think it’s really special that they were both in this film.”

This attention to supporting characters sets “Lady Bird” apart from other coming-of-age films. Smaller parts were written conscientiously by Gerwig in order to convey rich though little-mentioned — backstories within the brief time in which these actors grace the screen.

According to Beanie, what makes Julie in particular such a cathartic and relatable character for audiences is her deep loyalty to Lady Bird, and how Gerwig “gave Julie her own inner life outside of the film.”

Beanie reiterated the widespread praise for Gerwig’s careful writing, referencing one scene — though there are numerous — that gives a peek into Julie’s inner life. The moment comes when Julie lingers blissfully on a cast list featuring her name at the top — seconds after Lady Bird, not receiving the part she desired, stomps away.

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“[Gerwig] gives [Julie] her own quiet experience,” Beanie said. “[Gerwig] debunked the archetype of the best friend.”

The role of “best friend” typically functions as a setup to the main character’s storyline, resulting in something that resembles a persona, rather than a real person. In Gerwig’s vision, Julie not only responds to Lady Bird’s self-destructive actions, she lives in her own storyline: messy, melancholic and leaving you wanting more. While Lady Bird’s behavior leads to hostility between the friends on-screen, Beanie says her relationship with co-star Saoirse Ronan was a friendship anything but hostile.

“We clicked instantly,” Beanie said. “We hung out and ate bagels at Greta Gerwig’s apartment — we have the same sense of humor, we would quote ‘Bridesmaids’ to each other.”

Even more, in Ronan’s fictional mother Laurie Metcalf, Beanie found a role model. Metcalf, who shines as Lady Bird’s tough-love matriarch, has had a long career straddling television, film and theater. While Beanie got her start on Broadway, she says she hopes to emulate Metcalf and expand her talents in new endeavors offstage.

“I have had the most joyous, special time discovering my love for the camera these past years,” Beanie said. “I feel incredibly lucky to be a part of bringing this film into the world.”

Contact Audrey McNamara at [email protected].