At the Academy Awards in 2020, Beanie Feldstein was waiting backstage for her first Oscars moment. Bigger names in the world of entertainment are usually asked to present on the show, but that year the Academy had decided to celebrate up-and-coming stars, and Feldstein was on that list. She had received rave reviews for her performances in the films Lady Bird and Booksmart, and she had costarred opposite Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly! on Broadway. She had also caught the eye of Ryan Murphy, who thought Feldstein would be perfect as Monica Lewinsky in the series Impeachment: American Crime Story, which will air on FX this fall. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. On the night of the Oscars, Lewinsky was not yet dominating Feldstein’s thoughts.
“I was wearing a stunning dress that had a halter clasp at the neck,” Feldstein recalled earlier this -summer, standing in her childhood bedroom in Los Angeles. Feldstein has large, round, dark eyes that get larger when she gets excited. “The gown had boning and a sort of shelf for the bust, but there was no bra involved. I’m all about representation, and I’m here to represent big, low-hanging Jewish breasts.” Feldstein laughed as she sat down on her bed, pushing aside some stuffed animals. “The halter on the dress was struggling. It was hanging on for dear life. There was a countdown clock backstage, and there was a minute and 20 seconds left before I had to go on in front of an audience of millions. Next to me was the wall of Oscar statues that they were about to hand out to incredible people. I was nervous and accidentally stepped on the front hem of my dress, and with that step, the clasp gave way. At that point, there was 18 seconds to go. Luckily, someone backstage had a safety pin and reclasped me, but I almost flashed the entire world that night.” Feldstein paused. “The moral of this story is, I’m a busty, low-hanging Jewish girl, and you have to be who you are. Which means no more halters.”
Dior dress; Anna Zuckerman Luxury earrings; Tiffany & Co. necklace.
Dior dress; Anna Zuckerman Luxury earrings; Tiffany & Co. necklace.
Feldstein picked up a stuffed Eeyore that belongs to Bonnie-Chance Roberts, Feldstein’s romantic partner. The couple had been staying in the house where Feldstein grew up, while she finished filming Impeachment. Originally, she had been in a sterile corporate apartment nearby, but playing Lewinsky was emotionally draining, and Feldstein felt lonely. This past June, her parents flew to the East Coast for the summer, and Feldstein and Roberts moved into the house to look after Jackie, the family dog. Feldstein’s bedroom, which has not been altered since grade school, was a kind of joyous shrine to performance. One wall was covered in cast photos, programs from musicals, and other memorabilia from her life on the stage. “As a kid, from 2 years on, I had such a big personality,” recalled Feldstein, who is now 28. “I have two older brothers [the actor/director/producer Jonah Hill and Jordan Feldstein, who managed the band Maroon 5 and tragically died in 2017]. My mother was a costume designer, and I was finally the girl she’d been hoping for. My outfits were insane; I was like her little doll.”
Feldstein showed me a photo of her tiny 3-year-old self, dressed as Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl—serendipitously, it was announced not long after our conversation that she had been cast to play Fanny Brice in a Broadway revival of the musical. “My first celebrity crush was Barbra. My mom made me a leopard coat and hat, and I did a full photo shoot in my driveway. Actually, Jonah skateboarded through and knocked me down, so there are tons of pictures of me crying in my Funny Girl costume.” Feldstein turned to the wall of glory. “I was a chubby Millie in Thoroughly Modern Millie,” she said, pointing to a poster. “My goal is to play Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. I was in three productions but never got to play Tevye.” She stared into the distance for a second. “There’s a whole group of my mother’s friends who will say, ‘You were great in Lady Bird and Booksmart, but I still remember when you were 11 and played Winnifred in Once Upon a Mattress. That was truly amazing!’ ”
Chanel cape; Norma Kamali dress; Cartier earrings.
Banana Republic turtleneck; Anna Zuckerman Luxury earrings; Tiffany & Co. necklace.
As we walked out into the hall, which had leopard carpeting, Feldstein pointed out six black and white framed portraits of her and her brothers when they were children. I asked if her parents ever objected to all three of them going into show business. “My father, who is an accountant, loves theater, and my mom worked as a costume designer in film and TV, so no,” Feldstein said. “My parents were incredibly encouraging. And there are many years between us; when Jonah was coming up, I was, like, in geometry class.” Feldstein considered the photos. In one, Jonah was wearing braided bracelets and looked like a little skater dude. “I have two brothers and two nephews,” Feldstein continued. “While I love being with the boys, it’s no wonder I ended up with a woman!”
We headed downstairs, toward the patio, where Jackie, a 70-pound English bulldog, greeted us. For most of her career, Feldstein has played the best friend, often in high school. “When I read the description of Julie, my character in Lady Bird, it said ‘chubby, loves her best friend, falls in love with theater.’ I was like, is this a joke? This is me!” Feldstein took a sip of water. “As an actor, I’ve done a lot of stories about platonic romance. And when you’re young, those relationships, usually between women, can be deeper than most sexual romances. As an actor, you dream of telling stories that mean something to you. And female friendship is very important to me.”
In a twisted way, Lewinsky’s saga is also a story about a deep—but ultimately toxic—female friendship. To recap, for those who missed the Bill Clinton impeachment hearings: In 1995, when Lewinsky was 21, she became an intern at the White House. She caught Clinton’s eye, and they began an affair that lasted, on and off, for two years. Sensing that sex with an intern would be detrimental to the married leader of the free world during reelection, powers in the White House moved Lewinsky to a job at the Pentagon. There, she met Linda Tripp, who became her confidant and close friend. Lewinsky told Tripp about every aspect of the affair, and Tripp betrayed her, taping their conversations. Eventually, Tripp told Lewinsky’s story to a reporter from Newsweek, and also to the special prosecutors who were investigating Clinton’s extramarital activities.
When news of the affair broke worldwide, the media fixated on Lewinsky. She was young, she was voluptuous, and she was an easy victim of both Clinton, who adamantly denied the relationship, and the media, which objectified and ridiculed her. Luckily for her, Lewinsky had kept (and not cleaned) a navy blue dress from the Gap on which Clinton had ejaculated. The garment provided proof of their sexual relationship and vividly showed Clinton to be a liar, but that didn’t make things any easier for Lewinsky, whose life ground to a halt with Clinton’s impeachment trial. Lewinsky, now a writer, public speaker, and anti-bullying advocate who has managed to reclaim her narrative after decades of tabloid harassment, is a producer on Impeachment, and the series has been made with her input and blessing. “I felt gutted by some of the things that Monica went through,” said Feldstein, who is also a producer on Impeachment. “My task is to be Monica’s bodyguard—to put my body in front of hers. It’s my job to portray her pain, because I feel so much for her.”
Because of Covid-19 restrictions, Feldstein and Lewinsky have met in person only once. “Monica and I are cut from the same cloth in so many ways,” Feldstein said. “We’re both Jewish girls from L.A. who listen to show tunes on the treadmill! But still, I never felt less in my comfort place than when I was playing Monica. Obviously, I’m queer, so I don’t know if I’d flirt with the president, but who knows? When Clinton shined his light on you, there was no better feeling in the world. It wouldn’t matter if you were male, female, nonbinary, queer. When that man put his spotlight on you, the world fell away. And if I was 22 and the most powerful person in the world focused his high beams on me, I would probably do the exact same thing as Monica.”
Feldstein is also deeply sympathetic to Lewinsky’s feelings of loss and sadness. “Monica’s fame wasn’t positive,” Feldstein said, as Jackie lumbered over to her chair. “When you’re hurting, none of that fancy stuff like photo shoots or invitations to parties matters. From my own life experience, you can be on Broadway or at an awards show, but there’s always pain beneath the surface. That nuance is very hard to see from the outside.” Feldstein reached down and gave Jackie a pat on the head. “Unless, of course, your breasts come popping out of your dress,” she said, smiling again. “Then everyone will know your pain.”