Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, Booksmart, is one of the best teen comedies to come along in years. The film is all-around excellent, but none of it would work without the core duo of Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein, who star as overachieving, politically minded, codependent high school BFFs Amy and Molly. Dever and Feldstein say they became close friends in real life while shooting Booksmart, and that was obvious when The A.V. Club met them at a fancy hotel on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile during the press tour for the film. Turns out they, like their characters, spent every waking moment together during the pre-production and production phases of the film. And like their characters, they devoted a lot of time to doing homework—although in this case, that meant memorizing lines instead of acing their APs.
The A.V. Club: What were your high school experiences like? Kaitlyn, you were already a series regular on Last Man Standing by then, right?
Kaitlyn Dever: I was 13 when I started doing that show, but my high school experience was still pretty normal. I went to winter formal and prom, I gave a speech at my graduation. My experience [working and going to school] was more in the middle—I wasn’t quite homeschooled, I still went to high school in an independent studies program. But I was really like my character [Amy] in the first two years of high school. I was best buds with my teacher. Then I turned into more of a— I was a little more laid-back for the last two years. I loved history. It was one of my favorite subjects in high school.
AVC: Did you take AP’s in that? Were you an overachiever?
KD: [Laughs.] No, never an overachiever. I pretty much did the basics because I was also working at the time. It was so hard to get everything done, but I definitely had a lot of passion for school.
AVC: What about you, Beanie?
Beanie Feldstein: My experience was similar to the film, actually. I went to high school in L.A.—a very academic, intense high school in the Valley. It felt very similar to the school we created in Booksmart. I was definitely one of the theater kids, for sure. I had sort of an up-and-down relationship to academics in high school. There were years where I really committed myself, and years where I was like, “This is really hard, but if I don’t try, I’ll feel better.” It’s harder to try and fail than not try at all. My third and fourth year of high school, though, I was like, “You know, Beanie, you really love school. You’ve got to start applying yourself.” I did, and I ended up loving it. By the time I went to college, I was obsessed with academics. I think I was more of a Molly in college, for sure.
AVC: My parents didn’t care what I did, as long as I got good grades. So I would party on the weekend, but I was still in the top 10 percent of my class, so I could get away with a lot.
BF: So this film really speaks to you!
AVC: [Laughs.] I definitely related. I understand that you guys became super close making this film. Did that influence the way the characters relate to each other?
BF: Katie Silberman wrote such specific dialogue, and the way [Amy and Molly] talked to each other really sang on the page. The way they reference all of these incredible people so offhandedly, and they know the other person’s going to know who they’re talking about. In that way, that was very much Olivia [Wilde] and Katie Silberman.
But I think that in order for the film to work, we wanted to be comfortable with each other, just love each other and talk to each other and be with each other all of the time, because that’s Molly and Amy. When Kaitlyn and I were like, “Hi, nice to meet you,” on the first day, [we thought] it would just be so forced and bizarre. So we lived together for the entire prep and shooting of the film. That was just immeasurable, because we just got to replicate what they would do: just be with each other all the time.
Then there’s the practicality of it: We speak the whole movie to each other. We would run lines, so when we got to set we could be loose. I think that plays into a misconception about comedy, specifically. [People think] that it’s all just loose improv and silly. But in order for that to work, you have to be prepared going in, so that you can let it go. But if you’re stumbling or not knowing what the scene is about, then you’re screwed and there’s no room to let it go.
So Olivia was like, “You’re not allowed to have your scripts on set.” Kaitlyn and I took that very seriously, and we’d run lines at home and on the way to work. It was incredible to create Molly and Amy because I’m such a fan of Kaitlyn. I think we just loved what they already had.
KD: Even in prep, Katie and Olivia would catch little things, like the way we talked to each other and these little voices that we’d do. [That was] our own specificity that they layered in, but I would say it was all on the page already. Katie is a genius. She really just gets it.
AVC: So you got into the characters of two girls who do a lot of homework by doing homework, basically.
KD: Yes! It’s true, I’ve never thought about it like that. We hadn’t ever led a film before, so it was awesome to just be leading a film for the first time. We got to both experience [that] for the first time, making a movie about these two girls going on a journey together. So it just made sense, and it really worked out awesomely.
AVC: How do you play smart comedically without punching down on the character’s intelligence?
BF: That’s something that we really thought about. We have to give credit again to Katie Silberman, because she’s one of the brightest people you’ve ever met in this really silly, fun way. There couldn’t have been a more perfect person to write this movie. A great example of why the film is called Booksmart is the scene when we start speaking Mandarin [to each other]. That exhibits how book smart Molly and Amy are. But then they get into the car with the pizza guy, which exhibits how they’re very smart, but not very wise. Those are two such funny moments in the film. They’re blatant examples, one leaning in and one leaning away, of what the characters are initially.
I think it’s down to what references you choose, and the way that they banter so quickly. It lets you know their intellect without hitting you over the head with it. But we never want it to be—I mean, there’s room for this in comedy and our film—there is room for these crazy, loose moments in comedy. That wasn’t Molly or Amy, that was Gigi and maybe some of the other characters. You don’t have to be crazy to be funny, and I think that’s really special.
KD: I also think what was great about Olivia was that she never wanted to put anybody into a box. She didn’t want to do that with Molly or Amy.
AVC: In older high school movies, they have the popular kids be really mean the whole way through. In this movie, Molly and Amy are outcasts, but it’s partially self-imposed, and deep down everyone is pretty nice. Is that a Gen Z thing?
KD: I think this movie so beautifully represents this generation. Olivia did that so well in her casting. It just really represents the generation that I know, and also I watched those movies and I think that that was never my experience in high school. People aren’t mean in real life the way they are in movies.
BF: My character is the meanest person in the film, and she’s one of the two central characters.
AVC: It’s shades of Liz Lemon on 30 Rock. [See the episode “Reunion” for a specific example. —Ed.]
BF: Totally! I was thinking Miss Congeniality. Molly’s lesson in the film was to learn how much she was actually judging people who weren’t judging her, which I always see as a defense mechanism. I think PC culture is all about being inclusive and anti-bullying.
KD: I think also, a thing we had noticed about this generation is that they’re so intelligent, so involved, so cool, so progressive, and we see that in this cast.
AVC: It does change the way that you do high school humor, because you can’t really lean on stereotypes that you would see in, say, ’80s teen comedies. You kind of have to—
BF: Rethink them for what they did. [All laugh.]
KD: Booksmart had an inspiration in The Breakfast Club, and we actually watched Fast Times At Ridgemont High. We set up a screening for everyone, and we watched it the day before we started shooting as inspiration.
AVC: Another thing that I think shows the evolution from generation to generation is this film’s depiction of sexuality. In, say, a ’90s teen movie, a character coming out would be a big part of the movie, and here it’s just so casual.
KD: We find it so funny that the coming-out scene in this movie is Molly saying she has a crush on a hot guy. That’s the big coming-out moment.
BF: We always talked about what happens after you come out. Then what happens? So many people I know, including myself, are clear that [their sexuality] is a part of them, but it’s not the one thing you think of when you think of them. I think that Kaitlyn’s portrayal of Amy is so moving and beautiful and funny. She’s silly and warm and passionate and so many other things—
AVC: And has a big comedic sex scene.
BF: I always think that the close-up on the Converse is great. Everyone wears Converse. That scene could be between two men, it could be a man and a woman, it could be gender-fluid people, it could be two girls, but using a queer experience to illuminate a very common overarching theme about teen sexuality is pretty progressive and special, I think.
KD: I feel so honored and so happy when I get to talk about that scene specifically, because we’ve both done love scenes as actors and love scenes can get overly sexualized, especially for a woman. That’s what’s so beautiful about that scene: Olivia handled it with so much care and didn’t want to do that at all. She wanted to make it as honest as possible, and that’s why people love it so much. They genuinely relate to it, because it feels like real life. There are awkward moments when you’re hooking up with someone. It’s not all just smooth and beautiful.
AVC: Especially in high school.
KD: Especially in high school!
AVC: You’ve both done several films with female directors. Is that a choice that you made, or did it just happen that way?
BF: If I even get to choose, they usually choose me—in the decision-making process, you want to choose projects that you genuinely feel connected to. Projects that you genuinely want to put into the ether. You don’t want to put something out there that you don’t believe in. Also, you don’t want to play someone that you don’t like!
The scripts that have crossed my path, that I’ve connected to the most, have been female-driven stories. Now, in 2019, we’re getting more of those stories that are directed by women. Also, Booksmart was the first thing I did after Lady Bird, and there couldn’t be a more perfect film to live up to that precedent I’ve been lucky enough to have.
AVC: This story is kind of like if your character from Lady Bird were the main character.
BF: I don’t think so! Julie is such a wallflower. She’s so quiet. Molly could beat Julie up.
AVC: That’s true. How about you, Kaitlyn?
KD: I’ve worked with a lot of female directors, and in the past year or two I’ve mostly worked with female directors. It just makes [the whole process] better. And I knew that having Olivia taking the reins on this movie was just the best possible thing for these two girls. I don’t know necessarily if it has anything to do with her being a woman, but she’s an incredible actor, an incredible person, an activist—and then she’s a woman. I knew that she was going to kill it.
Lynn Shelton was a big one for me, she taught me a lot. She was the first person [from whom] I learned that simplicity is key in acting. She’s so quick and efficient in filmmaking, and she’s so natural and beautiful. Kathryn Bigelow is another one.
BF: [Laughs.] Kaitlyn has a very casual résumé.
KD: Kathryn Bigelow was a big one. She’s so cool. She just owns everything.
Booksmart debuts in theaters on May 24.