It’s Not Just A Phase: ‘How To Build A Girl’ Is About A Teen Still Figuring It Out

By Ailsa Chang

Beanie Feldstein stars as Johanna Morrigan in How To Build A Girl, adapted from Caitlin Moran’s 2014 semi-autobiographical novel.
IFC Films

Beanie Feldstein does not like the way teenage experimentation and growth gets dismissed as just a phase. “There tends to be the sort of stigma or judgment,” she says, whether it’s about dress, mood, makeup, or music choice.

What she loves about her latest film, How to Build a Girl, is that it gives teen phases the respect they deserve. “Those phases matter,” she says. “It doesn’t mean they’re going to last, but they do matter. … I think we could all be reminded of that lesson — especially adults.”

How to Build a Girl is a film adaptation of Caitlin Moran’s 2014 semi-autobiographical novel about an awkward teen turned music critic. Feldstein stars as Johanna Morrigan, a 16-year-old growing up in England in the 1990s. Johanna “hasn’t found her people yet,” says Feldstein, and her closest confidants are her heroes (Julie Andrews, Freud, Sylvia Plath, Karl Marx) whose pictures are taped to her bedroom wall.

Feldstein admits she sometimes felt nervous during filming, but found thinking back to her own teenage years helped: “I would just say to myself: Imagine if someone had done this for you — or if this film had an opportunity to be made — when you were 14,” she says. “It would have changed my whole understanding of myself.”

Interview Highlights

On what guides her in choosing projects

I was a sociology major in college. And I think that side of me — that side of my brain is really on high alert every time I read a script. … I might … be kind of enthralled by the idea of this director, or this actor, or this DP, or whoever it might be that is kind of intoxicating. But is this script important for the world? Is this story important to bring into the world? Is it going to change things? Is it diverse? Is it inclusive? All of those things. … I really do make an effort to always come back to those questions that I feel like the sociologist in me would ask — or would hope that an actor would ask.

On her character Johanna

She’s genuinely a happy and joyful, optimistic, imaginative young girl. But she’s also fed up. … She’s busting out of her skin. She’s busting out of her circumstance. She wants more. But at the same time, she’s so joyful and she loves the world. And I think that was something I really related to. I think the most prominent connective tissue between me and the character are that I am also very, very naturally optimistic … but that doesn’t mean I haven’t seen sadness or tragedy in my life. … The film itself and the character, they just give you permission to feel multiple things at once.

On playing a teen character who hasn’t found her people

Johanna is a young woman without her tribe. … I was lucky; I had my musical theater-loving tribe. … I was so lucky to find my people so early and to have a really loving, attentive, supportive family. But not everyone is that lucky. And that ebbs and flows throughout your life. And so I love How to Build a Girl because it celebrates those that had to go at it alone during their adolescence, and were kind of out there and paving their own path and being their own best friend.

On what the film taught her about forgiveness

I think [it] gives everyone permission to make mistakes and not feel defined by those mistakes. But to feel sort of empowered — to fold them into the identity of who you are so you can become stronger and learn from them. I feel like I learned so much from doing this movie in that, you know, you can be a little more forgiving of yourself sometimes — and it doesn’t mean that you’re excusing the behavior or the decision — but you can just kind of forgive and learn from it. … You have to apologize when you’ve done something wrong, profusely and honestly, and then just continue to lead your life with kindness and just know: This is who I am today and you don’t have to have it all figured out.

On Caitlin Moran’s guidance about how to inhabit the character of Johanna

She said to me … ‘This is loosely based on my life, but it’s not my life. And I am here for you whenever you want me, whenever you need me. … But I also want you to feel free to create her as you inhabit her.’ … I just couldn’t have been more lucky in that way. Because every question I need answered, she has answers to — and lived answers to — which is sort of the greatest gift to an actor. But at the same time, both Coky [Giedroyc, the director,] and Caitlin and the whole creative team never sort of said: Well, we need you to be like Caitlin.

On the day Moran came to rehearsal

I just froze. Like, I’m not being self-deprecating. I was awful. I was so nervous to have her in the room … I was shaky and not locked-in. … And Caitlin emailed me about an hour after we finished rehearsal and it just said: Do you like to swim? And I emailed her back, and I was like: I love to swim. And she was like, meet me at this place at this time on Saturday. And I met her at … a women’s only swimming pond. … And we didn’t talk about the movie. We didn’t talk about the characters. She just got me out of my head. We just had, like, a heart-to-heart, a true friendship conversation where we got to know each other on a more personal level. … I had this sort of remarkable, magical day with her. … And I think it really kind of relaxed my soul and my heart. … It was so unspoken and quiet, but it was really beautiful.

On why she wanted to make this film

I never saw a young girl who looked like me … I never saw anyone with my body on-screen and I never saw anyone with my ethos on-screen. … I just think there’s so many aspects of Johanna’s story that were never, ever given to me when I was younger. And whenever I was nervous, I would just think about if I could have had that film, how much it would have changed my sort of understanding of where I fit in the world.

Don’t Worry, Even Fashion Guru Tim Gunn Is Living In His Comfy Clothes

By Terry Gross

Fashion expert Tim Gunn used to bemoan what he called the “comfort trap” — clothes that prioritized comfort over style. Now, after weeks of self-isolation in his New York City apartment amid the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s reconsidering his stance.

“I’ve gone through an evolution in these last five, five-and-a-half weeks,” he says. “Why should we be self-isolating in clothes that constrain us and constrict us and are not as comfortable as something that’s a little looser and more forgiving?”

Gunn became famous for his role as a mentor on the fashion competition series Project Runway. His new fashion competition series, Making the Cut, is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

As a TV host, Gunn’stypical attire is a tailored suit and a complementary pocket square. In recent months, because of the pandemic, he’s spent more time than usual in a white T-shirt, pajama pants and a cotton robe. But no matter the circumstances, Gunn maintains some fashion rules.

“I won’t leave my apartment — I won’t even go to the trash chute at the end of the hall — wearing that,” he says. “It’s a kind of pact that I make with myself.”

Interview Highlights

On initially feeling ambivalent about the fact that Making the Cut would begin airing during the pandemic

My co-host, Heidi Klum, and I talked about this when we heard when the show was going to start airing and we were really concerned about it. And we thought, “This seems to be in very egregious bad taste to do this now.” And Amazon listened to us and understood and said, “This is really a feel-good show. It’s uplifting. It’s inspiring, and people will want this at this time. People feel shaken. They feel derailed, off-center. And the show is very grounding, and it’s a good time to release it.” And I thought, “They’re right. It really is.” And the response has been quite phenomenal.

On how he had debilitating anxiety when he first began teaching at Parsons School of Design at the New School

I was a wreck. … The very first day I pull into the school’s parking lot and I promptly throw up all over the asphalt and I’m shaking, and shaken, and I get to the studio where I’m teaching and just the mere anticipation of the students coming into the room has me trembling. So I brace myself against one of the walls. My back is against it, because if I step away from it, I’m just going to collapse to the floor. I needed that support. …

I rehearsed the meeting I needed to have with [my mentor and teacher] Rona [Slade]. And on Friday I had the meeting and the rehearsal was brief, because it didn’t require many words. And I just said, “I can’t go on like this. This is just completely debilitating. My health is suffering. I’m not sleeping. I’m an emotional wreck. I can’t go on like this.” And Rona, who is Welsh, said in this very clipped voice of hers that she trusted that this experience would either kill me or cure me, and she said, “and I’m counting on the latter. Good day.” And who knew, 29 years later, I was still teaching. I grew to just completely love it.

On his method of giving criticism and feedback

I pummel people with questions, because I need to know where they’re coming from. I need to know a context before I dive in with my own analysis.

I learned early on that you can’t soft-pedal and sugarcoat things, because it doesn’t help the student. I also learned early on that you can’t be too blunt an instrument in delivering critical analysis, because if you are, you’re discredited. The student just dismisses what you say as being mean-spirited and unkind and believes that you don’t understand their work. So I developed what I call a very Socratic approach. I pummel people with questions, because I need to know where they’re coming from. I need to know a context before I dive in with my own analysis. And for me, the ideal is — this is what I really strive for — the ideal is to get the individual with whom I’m speaking to see what I see.

And on Project Runway for 16 seasons and on Making the Cut for this one season, there are occasions when I disrupt production, in a manner of speaking because of the camera placement, and I asked the designer to come stand next to me so they can see their own work from my point of view. … I want that designer to see the silhouette, the proportions, perhaps even the construction. … So for them to stand by me and say, “Oh, I see!” That a-ha moment for me is the sweetest, most wonderful thing in the world. It’s like, “OK, I can leave you now because you get it. You see it. What you do about it [is] completely up to you. But at least you see what I see.”

On being moved to tears by the designers’ work

Beautiful things that pluck at my heartstrings make me tearful. I own it. It’s just part of who I am.

Tearing up with the Project Runaway designers, and now with the Making the Cut designers, it’s more about bearing witness to the triumph of the human spirit and how just reassuring that is about the quality of life and us as human beings, and it’s a great honor to bear witness to that. This happens to me at the Met all the time. I was looking at a Rembrandt painting of Flora, one of his models, and I was reading the caption and then looking at the painting again, and I had to step away because … I was just welling up with tears. It’s the triumph of the human spirit. It never ceases to make me emotional. Same thing happens with reading beautiful words. … Beautiful things that pluck at my heartstrings make me tearful. I own it. It’s just part of who I am.

On a memory he has of his father, an FBI agent who worked for J. Edgar Hoover

[My father] was very private and secretive. … He brought home the Warren Commission [Report, about the Kennedy assassination] before it went to Congress. And I don’t know what possessed him, I think he was just proud to have it, and he told my mother. Well, after dinner, I can hear the water running in the bathtub of my parents’ bedroom, and dad’s watching television or something. Mother’s gone and it turns out mother’s in the bathtub with the Warren Commission [Report]. So dad figures this out. He knocks on the door. It’s locked. He asks her to open the door. She refuses. He gets an ax and takes the door down to get the Warren Commission out of her hands.

On how the current pandemic has brought back memories of the AIDS crisis

I really didn’t come to terms with my sexuality until my early 20s, and I had only one partner to whom I was extremely loyal and wouldn’t betray, and we were very close. After a long relationship, he said to me, “I don’t have the patience for you.” And I knew he meant sexually, but I was devastated. I was in his bed watching M*A*S*H* with him and he said to me, “I want you to leave, and this is over.” I was so devastated. I drove to my apartment. I had to pull off the road because I was hyperventilating. And this was in 1982. … He told me … that he had been sleeping with dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens of other people.

So the next day was a moment of reckoning for me, and I went from being distraught and feeling worthless and just emotionally devastated, and that evolved into incredible anger, because I thought he may have given me a death sentence. … And that experience has caused me to reflect upon the situation that we’re in now and about how people need to wear masks. They need to social distance. They need to be rigorous and responsible about this. This is not something to be taken casually or lightly. And when our elected officials are walking around maskless in hospitals, I’m thinking this is absolutely an abhorrent message to be sending to people that, “We don’t have to do this.” You could kill people or you could be killed yourself! But in this particular case, I’m more worried about being asymptomatic and killing other people. I’ve reflected a lot about AIDS and the devastation that it wrought, and my own experience with the crisis and as I said, thankfully, nothing happened. The man to whom I was so close for so many years, I don’t know what happened to him. We never spoke again.

‘Hair Love’ Uses Animation To Bring A Story Of Natural Hair In Black Families To Life

By Michel Martin

If you are heading to the movies to see The Angry Birds Movie 2, then you are in for a double treat. Playing before that feature is an animated short called Hair Love.

Conceived and directed by Matthew Cherry, it follows the story of an African American father — Stephen — and his daughter, Zuri. Stephen is trying to learn how to do young Zuri’s glorious natural hair, and, well, it’s not so easy.

To help fund the project, Cherry went to Kickstarter and began a campaign as he previously did for his two indie films. He says these campaigns aren’t just about financing the projects but also about building a fan base and allowing “people who may want to be involved or kind of see the project through to help out.”

As audiences have been introduced to Zuri and Stephen, they’ve seen the father’s struggle in trying to groom his daughter’s hair and have been able to relate. Cherry says one of the biggest things he has heard in response from those who have seen the short is about the representation it provides.

“When we did this campaign two years ago, there wasn’t a lot of representation in animated projects,” Cherry says. “You know, oftentimes they would cast actors of color, but, you know, they’d be playing inanimate objects or animals. And, you know, it was rarely, like, actually seeing a family dynamic in animation.”

He notes that there are films like Disney’s The Princess and the Frog and Home, which features Rihanna, but Cherry says he wanted to give audiences an animated black family.

“I think it does also a lot for young people’s confidence when they see themselves represented,” Cherry says. “You know, media is so powerful. And when you grow up and see magazine covers and TV shows and movies and you don’t see yourself represented, but you see every other type of hairstyle represented, that can really affect your self-confidence.”

Cherry says he has heard from both young girls and boys, as well as fathers and mothers who aren’t African American — all of whom have connected with the short.

Though he isn’t a father himself, Cherry says it was important to him to show a black man in a loving, tender role.

“We really get a bad rap in mainstream media, particularly black fathers,” he says. “There’s always the stereotype that we’re not present or deadbeats. … And while obviously those situations do exist, it feels very much so that it’s just like disproportionately represented in that way.”

But that’s not the kind of fathers his friends are, so Cherry channeled their experiences when creating Hair Love.

“I have a lot of friends that are young fathers, and they’re all willing to do whatever it takes for their young girls,” he says. “This was just kind of me put[ting] myself in their shoes and kind of representing and also really being inspired by all these viral videos of dads doing their daughter’s hair and people just really being fascinated by that.”

Prior to Hair Love, Cherry worked as an executive producer on Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. He also worked on commercials and music videos, and before that, he played in the NFL.

While creating the Hair Love book and short, Cherry kept in mind his own experience with natural hair during his time in the NFL.

“I had my hair long enough to where it could be braided,” he says. “Every week I’d have to go and get it worked on and stuff. So, you know, I think for both men and women, it’s definitely something that’s a big part of our life.”

NPR’s Gemma Watters and Tinbete Ermyas produced and edited this story for broadcast. Wynne Davis adapted it for the Web.