From playwright and director Stephen Karam, the drama The Humans follows the Blake family on Thanksgiving, during dinner at younger daughter Brigid’s (Beanie Feldstein) Manhattan apartment with boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun). While this family – including grandmother Momo (June Squibb), parents Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), older daughter Aimee (Amy Schumer) – clearly loves each other, there’s also an underlying tension that allows for a feeling of dread to seep in.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, Feldstein talked about seeing the play the film was adapted from prior to reading the script, being deeply moved by the story, working with such an incredible cast, and how making The Humans compared to Lady Bird. She also talked about taking a 20-year journey with director Richard Linklater while they make Merrily We Roll Along, and why it will be such a beautiful time capsule.
Collider: I found this to be such an interesting film because it’s deceptively complex, even though it seems so simple on the surface.
BEANIE FELDSTEIN: I completely agree. I find it to be very existential.
When this came your way, what was it like to read? As the audience, we go into this, not knowing anything about any of these characters when we meet them and it all starts to peel back. Was that your first experience reading this?
FELDSTEIN: I had the unique privilege of seeing the play, so my first experience of it was as an audience member and I remember feeling very distinctly moved by it. There are scenes that, to this day, I can still see in my mind’s eye of the play. I was so moved by it that I actually sent my partner, who’s British, a message that said, “I can’t go on this date because I’m in the States, but go.” I bought her a ticket to go see the play when it was in London and I was like, “You have to go see this play. I love it so much.” And then, a week or two later, I got the call about the film, which was surreal, after she had just seen it. Reading the screenplay was such a profound experience because I remembered so much about taking it in, as an audience member, but then reading Stephen [Karam]’s adaptation it is so much the play. It is the blood and guts of the play. It’s the parts of the play that resonate so profoundly, but it’s such a different medium that it became its own thing entirely.
I remember when Richard Jenkins, who had not seen the play, told me that when he read the script, he thought, “How could this have ever been play? It feels so cinematic. It’s such a testament to Stephen Karam’s talent and the way that he was able to translate this really, as you said, simple story about a family on Thanksgiving. It’s quick. You understand exactly what you’re getting, and yet when you’re getting it, it feels entirely different. There’s so much layered into his writing that the brilliant Jayne Houdyshell describes it as music. She said, “Reading the script feels like looking at a musical score.” And as someone who does that often as well, I completely agree. Richard’s character, Erik, is the bass, Steven [Yeun] comes in as the baritone, Jayne is the alto, I’m the soprano, Momo (June Squibb) is this echo of a chorus coming back, and Amy [Schumer] is the peacekeeper mezzo-soprano. You can really put it in those terms. It’s really haunting how well Stephen Karam captures humanity.
Watching this reminded me very much of the acoustic version of a song, where everything is stripped away and it’s just the bare bones of it. All of the bells and whistles are gone, and it’s just you guys acting, which is similar to what an acoustic song is. I thought that was cool to see unfold.
FELDSTEIN: I love that description of it. That’s that’s gonna stick with me. Thank you for that.
What was it like to do these scenes, when the whole cast is together? What are your favorite memories, sitting with talent from June Squibb to Richard Jenkins to Amy Schumer, who all have such different backgrounds?
FELDSTEIN: Because I’ve had the privilege of working with the most insanely talented people in my very short working life, I always see every experience as an opportunity to learn. Particularly with The Humans, we filmed this two years ago, so most of the work I had done up until that point, because this was before I filmed Impeachment, was surrounded by people my same age or even younger than I was. To be, now, in this space where I was the youngest of such a deeply mature and accomplished group of people, I just felt so lucky. When you think about Thanksgiving, you think about what you’re grateful for, and I was grateful every single day on this film. It was just the most insane opportunity to learn.
My favorite memories of June, who is the love of my life, just ask anyone in my family how I love to talk about June Squibb because she’s my favorite person, ever, to exist, but I didn’t know that she was in the first Broadway production of Gypsy. She wasn’t in the original cast, but she was a replacement in the original production, so I think she joined in 1965. I used to make her sing Gypsy songs with me, which was the greatest. She doesn’t actually need a wheelchair, but Momo uses one, so I would like kneel next to her wheelchair and sing with her. As a theater fanatic, my heart was just so full that I thought it was gonna burst out of my chest.
I learned a tremendous amount from each individual person. I think Jayne Houdyshell has the best eyes I’ve ever seen, with the amount that is conveyed in her eyes. I remembered it from the play, even though with a play, you can’t get very close. I could feel her eyes from where I was sitting. So, to be across from those eyes and bring to life this really deep mother-daughter relationship was so moving. I’m getting emotional thinking about Richard and how much he loves acting. This is someone who has been doing this for so long and is so accomplished. He has done so many moves. I can’t even count how many movies he’s done. And he showed up, every day, like it was his first time ever making a movie. The joy and the love he has for his passion was palpable. It was so moving to watch.
And then, to work with Steven and Amy, they’re just so tremendously gifted. Amy and I just felt really sisterly from the jump. That just fell right into place. And Steven is such a wonderful person and dad and partner in real life, so getting to portray his character, who’s in such a tricky situation, navigating my character and all of her feelings in the context of her family, it’s that moment where your partner is fighting with their parents or their family member, and you wanna defend the family member to look good, but you don’t wanna betray your partner. All of that is so layered and delicious. I loved the scenes with Brigid and Richard in the kitchen, with all of these stolen moments. With all of the characters, at t a certain point, you have to take a step away and collect yourself, and watching Brigid be calmed down by her partner, and to play those scenes with Steven was really moving.
You’re also currently working on Merrily We Roll Along with Richard Linklater, which is something you’re going to be doing for awhile. What’s it like to be a part of something like that? How did you react when something like that is pitched to you and you know that you’re not going to see it for a very long time?
FELDSTEIN: It’s delayed gratification, baby. I remember my developmental psychology class in college when you would watch the video of the kids being given a marshmallow, and then their parent says, “If you wait, I’m gonna leave the room and if you don’t eat it, you’ll get two marshmallows.” It’s that exercise, but with adults. Merrily We Roll Along is about friendship, and that friendship disintegrating before your eyes, or reintegrating because it’s told in reverse. To portray that with Rick, who is the master of telling story through time, like with Boyhood. It’s just the greatest gift. His work is so moving to all of us who are students of film and who love storytelling. That music is one of my favorite scores. Sondheim is my hero. It’s surreal.
Is it daunting? Is it nerve-wracking? Does it even feel real because you know you won’t see it until 20 years from now? Is it insane to think about who you’ll be, 20 years from now?
FELDSTEIN: It’s such a beautiful time capsule. And Ben [Platt] and I have been best friends since we were 14, so we’ll be captured together.
You’ve taken on a lot recently, with the type of projects you’ve been doing and the characters you’re playing. The Humans is deceptively complex. Monica Lewinsky is one of the most famous people in the world, but also someone that we don’t actually really know at all. And then, you’ve got Merrily We Roll Along and you’re going to be doing Funny Girl on Broadway. What does all of that feel like? Do each one of those projects make you nervous or terrify you in some way, and is that the point?
FELDSTEIN: Of course, it’s the point. I’m a woman who likes a challenge. I’m really a forever student and I think, in order to be a student, you have to be put into situations where you don’t know the thing that you’re doing or learning about. To do something that I feel like I know doesn’t feel like I’m learning enough for my liking, if that makes sense. I try to find situations where I have to learn something, or rise to the challenge, or hold my own amongst the most remarkable group of people. I’ve been so lucky to have that experience, over and over and over again. During the pandemic I did animation for the first time, but I did it from my closet, playing Harriet the Spy. That medium was so new to me, so even that is such a big challenge. I just always want to feel like I’m learning, so I have to put myself in situations where I feel daunted. I’m so lucky and so grateful that I have those opportunities.
It’s interesting because obviously actors are supposed to be versatile because that’s the job, but at the same time, there are not a lot of actors who are given the opportunities to do all of the things that you get to do, in comedy and drama and animation and musicals, and all of these things. Does a film like The Humans feel like the root of what acting is? When it’s all stripped away like that, does it just feel like you’re really at the root of what acting actually is?
FELDSTEIN: That’s a beautiful way to put it. To me, The Humans and Lady Bird felt very similar while I was filming them. I wasn’t thinking at all about where the camera was. I just felt like I was living it. With Lady Bird, I was so new to filmmaking that so much of that was just being doe-eyed and not knowing how it works, and Greta [Gerwig] just making us all feel so beyond safe and so beyond taken care of and comfortable. Stephen Karam created something in the same way, where we were living their day and he was capturing it. It wasn’t, “Okay, we’re gonna do a closeup on Richard now, so everyone else, you’re in the eyeline.” It was none of that. It was, “Please live this day for a month, and I’m gonna capture the humanity of it,” for lack of a better word. It was so moving. It’s a story that gets inside your bones. I think The Humans strikes my head and my heart at the same time. Usually, a story will hit one or the other, but this one seems to hit both. I don’t know. It’s such a moving movie. There was such an ease in filming it that I look back on with such reverence and love. It was easy. It was breathtaking, really.
It’s cool to talk to you about your work because it feels like you’re not just taking acting jobs, but you’re having little experiences with each thing that you make.
FELDSTEIN: I couldn’t have said it better. For me, the greatest joys is that I get people out of it that I love. Our family text chain has been going for two years. We kept in touch so intensely during the pandemic. Even though we hadn’t all been in person for two years, it was like seeing family that you hadn’t seen in two years. Or with Impeachment, there’s [Sarah] Paulson. Each project is about collecting people that I get to love forever, which is my favorite part of being an actor.
The Humans is in theaters and available at Showtime.
'Merrily We Roll Along' takes place over the course of 20 years in the entertainment industry.