Actress Olivia Wilde wants to change the way female-led comedies are viewed — they’re just comedies. Making her directorial debut with the witty “Booksmart,” Wilde is doing her part to shift the conversation, enlisting Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein to play two high school best friends on a mission to make the eve of their graduation memorable.
On a warm April afternoon, just days after a snowstorm blanketed Chicago, Dever (“Last Man Standing,” “Women, Men & Children”) and Feldstein (“Lady Bird,” “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising”) embarked on their press day for “Booksmart.” Sitting in muted yellow leather chairs in a modern suite in The Peninsula Chicago (108 E. Superior St.), the two actresses chatted with The Phoenix about working with Wilde, the challenges in shooting the film and their connections to their characters.
“Booksmart” follows Amy (Dever) and Molly (Feldstein), the seemingly stereotypical smart students who spend their free time studying to get into the best universities. When the two realize the “partiers” got into the same Ivy League schools, Amy and Molly make it their mission to hit every party on the night before their graduation to make up the time they spent studying.
Viewers live vicariously through the two best friends as they uncover different sides of each other, their classmates and their teachers. Dever and Feldstein both said they related to their characters and were able to bring a lot of their own quirks and personalities to them.
Dever and Feldstein fell into a comfortable pace of humorous banter and storytelling as they discussed “Booksmart.” Feldstein dressed for the part in a navy slip dress layered over a striped turtleneck, while Dever wore a burgundy flower button-up with wide-leg pants, saying she felt as if she was a French woman in a former life.
The two showed that same comedic certainty in their film, a chemistry fostered in part through their living together during filming. Dever said they were able to use free time running lines and getting to better know each other.
“Our language is so back-and-forth … and smart and quick and witty,” Dever said. “I think for me [what was difficult at first] was just thinking, ‘God, I’ve never been in every scene of a movie every day,’ and it scared me. I think that’s what’s so fun about making movies — it’s doing something that you’re scared of and then having it be great in the end.”
The film opens with a crisp and lively sequence as Amy and Molly dance to an upbeat song, jokingly deciding if they’re going to attend their last day of high school. The scene wasn’t originally incorporated in the script, but made the cut after the two goofed around and were themselves, Dever said.
“[The film’s writers] also infused a lot of our natural selves into [our characters] over time,” Feldstein said.
Wilde (“House,” “Tron: Legacy”) began her acting career almost two decades ago, and has since debuted in the Broadway production of “1984” and now movie directing. Dever said it didn’t seem like this was Wilde’s first time directing since her set was organized, fluid and loving.
“I feel like she was meant to do this her whole life — her life prophecy,” Feldstein added. “If you come from an acting background and you become a director, you have the privilege of taking with everything you’ve learned from other directors.”
Among the film’s five executive directors are comedic icon Will Ferrell (“Elf,” “Step Brothers”) and Oscar-winning director Adam McKay (“Vice,” “The Big Short”). The film, set to hit theaters May 24, already has a 100 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes — a rare occurrence.
“I feel like everyone that was there was so honored to be there, so grateful to be there, so hardworking, shared such a singular vision that [Wilde] shared with everyone,” Feldstein said. “You never expect it to be a classic, but there was definitely a sense of shared purpose on the set.”
Complementing the strong comedic senses of Dever and Feldstein were seasoned comedians Lisa Kudrow (“Friends,” “The Comeback”) as Amy’s mother and Jason Sudeikis ( “Saturday Night Live,” “We’re the Millers”) as the high school principal. Besides having to learn Mandarin Chinese for one scene, both Feldstein and Dever said containing their laughter and fangirl urges around Kudrow was a challenge on set.
“I’m an obsessive. Full-blown obsessive,” Feldstein said about Kudrow. “I have a sticker of her on my computer, it’s fine. That was hard to breathe.”
The same way Amy and Molly learn to view their classmates through a less judgemental lens, Dever said she hopes the film will push people to look at the world differently by placing less judgment on others.
Adding to changes in the film industry, Dever said Wilde wanted to make a comedy that challenges the traditional view of female-led comedies.
“This is not just a comedy for young women because there are two young women in the leading roles,” Dever said. “Olivia really wanted to change the view we have on female comedies. It’s just a comedy, and everyone can relate to someone in this movie.”
“Booksmart” will hit theaters nationwide May 24.