July 2023

Screened | Andrew Barth Feldman

Getting Into Character With No Hard Feelings' Andrew Barth Feldman

Photos Joel Griffith | Words Tamara Rappa

Andrew Barth Feldman is best known for his Broadway role as the title character in the Tony Award-winning musical, Dear Evan Hansen. Today, he's the breakout star of the summer, appearing opposite Jennifer Lawrence in the poignant comedy, No Hard Feelings. Crazy-charismatic and ardently ambitious, the talented actor and musician has also been running a theater company since he was 12 years old to raise money for charity, and his song, College Break-Up, recently released to rave reviews. It was after he won 2018's National High School Musical Theater Award as a sophomore that Andrew made his Broadway debut. He would then go on to appear in Netflix’s A Tourist's Guide To Love with Rachael Leigh Cook, and in Disney+'s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, alongside Olivia Rodrigo. Recently, we found some time to talk to Feldman about the intricacies in his relatable role as a 'very sensitive young man', the latest in several he tells us he has been fortunate to play. We talked this new take on the coming-of-age summer movie, learned more about his passion for music, went behind-the-scenes on his scene-stealing moment...and original arrangement of  the Hall + Oates hit, Maneater, and more.

What was the discussion around how No Hard Feelings is reminiscent of the classic teen, coming-of-age, summer movie of decades past? There was definitely a feeling that it is so totally similar to so many of the movies that we love and have missed for so long. I think the easiest way to fail in making one of those movies, is to just go back and reference them, and not move the form forward. That's something that this film does really well. It feels like one of those movies, but it speaks to us now. In certain ways it's updated to our sensibilities by being more honest about where we are now, and not trying to just muscle into the genre, back into the place it once was. This movie is a really, really heartfelt and excellent first step toward evolving the genre.

There's a metaphor in the film, having to do with a finger trap toy that your character Percy picks up and shares on a day out with Jennifer Lawrence's Maddie. By the end of the movie, we see a Maddie who's changed, and she tells Percy, 'You made me realize that I need to push in, to get out.' Have you experienced this in your own life and work?
I'd say just about every day. [Laughs]. I would maybe even consider it the theme of my life over these last few years. You can't get through something by running from it. You know? You have to actually go through it, and that means a lot of pain, and a lot of fear, but that's the journey. Facing yourself is the only way to grow and get past the things that you're admittedly afraid of. That's been very, very true for me, in just about every stage of life, and in these huge opportunities, for sure. The worst thing I could have done was run from them, or alternatively say 'I got this, no problem', and not face all the fear I had going into it. I had to sort of integrate, live with it. Also, in terms of losses in my family, and other difficult things, it's always been and continues to be a game of living through it and with it, as opposed to against it, and away from it.

How exactly does Percy teach Maddie to not be a coward in her life any longer? Percy and Maddie have very different fears, fears that feed on one another, and make them come out of their shells. Percy has been waiting and waiting and waiting for a connection to come his way. A situation has oddly fallen into his lap, but he's not going to really be himself or live his life or, or as it appears in the movie, have sex, until he has a real connection with a person who wants to connect with him. Maddie's the opposite; she's protected herself from connection, she's sort of thrown herself at people, she's blamed others.  I think she learns to show herself, she learns to be a vulnerable human being, which is, if you ask me, the most powerful thing a person can be.

In playing Percy, what did you do physically, visually, to portray the kind of innocence that the audience needs to understand about him? It's funny that the physical things I would adopt, were things I'd catch myself doing---as opposed to trying to make myself do. We'd finish a take, and I'd be like, 'Was that really weird that I did that?!'  It all came from living in this character's world. I've been fortunate to play a lot of very sensitive young men in my life, and so I've had experience with that kind of physicality. Always, for me, it's been about taking something away as opposed to putting something in. It's easier for me to let myself move in the way that Percy does and not be self conscious about it, because when I'm working, when I'm playing the character, it's what you need to see. In my daily life it's harder to forgive myself, I guess, for having those sort of weird physical ticks [laughs] that I definitely have, too.

One of the things that is so interesting about Percy, is that he feels confident enough to ask Maddie on a date. Though he struggles with isolating and limiting himself, he has a certain confidence. I've thought about that. It was a moment I thought about a lot, and I think that young men like Percy, for better or for worse, (and if you ask me, for worse), consider their isolation the world's fault. They have this idea about themselves, 'Well if a girl ever liked me, or looked at me, or cared about having a nice guy like me, then of course I'd ask her on a date.' But none of them ever do, because they don't know what they want. In that moment in the movie, Maddie is sitting on the floor and says [to Percy], 'I think you're cute. I wanted to go out with you, because I think you're cute.' As anxious as it does make him, he has to meet the idea that he has of himself, the idea that if he ever got an opportunity, he would ask. In that moment, it's the clearest opportunity he could possibly be presented with, and thank goodness he asks her.

How do you think Percy's experience with bullying and damaging rumors speaks to our culture today? There have always been rumors and gossip; that's not new. There has always been bullying. There has always been the bullying of kids like Percy. Now, I think we talk about it more. We talk more about bullying, and how we should not be bullying and such...but it's also about bullying and gossip. We have a much easier resource for gossip to spread, and it's called the internet. And it's social media. My generation, Percy's generation, we were the first ones to be born with iPhones in our hands. It starts at a younger age, and there's really no way to supervise it, you know? Especially during that time when myself and Percy were growing up. There are more things in place to supervise it now, but then, no one really knew what they were doing to protect kids from the really, really scary things. And also, kids want that outlet. I'm thinking about websites like ASKfm and Sarahah, places where you can deliberately, anonymously, say mean things about people. They exist, and there will always be more of them. So it's both new, but not new at all.

Percy is a gifted musician, and when we meet him, he won't play for anyone. The film has a stand-out scene, in which Maddie gets Percy to sing and play the piano, and for that scene you arranged and performed a beautiful version of the Hall + Oates hit,
Maneater. What's the story behind how this song would represent so much in the movie, in this original piece of art by you? Thank you for saying that about it. I'm really proud of it. It didn't exist before I came on,  that's for sure. I think [Writer-Director] Gene [Stupnitsky] and [Writer] John [Phillips], who wrote the movie together, felt that there was a moment missing for Maddie and Percy; a moment where Percy could present himself in a new light and grow into himself a little bit, and Maddie could see him differently; the world could see him differently. They didn't really know how they were going to accomplish that, but they knew they needed it. When they brought me on, they'd found a video of me singing at 54 Below in New York, playing piano and singing Rocket Man by Elton John. That's when the seed for the idea of having a song moment in order to see Percy differently, was planted. Maneater---that was all Gene and John. And by the way, Hall + Oates is one of my favorites, and that song was a dream to get to sing. They're so thoughtful, musically and lyrically, but can be written off as dad rock...

...Or yacht rock. It's a brilliant song for this film. Exactly. Yacht rock is my number one most listened to genre, and Gene and John also happen to be massive, massive yacht rock fans. [Laughs] We bonded over that pretty quickly. Thematically. you're very tied to the film. I think I read that, originally, the song was more of a larger social commentary about wealth and accruing too much. They wanted to personalize the song, in a very different way, tied to Maddie's character and the situation Percy's gotten himself into, one he doesn't even realize he's gotten himself into.

When Percy and Maddie go their separate ways at the end of the film, Percy reveals an underlying level of maturity. He tells her, 'You're going to be okay; we're both going to be okay.' How will each of them be okay, in in Percy's mind?
In his mind, he's seeing that this experience has really changed them, and that at the very least, they're each going to try. They're both so young. They have so much time to try on different identities, and to be with different people. I think Percy's looking forward to that. I think there's a real chance for him to have real connections with people. I hope he's at college now, investing in more platonic friendships, and like, playing Dungeons + Dragons with friends, and also trying things out romantically. He hasn't gotten the chance to know who he is yet.  I don't think he knows in that moment who he is, but I think he's seeing a path forward, and for the first time in his life, is maybe wanting that.

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"I am about to finish this season of The Bear. That family dinner is ridiculous how good it is. There are so many shows and seasons of television that have come out this year, but The Bear could be categorized as my favorite ever."

"My girlfriend and I are playing through Legend Of Zelda: Tears Of The Kingdom. I did not grow up a huge video gamer, I've never played a Zelda game before, but I wanted to be part of this cultural moment, and it is spectacular; an incredible, thoughtful game. "

"I'm listening to Mike Sabath and The Moon Girls.  I put one of the songs on my playlist for Story + Rain on Spotify.  It is great summer music and there's no ego to it. As a songwriter, I can get so wrapped up in, 'It's gotta make you think, it's gotta be clever.'  It just feels so good, and that's always appreciated by me. And it is smart, too, but it's just for sort of bathing in the vibes."

"I've been on a big immersive theater kick. It's not new; there's just more of it. I'm actually seeing Here Lies Love on Broadway tonight. There's so  much great immersive theater in London and it's coming to New York, it's something I really hope to get to make in my lifetime."

"...On that same note, because it's not new, Disney parks. They are kind of a top-of-mind obsession. That is my whole deal. I am a Disney adult. I am a little bit apologetic for it, but every day, trying to be less so."

"I've been walking through Central Park a lot. I try to do it like three or four times a week. Central Park is amazing. What a great thing to have in the middle of New York City. How crazy is that?! It's this loud place with all these different people and neighborhoods, but in the middle of it all, is this expanse of wilderness. It is a beautiful and meditative place for me right now."

No Hard Feelings starring Andrew Barth Feldman is in theaters now.