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Lesbian bars, broken hearts and dildos: Beanie Feldstein on the wild ride of ‘Drive-Away Dolls’

In Ethan Coen’s new lesbian-noir, road-trip comedy, Feldstein plays a hotheaded cop who’s still fixated on her gregarious ex-girlfriend.
Beanie Feldstein in film still.
Beanie Feldstein as Sukie in “Drive-Away Dolls.”Wilson Webb / Working Title / Focus Features

In his first solo directing venture, “Drive-Away Dolls,” Ethan Coen goes where no Coen brothers film has gone before: the lesbian sex comedy. The noir-inflected road-trip flick comes from a script by Coen and his longtime editor and wife, Tricia Cooke, who have been toying with the idea of making a trilogy of lesbian B-movies for decades. To bring the first of those films to life, the couple enlisted stars Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan to play best friends Jamie and Marian, who find themselves entangled in a bizarre criminal world — and each other — after picking up the wrong rental car en route to Tallahassee, Florida.

“Drive-Away Dolls,” which arrives in theaters Feb. 23, features a stacked supporting cast that includes Coen brothers regulars alongside first-time collaborators such as Pedro Pascal, Colman Domingo, Miley Cyrus and Beanie Feldstein, who delivers a scene-stealing performance as Jamie’s hotheaded cop ex-girlfriend, Sukie.

“I think any actor who identifies as female knew that this movie was coming,” Feldstein told NBC News of the buzz around a Coen project centering on queer female characters. “There was a real energy and a wish to be a part of something like that.”

For Feldstein, whose character spends most of the film cursing her ex and eagerly taking down criminal types, getting the role meant not just being in the first queer Coen film, but also playing one of the most beloved Coen archetypes.

“I can’t even believe I get to be in the lineage of female cop characters that they’ve created over the years. When you think of Ed, you think of Marge, they are burned into your brain because they’re so specific,” Feldstein said, referring to Holly Hunter’s character in “Raising Arizona” and Francis McDormand’s in “Fargo.” “Every Coen, and in this case Coen and Cooke, character has such a specific syntax and timbre.”

Bringing to life the Sukie that Coen and Cooke envisioned on the page took time and a willingness to adapt to the pair’s notes, Feldstein said. But it all came together while filming a scene in which Sukie lords over the booking desk at her precinct, barking out orders and making one man cower in fear without even getting out of her chair.

“I think the moment that it all kind of hit me was the scene in the precinct,” Feldstein said, recalling how Coen directed her to swing back in the chair and prop her feet up just so. “All of a sudden, this other kind of swagger came out of me. I had a moment of, like, ‘I’m a Coen cop.’”

Like Coen female cops from the past, Sukie and her very specific modus operandi are driving forces in the film, despite Feldstein not being billed as a lead. In one of the first scenes, Sukie goes into a rage watching her loquacious girlfriend, Jamie (Qualley), strut in front of a crowd at their local lesbian bar, going after her onstage and putting an end to their romance. Finding herself without a place to stay, Jamie convinces her best friend, Marian (Viswanathan), who’s in desperate need of getting laid, to turn a pre-planned drive down to Tallahassee into a lesbians-gone-wild road trip. And that’s when they mistakenly pick up a rental car carrying some very unique, illicit cargo in the trunk — as well as a tail of goons and shadowy figures looking to recover the lost items.

Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever in film still.
Beanie Feldstein as Molly and Kaitlyn Dever as Amy in “Booksmart.”Annapurna Pictures

Feldstein rose to fame in the late 2010s playing the plucky best friend in films like Greta Gerwig’s “Ladybird” and Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart.” Recently, she’s taken on more dramatic roles — such as the desperate-to-please daughter in Stephen Karam’s “The Humans” and as Monica Lewinsky in Ryan Murphy’s “Impeachment: American Crime Story” — and even shown a serious side while fielding rumors about her early exit from the recent Broadway revival of “Funny Girl.”

But Feldstein’s turn as the swaggering, borderline hostile lesbian cop of “Drive-Away Dolls” marks a decidedly different role for the typically bubbly actor and comedian, one that gave her a new love for combat choreography.

“There’s something so empowering about beating up a really tall, big guy,” Feldstein said, referring to a scene in which she takes down one of the goons (C.J. Wilson) sent after Jamie and Marian when he comes sniffing around for information.

“I never want to be just one thing, but I think the thing that I tend to find with the characters I’ve been lucky enough to play is that they’re all unapologetic in their own ways. They’re very singular and brazen, even in their variety of expressions,” she said. “The center of who I seem to gravitate toward are women that believe, in their core, who they are.”

Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan looking inside a car trunk in a film still.
Margaret Qualley as Jamie and Geraldine Viswanathan as Marian in “Drive-Away Dolls.” Wilson Webb / Focus Features

Feldstein’s character in “Drive-Away Dolls” — a full throttle, 84-minute ride filled with eccentric personalities, absurd situations and sapphic sex scenes — certainly knows what she wants. Despite Jamie’s wandering eye, large ego and terrible Southern accent, Sukie harbors an unhealthy interest in her girlfriend-turned-ex from the moment she’s on screen.

“That obsession is kind of her driving force in the film,” Feldstein said, explaining that Coen and Cooke encouraged her to fully commit to the character’s fixation on Jamie, even during auditions.

“I auditioned for Ethan and Trish on Zoom, and one of the notes that Ethan gave was on the scene at the lesbian bar. He was, like, ‘All you care about is Jamie; you are obsessed with her. You don’t give a shit about anyone else in this bar. And you cannot go too far with it,’” Feldstein recalled. “I definitely took that note throughout my performance: You cannot go too far, and you have to just fixate.”

To her credit, Feldstein makes her over-the-top, brokenhearted character somehow relatable. Even when Sukie is taking down her and Jamie’s “wall dildo” while sobbing uncontrollably, or driving down to Florida unannounced to offload their barky Chihuahua, Alice, Feldstein’s performance taps into some truths about the highs and lows of lesbian romance.

“It’s such a real breakup in that she’s still communicating with her and kind of goes after her to give the dog back. And Jamie calls her when she needs her,” Feldstein said of her character. “There’s just so much funny realness to that equation in the queer community. There’s layers there that I only noticed now that I get to view the movie as an audience member.”

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