Andrew Barth Feldman is so excited to meet you

NEW YORK — No matter how you slice it, Andrew Barth Feldman doesn’t come across as much of a 21-year-old.

As the actor takes a window seat at a trendy Midtown coffee shop in early May, two days shy of that milestone birthday, he still possesses the boyish looks and endearing energy of a wide-eyed, happily caffeinated teenager. His slim jeans and T-shirt hug a lanky frame he complements with a Mickey Mouse backpack. Leaning forward, he speaks with a peppy cadence and excitable grin to complete the picture of adolescent exuberance.

“I just am a cartoon person,” Feldman concedes. “I know that about myself. I’m a Muppet.”

Yet he’s also something of an old soul. Feldman was just 16 when he made his Broadway debut with a taxing year-long run as the titular teen in “Dear Evan Hansen.” At 12, he founded a still-active production company to raise money for autism research. He moved into his own Upper West Side apartment last year after losing his mother, a single parent, to cancer in 2019. So it’s with worldly wisdom that Feldman considers his most visible endeavor to date: a lead role opposite Jennifer Lawrence in the R-rated romp “No Hard Feelings,” which he says wrapped reshoots a few days before this conversation.

“I am riding the wave, because there’s nothing else I can do,” he says. “This is sort of the last couple of weeks where I don’t know what this life looks like, before doing press and traveling and people seeing this movie and having opinions about it and all that stuff. So I’m trying to savor this moment of this uncertainty. There’s something really beautiful about that.”

Feldman isn’t exactly anonymous — his wrenching “Evan Hansen” performance left Broadway buzzing, and his scene-stealing turn as a French exchange student on “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” introduced him to the Disney Plus crowd. But even a modest box office return for “No Hard Feelings,” which hits theaters Friday, could propel Feldman into a new sphere of recognition.

The raunchy comedy stars Lawrence as Maddie, a 32-year-old hot mess who responds to a Craigslist ad from two Long Island parents calling for a young woman to date their college-bound son. In playing Percy, that sweet but shy 19-year-old loner, Feldman went from offering scarce cinematic experience to sharing the screen with one of Hollywood’s most bankable A-listers.

“It’s a star-making performance,” says Gene Stupnitsky, the film’s director and co-writer. “I feel like I have a secret and I’m about to share it with the world.”

Gaten Matarazzo, the actor best known for playing Dustin on “Stranger Things,” recalls that he and just about every young male performer in New York auditioned for Percy last summer. Calling it “not my favorite audition,” he knew he hadn’t unlocked the role. As he discussed the part with others, that seemed to be the prevailing sentiment.

“I don’t think a single one of us had a clue as to how to approach that specific character,” says Matarazzo, Feldman’s friend and frequent collaborator. “I was like, ‘Who’s going to find what to do with that?’ I was so curious. Then I saw his name when they announced the movie, and I was like: ‘Oh, my God. How did I not think that before?’ It immediately all clicked.”

Although Stupnitsky estimates that some 700 actors auditioned for Percy, he found himself prepared to “punt” on the movie if the right person didn’t emerge. When he came across Feldman on Day 2 of sifting through the tapes, he knew that wouldn’t be necessary. Unaware of Feldman’s Broadway exploits or 2018 triumph at the Jimmy Awards — high school theater’s take on the Tonys — Stupnitsky was simply struck by the actor’s nimble comic timing and deep-seated vulnerability.

“It was important to find someone who could nail the comedy but also had a kind of gravitas or emotionality that an Academy Award-winning actress just wouldn’t blow him off the screen,” Stupnitsky says.

Over email, Lawrence adds: “This film wouldn’t be what it is without Andrew. We knew he was Percy from the minute we met him. His physical comedy, his ability to take whatever was thrown at him and make it even funnier — there was nothing that he couldn’t handle.”

Feldman doesn’t share Percy’s more severe social anxieties, but the actor and character overlap in myriad other ways. A Long Island native, Feldman shot scenes at the Q-Zar arcade he frequented as a kid and beaches down the road from his childhood home. Percy is heading to Princeton in the film while Feldman is on a break from Harvard, having spent a semester there in the fall of 2021. Just as Percy is intimidated by adulthood, Feldman spent production last fall daunted by the prospect of helping carry a buzzy movie that also features Laura Benanti and Matthew Broderick as his character’s overconcerned parents.

“From the jump, it was like this character existed and I existed, and we were sort of meant to find each other,” Feldman explains. “I was so afraid of the world that I was about to enter in doing this movie. Wanting to leave the bubble and hating the bubble — but fearing what’s outside the bubble — is really big for this character.”

Lawrence notes that there also was a natural chemistry, honed as she and Feldman played board games and met up for dinners, that contributed to their on-screen rapport. “What I loved,” Lawrence says, “were the moments when we weren’t filming.”

If there weren’t enough inherent intersections between Percy and Feldman, the role was further tailored to the actor after he was cast. Calling obsessive-compulsive disorder “a huge part of who I am,” Feldman penned an essay for Stupnitsky in which he posed that OCD drove much of the character’s decision-making. After co-writer John Phillips sent Stupnitsky a clip of Feldman performing Elton John’s “Rocket Man” at Manhattan’s 54 Below, the duo added a pivotal scene in which Percy surprises Lawrence’s Maddie by belting a certain 1980s earworm. (Feldman wrote a new piano arrangement, to boot, and got to perform the song the day his aunt and cousins visited the set.)

“Not every stage performer translates to film and television,” says Benanti, who hosted the Jimmy Awards the year Feldman won. “He just has a real sense of himself, which I think is rare for a person so young. To be acting and performing opposite arguably one of the most famous people in the world and to be able to be that centered — that is a very challenging task that he more than meets.”

Suffice to say, “No Hard Feelings” didn’t leave Feldman with tunnel vision for Hollywood. The day after he booked the role of Percy, he performed his Disney-centric one-man show, “Park Map,” at a Greek restaurant in the Hamptons for what he described as “a group of completely disinterested diners.” Shortly after production wrapped, he took another cabaret show — the autobiographical “Barth Mitzvah Boy” — to Midtown’s Midnight Theatre. His recent months have been dominated by work on the murder mystery “Foul Play,” an interactive online series he co-created and stars in.

“I am pretty disinterested in being the big next hot, funny movie star, if that even were to happen,” Feldman says. “It’s not what I want, and it’s never been my goal. My goal is to tell the stories that I want to tell.”

Over the past few years, that has meant appearing in the viral smash “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical,” writing and recording several singles and staging a Star Wars parody musical that he originally co-wrote in eighth grade. “He has the most incredible knack for instantly getting people to fully go onboard with the weirdest things,” marvels Matarazzo, who played Luke Skywalker in that satire. As Stupnitsky adds, “He’s a lot of different people in one — and they’re all nice.”

In May 2020, Feldman orchestrated his most poignant project: a virtual celebration raising funds for the Barbra Barth Feldman Performing Arts Center at Lawrence Woodmere Academy, where his late mother graduated and worked as an educator. Feldman beams when recalling the starry rendition of “Rainbow Connection” — featuring Olivia Rodrigo, Matarazzo and others — that highlighted the event. Reflecting on his mother’s memory, he brings up a treasured sentiment expressed to him by “Evan Hansen” co-composer Justin Paul: Even though Feldman was only 17 when he lost his mother, his prodigious Broadway breakout still came early enough for her to see it.

“This whole thing, it feels like it was never supposed to happen,” Feldman says of his burgeoning career. “It feels like a crazy alternate universe. It’s also the terrible alternate universe where she passed way too early. But still, in this most wonderful and most tragic of universes, she got to know that I was going to be okay in this profession that she was really scared for me to enter.”

Touching on “No Hard Feelings,” he continues: “She felt like she had a hand in this, as well.”

With the conversation winding down, Feldman clocks a collection of girls patiently lingering in the coffee shop in hopes of making his acquaintance. Moments later, hugs and photos abound. As Feldman departs and walks down West 45th Street, a block from the theater where he made his Broadway debut, he sheepishly admits that he gets recognized from time to time but insists that it only tends to happen in the Theater District.

“These really incredible things keep happening to me,” Feldman says. “These opportunities are too big to really wrap my head around. I never want to lose that. I never want to feel bigger than the thing that I’m doing. I always want to be swallowed by it. That is my favorite feeling.”

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