After becoming an Oscar nominee at age 14 for her remarkable film debut in the Coen brothers’ True Grit (2010), Hailee Steinfeld posed a conundrum to Hollywood—she was difficult to categorize. What to do with this intense young teen, who wasn’t a blonde or ethereal Dakota Fanning-type, nor an easy fit into one of the three standard film roles offered to young women: Ingenue, bombshell, or Manic Pixie Dream Girl?
Fortunately, the James L. Brooks-produced dramedy The Edge of Seventeen provides Steinfeld, now 19, with a role worthy of her unique talent. Steinfeld plays an insecure and caustic high school outsider named Nadine whose world shatters when her older brother, a popular jock (Blake Jenner), starts dating her only friend (Haley Lu Richardson). Nadine feels like a real person; she’s raw and messy and occasionally unpleasant. Moreover, Steinfeld’s portrayal is not only her best work since True Grit, but also the most uncompromising and natural performance I’ve seen in a teen movie in a long time.
A few weeks ago, I sat down with Steinfeld in a suite at the Peninsula Hotel to talk about the film, which opens November 18, as well as her forthcoming full-length studio album.
Leah Pickett: First of all, I really enjoyed this movie.
Hailee Steinfeld: Thank you!
One of the reasons why—and also why I think the film is receiving so many positive reviews—is that your character is not a stereotypical movie nerd. She’s uncool in the way that most high school girls are uncool, in that she lingers on the outside of social circles and wonders what she’s doing wrong. Was that something that you and the writer-director, Kelly Fremon Craig, discussed before filming began?
Those conversations really came into play when we started to go through wardrobe and hair and makeup, and creating the look of this character from zero. Off the bat, it never really felt like a stereotypical character. During the auditioning process, Kelly and I had real conversations about my experiences in high school and Kelly’s experiences in high school and experiences that she had talked to other high school students about.
When we got into wardrobe, we wanted to create a look that was obviously different. The character is called out onscreen for her not-so-great style. But we wanted it to still be aspirational in a way. She has her own sense of style, and whatever that may be—it’s not bad, it’s not great, but it’s her own thing. It’s what she feels good in, and that’s the most important thing and the bottom line. So those conversations happened as we were trying to create somebody who was different but unique and special.
Because there’s nothing wrong with the way she dresses. It’s just not what the “cool girls” are wearing.
I’m assuming you didn’t have a traditional high school experience. How do you think you would have fared in a traditional high school setting?
I was in a brick-and-mortar school until sixth grade and home-schooled throughout high school, mainly because I don’t think I would have been able to survive in high school [laughs]. I think I would have handled it pretty similarly to Nadine: just trying to figure it out day by day and trying to make the best decisions. I don’t know. I don’t know how I would have done it, to be honest. Up until sixth grade, I wasn’t thriving socially, and it wasn’t an environment I wanted or saw myself being in for any longer than I already had. So I don’t know what I would have done in high school, because it only gets harder.
It does. But that’s so prevalent too, that feeling of social awkwardness in high school. And that feeling is often exacerbated by having a “cool” older sibling, as Nadine does.
You have an older brother in real life. Did you draw from that relationship to create the brother-sister dynamic onscreen?
In ways, yes, absolutely. It helps already having one and knowing what it could be like if your best friend started dating him, and they would have their own thing and I would feel very left out of that circle. I think having a brother who is very good-looking and did go through high school and had a social life and went to parties and was on the football team—like, standing back and watching that—definitely helped, walking into this film and knowing that I had this preexisting experience. That I had a brother who was this, that, and the other, and I wasn’t. Luckily and thankfully, my brother and I don’t have nearly as much hatred for each other as I feel Nadine has for her brother.
I think the friendship between Nadine and her best friend Krista is equally significant to her. It reminded me of how friend breakups can be just as painful and traumatic as romantic breakups, sometimes more so.
Totally. It’s so true. In regard to having someone whom you tell everything to constantly, and going from spending every minute with them to nothing, it’s a dramatic change in your life.
With Nadine and Krista, from day one, they’ve had each other’s backs. They’ve gone through so many first experiences together. So I don’t think Nadine ever felt alone until she realizes that she really, physically is. And when she doesn’t have her best friend to call when she’s feeling a certain type of way, she has nobody. You’re right, it’s traumatic.
At the same time, Nadine grows and changes from her experiences in a way that a lot of teen movie heroines do not. She becomes a better person. She matures and evolves. Did that appeal to you?
It really did. The fact that in such a short period of time in anyone’s life so much can happen is shown in this movie. And going through high school, you might think—it’s four years of your life, and college is when you really start to figure it out. But in a way, four years is a very long time. Especially as a teenager, those years are crucial. I’m still in them; I’m still figuring life out.
In this movie, Nadine is becoming a young woman. She’s realizing that not having the answer to every question is OK, and that asking for help in figuring those questions out—and being curious and open to other people’s advice and wisdom—is important and necessary. And I’ve made those same discoveries in my life.
So much of growing up is learning about other people’s experiences and realizing that the world doesn’t revolve around you. That’s a big part of Nadine’s journey: that she learns more about her teacher and his life, about her classmates, about her mom. She learns to empathize. I wish more movies like this existed for young people, especially young women.
Me too. It’s amazing to me how many people have reached out who have seen the movie with comments like, “If only I had this when I was in high school, it would have helped me so much.” Thinking about it, there are very few characters in films that I see and feel like, “Wow, that is me.” But when I read this script, I felt understood by her.
Normally when I’m watching movies, I’m thinking, “It would never happen like that.” But this film is so honest and truthful. One of my cousins whom I’m very close with saw the movie, and during that scene where Nadine is in the car with [her crush], she was hitting me the whole time and saying, “That’s how it happens! That’s how it goes down. You talk the big talk, and then you get yourself into that situation and you’re backpedaling and don’t know how to handle it.”
Thinking about your life in movies and outside of the movies, how do you stay in touch with yourself? Who keeps you grounded?
Oh my goodness, my parents. My family. They’re my rock. They’re who I go home to every single day and they keep me in check.
I think that in getting my start on a movie with people who had been doing it their whole lives, I was introduced to the idea that you can go to work every day and work as hard you can and do the best you can and then go home to your family and not be caught up in everything in between. It’s about the work and it’s about the art and it’s about wanting to continuously improve and make yourself better, as an actor and as a person. Getting my start there at 13, realizing that’s what it’s all about, is what I’ve taken with me through all of my other experiences. Knowing that, “Here I am at work, and I’m going to do the best I can, and then I’m going to go home to my family, have dinner, go to bed, then go to work and do it again.” I treat it as the job that it is, but knowing that this kind of thing never feels like work. I feel so lucky to be able to do something that I really am in love with.
In addition to acting, you’re also a talented musician. Your latest single, “Starving,” has been climbing the charts, and you recently tweeted that you’re working on a new album. What can you say about that?
Thank you! Well, I’ve never made an album before. Not that you can really compare the two, but when I sign on to a movie, I know a certain amount of time in my life will be devoted to this one project, and at a certain point it’s out of my hands, and whatever happens, happens. But with this, I feel like I’ve been making this album since I started making music. It’s constantly evolving and changing; and as a person, I’m experiencing new things that I want to talk about daily.
Since I’ve started making music and writing more, I’ve also become more aware of things that are said in conversations between me and other people or things that I see, like when I’m in a cab in New York City and driving down the street and I see something or I hear something. That’s what’s been happening for the last year of my life. I’ve become so much more aware and inspired.
Writing sessions are always different, depending on whom you’re with, but I love when they’re conversational and I can go in feeling like it doesn’t matter what I look like or what I’m wearing or anything. I can just talk and something will come out of it. That’s what’s been happening, and I’m very excited about it.
What kind of music inspires you to create your own?
I grew up listening to a wide variety of music. Classic rock with my dad, R&B was more of a thing with my mom. Combining the two produces an interesting result. I also like the idea of referencing not so much a genre of music but more of a timeless, classic feel. So much of the music being made now is generated by a computer, and that can be incredible too. But I also like referencing timeless melodies or artists, sampling old songs. Music has a way of coming back around. I’m inspired by that, and also by my friends and family, my daily life, the places I travel to, and the sounds that I hear in songs and on the street.
How do you see your acting career pairing with your music career moving forward? What would be the ideal situation for you?
If I could continue on the road I’m on, with doing both as seamlessly as it’s been panning out, yeah, I pray and knock on wood that’ll be how it goes. I don’t see myself doing one and not the other. I plan on continuing both. I don’t see any reason why I can’t do it all.