Hailee Steinfeld on The Edge of Seventeen and Brink of Big Hollywood Career
Full disclosure—movie and pop star Hailee Steinfeld makes me feel like a teenage girl in all the best ways, not least because she can turn a pop song inside out with fully felt vocals and a music video persona sincere enough to let you know she means it. She does the same in the movies, and her performance in the new coming of age comedy-drama The Edge of Seventeen is among this year’s best, a pitch perfect blend of humor, pathos and growing up an outsider in your family and too smart for your peer group.
Six years ago, thirteen-year-old Steinfeld received a much-deserved Oscar nomination for her spirited performance as young Mattie Ross in 2010’s True Grit, signaling the arrival of a particularly spunky young star with confidence to burn, and one who went on to notable turns in 2013’s Begin Again and 2015’s Pitch Perfect 2, where she sang—and well—snagging her a recording contract with Republic and status a top of the charts pop phenom. Nice work, if you can get it—and for this nineteen-year-old multi-hyphenate, there seems to be no limit.
I recently caught up with Steinfeld, who downplays her looks in movies but in person is a svelte Hollywood knockout, perfectly styled in designer couture and poised to appear every bit the industry ingénue betraying her often onscreen wallflower persona. Except that she’s a character actress, actually, with unmistakable streak of cynicism, and one that’s a joy to watch in her richly observant new screen turn as a tack-sharp teen navigating friendship, family and the social order of high school in The Edge of Seventeen.
Every generation has its films about teens growing up, from American Graffiti to Fast Times at Ridgemont High to The Breakfast Club. What is different about teens growing up today in The Edge of Seventeen, and what is universal? I’d also like to hear a bit about your own adolescence.
What makes it universal is that forms of communication change, how people dress changes, but friendships and relationships do not. It doesn’t matter where you are from or what you do. Being a teenager- anybody has those moments where you wake up and you are like, ‘What the hell am I doing? What is my purpose? What am I doing to fit in? What am I not doing to fit in?’ Just trying to figure out who you are what life is. And I think that is super prominent during your high school years.
I guess in terms of what is specific to my generation, social media is really at the center of Earth these days. I think what this film does that is so great is that it’s honest in terms of how much it affects our relationships and friendships and how we find validation through a number of followers and likes. I hope people watching this movie feel like ‘I’m not alone. I hope they can see themselves in this story somewhere and feel understood by this character.’
And my adolescence- I was in school until about sixth grade and then I started home schooling, so I didn’t necessarily get the quintessential high school experience in terms of being there. But with this movie it is more a movie about growing up than a teen or high school movie. Being in school up until sixth grade, there was a reason why my parents pulled me out and that was social issues. It gave me anxiety sitting in a classroom. And when I made this movie we were obviously in a real high school that was in session. We stole their school on a break. But there was a time when the bell would ring and there were kids in school! I literally couldn’t see in front of me because there were too many people and I could not breathe! I truly believe that being in a classroom is not for everybody. It was not for me.
You surely have also seen the John Hughes films from the 80s, which captured the era in a universal way as well.
I did feel pretty connected to those films. I felt like everything from the language to the way you dress to spending that extra time in the bathroom in the morning in the mirror because that guy is going to be at school today—those moments are real. We have all been in high school. Teens drink, go to parties and get in trouble and are growing up and figuring it out. So with those movies I felt connected to how real and honest they were. I remember watching Sixteen Candles and praying that would never happen to me. I feel like you can sympathize with those characters in those moments, and I feel like this movie has so many of those moments.
This movie is a coming of age story about a girl who goes from thinking that she has everything figured out to realizing she does not, and that it is okay. She becomes a young woman and has this underlying strength that comes through that I think every young woman has. And it is just a matter of discovering it and when; it is there. I think that this movie so seamlessly nails so many moments; it catches everything.
(Nadine) is somebody craving human connection and love and conversation. And she has this guy that from afar that she thinks is so much alike. And she knows that he is the kind of guy she would totally get along with and she goes the extra mile and says what is on her mind, and then obviously talks big talk and gets herself into a situation. She just wants somebody to understand her. She even says to him, ‘There is so much I want to tell you.’ She gets herself in these situations that girls get into where they think they know what they want, but we try to backpedal and figure it out.
If anybody ever gives an award for Best Actress in a Music Video ,you are going to get it for Rock Bottom.
Thank you! Oh my God, thank you! That’s sweet of you.
I can’t tell you how many people I’ve shard that video with; I really love that song, and also Love Myself.
I was thinking about your music career and where it is right now. It’s not a fledgling career. You are a best-selling recording artist hitting the top in that industry and in the movie industry as well. What do those different disciplines do for you? How did the music career come about, and what do you get out of both of those things?
I started singing around the same time that I got into acting. It became much more of a side project when the acting was a full-time thing, and I would record covers to get the feel of being in a recording studio and I would write with family friends who were producers and artists themselves. And it really became a matter of timing in terms of how I could time it out when people would take me seriously. And I kind of secretly always hoped that it would happen through a movie, and Pitch Perfect 2 came along at the perfect time for me, because I wasn’t ready for it years ago. But it happened after Pitch Perfect 2 that I signed a recording deal with Republic Records and within six months I had my first single out, which went platinum in record time. It was insane! And everything has been so crazy since then. But as an eight, nine or ten-year-old, the idea of performing and entertaining people was of interest to me and whether that meant onstage or in a commercial, I wanted to do it. And the fact that I get to do both is amazing.
You’re showing a range of emotions in the Rock Bottom video. Can you tell me something about shooting it?
Yeah! That is one of my favorite- with Love Myself, I had a harder time coming up with what the story looked like. And having never made a music video before it was awesome to make one where it was like a beauty thing. It was like, ‘Here I am singing from rooftops. This is my first music video ever. This is what it wants to be.’ And with Rock Bottom, that song to me is like every relationship I have ever been in where you love the person so much and you hate them at the same time. And you just want to love them and smack them across the face. Anyway, getting into details!
So that video- I really wanted it to be as visual as that song sounds. And having those highs and lows of a relationship where one minute everything is amazing as it could be and the next it switches and that person is gone, and you don’t know where to turn to or where to go and what to do. And making that video I worked really closely with the director, Malia James, and pulled up a folder on my computer that I had for months been putting stuff into that reminded me of the song. And she had so many of the same photos in her folder. We had never had a conversation before or really spoken in-depth about what we wanted to do, and she was on the same page. So making that was really awesome. I’m really happy you like it. Thank you!
Every small role seems perfectly cast. Kyra Sedgwick is terrific as your mother. Your chemistry with Hayden Szeto is very endearing. And your onscreen relationship with Blake Jenner, who plays your brother, is quietly nicely felt.
He was so devoted and generous to work with. I have experienced working with people where when the camera is not on them they have done their part and are done. But with Blake and Haley Lu (Richardson) and everyone in this movie, there were moments where we were in emotional scenes and they had the respect and generosity to not be done when they were done. (They were) so giving and present and so amazing to work with.
Certainly the idea of a best friend is explored in this film, in terms of what you can expect and what that bond is like. Both Hayden and Hayley qualify in that category at different times. I really felt the messiness and glue of that bond between yourself and Hayley.
Sure. Yes. One thing that is so beautiful about their friendship is that it has been since day one, and they both have similar family issues, and I think they find a lot of what they are lacking in each other. And I think a best friend breakup could be just as horrible as a romantic break-up, and when she goes through that it is horrible. For me, I am lucky enough to count my number of best friends on one hand. I have learned that it is a good thing. And to have those people that you feel you can go to for anything no matter where you are in the world and you can call tem and they will pick up—that is hard to find. In terms of what makes that, there are so many things and I think we all have that person that we feel we can trust and go to and talk to, and when they feel the same way, that is when you know that it is an unbreakable bond.
You’re nineteen, so still very young. Looking back, what advice might you give your younger self at Nadine’s age?
I would stand far enough away so that I wouldn’t slap myself, but I would say that everything is going to be fine. It is crazy that when you are in the moment it’s the last thing you want to hear. Even now I have moments where I will go to my mom when I feel like it’s the end of the world and I don’t know what to do, and she’s like, ‘Hailee, relax.’ I am like, ‘No! I’m not going to relax.’ It’s things that we never want to hear but which we need to hear. And I think it is going back and telling myself that it is a matter of time before you realize that this is just a moment of time.