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Figuring Things Out For Herself: Hailee Steinfeld on “The Edge of Seventeen”

Hailee Steinfeld is one hell of an inspiring young woman. It’s impossible to spend 20 minutes in her presence and not feel motivated to accomplish all those things you have routinely been placing on the back burner. A couple weeks after her 14th birthday, Steinfeld made her film debut in Joel & Ethan Coen’s marvelous 2010 version of “True Grit.” Her coveted role of Mattie Ross, the tough-as-nails teen who hires a U.S. Marshal to help track down her father’s killer, could doom a career as easily as it could launch one by setting an impossibly high bar. Steinfeld earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, though she clearly deserved inclusion in the Best Actress category. Though she went on to deliver strong work in films such as “Hateship Loveship,” “Begin Again” and “The Keeping Room,” she never received as stellar a showcase as “True Grit.” Last year, Steinfeld co-starred in “Pitch Perfect 2,” where she debuted her singing voice and thus began a new parallel career as a pop star. 

Yet any moviegoers who feared Steinfeld would leave acting behind are guaranteed to be overjoyed by Kelly Fremon Craig’s wonderful film, “The Edge of Seventeen,” which gives the actress her greatest cinematic showcase since “True Grit,” while providing equal screen time for her comedic and dramatic chops. She stars as Nadine, a high schooler blindsided by her best friend’s sudden attraction to her older brother (Blake Jenner of “Everybody Wants Some!!”). Woody Harrelson is immensely enjoyable in his supporting role as Mr. Bruner, a wry teacher with many of the best lines, but this is Steinfeld’s film through and through, and she is flat-out captivating. 

RogerEbert.com spoke with Steinfeld about connecting with an audience, touring with Meghan Trainor and figuring things out for herself.

One thing that has consistently defined your work, regardless of the medium, is a sense of strength and resilience. Where do you derive this strength from?

Honestly, it all stems from how I was brought up. My parents are incredibly independent and supportive yet collaborative. I’ve also learned so much from the people I’ve worked with, but that strength ultimately comes from my parents. They have truly instilled in me the notion that you can make anything happen if you work for it. As long as you believe in yourself, you work hard and are passionate, persistent and prepared, you can do anything. That’s what I strive for.

Upon revisiting “True Grit,” I found your handling of Mattie’s dense and sophisticated dialogue simply astonishing. There’s a kind of musical quality to your speech that makes singing seem like a natural continuation of your abilities.

Thank you for picking up on that! I think I have a pretty good ear. Being musically inclined in that way, it’s amazing to see those skills mesh with my acting. Long before I had an audition for “True Grit,” I prepared myself by watching the original film. At some point, I started to watch it on mute because the rhythm and the pattern of the lines were getting stuck in my head. I feared it would make my own delivery of them not as spontaneous or real or fresh. Yet that is where I originally began to pick up on the rhythm of the script. Once I started working with the unbelievable actors onset, our dialogue became more of a banter as opposed to blocks of dialogue and monologues. It became very conversational. 

Actors who rise to stardom by playing a role wiser beyond their years often have difficulty playing a character with the mentality and vulnerability of someone their own age. The challenge of tackling a role like Nadine must be quite different from portraying someone like Mattie.

It really is. “The Edge of Seventeen” is obviously a contemporary piece, which brings an added level of difficulty. I want to not only do this character and this story justice, but I also want it to connect with the kids who are also going through these same things. I want them to look at this movie and feel like it is for them and it is them, and that’s always hard. Contemporary pieces in general have always been the most challenging for me, particularly when it comes to wardrobe. I’ll start to get confused and say, “I don’t really like this outfit,” and then remember that what I want is different from what my character wants. With this film, it felt like I was living in another era, in a way. Nadine is such an old soul—she even says it herself. She knows what “The Big Lebowski” is, she’s watched it 100 times and has that Lebowski sweatshirt that none of the other kids have. She’s from a different time yet lives in this crazy world of today, and I feel that connection with her, for sure.

I loved the awkward chemistry between Nadine and her friend, Erwin (Hayden Szeto), who she also identifies as an old soul.

Hayden and I hit it off at the very beginning. He’s got the best sense of humor and is so much like Erwin in that he is painfully awkward but in the best possible way. This is one of his first movies, so he’s very on-edge the whole time—figuring out if he’s doing the right thing or the wrong thing, if he should step in or he shouldn’t, if he should say something or he shouldn’t. It was very entertaining to watch him and act with him because he is so genuine and innocent, which was really kind of refreshing.

I greatly admire films like “The Edge of Seventeen” and Marielle Heller’s “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” for breaking the taboos still often attributed to female sexuality and identity.

I feel like those taboos are changing, and I don’t know if it’s because I am involved in breaking them. But I really do feel like it’s a movement. People are beginning to realize that young women have a lot of the same intentions or notions or preconceived notions, for that matter, as males do. Nadine is trying to figure out where and how she can find human connection and love. She doesn’t know the answer to these questions, and how is she supposed to know unless she tries to figure it out herself? That’s what this whole film is about: how Nadine is figuring things out for herself. And though she obviously has people around her that do love and care about her whether she realizes it or not, she is relying on herself to get through these situations. 

I remember reading the script and feeling that the scenes where Nadine is “talking big talk” were so real. She’s got it all figured out, she’s seen how it goes down in the movies, but when she finally gets with the guy in the car, she realizes that this is, in fact, not how it should go down. All of a sudden, she’s like, “Can you tell me what your favorite color is? Let’s have a conversation.” That’s what she really wants, in the end, and that’s what other people around her often miss. We want certain things and we will do certain things to get them. In speaking for Nadine, what she wants is connection and conversation. She wants to be understood by somebody, and yes, down the line, she’s obviously thinking about other things and wants to experiment and wants to explore. But that’s not the initial want.

How did you go about forming the character of Nadine with Kelly Fremon Craig?

From the audition process onward, Kelly and I would be in a room for what felt like twenty minutes and it would end up being two-and-a-half hours of pure conversation about life. We’d talk about how one situation leads to another, how a certain thing will feel like the end of the world, and then when you wake up the next day, you’ve forgotten all about it and it’s a new day. Having those conversations with somebody who has not only been there but understands all of those experiences was so liberating, as was the opportunity to express so much of what I’ve gone through. People, in some ways, think I dodged the bullet multiple times because I wasn’t in a traditional high school up until a certain point. Being able to express the fact that I’ve gone through those same things, despite not being in high school, was important to me. Though the film takes place in a high school and it follows Nadine through her teenage years, it’s not a high school movie. It’s about growing up and about figuring life out at an early age. It’s about having obstacles thrown at you left and right, and then having to overcome them. I’ve obviously been through that as everyone else has, whether or not they’ve been in a traditional high school. 

Just as “The Edge of Seventeen” is not a typical high school movie, Woody Harrelson’s character hilariously subverts every cliché embodied by the typical inspirational teacher.

Totally! The amount of time and effort and thought he invested into every line that came out of his mouth was amazing to me. Even though I knew what he was going to say, time and time again he’d deliver the line and I’d be like, ‘Where did that come from?’ [laughs] Mr. Bruner is the father figure that Nadine goes to, looking for validation, and he’s not always going to tell her what she wants to hear. The beauty of the relationship is in how honest it is, apart from being funny, dramatic and weird. Of course, it’s so absurd for a teacher to be saying half of the things he says to her, or for a student to go to him for half of the things she goes to him for. But there is a mutual understanding between these characters. I feel like we’ve all at some point had that someone that we know probably isn’t the best person for us, but they’re the only person and we are going to go to them anyway, and for Nadine, it’s him. 

It felt like a fitting pairing when you went on tour with Meghan Trainor this year. Songs like “Love Myself” and “Lips Are Movin” are invigorating not only musically but thematically, with their messages of self-empowerment. Even a song like “Starving” is more about personal discovery than “getting a guy.”

During each performance on that tour, I had 30 minutes to connect with the audience, and I found that I could do that within two-and-a-half minutes of a song. Having that connection with her fans, who are of all ages from all over the world, and bringing them together in one place to celebrate that sort of self-empowerment was an experience I’ll never forget it. I would close my set with “Love Myself,” and everyone would get up on their feet, regardless of whether they knew who I was. You could tell that they had heard the song and that they had some kind of feeling when they heard it. In 25 cities in three months, I saw thousands of people celebrating themselves and their inner and outer beauty. Then watching Meghan go out there and do the same thing, pulling people in through her music, was just amazing.  

Sonic experimentation is one thing, experimenting lyrically is a different sort of fun. I’ll hear a sound or a quote or see a movie and become inspired by it. Then that idea will turn into something that I’ll end up combining with a personal experience while creating a song. It’s such a creatively fulfilling process. I think that there has been quite a jump from “Love Myself” to “Starving”—lyrically there’s a big difference between them. The idea that when you figure out who you are and how to love yourself, you can then love someone else, is sort of the trajectory reflected by those songs. I’m currently working on an album, and it has been so much fun to create and build on a cohesive body of work. I’m in the thick of it right now, so I don’t know what it is or what it will end up as, but it’s been amazing to experiment with all of that.

You’ve mastered the art of acting in close-up, but performing to a stadium audience is an entirely different ballgame.

It’s sort of like public speaking, which is supposed to be the thing that freaks you out. You feel that if everyone else is afraid of it then you should too, and that thought has always kind of haunted me. When you’re on a film set, you can rely on the fact that you have a couple times to get it right. But when you go onstage for a concert, you only have one chance during a fixed amount of time to make an impact on as many people as possible. You’re like, “Where do I begin? What do I do?” I quickly learned that going out there and being yourself is the only thing that you can do. To some extent, you’re putting on a show and with my background in acting, it’s fun to sort of turn it on and play the part while knowing that 20 minutes from now, I’ll be back in my sweatpants eating french fries in the hotel room. It’s a completely different experience from a film set and it gives you a different kind of satisfaction. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to comprehend the fact that I’ve already performed in stadiums, and I’ve had people sing along to my songs. It’s very surreal.

I forgot how much of a physical role Mattie Ross was—you’re climbing trees, riding horses through rivers—and it got me thinking of how your background in dance has informed your work.

I love any kind of dance or sport or outdoor activity that requires a certain physicality, especially in a role. I remember being 13 on the set of “True Grit” and looking at my double about to climb the tree. I was like, “Is it okay if I do it?” And they said, “Technically, I don’t think we’re allowed to, but go for it.” Having the knowledge that no movement is wrong instills a fearlessness in you. With dance, you can be taught choreography, but you’re going to put your own self and your own swagger and your own feeling into it. It’s not going to be the movement that was taught to you minutes before, it is going to be your interpretation of it. 

When you’re climbing a tree or riding a horse, you think of it as choreography. It’s points you have to hit at certain times to certain beats, and the music provides you with those beats when you’re singing. That same conviction that I put into walking from one point to the next while acting is also what I put into my dancing. I’ll decide to put a sense of feminism into one movement and a sense of masculinity into another. Acting and dancing do coincide in weird ways, and they ultimately do the same thing. When I’m in the studio writing, I can draw on experiences that my character went through in a movie. I didn’t necessarily go through them myself but I experienced them to some degree. So it all kind of comes full circle, which is really the best part.

Would you consider doing a musical in the vein of “La La Land” or “The Last Five Years”?

Sure, absolutely. I’m in heaven when I’m acting or singing and when I’m doing both at the same time, that’s when I’m the most happy. So I would love to experience that. I think right now, as much as they coincide, they are still two completely different projects and different worlds for me. Seeing how they could combine would be very challenging but very exciting.

Is directing among your future goals as well?

I haven’t worked with a director I haven’t liked thankfully, and everyone that I have worked with is so passionate. Every time I see them do what they’re doing, I’m like, “I just can’t wait to be in that position and really be at the head of something that could be great.” It feels so terrifying, but it’s something that I would absolutely love to do. Even producing—putting something together from the ground up—is of interest to me, and it always has been.


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