Interview: ‘Edge of Seventeen’ star Hailee Steinfeld on the art of acting, singing, growing up

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Hailee Steinfeld is best known for her role as Mattie in the Coen Brothers’ film “True Grit,” for which she was Oscar-nominated at the tender age of 14. It was the role that launched her into teenage stardom. Then, at only 19 years of age, the Angelino’s career took another bold turn into music, when she headlined “Pitch Perfect 2” and released her debut EP “Haiz.”

Now, Steinfeld’s latest work, Kelly Fremon Craig’s “The Edge of Seventeen,” is being lauded as a new coming-of-age classic. Steinfeld herself plays the protagonist Nadine, your average awkward high schooler navigating the treacherous path through adolescence. The Stanford Daily sat down with her to discuss her thoughts on balancing both acting and singing, her career in the entertainment industry and “Seventeen” itself.

 

The Stanford Daily (TSD): I watched your newest film, “The Edge of Seventeen,” and I really enjoyed it. As someone also coming out of those very relatable, extremely uncomfortable teenage years, I totally associated with your character Nadine.

Hailee Steinfeld (HS): Good [laughs], thank you!

TSD: While filming, did you draw from any specific experiences or coming-of-age moments that you had?

HS: Absolutely. Constantly. First of all, this character and I share just about the same level of awkwardness and more things than I’m willing to admit [laughs]. But there was one thing I had, which I felt really helped me while making this movie: I was homeschooled. I started homeschooling in the middle of sixth grade. So I didn’t have a traditional high school experience. In some ways, I thought that it kind of worked to my benefit because I really felt that extra sense of alienation and anxiety when I was put in the middle of a high school in session when we were in Vancouver making this movie. The bell would ring, and all these kids were coming out from different angles and like just rushing, dropping things — the sounds and everything was so much, and I was in no way used to that. So that kind of, I would say, helped me and benefitted me in a weird way.

TSD: So from that, is there something about that time in adolescence that you wanted to express to the audience through your performance?

HS: The fact that it’s not great all the time, and it’s not easy. And I think we’ve had movies that we get to watch and think like, “Wow, that is great! I wish it would go down that way,” or if only that situation would pan out that way. Because the situations that we normally see in movies happen to everybody, but the end result is not what happens to everybody. In this movie, it touches on the fact that life is messy, and it’s not perfect, and there’s not a fairy tale ending for everybody. I think that getting that across and making it so that my generation can watch this film and feel like it’s that their story, that it is real and that it does their feelings justice is really what I wanted to accomplish.

TSD: Nadine is someone who, on one hand, is rather socially awkward, like many teenagers, but on the other hand, also really cares about certain things like her friendship with Krista, her best friend. And she visibly struggles to express how she feels without going into a full-on rant. Were there any steps you took or things you thought about when you prepared for the role in order to balance these two opposing sides of her?

HS: Yeah, it’s a funny thing — I haven’t really quite figured out how to articulate this thought, but maybe you’ll get what I’m saying. You know how when you’re having a conversation with somebody, say, we’re having a conversation outside of this, and I proceed to tell you that I’m a very mature person. You’re like, “Okay, you shouldn’t have to say that if you are, right? You just are,” [laughs] and she does a lot of those sort of things where she’s going to act like she doesn’t care, but she truly does care. Even in the midst of her showing that she cares, she’s going to end it with, “I don’t really care.” It’s like that underlying lack of love and communication that she has throughout this entire movie, and she tries to mask that with her large vocabulary. And half the stuff she probably doesn’t even know what she’s saying, but she will convince you that she does. So I guess, in terms of developing this character and making it so that both of those sides were visible and seen, whether or not it was in the dialogue, it all comes from that one thing — that lack of human connection in conversation.

TSD: The film infuses a lot of comedic moments into the considerably realistic and dramatic plot line, especially through Nadine’s unique relationship with Mr. Bruner, played by the wonderful Woody Harrelson. So how do you approach these more lighthearted moments in the midst of this really serious content?

HS: First of all, finding a script that so seamlessly integrates both sides of the spectrum so well is hard, and playing a character that sort of leads that is even harder. I guess some of the most comedic moments are in this character being so overly dramatic. And a lot of the times, if they’re not [comedic] — if they’re obviously just real life situations that touch on loss and heartbreak and betrayal — the writer and director did a great job in creating a sense of comic relief after those moments. Because we’ll go through those moments all the time in life, and all we’re looking for is just that room to breathe and sigh and let it out. We’re given that in this movie. We tense up, and we feel the awkwardness, in that we feel the pain. And then we’re given the opportunity to just kind of release. Being able to play that was sort of the same in a way, knowing that in a minute I’ll be able to breathe. I’m just going to get it all out, get it all out, and then you’re just like, “I let it all out!” and then you just kind of laugh about it.

TSD: In that vein, your performance in “True Grit” is usually referenced as your breakthrough role, which in turn earned you an Academy Award nomination and widespread praise. In essence, was this experience as influential for your own personal development as an actress as it was in gaining recognition for your career? If not, was there a different role that marked this turning point for you?

HS: Well, I would say yes. Absolutely. If it weren’t for that movie I don’t know where I would be. I don’t know where I would be! The amount of recognition I received from that one role was just such a true, true honor, and I realize that so much more now than I did then — what it really means and what it really meant, all of that. I would say that obviously that did put my foot in the door that got people to learn about me and who I am and what I’m capable of. And I really do feel this role now hopefully will remind them of that part that I played in that movie in the sense of, “Here I am, and here’s all I got!”

TSD: On that note, people talk about how you’ve been segueing from acting to music, especially with “Pitch Perfect 2” and your debut EP, “Haiz.” When you first started out, did you imagine that this would be the path that you’d take, or have you always been drawn equally to both music and acting?

HS: I’ve always been drawn to the idea of performing and entertaining and whatever form that came in. And that happened to be acting and singing for me. I started both around the same time — the acting happened first. I was taking acting classes, I was taking singing lessons, I was writing with producers and writers who are family friends of mine. But until I was given, really, the perfect opportunity to segue into the music with it making sense, it [became] more of a side project. And yeah, I now am making music way more full-time than I was and have ever, so it’s something I absolutely love and feel very lucky that I get to do.

 

Contact Olivia Popp at opopp’at’stanford.edu.

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Olivia Popp previously served as Managing Editor of Arts & Life for two years and is a former Editor-at-Large for the Daily's Board of Directors. Find her online at itsoliviapopp.com and on Twitter: @itsoliviapopp.