When she was in sixth grade, Hailee Steinfeld decided to leave behind conventional education and opt for home-schooling instead. She felt lost in her large Ventura County middle school, wandering from class to class with few bearings.
So when Steinfeld had to plunge into the world of homerooms and high school for her new movie “The Edge of Seventeen,” the familiar disorientation returned, even while in the make-believe world of extras and catering.
“It was scary in a lot of the ways I remembered,” Steinfeld said of the British Columbia shoot for the film, written and directed by first-timer Kelly Fremon Craig. “I would sit there and the bell would go off and feel this anxiety all over again, that thought of ‘You’re the only one everyone’s staring at.’ ”
Audiences can be forgiven for overlooking or even appreciating that nervousness. Steinfeld channels it all into Nadine, a teen heroine with a degree of complexity and entertainment-value rarely seen on the modern big screen.
In the process, the performer provides a kind of unlikely bookend to the debut role that. at age 14, brought her fame and an Oscar nomination, that of the revenge-minded Mattie Ross in the Coen Brothers’ "True Grit.” It’s not many actors who announce themselves in a decorated western and, six years later — weeks before they’re set to exit their teenage years — embody a junior in a suburban high school.
“I guess,” she said wryly, “this has been a bit of a backstep.”
Steinfeld has turned up for a quick dinner in Culver City before a screening of the film at a nearby theater. She has taken a car in from her parents’ house in Thousand Oaks, where she still lives despite the fact some paychecks — she’s had some big studio roles a la “Ender’s Game” and “Pitch Perfect 2,” not to mention a burgeoning pop-music career — probably make such Millennialism unnecessary. Tall, sporting a flannel shirt and exaggeratedly long eyelashes, Steinfeld conveys a relaxed poise that’s very different from the character she plays in her new film.
“Edge” centers on a young woman who, after the untimely death of her father several years before, clings to a single friend (Haley Lu Richardson), resents a suave older brother (Blake Jenner) and engages in a kind of banterous gamesmanship with a world-weary teacher (Woody Harrelson). Life complexities set in when said friend and brother couple up, toppling Nadine’s fragile balance.
As directed by Fremon Craig, “Edge” is an unlikely mix of teen edge and heart, what might result if “Juno” were remade by John Hughes.
As written by Fremon Craig, Nadine is an unlikely mix of sardonic and vulnerable, what might result if Daria were played by Hermione Granger.
“What this role required was someone to play all these different emotions on the spectrum and also have comedic ability,” said Fremon Craig, whose movie was guided and produced by Oscar winner James L. Brooks. “And what we mainly saw during casting was either the alternative girl or the fresh-faced girl next door with a hint of the tomboy. And neither of those was going to work here.”
Brooks and Fremon Craig got to the point where, after a year of looking, they all but gave up, thinking that the young woman they needed simply didn’t exist. Then someone new walked in.
Immediately Steinfeld distinguished herself. “She had this thing that, even when the character is being a jerk, she has so much charisma, so much of that quality, you can’t look away.”
The dearth of classroom experience--even of the on-set variety--may have also given Steinfeld a freedom to roam. “In a way this was finally my high school,” she said. “I could let it all hang out.”
Said Fremon Craig, “What I noticed is that Hailee Steinfeld the person is very different from the character. As soon as I called action, her whole body changed, the muscles in her face changed, like she had become a totally different human being. And then I’d call cut and she was back to the person who is poised, self-aware and her feathers not easily ruffled.”
Steinfeld’s precociousness is the kind of nature-nurture riddle common to young talents. Are such things developed, planted and cultivated and grown in a Hollywood greenhouse? There were, after all, those confidence-boosting acting classes Steinfeld lobbied her parents (an interior designer mother and fitness-trainer father) for years ago.
And certainly spending formative years on sets like “True Grit,” opposite old pros such as Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, can catalyze a maturation process.
Or, maybe, she was simply born with it. Shari Springer Berman, who directed Steinfeld in the period downtown New York tale “Ten Thousand Saints,” says she was taken aback by the actress’ innate curiosity.
“What surprised me was how intellectual Hailee was about approaching the character. She broke down the script in ways that were much more sophisticated than most people do — she focused on the motivations, where she was emotionally in a scene, thinking every choice through with a full character arc,” Springer Berman said. She added, “Hailee is a weird combination of an old soul and an incredible amount of youthful energy.”
The phrase “old soul” comes up often in conjunction with Steinfeld, (and in the script; Nadine refers to herself as one).The actress laughs slightly at the notion. “You know when somebody says, ‘I’m really mature,’ and you know they’re probably not? Because being mature is not having to say you are.”
She pauses. “But I guess I was born with an old soul. I’m probably most that way when I’m on set or interacting with people [in the industry].” Over dinner and a subsequent phone follow-up, she demonstrated that repeatedly; even her enthusiasms — she is a press-ready actress and a teenager — come with fewer “likes” and “awesomes” and more “inspired by’s” and “unapologetics.”
Bridges, who saw firsthand Steinfeld’s preternatural qualities when they shot “True Grit,” has a Zenmaster take on how the actress pulls off the old-early thing.
“Maybe it’s because she’s been home-schooled, but I don’t think she had the pressure that many teenagers do to be more mature than they actually are. And that desire not to be more mature makes you more mature.”
Throughout the interviews, Steinfeld’s only hiccup comes when asked whether her uncle, Body by Jake entrepreneur Jake Steinfeld, has influenced her as a public persona. "He’s someone,” she said, tentatively and after a pause, “that I don’t know that well, unfortunately,” without elaborating.
Then there’s that other elephant in the room, at least for a hungry young actress — the pop music career. Many in Steinfeld’s demographic turn to it when the acting ceiling has been hit. Steinfeld maintains it’s not a dilettantish pursuit, saying that she’d like hits such as “Starving” and “Love Myself” — uptempo chart stalwarts with hints of the risque — to be springboards to future records, not teeny-bopper novelties.
“Maybe I was a little overambitious at the beginning, thinking I can curate the soundtrack to my movies and write my own albums.” (She works with prolific hit smiths Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter, among others.) “But at this point, I can’t see myself doing one and not the other,” she said, with characteristic smooth diplomacy.
I feel like I’m a giant misconception.”
Becoming an adult so early— and spending so much of one’s adolescence around grown-ups — might be expected to lead to a certain loneliness or disconnection. If Steinfeld feels that, though, she avoids showing it. Only at one moment does she allow any such insecurities to come through.
“I think from the outside it can seem like I have it all worked out. But I don’t. Your parents tell you they love you, but at the end of the day, you go on your phone and are exposed to millions of people telling you how they feel. There’s negativity and judgment everywhere,” she said, then added, “I feel like I’m a giant misconception. Even though I didn’t go to a traditional high school, I still wake up with a lot of the same questions — what I’m going to wear, who I’m going to socialize with, what kind of person I’m going to put out in the world.”
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