Interview: Hailiee Steinfeld, Star of The Edge of Seventeen

edge_of_seventeenhailee-steinfeld-the-edge-of-seventeen-photo-call-in-beverly-hills-10-29-2016-4In 2010, 13-year-old Hailee Steinfeld made a strong first impression (and nabbed an Oscar nomination) for her work in the Coen Brother’s True Grit remake.

Six years later, the young actress, model, and singer has a dozen more feature films on her resume–including Pitch Perfect 2, which also served as a launching pad for a very successful second career as a pop singer.

Steinfeld’s latest film, the smart and emotionally complex coming-of-age film The Edge of Seventeen, has garnered the 19-year-old actress another round of rave reviews. Written and directed by newcomer Kelly Fremon Craig (and produced by James L. Brooks), The Edge of Seventeen follows Nadine (Steinfeld), an intelligent, sensitive, frustrated, and awkward young woman trying to navigate high school, new romances, friendships, a family still off-balance since the death of her father years back, and her own self-sabotaging attitudes.

The Edge of Seventeen also stars newcomer Haley Lu Richardson as Nadine’s best friend, Blake Jenner as her seemingly perfect older brother, Kyra Sedgwick as their somewhat-lost mother, Woody Harrelson as the only teacher who seems to both get and tolerate Nadine, and the fantastic Hayden Szeto as one of her would-be paramours.

Several other writers and I sat down with Hailee Steinfeld a few weeks ago in Chicago to talk about The Edge of Seventeen, her fast-rising singing career, and her own take on teenage angst.

The Edge of Seventeen opens today in theaters everywhere.


edge-of-seventeenYou’re still technically a teenager yourself, so what does a coming-of-age film like this mean to you and your generation?

Hailee Steinfeld: What makes this film universal is that forms of communication change, the way people dress changes, but friendships and relationships don’t. Growing up doesn’t change. It doesn’t matter where you are or what you do, being a teenager is being a teenager. Anyone has moments where you wake up and say, “What the hell am I doing? What’s my purpose? How do I fit in? Why am I not fitting in?” Trying to figure out who you are and what life is. That’s so prominent during your high school years.

Social media is at the center of the Earth these days for my generation. What I love about this film is that social media is not at the center of the film, but the film is honest about how much social media affects us in terms of relationships and friendships and trying to find validation through numbers of followers or likes.

I was in school until about sixth grade, then I started home-schooling, so I didn’t get the quintessential experience of being there, but this film is more about growing up rather than a teen or high school movie.

Since you were home-schooled, do you approach playing a high schooler as something of an anthropological study?

Steinfeld: Being in school until the sixth grade, there was a reason my parents pulled me out, because of social issues. It gives me anxiety, sitting in a classroom. We made this movie in a real high school, sometimes when it was in session. And when the bell would ring, I literally could not see in front of me because there were too many people in the halls, and I can’t breathe. I truly believe that being in a classroom is not for everybody.

hailee-steinfeld-the-edge-of-seventeen-image-2-600x337You must get a lot of teen-age type scripts. What was it about this one that caught your eye?

Steinfeld: The fact that it’s not a teen movie. 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 then realizing that 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’s there. We all go through similar experiences where we’re trying to figure everything out from girls and boys and ourselves and parents and siblings and even how to get to school that day… All those little things affect this one person and affect us all. I think that this movie so seamlessly nails so many moments that lead up to some sort of breakdown and then understanding; I feel it catches everything. That’s what drew me to it.

John Hughes’ films are often mentioned when describing this film. Did you grow up with any sort of connection to those Hughes films?

Steinfeld: 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 trying to get your hair right 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 the fact they felt so real and honest to me. 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.

Nadine has some of those painfully awkward moments, like texts sent to boys that go horribly wrong.

Steinfeld: My character is somebody craving human connection and love and conversation. She 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. So 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.

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEENThe film also explores the idea of what it means to have a best friend and the ups and downs of the relationship between Nadine and Krista (Haley Lu Richardson).

Steinfeld: One thing that is so beautiful about their friendship is that it has literally 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’s 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 them and they will pick up—that is hard to find, and when you do, it’s so special. 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.

The whole cast is so varied and excellent, including Kyra Sedgwick as Nadine’s mom, Hayden Szeto as another of Nadine’s romantic interests, and Blake Jenner, who plays your brother.

Steinfeld: I’m proud to be part of a generation with so many talented actors. Blake was awesome; 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. Blake was so giving and present and so amazing to work with.

screen-shot-2016-07-18-at-3-15-53-pmAnd how was it working with Woody Harrelson as Nadine’s teacher?

Steinfeld: It was so much fun. I’ll always remember working with him—he’s just amazing. One thing I loved was we developed so much banter on our own, personally, that it came through on screen. Kelly would let the camera roll forever as we went off on tangents that were either absolutely amazing and funny and we’d be trying not to laugh, or it’d be completely horrible and we’d try to bring it back home and it wasn’t going anywhere.

In recent years your singing career has become almost as big as your acting career. What different things do you get from the two disciplines?

Steinfeld: 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 show a terrific range of emotions in the “Rock Bottom” video.

Steinfeld: That is one of my favorites. 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 also 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 I wanted to do, and she was on the same page. So making that was really awesome.

hailee-steinfeld-the-edge-of-seventeen-image-1-600x401With films and music, you have so much going on all the time now. What do you do to step back and get away from it all?

Steinfeld: I’ve learned to really enjoy doing absolutely nothing; moments where I’m at home and I don’t leave my bedroom, and I’m just in there listening to music, watching TV, on the phone with friends. Being home is Recharge Central to me. Taking time for myself, really. Just turning off.

You haven’t done a ton of teenage films, but are you ready to sort of “graduate” from that stage and move on?

Steinfeld: I hope I’m not 25 and playing 15, but I’ve had this conversation with my parents that, “I’m growing up, I’m getting older, I don’t want to be stuck in this teenage thing.” But this film is so not that. Any time I have the honor of playing a role as complex as this one, regardless of the age, I’ll do whatever I can to do it. But I’m turning 20, and I’m very excited to explore what kinds of roles come with that.

What do you hope kids will take away from film?

Steinfeld: I hope kids and people will watch this movie and feel like, “I’m not alone.” I hope they can see themselves in this movie or somewhere in this story.

It wasn’t that long ago, but knowing what you know now as you near 20, what would you say to your younger, teenage self?

Steinfeld: 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.

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“While all the other arts were born naked, [film], the youngest, has been born fully-clothed. It can say everything before it has anything to say. It is as if the savage tribe, instead of finding two bars of iron to play with, had found scattering the seashore fiddles, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, grand pianos by Erhard and Bechstein, and had begun with incredible energy, but without knowing a note of music, to hammer and thump upon them all at the same time.”

--Virginia Woolf