Hailee Steinfeld is an old soul. The actress is only 20 years old, but she has already worked alongside actors like Jeff Bridges and Mark Ruffalo. She's also a fan of movies from the '70s, thanks to mentors like Catherine Keener and her mother, and she was nominated for an Academy Award for her breakout role in True Grit, the 2010 film directed by the Coen brothers, who cast Steinfeld for the part when she was only 13 years old. She has also been the face of Miu Miu, starred in fan-favorite films like Pitch Perfect 2, and launched a pop music career with hits like "Love Myself."
It goes without saying, but she's not your average teenager. So when a film titled "Besties" hit her agent's desk, she backed away. "I remember hearing about this and feeling like oh God, I’m going to be 19, I’m going to be 20 soon. I don’t want to backpedal in any way. I don’t want to do a teen movie," she says. "When I gave it the time of day and read the script, it changed my life." The film was later titled The Edge of Seventeen, and Steinfeld ultimately earned a Golden Globe nomination for her role in 2016. "It’s a movie about what being a teenager really feels like today," she explains.
Here, Steinfeld opens up about what it's like to grow up in the spotlight, the actors she admires most, and more:
What was the first movie you auditioned for?
Oh my gosh. Well, the first movie I auditioned for and got was True Grit. The first movie I ever auditioned for? I should remember this, but I don’t. There were a lot.
How old were you when you started trying to act professionally?
I was eight years old when I started taking acting classes, when I started studying acting. Um, I got an agent at around nine. That was a print agent, actually. I worked print-wise for a year before I started. I think I got my first job when I was ten or 11.
What was it?
My first acting job was a guest-starring role in a sitcom called Back to You. I played a weather girl. I don’t even know that I had a name. I was the weather girl. Kelsey Grammer, Patricia Heaton. It was a fun one.
When you were a kid and you were auditioning, did you have an audition outfit?
No, but I had a lucky flannel that I still have. It’s so funny because that was a thing for a while, that I would always either take with me or wear. And I remember I had one audition where the description of the character was, like, full-on Goth girl, heavy makeup, all black, black nails, everything. And, I was interested in the part and I went to my mom and I was like, you’ve got to help me with this. And it was the first time I, like, had makeup on. And I remember looking at myself in the mirror and I did not like what I saw. I didn’t even recognize myself. And it completely affected my performance. And I them remember when I got called in for True Grit, I initially was like, this feels like the jeans and a flannel type vibe because she rides horses and she’s got two braids and, like, whatever. And I was like, I can do this without the lucky flannel. My mom sewed a burlap skirt the night before. I got one of her old shirts. I don’t even know where it was from, but it looks like it’s from a thrift store. And I wore that and did the audition. Confidently, without the lucky flannel. And I got it.
So where is the lucky flannel now?
It’s in my closet. It’s all ripped and torn. It’s time for a new one. But I’m never going to let it go.
And had you gotten a part wearing it? Is that why it became the lucky flannel?
You know what? I guess I got the first one when I didn’t wear it, so I need to reconsider this lucky flannel now that I think about it. I don’t know, I think there was just an attachment, a comfort level that that was there. It just felt right. I don’t know what it was about it.
And for True Grit, how did that come about?
So they were doing, like a nationwide search for Maddie Ross in True Grit. And my mom actually got a call from her cousin, who has a daughter who is a couple of years younger than me. She said I saw this breakdown, my daughter seems a little too young, but I wanted to pass along the information in case this was something that you and Hailee were interested in. And so we looked into it. The slides had been posted online. And it was right before a Christmas break, so right before everyone was about to go to the office. And I got the slides online and I started coaching on them, hoping that when everybody would come back from break, I would get an audition. And if that wasn’t the case, I was ready to put myself on tape.
So I ended up getting an audition. I went in three times, and within a week I found myself on set with the Cohen Brothers.
Oh my god. Were you nervous?
Yes. I was nervous, but I was also 13 and just super, super anxious and excited, and just bouncing off the walls.
And did you get intimidated by Jeff Bridges, who you had to sort of be sassy around 24/7?
You know, if I had to make that movie right now, I would be incredibly intimidated. He honestly took me by the hand and just showed me the way entirely.
And then after that what were The Oscars like? Because you had quite a whirlwind.
Yes. So the craziest part about the whole experience was it all happened in one year. We shot the movie, it came out, we ran the awards circuit. And I’ll never forget getting ready for the Oscars I was, like, shaking. I was just shaking the whole time I was sitting in the chair getting ready. My makeup artist, Steven Solito, who was working with me at the time, he went to put mascara on me, and for whatever reason he had already done it. And I was like, oh my god, I really hope it’s waterproof. For whatever reason, I really hope it’s waterproof. And he had my back. He got me with the waterproof mascara. But walking that massive carpet was just absolutely surreal.
And everybody thought you were older than you were too, because you were so tall.
Yes. That was a thing for a very long time. I was a lot taller than my age I guess.
You were taller than people even for older age.
Sure, sure. Yeah, that was something I struggled with for a while in terms of work. Because I was too young to play what people wanted me to play, legally and all of that business. But finally I am an adult and I can work.
This year you starred in Edge of Seventeen. How did that come about?
So The Edge of Seventeen came to me when it was formerly called Besties. And I remember hearing about this and feeling like oh God, I’m going to be 19, I’m going to be 20 soon. I don’t want to backpedal in any way. I don’t want to do a teen movie. And I am so guilty of having judged the book by its cover. Because I remember the first time reading it, I in no way felt like this was a teenage movie or a high school movie. It’s a movie about what being a teenager really feels like today. And it was sort of being talked about between my agents. When I gave it the time of day and read the script, it changed my life.
And did it take a long time to get it going or did it start very soon after you said yes?
I had three auditions. And each audition lasted about an hour-and-a-half to two hours. And in ways it was like the best thing ever where it never really felt like an audition; it was more of a conversation. Sometimes you walk out and you feel like regardless, that was really cool. And with this, it was sort of like oh my god - are they going to call me back for another, like, five hours? This is insane. And the best part about the audition process, this was the first time that this had ever happened to me – they told me right there in the room that I got the job. Which was crazy because, I mean, it’s never happened. Normally it’s, like, on the way home if you’re lucky. If not, weeks later.
Did you go to regular high school?
I did not. I didn’t have a traditional high school experience. I started homeschooling in the middle of sixth grade. And in a way I felt like that worked towards my benefit for this movie because I really sort of understood that feeling of isolation and alienation when you’re placed in the middle of a high school and you don’t know where to look or where to go or who to try and be friends with. I didn’t know how that worked. And so that helped me in a way.
So here are some fun questions. What movie makes you cry?
Love Story? You’re too young for Love Story.
No. Oh my god, that’s one of my favorites. I can’t – I get very emotional when I watch that movie.
Did your mother show it to you? That’s the movie from the seventies.
Uh, yes, yes. That was from my mama.
Did you try and dress like Ali MacGraw after seeing the movie, as everyone in the world did?
Honestly, the middle part straight hair was my thing for a while. And every time I do that I’m like, “Oh hey, Ali McGraw. What’s up?”
And you could get a beanie. You could get the knit cap. What’s your favorite love scene in a movie?
Well, the first that came to mind – and it wasn’t even the love scene of the movie – but Franco Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet. Every scene is a love scene in that movie. And it’s so fresh and innocent and everything is so tastefully done. That would probably be one of my favorites.
So I am getting the feeling that your parents showed you a lot of films from the seventies and sixties.
Right? Well, that one I get to – I mean, I get to sort of blame on the remake that I did.
So you watched a lot of movies from the past to inform the present.
I did, yeah. When I finished a movie I did called Begin Again with Mark Ruffalo and Catherine Keener, they would have conversations constantly about old plays and old movies and actors that I had heard of and, and sort of knew about but didn’t know who they were, didn’t know what it was that they were talking about. And I would always say to them – because we would be in between takes, it would be the three of us and they would be in these, like, in-depth conversations about these movies. And I would say, like, you guys have to write a list of movies that I can go and watch so that I know what you’re talking about. I want to be included in these conversations. And as a wrap gift they both gave me maybe close to 50 movies of their own and they went out and bought some, that I still haven’t even gotten through.
And what was your favorite of those films?
Who is your cinematic crush?
Oh, boy. I have a lot. Wow. I recently re-watched An Officer and a Gentlemen with Richard Gere. And that is, like, wooh. That movie, him in that movie is muy bueno.
He’s a great crush.
Yes. Uh, Leonardo in Romeo and Juliet. Him and Johnny Depp in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands. What else? I don’t know. I could go on.
Do you have a girl crush?
Any particular movie?
Oh my god. I don’t even know that I could pick. But I did just watch Hello My Name is Doris. And I’m like, oh my god, I’m in love with that person. She is so awesome. She is so amazing. I had the honor of meeting her lately, and that definitely changed my world.
She is adorable in Norma Rae. Have you seen Norma Rae?
Because your mom showed you everything from the seventies.