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.
Emma Stone, Natalie Portman, Michelle Williams and More Are the Best Performances of the Year
Stone wears Chloé tunic; Wolford leggings; her own rings. Beauty: Covergirl. Affleck wears Louis Vuitton jacket and shirt.
Portman wears Dior dress; Mish New York earrings. Beauty: Dior. Negga wears Carolina Herrera dress; Lalaounis earrings. Beauty: Laura Mercier.
Adams wears Prada shirt; Djula earrings. Beauty: Giorgio Armani. McConaughey wears Burberry shirt.
Driver wears AG T-shirt. Mortensen wears Alternative Apparel henley.
Williams wears Louis Vuitton dress and bodysuit. Beauty: Nars. Edgerton wears Burberry T-shirt; Rolex watch.
Kidman wears Chanel dress; Tiffany & Co. earrings. Beauty: Chanel. Ali wears Simon Miller T-shirt.
La La Land
“My real name is Emily Stone, but when I started acting, that name was already taken by another actress, so I had to come up with a different one. For a 16-year-old, picking a new name is an interesting prospect, and back then I said, ‘I’m now going to be Riley Stone!’ So, for about six months I was called Riley. I landed a guest spot on Malcolm in the Middle, and one day they were calling, ‘Riley! Riley! Riley! We need you on set, Riley!’ and I had no idea who they were talking to. At that moment, I realized that I just couldn’t be Riley. So I became Emma. But I miss Emily. I would love to get her back.”
Sonia Rykiel sweater; Commando briefs.
“I was attracted to Gold because it reminded me of my dad. He loved shady deals. He’d much rather do a shady deal with fun people than a good deal with a bunch of straight-asses. He invested in diamond mines in Ecuador, and there were no fucking diamonds there. It was a scam, but he loved that. That’s the spirit of my character, Kenny Wells. There’s a little poem we have in the movie—‘Bird With No Feet Sleeps in the Wind.’ And that’s it: If Kenny, or my dad, gets the money or not, does it really matter? Would he change? No. Not that guy. These are people who are going to con, finagle, and boot-scoot their way in the side door. They never had the front-door entrance to the American Dream.”
AG jacket; Current/Elliott T-shirt; Levi’s jeans; John Hardy bracelet (right); Ann Demeulemeester boots.
Arrival and Nocturnal Animals
“Tom Ford became my muse on Nocturnal Animals. My character, Susan, was very personal to Tom, and so I based my interpretation on him. Tom would ask on set, ‘Why is Amy using her hands like that?’ And I said, ‘I’m copying you, Tom!’ I used him. I used him up.”
Gucci shirt; Djula earrings.
“Playing Jackie Kennedy is scary. I was nervous at first, and I started by doing a lot of research. The biographies on her are all a little bit trashy, but the transcripts of her interviews with the historian Arthur Schlesinger were really helpful. He taped everything, and you can hear Jackie’s voice. Her intellect and her wit and what she’s bitter about are immediately apparent. At the same time, I was going to costume fittings and makeup tests. When I put on the Jackie wig, the physical and emotional sides came together. The hair itself is so iconic that once you have it right, you can start to see Jackie. I don’t really look like her, but I felt like I was in her skin.”
Paterson and Silence
“Silence is the story of two Jesuit priests on a journey from Macao to Japan in search of their mentor, a priest who may have renounced his faith. When Martin Scorsese asked me to come to his house to talk about the movie, I already knew that for 28 years it had been his passion project. We talked about Silence, but when Scorsese starts a sentence, ‘When we were shooting Raging Bull…’ you can’t help but say, ‘Yeah, okay, tell me everything.’ So we talked for a long time, and finally he asked me if I would be willing to lose weight for the role. It made sense: How can you play a 17th-century persecuted priest while eating great meals? So I lost around 51 pounds. The weight loss was only bad in that, you know, I’d try to figure out how to play a scene and I had no ideas, because I was so damn hungry. Then I’d have a scoop of peanut butter and suddenly everything turned on!”
Dior Homme jacket; Rag & Bone Standard Issue T-shirt and jeans; Rolex watch. On model: Wolford stockings.
Hell or High Water
What was your first audition? My parents were both actors. I had just graduated from college, and my father had gone in for an audition for Gilmore Girls. He told the casting directors, “My son is back in town. Will you have him in for a reading?” So it was nepotism at its best. I can’t remember the role—maybe a boyfriend to someone? I got my start playing boyfriends, husbands-to-be, and princes.
In Hell or High Water you play a kind of modern Western antihero. You don’t speak much. When I read the script, the image that came to mind was of a man on a porch squinting through harsh sunlight into the distance, but not talking. I have a lot of similar memories of my father, where we are sitting next to each other and not saying much. Westerns have a stoic silence I’ve always appreciated. These days, we have so many distractions. I have minor ADD, so if anything grabs me and keeps me from petting my dog or collaging or just daydreaming, I immediately pay attention.
Brunello Cucinelli sweater; Sandro trousers; Loewe shoes.
Michael Kors henley. Model wears Araks robe; Stella McCartney Lingerie bra; Fifi Chachnil briefs; Falke stockings; Gianvito Rossi shoes.
“When I auditioned for the part of Mildred Loving, I had to sort of disappear into her character. Usually, I don’t create a costume for an audition, but this time I wore a summer dress. I knew that coming in the door looking like this woman would have an impact. A year later, I learned I got the part. At the premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, I walked up the steps of the Palais in full makeup, and I walked down the steps with mascara dripping. It was such an emotional experience. All I could think was that I needed to blow my nose before it dripped all over my frock.”
Prada top and skirt; Fabiana Filippi top (underneath).
“I’m a pretty good actress. You could say that, right? Well, to play Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who figured out a way to get NASA astronauts into space, I had to be believable as a math expert—and I failed math in college. Precalculus looked like Chinese to me. Even with two tutors, I still failed. So God has an incredible sense of humor, because now I am playing a mathematician! Even on set, they would have a professor there to try and teach me. I said, ‘Show me what I have to write and I’ll memorize it, because I’m not gonna get it.’ Take that, math! I won: I became an actress.”
Monse shirt; La Perla bra; Forevermark by Natalie K earrings; Jimmy Choo shoes.
Rules Don’t Apply
“I never knew Howard Hughes, so I’m able to take liberties, to allow my imagination to go to work. I like to quote Henry Ford, who said, ‘History is bunk.’ I like to quote Winston Churchill, who said, ‘History will be kind to me, because I intend to write it myself.’ And, in Rules Don’t Apply, I quote Mr. Hughes himself. He said, ‘Never check an interesting fact.’ ”
Jeffrey Rüdes sweater.
Manchester by the Sea
“I used to love movies that made me cry, and now all movies seem to make me cry. I don’t like that so much. I have my own things to cry about. I remember being young and sitting on the floor in my father’s apartment watching The Elephant Man on his black and white TV. When the Elephant Man did his speech—‘I am not an animal’—I started sobbing. That’s a tearjerker. That film made a superstrong impression on me. It set a certain standard in my mind of what was possible.”
Louis Vuitton pants; Falke socks. On model: Alexander Wang sweater.
A Monster Calls and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
“Recently, I seem to be doing a lot of dying onscreen. Lizzie, my character in A Monster Calls, has cancer, and I became obsessed with the way someone’s voice changes as their body deteriorates, and how they change the way they hold their body. Cancer patients would tell me things like, ‘You become obsessed with painting your nails, because your body is out of control.’ It became harder and harder to play Lizzie. I don’t think I’m going to die anymore.”
Giorgio Armani dress; Djula earrings; Tacori ring.
Allied, It’s Only the End of the World, and Assassin’s Creed
“It might sound weird, but I always cry at the end of Step Brothers. I’ve seen the movie 10 times, and it still touches me at the end, when Will Ferrell sings. You don’t expect to cry watching that type of comedy, but I always do.”
Burberry trenchcoat; Loro Piana sweater; Chopard earrings.
Hell or High Water
“I remember doing an interview years ago and being asked if I was one of those actors who takes the part home with me. I answered, ‘No. Not really.’ My wife happened to be in the room, and she started to laugh. Apparently, I had been playing a terrible person—a killer or someone who buries people alive or something—and she definitely noticed. I wasn’t fun to live with.”
Boss coat; A.P.C. jeans; the Frye Company boots.
“When I was cast in Slumdog Millionaire I was 17. At our first major screening, I walked the red carpet in my school shoes and a terrible suit I found on the high street, in London, with my mum. My costar, Freida Pinto, was very beautiful, very glamorous, and they said, ‘We can’t have this kid walking the red carpet with her! He’s spoiling the whole picture!’ So they gave me a new suit and fixed me up. It was a bit like Pretty Woman.”
Hermès sweater; Frame Denim jeans.
The Edge of Seventeen
Where was your first kiss? My first kiss was actually onscreen. I was in a graduate-thesis film called She’s a Fox, and I had to kiss two guys in it. I think I was 12. I was very nervous. One of the guys was shorter than me, and he had to stand on an apple box… Awkward! He told me, “I’m going to pretend I’m kissing my mom!” I was pretty sure that’s not the thing you say before you kiss a girl, so I looked at him and said, “Okay, I’m going to pretend I’m kissing my dog!”
Where was your first real-life kiss, then? At my house, by my front door. Which kind of sucks, because every time I walk through my front door I think about it. The kiss was a little messy, and I looked at the guy and said, “No, no, you can do better.” That’s not what you’re supposed to say, but I said it anyway.
Max Mara bralette; DKNY pants; Cartier earrings; Jimmy Choo shoes.
Max Mara bralette; DKNY pants; Cartier earrings.
The Witch and Split
You say you don’t like watching horror films—so what’s it like for you to act in them? I’m a real scaredy-cat. I’m not good at being frightened. But I do like acting in a horror movie, because I get to feel so intensely. You put yourself in these extreme emotional situations, and it wears you out in a great way. Afterward, I go home and get a good night’s sleep. The work chills me out: I’m a lot more stable since I’ve been in scary movies.
What frightens you? Revolving doors. I worry they’ll cut me in half. Strangers will see me tense up and hold my hand as I’m going through them. I’m constantly worried that I’m not going to make it through the door alive.
Gucci jacket, shirt, and pants.
Midnight Special, Elvis & Nixon, and Nocturnal Animals
“Doing a sex scene is just like having sex, except without any of the pleasure. The horror, fear, anxiety, sadness, and loneliness of sex is all there to enjoy—but none of the happiness.”
Saint Laurent jacket, shirt, and tie; Tiffany & Co. watch.
Hacksaw Ridge and Silence
“The majority of my process in playing a priest in Silence was praying. I’d never really prayed before, and I developed a relationship with a power greater than myself—call it God, call it love, call it what you will. It became very natural to me, and I realized that we’re all praying all the time. There’s that human impulse to worship and to long for a connection to the divine. Unfortunately, in our culture we are driven to worship things that are false and empty. I had a year of exploring this idea of what we are truly longing for and how we actually go to the places that can feed that longing. We all get glimpses of eternity every day. It’s just a question of whether we’re looking up from our iPhones long enough to notice.”
Alexander McQueen jacket and pants; A.P.C. shirt.
Maggie’s Plan and 20th Century Women
What is your karaoke song? It’s the nerdiest one ever: “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” by Billy Joel. It’s one of those songs that if you were a certain kind of teenage girl—me!—you thought knowing all the words would help you get a boyfriend. And then, about 30 seconds too late, you realize that it won’t. But it remains my song. I had the same thought about “Modern Major General,” by Gilbert and Sullivan. I thought guys were looking for a girl who could memorize a lot of names, but they didn’t care about that. They just cared about getting a hand job or something.
Do you have a cinematic crush? I would have to say Melanie Griffith in Working Girl—the first time she meets Harrison Ford at the bar. She’s all done up and she tells him, “I’ve got a head for business and a bod for sin.”And young Harrison Ford…what a dreamboat! But it’s her I truly love. She’s so compelling and funny. She’s sexy without being plastic. I think a lot of people miss seeing women that way.
Proenza Schouler dress; Guidi boots.
Were you a dramatic child? Yes, I used to stand in front of the mirror and try to make myself cry. I would also try different accents. I was living in an imaginary world, usually with Michael Jackson. He was going to rescue me! I used to draw pictures of me and Michael getting married, and I would send them to his fan club. I would imagine Michael waiting for me at the gate of my school, eager to whisk me away to a happier world.
Why Michael Jackson? I imagined myself as a Peter Pan kind of character, and Michael represented that existence. He was my guy.
Miu Miu coat, sweater, shorts, and shoes.
Manchester by the Sea
“As a little kid, my first love was IMDB [the data bank for movies and television]. I would memorize the birthdays of child actors. I really wanted to be an actor, and I related to the kids in the industry. But now that I think about it, memorizing their birthdays is not cute at all—it’s a little serial killer–ish.”
Prada sweater; Brooks Brothers boxers.
What was your favorite birthday? When I turned 40, my husband, Keith [Urban], drove me up to the top of this small hill in Australia and sat me down. He had put together this huge fireworks display. It was just for the two of us! It was sexy.
What is your pet peeve? When people say they will do something and they don’t. And I know it’s terribly demanding, but I don’t like it when my husband doesn’t answer his phone. I have to keep calling and calling, and I get anxious. Does that make me high-maintenance?
What movie has made you cry? Last year I saw Room, and I was absolutely devastated by it. I’m raw as I get older. I have to be careful what I let in.
Where was your first kiss? This is crazy: We were playing hooky from school. I had my first kiss while watching The Shining. Is that not weird? And we did a few things other than kiss too! I didn’t see a lot of the movie.
Chanel sweater, dress, shorts, and shoes; Bulgari earrings.