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'Downton Abbey' Writer Praises Hailee Steinfeld's 'Liberating' Juliet Portrayal

Hailee Steinfeld Headshot - P 2013
Getty Images
Hailee Steinfeld

Julian Fellowes tells THR the actress brought a thoroughly modern approach to his retelling of the classic story. Compared to older actresses, "she has no sense of oppression."

This story first appeared in the June 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Hailee Steinfeld, 16, may be receiving the Max Mara Face of the Future Award at Women in Film's Crystal+Lucy Awards on June 12 at the Beverly Hilton, but she's more than just another pretty young face. The actress, who rocketed to an Oscar nomination as the 13-year-old star of 2010's True Grit, her first film, has half a dozen movies awaiting release, including Romeo and Juliet and Ender's Game. But what really sets her apart, say those who have been watching her sudden rise, is her essential self-confidence.

"I find her to be fearless," says WIF president Cathy Schulman. That attitude served Steinfeld well when she and 15,000 others vied to play Mattie, the heroine of Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit. "I was super prepared," recalls Steinfeld. "My vision clicked with Joel and Ethan." Joel Coen agrees: "She was unfazed by the process, going into completely foreign territory and holding her own." Unlike Kim Darby, who played Mattie as second fiddle to John Wayne's Rooster Cogburn in the 1969 original, Steinfeld's Mattie was every inch the equal of Jeff Bridges' Rooster in the remake.

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Ender's Game, the young adult sci-fi tale opening Nov. 1, called for similar grit. "I play Petra Arkanian, the only girl in the Salamander Army trying to fight off the future alien invasion," says Steinfeld. And she also zeroed in on a similar fighting spirit in William Shakespeare's Juliet in the indie production, backed in part by Swarovski Entertainment, the film division of the jewelry company. "Juliet drives her own life," says Steinfeld. "There's so much more to Juliet than being pretty."

Steinfeld realizes that some degree of glamour has to be part of any actress' career (there are no unattractive Max Mara Faces of the Future). She admits, "Walking the red carpet is fun, and you do feel very special. I love putting on makeup. I don't so much love wearing it or taking it off." But, she adds, "I think it's important for girls to feel confident that they don't need to."

Screenwriter-producer Julian Fellowes argues that self-assurance made Steinfeld the right choice to embody Juliet for a new generation. "I think what it comes down to is that Hailee, and the women who will come after Hailee, are part of the future and not the past," he says. "They don't represent liberation in the sense of many modern actresses who cannot avoid playing their protest at what used to be the woman's role. Instead, they have no sense of oppression in them. They were molded by a different world, and that can be so liberating and effective for the filmmakers who are working around them. Hailee approached Juliet like a young woman who had every right to be in love with whom she chose. She doesn't need, emotionally, to justify her disobedience to her father, as she would have done if she had played the part in the 1950s; she makes it clear in her performance that she doesn't accept his right to order her not to love Romeo."

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"You have to have courage," says Steinfeld, "but I don't think there's a day I'm not nervous." That hasn't prevented her from mounting up and moving ahead -- quite literally in the case of Romeo and Juliet: She was thrown by her horse during rehearsals but shrugged it off. "I went to the hospital," she says. "I was completely OK."

At the Crystal Awards, she'll happily take her place among past winners like Sharon Stone and Kathleen Kennedy as well as this year's other honorees, who will celebrate how far the organization has come since 1973, when it was founded by former THR publisher Tichi Wilkerson Kassel. "I'm so incredibly honored to be among these women I look up to," says Steinfeld. Betraying for a brief moment that she's still a kid, she adds, "It's just the coolest thing ever."

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The Changing Face of Shakespeare's Juliet

Theda Bara, 1916

A New York critic said Bara played her "as if the young lady had been meeting strange men on her balcony for a long time." 

Norma Shearer,  1936

Shakespeare's Juliet is 13. Shearer was 34, and Romeo Leslie Howard was 43. Director George Cukor wished he could have reshot it.

Olivia Hussey1968

Director Franco Zeffirelli had a great idea: Cast a 16-year-old as Romeo's flame. Boomer audiences swooned.

Claire Danes1996

Baz Luhrmann's MTV-style version won Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio MTV Movie Awards. "Ours is more traditional," says Steinfeld.