How Hailee Steinfeld Humanized the 'Transformers' Franchise With 'Bumblebee'

The star has already played an animated superhero in ‘Into the Spider-Verse,’ and now has made an action film that has her interested in exploring the comic book world in live-action.
Will McCoy

To lift a slogan from Lexus, Hailee Steinfeld is having a “December to remember.”

The actor-singer already has a number one movie at the box office, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The success of Spider-Verse has fast-tracked a sequel and a spinoff that prominently feature Steinfeld’s Gwen Stacy/Spider-Gwen character. Now, she’s celebrating the imminent release of her second critically acclaimed film of the month, Bumblebee. To cap it all off, Steinfeld just released her latest single, “Back to Life,” which you can hear during the closing credits of Bumblebee and on its accompanying soundtrack.

As the first Transformers film to be almost universally praised by critics, Bumblebee is already on pace to be more than just an anthology spinoff/origin story. The film benefits from the “less is more” approach, whether it’s the G1 Transformers designs or 90 percent of the run time featuring just three Transformers. This approach provides the action scenes with some much-welcomed clarity, as well as more real estate for the human story to develop properly, including the movie’s foundational relationship between Charlie Watson (Steinfeld) and Bumblebee. While the film is led by the 22-year-old Oscar nominee, Steinfeld is joined by a small yet integral cast of supporting characters, a rarity for the franchise.

Steinfeld spoke with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss the ins and outs of Bumblebee and how she, along with director Travis Knight, crafted a human, coming-of-age story that happens to have Transformers in it. Steinfeld also talks about the commonalities that Charlie Watson shares with her most signature characters, including Nadine Franklin from The Edge of Seventeen, and how Bumblebee recruited more of The Edge of Seventeen brain trust to contribute late in the process.

Because you’re balancing music and acting careers, do you find yourself deliberating over each acting choice for a lot longer since each career decision affects the other?

Yes, but I was that same way before music came into play as much as it is now. If I could make a hundred films in a year, I would just because I don’t want to spend my time doing anything else. Obviously, it comes down to the role, the project, the script, the director and the cast. Films also take years to develop. So, somehow, my schedule has worked out to where I’m able to do both. I like to think that I’m selective when it comes to that because I just want to make sure that everything I’m doing matters and means something to me.

What was it about Charlie Watson that led you to commit to Bumblebee?

Being a part of a franchise that is so huge was very exciting to me, but reading the script and learning what kind of story they wanted to make, how different it is to the rest of the franchise, that excited me even more. The script had this young girl who’s completely normal, has no special powers, but she can take on the world without that. She’s an honest portrayal of a young girl growing up and feeling misunderstood.

With Bumblebee and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, your imagination played a key role in both performances. You performed your scenes with Bumblebee by yourself, as was the case with your voice performance as Gwen Stacy. Do you think your experience as a recording artist helped prepare you for these roles since you’re often by yourself in a vocal booth?

In ways, yes. I love when I’m able to feel like everything I do comes full circle in that way. When I’m alone in a booth, recording a song, it’s all about a feeling, and that carries through –– for animation or acting alongside thin air. It’s also about creating enough backstory, and that’s what really came into play when I was doing Bumblebee. I had multiple conversations with director Travis Knight and the writers of the script, making sure that this relationship that Charlie had with Bumblebee felt real and authentic. We created enough backstory, and I pulled from enough personal experience that really came into play when filming those scenes.

When you’re knowingly acting in a heightened world with giant robots, is there a tendency to lean into certain emotions a bit more than you would on something like The Edge of Seventeen?

Not necessarily. Before making this film, I definitely had all of these second guesses and concerns about how am I going to do this and not go crazy because I’m literally just talking to myself. But, yeah, there are those ideas: “Am I overdoing this? Am I overacting?” I had great people around me to reel it in if that was ever the case.

What personal touches did you add to Charlie Watson, be it a mannerism or piece of wardrobe, that weren’t scripted?

It was scripted so beautifully in terms of who she was and what she looked like, but finding her look was particularly important for me. I didn’t want her to look any less cool than, say, “the cool kid” or feel any less interesting just because she was so-called “different.” Creating a wardrobe that had a darker color palette than everyone else really represents her, her moods and her personality. Finding the hair and makeup was a big deal; I actually wear a wig in the movie. That was a process that took quite a while to get right. On my vision board of sorts, I had Joan Jett and Debbie Harry. That’s sort of what I wanted to emulate as far as her hair and look.

I pride myself on spotting wigs, but even I couldn’t tell that you were wearing a wig. 

Thank you! It’s funny because I thought there would be a lot more people pointing that out, but thankfully, there hasn’t been. So, that’s a good thing.

The characters of Mattie Ross (True Grit), Nadine Franklin (The Edge of Seventeen) and Charlie Watson have similar throughlines as they’re all grieving the loss of their father. However, each character, as well as performance, explores paternal loss in a way that’s unique from the other. In regard to Charlie, were you hesitant to play a grieving daughter again, and out of curiosity, do these type of roles affect your relationship with your own family?

They definitely do have that throughline, but like you mentioned, I do think they deal with the same situation very differently. In this case, there was a sense of, "What can I do to play this role differently than I have previous roles that have dealt with this same loss?” That was a conversation I had with Travis Knight. Kelly Fremon Craig, who I worked with on The Edge of Seventeen, she actually contributed to the script late in the process. Christina Hodson had this beautiful script already written where this character lost her dad and didn’t have a great relationship with her brother. So, there were parallels to the story of The Edge of Seventeen when Kelly had come on to contribute. I was able to talk to her, as well as Travis, about adding things here and there that would make it feel at least creatively different for me. A lot of that work wasn’t necessarily on the page, but more so onscreen.

In terms of it affecting my relationship with my own family, it only makes me appreciate them more. I’ve spent quite some time playing these young girls who feel like they’re misunderstood and unseen by their own family. I’m thankful — and lucky — to say that it’s not the case for me. The only way it affects me and my relationship with my family is positively.

Your first acting credit was in 2007 when you were just 10 years old. Eleven years later, are you still discovering news aspects of your acting ability? Are there certain scenes or emotions that no longer intimidate you just because of the experience you now have?

Absolutely. I remember I would go through scripts and circle the page for certain scenes. Or, when I would get a shooting schedule for a film, I would immediately look to see when those certain scenes were being filmed. In my head, I had built them all up as the most emotional scene and would say, “How am I gonna get through that ... I really gotta prepare for it.” Now, given my experience and confidence in myself, I’m able to do the work as a whole and put my time in, enough to where I know I’ve got a hold on it. Then, I sort of forget about everything and take it as it comes. I never used to be able to do that.

Which scenes in Bumblebee surprised you the most in retrospect?

There were quite a few physical scenes. I didn’t necessarily think I could climb a crane 150 feet up in the air and not come down sobbing [laughs]. One of the important scenes to me is the scene where Charlie first meets Bumblebee in the garage. That was a scene that meant so much to me, and I think I was most intimidated by that one. I knew that if that scene didn’t work, we didn’t have a movie. So, that was the one I was most afraid of but am now most proud of.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about The Edge of Seventeen. What was your reaction to the TV show news since it’s not every day that a coming-of-age indie gets adapted into a TV show? For people hoping to see another collaboration between you and Kelly Fremon Craig, is there a dialogue happening at the very least?

I don’t necessarily know many of the details, but I think it’s so incredible that I was able to be a part of a story that will further be told in some manner. That’s very exciting and I can’t wait to see it. Kelly is one of my favorite collaborators, and I recently saw her at the Bumblebee premiere in L.A. We have yet to properly catch up, but I would love to work with her again.

Most franchise films require a multi-film commitment if all goes well. Have you already agreed to play Charlie Watson a few more times?

The thing is we’ve made this film for the fans, and if the fans love it and want to see more, that’s when we go back to work.

Because Hollywood is a superhero-driven marketplace right now, is that the type of role you’d like to try someday (in live-action)?

Absolutely! I got a little taste of it in the animation world with Gwen Stacy and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, but I would love to explore it in live-action.

Bumblebee screenwriter Christina Hodson is currently writing a Batgirl script. I’m just throwing it out there …

Hey! Hey! There we go … [Laughs]

Bumblebee makes some interesting points about femininity since Charlie works on cars, wears dark clothing and listens to English rock/punk rock bands. Charlie’s mom (Pamela Adlon) gifted her a flowery helmet while her stepfather (Stephen Schneider) gave her a book that encouraged her to smile, which is interesting when you consider what Brie Larson went through recently. Are you hoping to convey that femininity shouldn’t be defined by others?

Yes, I think this young female has a different way of expressing herself. She’s into what she’s into, and she’s not ashamed of it. She lives her life completely unapologetically as who she is. She isn’t afraid to admit that she’s struggling, lost or confused. In that scene where her mom hands her the helmet, it’s that sort of notion of “I would’ve been into this a couple years ago, but it’s just not who I am anymore.” And that’s not who you have to be. Just because you’re a female, it doesn’t mean you have to be into the pink, flowery helmet. You can have whatever kind or color you want.

I’m sure you’ve noticed how well musicals and musical dramas are doing right now, be it La La LandBohemian Rhapsody, A Star Is Born or The Greatest Showman. In fact, it was recently reported that you have a Netflix project called Idol that apparently fits those genres. While you’ve already made two Pitch Perfect movies, have you been champing at the bit to combine both your worlds again since the audience clearly has an appetite for it?

I would love to explore that one day. Obviously, it has to be perfect and the right timing with everything. I think it might take some time to get that right, but when I get to do both, that’s dreamworld.

You’ve had so much success at such a young age and seem to have avoided the various traps that sometimes ensnare young artists in Hollywood. Whom do you credit for this?

To be honest, my family. They’re my full support system, and they’ve sacrificed so much for me to be able to do what I love. They continue to love and support me, and they want to be a part of what I do. I wouldn’t be here without them.

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Bumblebee is in theaters Friday.