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“I’m an adult now and I can take on these roles that I’ve been dreaming about playing,” says Hailee Steinfeld, who just received a best actress in a musical or comedy Golden Globe nomination for her work in the teen dramedy The Edge of Seventeen, as we sit down to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. The actress, who turned 20 on Dec. 11, made her big-screen debut at 13 in Ethan and Joel Coen‘s 2010 version of True Grit — becoming the ninth-youngest best supporting actress Oscar nominee ever at 14 — and, over the years since, has kept busy making not only movies, but also music, and accumulating a sizable fan base.
(Click above to listen to this episode or here to access all of our 100+ episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Robert De Niro, Amy Schumer, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Kristen Stewart, Harvey Weinstein, Sally Field, Jerry Seinfeld, Jane Fonda, Tyler Perry, Kate Winslet, Michael Moore, Helen Mirren, J.J. Abrams, Taraji P. Henson, Warren Beatty, Kate Beckinsale, Michael Eisner, Brie Larson, RuPaul, Natalie Portman, Sting and Sheila Nevins.)
Born in Los Angeles to an interior designer mother and trainer/nutritionist father, Steinfeld caught the showbiz bug at age 8 when she saw her cousin appearing in a TV commercial and a friend performing in a school play. Her parents required her to take acting classes for a full year before allowing her to pursue representation (she says she “loved every single minute of it”), but once she did she advanced quickly (they sent headshots to 10 different agencies, two called back, one of which began representing her). She soon graduated from student-thesis graduate films to guest-starring roles on sitcoms and then to the part of stubborn Mattie Ross in True Grit, which, through several auditions over just one month, she landed over 15,000 other girls. For that film, she learned to deliver tricky dialogue, ride a horse, climb a tree and roll a cigarette — all while still studying with a tutor on the set between takes. “There was never a dull moment,” she recalls. It was like working two full-time jobs.” Her hard work was rewarded with an Oscar nom, of which, she says, “I’m still trying to find the words to describe it.”
Post-True Grit, Steinfeld was on the shortlist of top young stars. She auditioned for the part that Jennifer Lawrence eventually landed in 2011’s The Hunger Games (“I wanted that!”), and was straight-up offered — and accepted — one of the most plum Shakespearean parts in Julian Fellowes‘ 2013 film version of Romeo & Juliet. That was followed by a string of impressive performances in movies of all sorts: 2013’s musical drama Begin Again, which marked the first time the public heard her singing, and which she says “turned out to be one of my favorite movies I’ve ever worked on”; 2013’s Ender’s Game, “the first big studio movie” she’d done; 2014’s 3 Days to Kill, with Kevin Costner, which she calls “one of the best experiences of my life”; 2014’s The Homesman, under the direction of and opposite Tommy Lee Jones, with “a lot of the crew that worked on True Grit“; and, most prominently, the 2015 blockbuster Pitch Perfect 2, in which her musical ability took center stage. “I remember watching [the first Pitch Perfect in 2012] and feeling like, ‘If there’s ever another movie like this, I have to do it,’ again the music being a huge draw,” she says. The experience did not disappoint. (“That movie had more women involved than all of the other movies I’ve done put together,” she cracks.)
“Music,” Steinfeld explains, “has always been part of my plan and it’s always been something I wanted to do and it’s really always been a matter of, ‘How am I going to do this in a way that’s going to make sense?’ I had always hoped that it would happen through a movie, somehow.” She ended up covering, in a video she reluctantly posted to YouTube, one of the songs featured in Pitch Perfect 2, “Flashlight,” which was written by Sia and Sam Smith and performed on the film’s soundtrack by Jessie J., and it went viral. Soon afterwards, she was signed to Republic Records. And in November 2015, Republic put out her debut EP, Haiz — a nickname given to her by her fans — which included the catchy and semi-controversial song “Love Myself” (which allegedly is about masturbation). With friends and fans including Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber, and with a full-length album currently in the works, Steinfeld may soon be a bigger name in the world of music than she is in the world of movies, if she isn’t already — but she’s adamant that she loves both singing and acting and that they feed one another. “I don’t see myself doing one and not the other,” she emphasizes.
That’s a good thing, because her acting is reaching new heights, of late, as well. The Edge of Seventeen, which was written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig (her feature directorial debut) and produced by the legendary Oscar and Emmy winner James L. Brooks, originally was titled Besties, and Steinfeld, who was excited to be done with her teens when it first crossed her radar, initially declined to even consider it. Eventually, though, she was convinced to read it, at which point she realized what a mistake she almost had made. “I got this feeling with The Edge of Seventeen that I don’t feel I’ve had since True Grit,” she says, “and that was reading these lines and feeling like, ‘I in no way can picture anyone else doing this but me.'” Once again, thousands auditioned for the part — Nadine, a high schooler whose life is thrown into crisis when her older brother starts dating her best friend — but she got it. And she navigated the tricky tightrope of playing a character who, as the protagonist of the movie, audiences want to empathize with and root for, but whose behavior isn’t always all that likable. “When it came to walking that fine line,” she explains, “it was finding the balance of how to let people see and hear that this character really is fragile inside and somewhat broken, but on the outside she’s really good at just pretending.”
Steinfeld calls Edge of Seventeen “a movie that I’m so incredibly proud of and fell in love with,” adding, “To have brought this character to life was really an honor.” After the Golden Globes, she will resume work on her debut album (“There’s only one of those, so I’m making sure it’s perfect, and I can’t wait to release that”), will go into production on Pitch Perfect 3 and will continue to dream big. “Directing is something I want to do and it’s something I’ve been thinking about,” she volunteers. Based on how far she’s come over the last six years, it wouldn’t surprise many if she were doing just that six years from now.
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