Why Haley Lu Richardson Referenced Hailee Steinfeld's 'Edge of Seventeen' Role to Prepare for 'Unpregnant'

Unpregnant Haley Lu Richardson
Courtesy of Warner Media

The actor also looks back at her time on 'Split' and shares what her former co-star taught her: "I literally would YouTube scenes of Hailee."

After a string of acclaimed performances in Five Feet Apart, Support the Girls and Columbus, Haley Lu Richardson has solidified herself as one of Hollywood’s most talented up-and-coming actors. In her latest movie, Unpregnant, Richardson plays Veronica, a 17-year-old high school student whose world is turned upside down by a positive pregnancy test. Unpregnant was Richardson’s toughest challenge yet since she had to perform sensitive material involving teen pregnancy and reproductive rights within a road trip comedy. In order to thread the needle between two vastly different tones, Richardson referenced the performance that her friend and former co-star, Hailee Steinfeld, delivered in Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen. Richardson also starred in Edge, as Steinfeld’s character’s best friend.

“I found myself thinking about Hailee and her performance in The Edge of Seventeen,” Richardson tells The Hollywood Reporter. “She did a really similar thing with the tone of Edge of Seventeen, only she’s dealing with these really real things like the loss of her dad, depression and not fitting in in the world. She just did it so seamlessly, and I was like, ‘How the frick did she do that?’ When I was doing Unpregnant, I literally would YouTube scenes of Hailee in Edge of Seventeen… and get inspiration from her with the tone and how to balance that as an actor.  I actually called Hailee and had a really nice Facetime conversation with her while doing Unpregnant because I was watching all of these YouTube videos of her in Edge of Seventeen.”

Since reproductive rights have been debated for many decades, Richardson knew that her presence in this film was going to upset a lot of people who don’t believe in a woman’s right to choose. But, after careful consideration, she knew that it was a challenge worth accepting.

“I don’t know if hesitation is the right word, or nerves, but I was unsure if a topic like this could work within this teen movie, road trip, chaotic comedy tone. Obviously, it is sensitive, it is important and it is an extremely personal and real thing,” Richardson explains. “I was like, ‘I’m going to be doing this movie, and if I do it, then that’s opening myself up as a person to people hating me just because I’m in this movie.’ In general, I really don’t like hate in the world… I really try to just be understanding of people that are different than me. So it was definitely something that I put thought into, and before I said yes to this movie, I really wanted to figure out if it was something that I wholeheartedly thought that I could help in making it work. I wanted to help balance the tones and help reach the end goal of wanting the truth to come through in this wild movie. So I guess I was just up for the challenge, and I decided to do it.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Richardson also reflects on being in awe of James McAvoy’s performance on the set of Split and why Support the Girls was a much-needed reprieve from heavier roles.

Out of curiosity, is Haley Lu a SAG thing, or a Mary Jo-type thing?

It’s kind of like a Mary Jo thing. Lu, technically, is my middle name; I guess I didn’t have to say technically because it is my middle name. (Laughs.) But, growing up, a lot of my family and friends — and now my agents and people in this industry — just call me Haley Lu. I think it’s kind of fun.

Do some people try to be cool and opt for HL? 

Oh yes! That is actually an official nickname of mine. On the very first movie I ever did, the director named me HL, and then everybody called me that. Somehow, on almost every movie I do, there’s a group of people calling me HL.

Well, thanks to your new movie, Kelly Clarkson has been stuck in my head for a few days. I can’t believe that song [“Since U Been Gone”] is 16 years old now.

That song’s 16 years old?! Oh my. So that song literally would’ve come out when the characters in Unpregnant were one. (Laughs.)

Crazy, right?

That is crazy. So it’s like full-on vintage to them. Wow. (Laughs.)

Was this earworm of a song stuck in your head as well throughout shooting?

Oh yeah, for sure. It doesn’t help that it’s just such a catchy song. If you had to make a list of the top ten songs that would most easily get stuck in your head, even if you heard them once, that would be number three, probably.

MTV backed the song for a long time, but once the cast of Laguna Beach sang it in a limo, it became everybody’s limo song for a while, whenever a high school or college event would warrant a limo. It’s weird how I know so much about this.

(Laughs.) Wow, and we’re singing it in a limo! Wow, I actually didn’t know that.

Well, this is quite the awkward segue, but Unpregnant is about teen pregnancy as well as reproductive rights. Was the goal to create a more accessible way to learn about a subject that’s been heavily stigmatized?

That is just part of why this movie was made, but for me, as an actor, my goal wasn’t to do that. That wasn’t my top priority. My priority, obviously, had to be understanding this character and having empathy for the situation she’s in. I wanted to do as much justice as I possibly could to her journey as a person, the decision that she’s faced with and what she decides — all while balancing that within this teen-comedy road trip movie. But, yeah, that’s definitely a hope with the film coming out. I think that it actually does have potential for a broader audience to be excited about watching this movie — or even know about this movie — because of the tone of the film.

I couldn’t really think of a movie from my teenage years that’s touched on these subjects and themes in this manner. Did you have a movie like Unpregnant when you were growing up?

I mean, there’s Juno, which talks about teen pregnancy, but she has the baby, right?

Yes, she opts for adoption.

But it explores those things in a more blunt, comedic way, which I remember. So that was a big movie for a lot of reasons when that came out. But, yeah, I guess I think of Juno.

Since this is also a story about two young women, was it helpful to have the perspective of a woman director like Rachel Lee Goldenberg, especially on subject matters that are unique to women?

Yeah, for sure. I do think it just would’ve been weird if it was a guy. (Laughs.) Some of my favorite directors I’ve worked with are guys, so I don’t have anything against guys. (Laughs.) Love guys! Rachel has a very personal connection to the subject matter, and she was extremely passionate about her vision and what was important to her with the movie. Aside from the topic of abortion, she just really loved these two characters and their friendship, and she had a really strong vision for that. She was super open to collaborating with me and Barbie, and our perspectives on the characters as actors. Yeah, I think Rachel was the perfect person to make this movie.

A woman’s right to choose has been debated for many decades, and based on the material, one can surmise that you believe in reproductive rights as well.

I mean, I did do this movie. (Laughs.)

As much as you believe in it, is it still nerve-racking to make a movie that you know will upset some people?

Yeah, it definitely is. It’s an important question. Looking back, I’m really kind of realizing what I went through in my mind and heart when I was offered this movie and when I was figuring out if I was going to commit to it or not. I don’t know if hesitation is the right word, or nerves, but I was unsure if a topic like this could work within this teen movie, road trip, chaotic comedy tone. Obviously, it is sensitive, it is important and it is an extremely personal and real thing. And then, I also had to think about myself as a person. I was like, “I’m going to be doing this movie, and if I do it, then that’s opening myself up as a person to people hating me just because I’m in this movie.” In general, I really don’t like hate in the world because I love love. (Laughs.) I love loving people, and I really try to be as empathetic and understanding with my personal relationships and with grander-scale things that are going on in the world. I really try to just be understanding of people that are different than me. Maybe part of that is because I’m an actor, and maybe part of that is also why I’m an actor. I love that you can look at people who see the world differently than you do and try to understand them. So it was definitely something that I put thought into, and before I said yes to this movie, I really wanted to figure out if it was something that I wholeheartedly thought that I could help in making it work. I wanted to help balance the tones and help reach the end goal of wanting the truth to come through in this wild movie. I wanted to make sure that I was the right person, and that I could really aid in making that work. So I guess I was just up for the challenge, and I decided to do it. And now that I watched the movie, I really do think that we did what we set out to do, so I’m proud of that.

Your movies involving teenagers, be it The Edge of Seventeen, Five Feet Apart or Unpregnant, all deal with heavy subject matters and themes. Do you prefer this kind of material compared to sillier high school-set movies? Or is it just happenstance that you’ve ended up in three teen films that have something more to say?

As an actor, I like exploring movies and stories that mean something and make you really feel something. But I also love watching Will Ferrell’s crazy comedies that just make you laugh because of the silliness and everything. But, yeah, I really do like feeling things and making people feel things. I wonder if it’s because I’m not a teenager anymore. I’m now years and years from being a teenager. (Laughs.) I wonder if it’s been more accessible for me to be able to look back and still connect to teenage angst and that experience, while also having had other experiences since then that connect me to something more deep or universal. I don’t know. But, yeah, I think it adds a totally different element to a teen high school story since you’re dealing with real things. With Five Feet Apart, I learned all about and became really close to the cystic fibrosis community. That, for me, was the driving force of that character in figuring out the core of the movie, less so than the fact that she was 17.

Your character, Veronica, reaches out to her former best friend, Bailey (Barbie Ferreira), for help. Obviously, this is something that most people can relate to since friendships come and go throughout life. When you play relatable material like reconnecting with an old friend, are you ever inspired to do the same thing in your own life?

With this movie, I don’t think it really did, at least in that specific situation, but I do know that characters kind of bleed into your life. When you’re going through something as this made-up person in a movie, it can start to make you reflect on things in your own life that are similar to the situations the character’s going through. So it is kind of like a cool guide or even therapeutic, in a way, but I wouldn’t say that I’m just living my life like that character on every project. (Laughs.) But they definitely connect and intertwine here and there.

Veronica plans and organizes her entire life in detail, while Bailey reminds her about the importance of spontaneity. Would you say that you’re more like Veronica or Bailey?

I think it depends on the situation because I like to think of myself as a free bird, and I think I am in a lot of ways. (Laughs.) But the things that I’m really logical about or really a stickler about, I’m so intense about. I feel like I need to just relax and figure out a better, more consistent balance with that; I’ll talk to my therapist about this later. (Laughs.) But, yeah, I feel like it really just depends on the situation and the mood I’m in, but I’m definitely not as intense as Veronica. That’s for sure. She’s got something up her butt, for sure. (Laughs.)

So I have to tell you that Split was one of the greatest moviegoing experiences of my life, especially since Unbreakable is one of my favorite films of all time.

Oh wow, I’m glad that you feel that way. Yeah, Unbreakable is great.

I caught on to what was happening a few scenes before the actual coda, so I started pacing up and down the aisle, saying, “Oh my god, oh my god,” which the other people in attendance really appreciated. So what comes to mind from that experience?

Well, a lot of crying and feeling like I’m going to die. (Laughs.) I met Jessica Sula, who’s become a really good friend of mine and I will always just love and support her. Well, actually, I met Jess on an ABC family show [Recovery Road] right before we did Split, and then working on Split together kind of solidified our friendship. I probably wouldn’t have become as close of friends with her if it weren’t for working together again right after that. And then, watching James (McAvoy) play all of those characters. It was just such a cool role — well, roles — for an actor. So being able to be there watching him go in and out of these things and be in scenes with him doing the impossible with all of those characters was just really epic to watch and be there for.

It’s one thing to read what James had to do on the page, but to see it live for the first time must’ve been something else.

Oh yeah. That was the exact scenario. Reading the script and then actually seeing it in person were totally different things. Reading a script that’s that out there and just crazy and dynamic almost felt like I was just reading a book that could never possibly be made into a movie with actual people. But then, seeing him actually do it, it just felt like he was doing the impossible, and it was so seamless. I still don’t really understand what his method was or how he did it because he would be joking around with us and then he would be a six-year-old boy and then he’d be a British woman. (Laughs.) I still don’t get how he did it, but I’m really in awe of that.

Another one of my favorite films of the past decade is The Edge of Seventeen. I still don’t quite understand why it didn’t get the treatment that Lady Bird got a year later, but that’s a whole other tangent. Did you get an early sense that Edge was pretty special?

Experiences are so different, and it really is hard to tell what the finished product and what the movie’s going to be like while you’re working on it. The whole time we were filming, I really was aware of how good Hailee is and how good she was in that movie. And then, when I saw the movie, I was so impressed by her again, but I kind of knew that she was going to be good all along. It’s really interesting; playing Veronica and the challenges that I felt with balancing the tone of the movie — and then the real and serious situation that Veronica’s in — was a big challenge for me, and I found myself thinking about Hailee and her performance in The Edge of Seventeen. She did a really similar thing with the tone of Edge of Seventeen, only she’s dealing with these really real things like the loss of her dad, depression and not fitting in in the world. She just did it so seamlessly, and I was like, “How the frick did she do that?” (Laughs.) When I was doing Unpregnant, I literally would YouTube scenes of Hailee in Edge of Seventeen and be like, “How did she do that?” and get inspiration from her with the tone and how to balance that as an actor. It’s a really hard thing to do, and I don’t think that I realized how tricky that was going to be until I was in the thick of filming and doing the scenes.

Was there lots of Hailee/Haley confusion on that set?

Oh yeah. Because we were one and two on the call sheet, they called us “Hailee one” and “Haley two.” (Laughs.) So, yup. Yeah, I actually called Hailee and had a really nice Facetime conversation with her while doing Unpregnant because I was watching all of these YouTube videos of her in Edge of Seventeen. I called her and asked for her advice. (Laughs.) That was helpful, yeah.

This is why the ‘Lu’ is necessary. I hope you have each other labeled as “Hailee one” and “Haley two” in your phones.

(Laughs.) That would be cute. I think she’s in there as “Haiz” because that’s what she was going as in her music. She was Haiz, so I just did it. (Laughs.)

Actually, since you’re number one on many call sheets now, it should be “Hailee 1a” and “Haley 1b.”

(Laughs.) Oh thanks!

I also liked Support the Girls quite a bit, and I was really impressed by your performance because it was such a left turn from your previous work. Was the chance to do something markedly different what attracted you to that role in the first place?

I love doing things that explore all different types of characters and stories to tell. That’s my favorite thing about acting. But, the character, herself, I just wanted her energy and joy. I wanted to have fun with a character and be the brightness of a movie, as opposed to having to go through all the heavy stuff. And I’m just so glad that I got to do that role because I really did have genuine fun playing that character. Even in roles that are the most fulfilling roles ever, and have the most memorable and wonderful things, it’s not necessarily fun for me a lot of the time. (Laughs.) So that role was just so fun. Every single day, I was allowed to burst with all my cheerleader, peppy energy that I have inside me, and I loved that. I loved playing that character.

Giancarlo Esposito is one of my favorite interviews. Was he fun to work with, especially since it involved an awesome white limo?

Yeah, I mean, his character was so fun and unique. I was so impressed with him because he really committed to that guy and the psyche that his character has. He’s that “conspiracy, end-of-the-world” guy. (Laughs.) I just remember this one scene that we did when we first meet him and Barbie and I go into his limo station or lair. It’s not even written in the script that he just starts drinking from a can of beans, but he literally just grabs the can of beans off the shelf, takes out his knife from his belt and stabs the can. The beans flew everywhere, and we’re like, “What the fuck?” (Laughs.) We had no idea that was going to happen. So, yeah, he definitely played a really fun character, which brought a lot of excitement to the crazy journey that we were on. We were also kidnapped by an extremist, crazy couple (Breckin Meyer, Sugar Lyn Beard). (Laughs.) We went through a lot.

I love how he referred to Veronica as “Victoria” towards the end of the film.

Oh yeah. I love that, too. It’s hard not to laugh at that one.

I have two questions left, but we only have time for one more. So I’ll let you choose from the following: Did you guys actually mount a camera to that fairground ride to shoot the great confession scene? Is there a type of role you’re dying to play still?

Oh wow, those are two very good questions. Maybe, I’ll just answer them both in the same answer for you. (Laughs.) Well, first of all, with the ride at the fair, yes, we actually did that. That was really wild, and there was a camera mounted to it. I get extreme full-body panic attacks on any ride that goes upside down — add the fact that there’s this huge piece of equipment literally screwed and duct-taped to it — so I was terrified. (Laughs.) So, yes, that was a real thing. Barbie and I were adamant that we were just going to do one, maybe two takes, and that we were just going to nail it. But then, we ended up doing fifteen takes or something because we were just screaming and crying and laughing during the first few takes. We just couldn’t get our lines out. So there’s that answer.

A role that I really want to do… I want to dance. All I want to do is dance. (Laughs.) I want to dance in movies and combine my love of dance, which has just been my deepest passion throughout my whole life. I want to be able to use that in storytelling and with my acting. I look back on how far I’ve come since I moved to L.A. to act when I was sixteen, and I’m proud of myself. I have loved all the experiences I’ve had, but if I’ve missed anything, it’s dancing. I would love to incorporate that, share that and explore what that could look like. Of course, there’s musicals and stuff, where everyone’s singing and acting, but I just want there to be dancicals where everyone is dancing and acting. (Laughs.) And I want to be in all of them. So, yeah, I guess that’s my biggest dream ever.

Something tells me that a screenwriter is going to read this and race to their Final Draft to write you something.

(Laughs.) Well, let’s put that out there in the universe, and see what happens. I could use some help.

Are you going back to work soon?

I mean, I hope. I’m kind of in the midst of figuring out a movie that could happen in November, but I guess everything’s so up in the air. I don’t know. I miss acting. That’s for sure.

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Unpregnant is now available on HBO Max.