Hailee Steinfeld experienced the kind of sudden child actor fame very few have, outside of maybe Jodie Foster and Tatum O’Neal. In her very first feature film role as Mattie Ross in the Coen brothers’ True Grit, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress at the age of 14. In the six years since then, she’s gone on to appear in more than a dozen films, including Pitch Perfect 2, Ender’s Game, and The Keeping Room. Not only that, she’s embarked on the kind of multi-pronged career most young artists are warned against—modeling, signing a recording deal last year, and releasing a debut EP, including a single that’s gone platinum in multiple countries. When The A.V. Club spoke with her, she was out promoting her new coming-of-age film The Edge Of Seventeen (read The A.V. Club’s review here), a smart and funny movie that refreshingly addresses contemporary youth anxieties without any sugarcoating or watered-down edges.
The A.V. Club: One of the great things about the movie is that it portrays just how stressful being a teenager always is and that constant insecurity of, “Everyone is going to realize I’m a fraud.” Was that part of the appeal of the role, as an antidote to all that “these are the best years of your life” talk?
Hailee Steinfeld: Not so much that perspective as the idea of, “This really truly is what it’s like.” I don’t really feel like I ever had—though I was very connected to—John Hughes films. They weren’t necessarily part of my generation. I don’t feel like I ever had a movie like The Breakfast Club or Sixteen Candles or even Say Anything, where you could watch the movie and think, “That might not look like me, but that is so me.” Do you know what I mean? Where you could feel like you’re not alone or, you know, you find yourself somewhere in this movie. And when I read it, I not only felt like it was just such a true, honest telling of… not only high school, even though it takes place in a high school and over your high school years. It’s about being a teenager and growing up and trying to figure out life, and what life is, and what life means, and what your purpose is. And I obviously have come across those questions so many times in the last couple years, really. Everybody has.
AVC: It seems like when you’re doing a movie like this, you’d be constantly associating it to moments in your own life.
HS: Absolutely. All the time. So many situations that this character goes through, I’ve gone through to an extent that’s unfortunately very similar. And some not so much, which is nice. But so much of what this character has gone through, I’ve experienced to a certain degree, and it was really nice to be able to express that.
AVC: That feeling of alienation from everything around you is so universal at that age. Do you feel like the alienation you experienced when you were younger was structurally different because you were also having to deal with the superficiality of Hollywood?
HS: Sure. In ways, yes, but I guess not as much as you’d think. I started homeschooling halfway through sixth grade, and up until that point, I had a lot of social issues. I had a very hard time trying to figure out what it was about me that wasn’t like the other girls. Or what it was about me that nobody wanted me to be a part of their whatever it was. And I wouldn’t get invited places. I had an older brother that went through high school. I watched him go through high school. He was on the football team. He was at the homecomings and the proms and the parties. He was involved in everything, and I wasn’t. And that, I think, is where I really felt that sort of alienation and being on the outside of what I could so clearly see into. And I didn’t know what it was that I had to do to be a part of it. I didn’t even know if I wanted to do those things. Very much like this character.
AVC: But it’s interesting though, right? Because you hit that moment of adolescence right around… you just filmed True Grit when you turned 13, right?
HS: Yes, yes.
AVC: So that must have taken all that teen-alienation stuff and amplified it by a thousand, by being thrown into that public of an arena.
HS: The fact that you say that, thanks. A lot of people think the opposite, where I was kind of taken out of all of it and bypassed it, dodged all the bullets. But I didn’t. I don’t know that it ever felt like it was amplified because of what I do for a living. But it felt present, and it made me realize that no matter who you are or what you do or where you’re from, you’re always going to experience it. I mean, my brother is three years older than me. He’s out of college, he’s working, and he deals with it at his work. It’s just life. It definitely was still there even when I left school. I still dealt with it. I still had my friends that I went to school with. Again, [I] watched my brother go through high school and was involved—as I could have been. But yeah.
AVC: That’s interesting you say other people think that somehow you bypassed that. Because that feeling, when you’re that age and wanting everything to feel authentic and real, and wanting to have meaningful experiences with people, feels like it would make it doubly hard by—
HS: Well, in ways, yes. In a weird way, I guess, for a long time, I worked with people that were a lot older than me. So I feel like, socially, I experienced high school later than everyone else did. Later than I would have if I were in it, because I feel like by the time I started, whether it was working with people my own age or meeting people my own age and trying to maintain relationships with them while being on the road, I feel like the last couple of years of my life I’ve experienced more of what high school would have been like. Yeah, actually having still gone through it, not being in high school. Does that make sense?
HS: And I do feel in the last couple of years it’s been a little amplified because relationships are public and they’re not always what they’re perceived to be. It’s a weird thing, but again, we all go through it—whether we’re late bloomers or not, whether we go through it earlier than others or later. It’s growing up and figuring it out.
And it’s funny, because for a while, I never really got the sort of lingo of high school and what went down at parties until a little after high school. And I was so on the outside of it and so far removed from it physically that I couldn’t find any connection to it until I was around and had friends that were my age, from different schools and different parts of the world that I was able to sort of vicariously live through their experiences as well.
AVC: You’re ping-ponging all over the place emotionally at that age, too. Were there times when you were just sitting in meetings in L.A. and thinking, “I just want to throw all of this out the window”?
HS: Oh, yeah, totally. Totally. One of the first things I remember when I was trying to get signed by an agent was the thought that somebody brought up to me of, “You’re going to have to make the commitment that you will tell us you’d rather go to an audition than your friend’s birthday party.” And it was in that moment that I was like… this is a commitment. This is a thing. And I remember being at an audition while a friend’s birthday party was happening and feeling like, “Why can’t I do both, or why can’t I just be there? Or why can’t I just have the job and know that I have it and then go to the party?” All this stuff was going through my mind, and I’ve had moments where I’m like, “I wish I could utter that exact expression and question life itself.” But yeah, often you have moments where you’re like, “Can I just sit still for a couple days straight and not listen to anybody talk, including myself?”
AVC: Is that one of the reasons you started doing music? As a way of connecting to something that felt more authentic or true to yourself?
HS: It’s definitely something I’ve discovered through making music. I think initially, as a 10-year-old, I wanted to perform and entertain people. I wanted to be on stage and in commercials, and I didn’t know what any of it meant. But I think now, realizing that when I play a character, I’m playing a part that’s written, and I take someone else’s words and tell that story. And with the music, it’s my own words, and it’s my voice, and it’s my name. It’s my own experiences. It’s a lot more vulnerable in some ways, but at the same time it’s a different way of self-expression. It is more authentic in that it’s coming from me.
AVC: In doing both these things, the insecurity that we were talking about before, does that double it? Or have you figured out ways to process and manage that?
HS: Luckily, I’ve figured out ways to process and manage it. [Laughs.] But I guess there are times where you feel like… I’ve been making music for years, a lot longer than anybody has heard it. I started around the same time I got into acting. But I wanted, timing-wise, for it to make sense. I never wanted it to be like [Snaps fingers.] all right, I’m dropping an album. And then people try and… I would just hope people would take me seriously in that manner. I secretly hoped it would happen through a film, and with Pitch Perfect 2, it gave me the perfect segue. And people were able to discover for themselves that I loved doing it, and from that came a record deal and all this craziness with the music. But you get those moments where you’re like, “I really hope people take me seriously.”
AVC: Right, because artists of all stripes always get that: “You’re a musician—you don’t act,” or, “You’re an actor—you don’t do music.” Did you have to fight through those people who would say, “Oh, don’t do that”?
HS: I think there was slight hesitation on both ends. You know, “How is she going to manage both of these things if she really wants to do both?” Which I do. And initially the conversation was, “I don’t know that that’s really possible.” Or some people only saw me as an actor. And not, in their words, I guess, I don’t know, a “pop star.” And I understood that. And for a minute, I was like, “The type of music I want to make is the type of music that could go in my movies.” And I didn’t necessarily know what that sounded like. And I had a very hard time trying to articulate it. But I found my groove, and I found what I want to do. And in making an album currently, I’m more so getting into that groove.
AVC: When you’re on the road constantly as a musician, you can get yet another sense of disconnect. When you’re doing that and then alternating with doing films, does it make it feel like it’s even harder to stay grounded?
HS: It’s made going away a lot harder. Experiencing what it’s like being in a different city every other day, being in different time zones, realizing, “Here I am, wide awake and everyone is dead asleep,” you feel like… it’s not easy. And then being home, whether it’s two days or a month, you find you’re in a place where life went on without me. It’s a weird feeling, having gone away and coming back and leaving again. It makes it super hard. But I think that, again, I’ve been so, so lucky that I’ve worked with amazing people on the road. With Meghan [Trainor, her touring partner—ed.], she has the best crew. And being in cities where you are located with one restaurant and there was nowhere else to go and nothing else to do, you had people that are there. And I think in speaking back to this movie, that’s something that she doesn’t necessarily have in those moments, is that connection and that conversation with someone.
AVC: That idea of feeling like you have nobody that you can share anything with—when you were doing that for the film, were you thinking back to times you were feeling like that? Or did you always have somebody you could turn to?
HS: Well, even in times that I felt like I didn’t, I know that I did. Which I’m very thankful for, and I’m very lucky to have. But I have had moments where, whether it’s a certain situation that I don’t necessarily know how to figure out or something I don’t know how to articulate, no one is going to understand it. Because I don’t even know how to put it into words. I’ve had moments like that often, where I don’t want to talk to my mom about it. I don’t want to talk to my dad about it. But I don’t want to tell my friends. Those moments where you’re like, “Who do I talk to?” But luckily, I do have an incredible relationship with my parents, and my mom, who I go to for absolutely everything, thank the lord. If I didn’t, I don’t know what I would do. But I guess, I think we all have those moments where we feel like we’re so alone and have no one to go to.
AVC: That’s part of the connection with the film. You see this in the movie, too, but music does often feel like a direct pipeline to the soul, especially at that age when you feel like you can find an album and be like, “Yes. This speaks to me.”
HS: Yeah. This is slightly off-topic, but it makes sense in my head. I think having not only personal connections with friends and family I’m able to pull from, but having a connection with so many people through social media, it also feels like I have a relationship with those people that follow me. And feel that what I’m going through, they’ve gone through something similar, and that’s why we’ve connected. And they’re the ones that make it into that body of work that represents them or that time in their life, because we’ve found each other. I really do feel like there’s that cohesiveness and there’s that clear throughline of connections that are made and that are being made. But I think that they’re the ones that call it their own for their own reasons.
AVC: That seems like something that would be both comforting but also tough to navigate. Because for every random Instagram post of yours where people comment and say, “I relate to this,” there’s also the people who feel that connection and go, “Hey, I’m trying to make my dreams happen, too. Here’s the link to my songs.” Do you try not to let yourself go down that road, just because there’s always so many people that are wanting that kind of time? Or do you try to explore as much of it as you can without feeling like you’re being pressured by people?
HS: Yeah, I guess that it’s easy to be overwhelmed by it, but I don’t find that I get overwhelmed by it too often. I will say that it’s amazing to have that sort of tool to discover things myself, and it’s amazing to have that connection and relationship with people and find inspiration through that. Because sometimes I’ll have an experience or something I think I want to talk about, but I’m like, “Maybe I shouldn’t go there.” But knowing that… There’s an experience I had on tour, there’s a specific song I have on my EP called “Hell Nos And Headphones,” where it was a very vivid experience I had and talked about it. And it’s so funny, because when I was going on tour, I was like, “I don’t know if I want to sing that song every night.” And the minute I was singing it, I would talk about this experience, and then I would realize that I’m looking out into thousands of people who are giving me that sort of feeling that they’ve been there, too. And I think the more I can talk about experiences I’ve had where I know I wasn’t alone is where I feel most… it’s very rewarding feeling that. Very similar again, to the movie. I’ve gone through all that stuff to some degree. And so has everyone else. So I thought, I can be the voice of reason. [Laughs.]