“I started studying acting at eight years old and made my first film at thirteen,” said Hailee Steinfeld in a Dallas interview for her new film, “The Edge of Seventeen,” referring to her debut in the Coen brothers’ 2010 remake of “True Grit,” for which she received an Oscar nomination. She is now nineteen, but felt right at home in Kelly Fremon Craig’s high school comedy-drama in which she plays Nadine, a cynical girl at odds with her family and the world.
“I felt, when I read the script for the first time, that it wasn’t a teen movie or a high school movie—it’s a movie of growing up and figuring out who you are and where you’re at in life, what your place is. It’s a true coming-of-age story that represents growing up in this generation. That is what I related to,” Steinfeld said. “With this, I felt that I was able to just be a teenager…able to express so much of what I’ve gone through and have never had the outlet to express myself about. This role was really liberating, and I was able to just let it all go.
“Some days,” she added, “I wake up and I’m like, ‘I’ve got the answer to everything, and I don’t need anybody’s help. I’m figuring this out for myself.’ [What’s important is] realizing that’s not the best approach, and learning that you can go to [your family] and learn from their mistakes, and they’re willing to help you—to be open to them. Learn to love and learn to be loved.
“I had just turned eighteen when I made the movie, so it didn’t feel like I was that far removed [from Nadine]. But I’m nineteen now, and I still feel like I’m trying to figure out life. So I have a lot in common with her—I didn’t feel a gap in age at all.
”It all started with the script. It was so honestly written that as an actor all you feel you have to do is just bring to life what’s on the page, and nothing more. You know you’re in a good place. But luckily, I was given great freedom by Kelly. She trusted me, and to have that kind of trust and freedom from a director is a dream. But it also came from a lot of conversations between us…developing this character and figuring out how to make every moment count.”
Steinfeld was also blessed with an expert supporting cast in the film, ranging from veterans like Woody Harrelson, who plays her teacher, to newcomer Hayden Szeto, who plays a shy fellow student she comes to embrace as a friend.
“Hayden is so talented, it never felt like he was new,” Steinfeld said. “With Woody, I think a lot of it had to do with the characters’ dynamic, but he and I personally developed a banter off-screen right away that was just natural, and when it came time to shoot with him, there was this level of intimidation that I had, but at the same time I was, ‘Oh, I can take this guy—no problem.’”
Steinfeld had fun shooting the scenes with Harrelson. “There was a lot of improv,” she recalled. “Even if we had done a certain number of takes, the last one was like, ‘Okay, do whatever you want,’ and that’s when the magic would happen, and we would just riff for minutes, and Kelly and Jim [James L. Brooks, one of the movie’s producers} would be in Video Village around the corner laughing. We’d [ask the sound team], ‘Are you sure you can’t hear them, because we can.”
Asked whether she thought teens should see the movie, Steinfeld replied, “I heard it was rated R, and I was surprised by it, because I don’t think it’s rated R for a specific thing—like overuse of unnecessary language. But I do feel that this movie does a teenager’s life story justice, and if you walk through the hallways of a high school, the way the kids talk in this movie is how most likely you’re going to hear them talk. This is what high school is. Some kids thrive, others don’t, and this movie captures all of those moments. And what I want [is for] my generation to see this movie and feel that they’re not alone. It’s reality, a movie you can watch and think, ‘This is what my life is, and I feel that my life is understood by this character.’ It’s the universal things in it—trying to figure out who you are, what their place is, what their life is, what they’re good at. Finding those things is never easy, especially when you don’t have anyone to help you find the answers, which is what this movie is about.”
“The Edge of Seventeen” was shot in Vancouver, in November. “It was freezing outside, sometimes pouring rain,” Steinfeld recalled. “And I was wearing a dress with no jacket half the time. That happens often when you make movies in the winter. I was cold.
“Maybe I should have told you I wasn’t cold—it would have made my acting more believable.”
“The Edge of Seventeen” is an STX Entertainment release.