Hailee Steinfeld may only be 19 but she’s lived a lot of life on the big screen — from her debut as the feisty avenger in Joel and Ethan Coen’s western True Grit, which landed her an Oscar nomination, to the number of parts where she played a version of the daughter in distress for actors such as Guy Pearce (Hateship Loveship), Mark Ruffalo (Begin Again) and Kevin Costner (3 Days to Kill).
If you count in Jeff Bridges as a father figure in True Grit and Damian Lewis in the ill-conceived Romeo and Juliet, that’s a lot of dads. “Oh my god, that’s five of them already,” she says. “Yes, I’ve played a lot of daughters, I’ve had a lot of really cool dads.”
But after audiences see Steinfeld in the fresh, John Hughesian-esque dramedy The Edge of Seventeen it will be clear that she is not a girl in need of rescuing. When asked, “So it looks like you won’t have to play the daughter anymore?” her response was simple. “No.”
Practice playing all those daughters on screen did give her some confidence when she had to spar with her Seventeen costar Woody Harrelson, who plays Steinfeld’s high school teacher and surrogate father in the film. But Harrelson, who shares some of the most memorable screen time moments with Steinfeld, was no push over when the two were together. Many of their meetings carried a rat-a-tat back and forth that felt more like a boxing match than a therapy session.
Harrelson was shocked by Steinfeld’s confidence — and comic timing.
“Everyone else was introduced to her through a pretty dramatic piece with True Grit so you didn’t get to see her comedy skills,” says Harrelson. “I feel like as a comedian she’s phenomenal.”
Harrelson even went so far to compare her to his former costar from Cheers, John Ratzenberg. Back when the duo were on the show together, Ratzenberg would take so much time with a joke that Harrelson was convinced the joke wouldn’t land.
“I don’t even remember the bit but I remember the more time he took, the more the audience was laughing. She is incredible about taking her time. I don’t know how it is. I’ve been doing this a long time and I still feel rushed. But she takes her time in a way that makes the comedy work so much better.”
For Steinfeld, working with Harrelson meant never letting down your guard when sharing a scene. “One of my favorite parts about working with Woody was constantly being terrified of what it was he would say that would sort of walk all over me,” she says. “I learned very quickly that if you tell Woody Harrelson that he can do whatever he wants, he would do whatever he wants. So I decided to do whatever I wanted to. I would come out feeling so good, spit in his face with Nadine’s words and then my heart would start pounding. I knew he was going to say something that would either make me break and laugh or crawl into a corner and cry.”
The two formed a mutual admiration society with Harrelson becoming a fan Steinfeld’s work ethic. “I think she knew how great this project was and she gave it her all. And I love the results. She’s such a fascinating, quirky imperfect anti-hero.”
The Edge of Seventeen is out on Nov. 18.