Landing an Oscar nomination at age 14 can be a hard act to follow. After playing a feisty avenger in Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2010 remake of True Grit — and sharing the screen with Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon — Hailee Steinfeld played her fair share of daughters-in-distress to actors as varied as Guy Pearce (Hateship Loveship), Mark Ruffalo (Begin Again), and Kevin Costner (3 Days to Kill). Lately, she’s been a Barden Bella in last year’s Pitch Perfect 2, and she tried her hand at YA sci-fi with a starring role in the adaptation of Ender’s Game. But nothing has quite matched the impact of the film that first put her on the map — until now.
At 19, Steinfeld has nabbed a complex part worthy of her talent. In writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig’s electric The Edge of Seventeen (out in theaters now), she plays Nadine, an angrier, more confused, and much more profane version of a John Hughes heroine, who’s trying to control the chaotic forces that she believes are ruining her life. Swearing like a longshoreman, roiling in her own adolescent drama, and talking graphically about sex — basically embodying a real 21st-century high school student — Steinfeld demonstrates what we should have known long ago: This actress doesn’t need rescuing. “I think people are going to say to themselves, ‘Holy s—, this girl is funny,'” says Fremon Craig, who along with legendary producer James L. Brooks (Broadcast News) cast Steinfeld after a yearlong process in which they considered close to 1,000 actresses.
Knowing the role would shred her good-girl image, Steinfeld chased the job, auditioning three times for Brooks and Fremon Craig until they said yes. Nadine is a proud social outcast who favors mismatched tights, animal-print Converse, and colorful socks, but her less-than-idyllic life becomes unglued after her seemingly perfect older brother (Blake Jenner) begins dating her best friend (Haley Lu Richardson).
On the surface, Steinfeld has little in common with her character. She did not attend a traditional high school, and she maintains a close relationship with her family — including her older brother, Griffin, a NASCAR driver — but Steinfeld related to Nadine. Passages in the script made her cry. She knew exactly how this rebellious nonconformist should dress. “With this character, it never left, like a matter of switching on or switching off,” Steinfeld says. “Maybe that’s because I was close to her age and it wasn’t a period piece where I had to tie the corset tighter before we started filming. Somehow I found the ability to trust myself and my instinct and run free.”
Free and true. Fremon Craig recalls a specific day on set when Steinfeld had to deliver an emotional monologue where Nadine finally admits that the image she has carefully curated for herself isn’t one she particularly likes, and she doesn’t know how to change it. It’s a scene that required Steinfeld to let down the caustic guard her character had been hiding behind the entire film. “I sat at the monitor with tears streaming down my face,” Fremon Craig says. “To suddenly see her open up and pull back the curtain on herself and say, ‘This is who I am, and this is what I’m scared of’ — it was beautiful, it was emotional, it was raw. It was one of my favorite days.”
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In person, Steinfeld is earnest and self-assured and feels far more anchored than most people her age. It’s a quality Woody Harrelson, who plays Nadine’s teacher Mr. Bruner, noticed when he began sparring with Steinfeld in some of the film’s most hilarious scenes. “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 so much better,” he says. “You’d think she’d been doing this for 30 years.”
Steinfeld is a prodigy, by definition, but you’re unlikely to find anyone who will question her tireless work ethic. Last October, prior to production, she jumped at the opportunity to study with famed acting coach Larry Moss (whose past clients include Hilary Swank and Leonardo DiCaprio), and when she’s not reading new scripts, she’s in the recording studio working with producers on her music. The Edge of Seventeen arrives at a time when Steinfeld is making waves in the music world with her steamy pop song “Starving.” All that drive comes from an urgent ambition she’s possessed since she first discovered the power of performing at age 8.
“Anytime I make a film with somebody like Kelly or Jim, I want to direct, I want to produce, I want to create a story of my own,” Steinfeld says. “Anytime I’m in the studio with these incredible writers and producers, I want to know how to work the control board. I want to know how to produce a song. I want to do all of it. I just need to pace myself because I get overly ambitious sometimes. I want to do all of it right now.”
Steinfeld doesn’t quite know what’s next. She’s working on her music and is scheduled to reprise her role in Pitch Perfect 3, due out Dec. 22, 2017. “I’m in a similar place to where we leave Nadine in this movie,” she says. “She’s good, she’s got it figured out, she’s on the right path, and she’s happy. I’ve never been in the position where I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m an adult now. I need to shake up [my younger] image.’ But in the most graceful way possible, I feel like this is what The Edge of Seventeen is going to do for me.” Count on it.
A version of this story appears in Entertainment Weekly #1440, available here.