The Edge of Seventeen is like your classic John Hughes tale — if Samantha Baker had accidentally sent an explicit text asking Jake Ryan to take her virginity in the back of a pet store.
Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig makes her directorial debut with the story of Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), an angsty teenage misfit who spends most of her time hanging out with her best (and only) friend or lusting after her unattainable crush (who, in classic Hughes fashion, doesn’t know she exists). Her life starts to crumble, however, when that best friend starts hooking up with Nadine’s brother, and she turns to her gruff history teacher (Woody Harrelson) for advice on how to navigate her increasingly complicated life… much to his annoyance.
“With Woody and I, we had such a great witty banter, just the two of us,” Steinfeld says, laughing. “There’s got to be at least 20 minutes of blooper material of us just breaking. He really is one of the coolest human beings I’ve ever met.”
The Edge of Seventeen (out Nov. 18) finds the 19-year-old Steinfeld in the halls of high school, marking a bit of a departure after hunting down her father’s murderer in True Grit, tackling fierce a capella rivalries in Pitch Perfect 2, and topping the charts with her own pop music career.
Ahead of The Edge of Seventeen’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, we talked to Steinfeld about tackling Craig’s complicated heroine and her own cringe-worthy memories from childhood.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So what was it about Nadine’s story that really hooked you and made you want to be a part of this?
HAILEE STEINFELD: It was the idea that even though I didn’t go to a physical high school — I was homeschooled — I still experienced and have experienced and am experiencing so much of what this character is going through. I think sometimes, I’ve been in situations before where either people my age or people a few years older than me will think that I’ve bypassed all of the high school drama, just because I wasn’t in it. And that’s so untrue. I’ve experienced so many things, just in a different world or on a different level, and I’ve realized that there are things that people experience regardless of who they are or where they’re from or what school they went to, if they went to school. It’s just growing up, and it’s being a teenager, and it’s finding your place in this world. And to be able to express so much of what I’ve gone through, that people thought I hadn’t, through this character, that was what really hooked me.
There’s something so universal about coming-of-age stories. Was there anything specific about Nadine’s story that you really connected with or related to?
I remember there was one party scene, where I walk in, and my brother and my best friend are hitting it off with people, and they’re having a great time. And I’m not having a bad time; I’m just feeling a little awkward and trying to talk myself into not feeling awkward. But for whatever reason, something’s holding me back. And I’ve had so many of those moments, where they’ve taken place on a movie set where everybody kind of has their niche and they’ve found their groove, and I’m like, I don’t know how to make myself not look awkward right now. Because I feel very uncomfortable. I’ve had them at high school parties. I mean, I was in school up until the sixth grade, and I even had them then.
I also love that this movie doesn’t shy away from certain language. It talks about sex in a really frank way, and it’s a way that we don’t always see teenage girls talk on screen.
I completely agree. It’s not beating around the bush in any way. It is what it is. There are contemporary pieces I’ve done, where I’m like, “I mean, I can make this work, but this doesn’t sound right. It’s not the way it goes down.” And there are so many situations in this movie, where it’s a conversation between two girls, or a girl and a guy, or two guys, and it’s exactly what you hear in hallways in a high school.
Were there any coming-of-age movies that really resonated with you growing up?
I will say, The Breakfast Club is absolutely one of them. I heard so much about it before I even saw it, and I remember seeing it and not really understanding it the first time, and then revisiting it a couple years later and really feeling like, this is such a classic piece. There are so many elements that make it so classic, but the fact that it’s so timeless, I still have yet to figure out. The way it’s put together, the way it’s shot and the coloring and the wardrobe, it’s just so timeless. And I have to say, when filming this… I mean, people always say — knock on wood — after the fact like, “Did you know it was going to be a special thing? Did you know? Did you have some kind of feeling?” And I kind of had these moments where I felt like, “I wonder if this is what it felt like making a movie like that.” I don’t know. There was something about being a part of this one that really did feel special and real.
One of the parts of this movie that made me laugh the hardest was the flashback scene. We saw parts of it in the trailer, but Nadine is 13, and she gets this haircut that makes her look like Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite. What was it like filming that? Did you have to put on a big poofy wig or what?
Oh man. [Laughs] First of all, I’d never really worn a wig before, like a wig that was made for me. And I was so excited. I was super pumped up on like, this is a wig for me. And I put it on, and I’m in front of a mirror, so the reaction to myself when I did look in the mirror was quite priceless. [Laughs] But yeah, it was definitely weird. It felt like it took me back a couple years, and I looked younger than I do. And then they added a couple little stragglers in between my eyebrows and put some blemishes all over, and I looked at the picture in the mirror, and I tried to mimic Pedro’s face, and oh my God, I don’t know. I think I kind of scared myself with the similarities.
Do you have something from when you were that age, where you look back on it and it just totally makes you cringe?
Okay, I had the craziest little bowl cut. But like with super thick bangs, so they looked connected to the rest of my hair. [Laughs] I will say, the way my mom dressed me was pretty on point, so that kind of balanced things out. But my hair, yeah, wow. It was not good.
So what age was that?
I kind of figured things out around like 8, 9. So it was before then. Which is good because I was too young to really feel like it was that bad. [Laughs]