Tomorrow's Girl

To celebrate Hailee Steinfeld's 18th birthday, we revisit her ELLE interview

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As Hailee Steinfeld turns 18, read what she said when we met her for ELLE September 2013.

 

Words: Emily Cronin.

The Next Big Thing has entered the building. I can see her striding across the restaurant, the girl whose debut film performance critics called ‘fiercely intelligent’ and ‘riveting’. She must be accustomed to seeing her name preceded by such superlatives – hailed as ‘the next Meryl Streep’, or ‘Jodie Foster in waiting’ (like Foster, she was up for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar at age 14) and beloved of the biggest names in fashion. But she wears all this acclaim lightly. ‘Hi,’ she says, extending a hand, ‘I’m Hailee.’

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I know. Everyone knows. Because 16-year-old Hailee Steinfeld has moved past the sort of early career peak that would have left many paralysed, to become that rarest of Hollywood creatures: a timeless talent with an industry at her feet.

‘It’s crazy to think I’ve been doing this job for half my life already,’ she says. Sitting across the table in a Breton-striped tee and jeans, she looks like a regular, if unfairly luminous teen. ‘But it doesn’t feel like any time has gone by. I’m just doing something I enjoy.’ This could read as precocious but Steinfeld seems to mean it. In fact, everything she says is tempered by gratitude and just a touch of bewilderment.

After all, hers was no instant ascent to the Academy. Steinfeld was already five years into her career, mostly in forgettable TV and short films, when the Coen brothers hand-picked her to star in their 2011 remake of classic Western True Grit. Their implicit belief in her ability wasn’t enough to calm on-set nerves, though. ‘I was nervous every day for three and a half months,’ she recalls. Not that you’d know – her blend of solemnity and vulnerability as young frontier woman Mattie Ross, plus her mastery of the antiquated dialogue a mile away from her natural Los Angeles lilt, earned her that Oscar nod. Critics added her name to the pantheon of prodigiously talented child stars, ranking her alongside Anna Paquin, the Fanning sisters and, yes, Foster.

She hasn’t stopped working since, if her slate of upcoming films is anything to go by. This summer, she plays Juliet in Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes’ new adaptation of Romeo And Juliet. Like most teenagers, Steinfeld first encountered Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers in a classroom, rather than in front of the camera. ‘When my role in Romeo And Juliet came along, I was reading it in school,’ Steinfeld says. ‘That was helpful.’

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Filmed in Italy, this Romeo is a traditionally Renaissance take on the tale – a contrast to the last major big-screen version, Baz Luhrmann’s cult hit, released the year Steinfeld was born. ‘Everything about that film is so beautiful,’ she says. She follows Claire Danes into the role, who was also 16 when she donned fairy wings to play opposite Leonardo DiCaprio.

Steinfeld is the first to admit she hasn’t yet experienced Juliet’s intensity of emotion, so she couldn’t go method. ‘Thank God I don’t have anything tragic to relate to in that way,’ she says. ‘But there are so many things about her – beyond just falling in love and having your heart broken – that I was able to connect to.’ Hailee doesn’t elaborate, but it’s easy to imagine what those things might be. The play is, after all, a story about growing up, about Juliet finding her own voice and taking control of her own life.

Fellowes heaps praise upon his young Capulet. ‘She made the part real in a way I can’t remember seeing before. There is something about first love that stands out from the rest and it is so gratifying to work with an actress who can make that unique sense completely believable.’

Her ability to fully inhabit a role perhaps explains why Steinfeld currently has a monopoly on all the great teen-girl gigs. After Romeo, she will appear in Ender’s Game, a sci-fi film co-starring Harrison Ford. Based on Orson Scott Card’s dystopian novel, it portrays a future in which humankind’s only hope is to train a new generation of super-warriors from childhood. It looks likely to do for Steinfeld what The Hunger Games did for Jennifer Lawrence (who, incidentally, Hailee lost out on the role of Katniss Everdeen to) and marks quite the departure from the Bard. ‘I went from being in these huge stone  castles in Italy to being in front of a green screen. So weird.’ Preparation for the role involved a trip to Space Camp with teen co-stars Abigail Breslin and Asa Butterfield, with simulated shuttle missions and zero-gravity training to help with the coming months on set in flight harnesses. ‘It was pretty painful for the first few weeks!’ she says. As her first action blockbuster, Steinfeld is apprehensive of the mega-fame such franchises can bring. ‘I don’t think it’s something you can prepare yourself for,’ she says. ‘Whatever the outcome, it won’t change the reason I’m doing this.’

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After outer space, she comes back to Earth, making friends with Keira Knightley in Can A Song Save Your Life?, a movie musical – she plays guitar in it, but doesn’t sing – where, ‘it felt like we were putting on a concert every day’. Then she meddles in on-screen father Guy Pearce’s love life, setting him up with Kristen Wiig in Hateship, Loveship; and portrays CIA agent Kevin Costner’s daughter in Three Days To Kill. It’s an exhausting list of accomplishments for a girl who has yet to finish high school. Through it all, she keeps True Grit co-star Jeff Bridges’ advice in mind. ‘He told me just have fun and not take anything too seriously.’

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As a motto, it’s as apt for acting as navigating the fashion world. Modelling actually preceded acting – Gap and Guess both booked the pre-teen Steinfeld. But she earned her high-fashion stripes aged 14, when she was invited to attend a Miu Miu show in Paris. ‘I couldn’t contain myself,’ she recalls. ‘We got to the show and I was trying so hard to stay cool and not pull my iPhone out and take pictures. And then the show was over in 10 minutes!’ Of course, it helps she’s pretty, but long-time stylist Karla Welch thinks the fashion world’s obsession is based on more than that. ‘She’s been embraced because she has talent,’ Welch says. ‘Hailee is the real deal.’

Front-row invitations are one thing, but being hand-picked by Mrs Prada for a Miu Miu campaign is quite another. When Hailee was still 14, she starred in Bruce Weber’s alternately dreamlike and playful images, lying amidst a rainbow of glittery pumps, eating pizza and descending a staircase lined with yet more shoes. But the image that drew the most comment depicted Steinfeld perching on the edge of train tracks, wiping a tear from her eye. Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority banned the ad after receiving complaints that it was ‘irresponsible’ in placing a teen in an unsafe situation. Steinfeld was baffled by the furore. ‘None of us were going for that in any way.’ When she isn’t catwalk-side, Steinfeld is more likely to be found in jeans and hi-tops, though sporting some serious accessories. ‘Miu Miu has been so good to me. I have quite the bag collection.’

It bags aside, Steinfeld is one of the few young stars that looks consistently lovely and age-appropriate, aided by power-stylist Welch (who also looks after Michelle Williams and Zooey Deschanel). To wit: her fairy-tale Marchesa confection at the 2011 Oscars. ‘The whole getting-ready process, from hair and make-up to getting the dress sewn onto me, was magical,’ she says. ‘One of the best nights of my life.’ Marchesa designer Georgina Chapman called it ‘an honour’ to create Steinfeld’s Oscars dress. ‘The design process was collaborative – Hailee wanted a tea-length dress in a light, feminine colour, and sent over inspiration images and notes,’ she says. ‘She isn’t afraid to have fun with fashion – she has a stellar eye.’

Then there was the bespoke Donna Karan Atelier creation that she wore to this year’s Met Ball – a punked-up prom dress in white leather, embellished with safety-pin rosettes. While some guests went the full Johnny Rotten, Steinfeld looked sweet yet entirely on-theme. ‘When we opened the trunk, I got chills. I started crying because the dress was so beautiful.’

The pace of Steinfeld’s life has been so unrelenting that only now is her mother compiling an album of pinch-me moments. ‘Stuff happens so fast,’ she says. ‘You forget what you did when you were a couple years younger.’ Steinfeld peppers her conversation with praise for her parents, dubbing her mother Cheri, an interior designer, ‘the smartest person in the world’ for insisting she take a year of acting classes before she let her find an agent. ‘Mom explained that this was something that required commitment.’

If that seems intense for an eight-year-old, remember that the Steinfeld family – she has one older brother, Griffin – grew up just outside of Los Angeles, where everybody knows somebody who’s trying to make it. And perhaps Hailee’s was simply an impossible-to-ignore talent. Cheri is a constant yet low-key companion, not a looming, ‘momager’ presence – she stays in the room for the duration of our interview. It was Cheri who sewed the hessian skirt that Hailee wore to her first audition for True Grit – she turned up to meet the Coens in full Western dress.

Child stardom all too often precedes teen rebellion, but Steinfeld epitomises Hollywood’s shift away from Lohan-esque excess, without missing out on any of her mercurial predecessor’s buzz. She and her peers have learned by bad example that it’s better to stay poised, private and work-focussed. So it’s little surprise to discover that she has called switched-on Taylor Swift a friend ever since they bonded at an Oscars after-party three years ago. ‘She’s the most amazing person,’ Steinfeld says. ‘I can call her no matter where we are in the world and she’ll pick up. She’s always there for me.’

This summer, Swift gathered Steinfeld, Gossip Girl actress Jessica Szohr and Girls creator Lena Dunham at her beach house for a long weekend, where they slept in bunk beds, walked on the beach, painted and talked for hours. As Swift is 23 and Dunham 27, it would be easy to assume that they view themselves more as her protective big sisters than peers, but even an hour with Steinfeld suggests an attitude that far outpaces her age. Bright-eyed and parent-pleasingly polite, she carries herself with a preternatural maturity specific to child stars. Perhaps a product of a life working with adults, or simply the nature of an actress hyper-attuned to how she comes across, there is little doubt that she’s a talent who knows how good she’s got it, and looks unlikely to ruin that for herself. ‘I’m creating this path of my life.’ she says. ‘Right now, this is all I want to do.’

Image: Getty

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