How Hailee Steinfeld Distinguished Herself From the Young-Hollywood Masses

After Hailee Steinfeld earned an Oscar nomination at 14 for her first movie, the Dickinson star had numerous opportunities to fritter away her potential—but she never did

By Natalie Finn Dec 11, 2019 5:00 PMTags
Hailee SteinfeldMichael Loccisano/Getty Images

Hailee Steinfeld had as promising a film debut as a young actress could ever hope to have.

She was 14 when she was nominated for an Oscar for her role as a plucky frontier girl out to avenge her father's death in the Coen brothers' remake of True Grit, the success of which provided Steinfeld with a crash course on the ins and outs of the Hollywood game between the film's December 2010 opening and the whirlwind 2011 awards season.

Steinfeld, who beat out numerous other hopefuls for the role of Mattie Ross, didn't win the Oscar (that was Melissa Leo's year to collect all the major hardware), but she scooped up more than a dozen awards from critics groups, including the 2011 Critics Choice Award for Best Young Actor/Actress.

"Looking back on that, I really feel like I'm so much more aware of what that meant now, then I could have done then," she told Britain's Independent in 2016.

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That time also marked the end of "normal" life as she knew it.

The Los Angeles-area native, the daughter of an interior designer mom and fitness trainer dad, started home schooling and entered the fray as the most promising newcomer since a 12-year-old Natalie Portman captivated audiences in The Professional.

Paramount Pictures

"It's very overwhelming and a lot to comprehend," Steinfeld told Canada's Tribute in 2010. Making True Grit, with the likes of Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin was "a lot to experience"—in a good way. She said all the seasoned actors on the set became like uncles to her, and she had plenty of fun, despite the at times grueling shoot in Santa Fe, N.M., and Texas.

And she identified with Mattie, in that "we'd both stop at nothing to get what we want."

But no, she had not yet started thinking about all those red carpets outfits in her future. 

"I am so bad at making decisions," she laughed, "but honestly I'm just kind of trying to take it all in one day at a time."

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As it happens, the dresses came to her—the designers she wore in 2011 included Prabal Gurung, Miu Miu and Marchesa (her choice for her winning Critics Choice night and the Oscars), as well as Stella McCartney for her Met Gala debut that May. 

Steinfeld planned to stay sane, she told Tribute, with help from her parents. "I'm so fortunate to have parents who support me and stand behind me, and honestly, they'll keep me grounded, I'm sure."

During a 2011 interview with Movies Ireland, Hailee had been bluntly apprised of her options after enjoying such out-of-the-gate success: Jodie Foster, who received her first Oscar nomination at 14 too, for Taxi DriverLindsay Lohan, which goes without saying; or "somewhere in the middle" like Anna Paquin, who won an Oscar at 11 for The Piano in 1994 and never stopped working, but wasn't much of a topic of conversation until True Blood premiered in 2008. 

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"The big thing is 'what's next for me?'" Steinfeld acknowledged, "and really the thing we're concerned with the most is taking our time and making sure, you know, whatever decision I make next is the right decision. And that's what's really important to me, my family and my team, as well. So I feel that I'm on that film route and am gonna try my best to stay on it."

Young star, major hype. As evidenced by the aforementioned LiLo option, many things could have then gone terribly wrong. Ultimately, however, none of the above really applied because—what do you know?!—Hailee Steinfeld's journey has been all her own.

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She did, in fact, proceed cautiously after her startling breakout success, and in turn wasn't back on the big screen until 2013. Then the fruits of her labor started pouring forth, in the musical romance Begin Again, the needs-no-introduction Romeo & Juliet and the big-budget Ender's Game, based on the classic 1985 sci-fi novel. Hailee also played Kevin Costner's daughter in the thriller 3 Days to Kill, which came out in February 2014.

"After I finished True Grit, it took about a year until I started the second film," Steinfeld explained her accidental hiatus to Huffington Post. "It wasn't intentional, it wasn't a set time that we were purposely taking off. We were waiting to kind of see what the right thing was, and we wanted to take our time. I was in no rush after that crazy year. When Romeo and Juliet came along, I fell in love with the way that it was written and how innocent and vulnerable it was and how different it was from True Grit. I really liked that."

R & J Releasing

Conveniently, she was assigned Shakespeare's rom-sob tragedy for school right around the time the opportunity came up to play Juliet. She met her Romeo, Douglas Booth, at the Met Gala in 2012 (she has attended every year since 2011), and they read for the roles of the doomed lovers a few weeks later in London. They shot the film in Italy.

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue

Her initial lack of attachment to the play may have come in handy, as she wasn't particularly fazed by the daunting prospect of channeling one of the most enduring heroines of all time.

Steinfeld told HuffPost, "I think overall the story is very universal and can be told over and over again and not get old because as much as times are changing, there's something about the story that those core themes are still so relevant today. I think people can continue to identify with it."

She did her homework, but "I think as much preparation as you do, it doesn't compare to actually doing it because there's so much around you that you can sit in your room for hours and go over your lines or whatever, but being there, it's just spontaneous and it's real."

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But while Steinfeld had the luxury of being in demand after True Grit, the films she chose to do didn't cause much of a ripple when compared with her big initial splash. 

"With a movie, you spend months and months and months making it, and at a certain point, it's out of your hands," she acknowledged to Rolling Stone in 2015. "Then it can come out that same year; it can come out years later, and when it does come out, you hope that it gets shown in more than 10 theaters worldwide, and sometimes that doesn't happen. Something that you spent months on can go completely unseen or unheard of."

Universal Studios

So that was when the teen pivoted to the world of pop music, which she savvily paved the way for by joining the cast of Pitch Perfect 2, finally another box office hit for the young star. A few months later, in August 2015, Steinfeld's debut single, "Love Myself," came out, followed by her sorta-self-titled EP Haiz that November.

"'Haiz' is something that my fans started calling me for a while," she told RS, characterizing her sound as "edgy pop." "I felt as though if I titled it Haiz, it would kind of make it feel like they had named it, in a way." Steinfeld said that she had always loved singing and entertaining, acting being just another way to entertain, and that PP2 proved the perfect vehicle to take her into the music world.

Once she was in the studio, she recalled, "I found it very hard to make it like it was a character that I was playing, because for the first time I felt like I wasn't and that it was me. Once I was able to let that guard down of feeling like I had to play some kind of character, I was able to really go in there as myself and have fun and let my voice come through. One of my favorite parts of this whole experience is putting my own words and my own voice into what I can call my own project."

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"Love Myself" and all that it implied was bound to raise a few eyebrows, but hey, so long as people were listening and getting some sort of message about taking matters into one's own hands.

"I've had girls come up to me and say, 'Thank you for this song and this message, because it's something that I needed to hear,'" she told Ladygunn. "Regardless of how they interpreted it, that's all that matters to me at the end of the day." Steinfeld added, "It's something I need to remind myself of—how much power it is in being able to love yourself. It's so easy to forget that we live in a world that is so judgmental…I think if you can start with yourself and have that self-assurance and that self-confidence and love, then you're good and you're set."

Also in 2015, Steinfeld's circle of friends expanded to include Taylor Swift—or, to put it another way, Swift's squad engulfed Hailee in its oxygen-sucking embrace. Steinfeld was among the hot young thangs in Swift's squad-studded "Bad Blood" video, she showed up at the 1989 World Tour, and was onstage and in all the pics when Tay reigned triumphant at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards.

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

"And nothing says turnt like Hailee Steinfeld," the evening's host, Miley Cyrus, said at one point—another weird moment of many on the night Kanye West first announced he'd be running for president in 2020.

Anyway, with the success of PP2 and the overwhelmingly positive response to Hailee Steinfeld, Pop Star, 2015 could've been the year when that level-headed, 14-year-old Oscar nominee who was all about making responsible decisions was brushed aside for good.

Yet despite all the trappings of mass-produced fame floating around her, Steinfeld refused to lose herself in the young-Hollywood machine. 

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Her song "Hell Nos and Headphones" was inspired by a conversation she had with Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter, both of whom worked on Haiz, about "times when I'm walking around in the world trying to figure out where I belong and noticing times where I'm uncomfortable and want to get out of a certain situation and giving myself that permission in knowing that it's OK not to feel like you have to conform to a certain behavior."

She told Rolling Stone: "That happens often. I go through it, I see my friends go through it, and this song is just that. It's not feeling like you have to do or say certain things to fit into a certain place, but instead about allowing yourself to remove yourself from a certain situation without being judgmental."

That didn't stop the rest of the world from lumping her into a certain box, especially once she started showing up on Swift's Instagram account, but Hailee undramatically extricated herself from assumptions.

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"I'm so lucky to be able to call some of my favorite artists and human beings my friends," she normalized her squad situation to Refinery 29 that November, ahead of the Haiz release. "Ella [aka Lorde] just turned 19, which is insane and so awesome that we're [about] the same age. She's so incredibly talented. Even with Taylor and Selena and Demi—one of my favorite things about all of them is that when we hang out, it's never a matter of anything other than relaxing and catching up and being ourselves and doing what makes us feel good. Then we go out and we do our jobs, we do what we love, and we pick up where we left off."

Her favorite moments with her friends tended to be "what isn't observed."  

The glamorous moments get magnified because "I've found that I'm rarely at the same place at the same time as my friends. If there's a moment, whether it's an awards show or a girls' night in, no matter where or what it is, any opportunity to see my friends, I'm there. It's exciting and it makes it much more of a thing when we're all together and it is public."

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Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood" Cast

After the stardust had settled, however, Steinfeld told Seventeen in August 2016—about a year after "Bad Blood" was peak pulsing through our veins—that Swift was "amazing," but "I think people think we spend a lot more time together than we actually do!" (Again to The Guardian last year: "I think everybody's always going to have their interpretation of something...She asked me to be part of ['Bad Blood'] and I felt honored. I loved being part of it; it was great and the video was beautifully done.")

In the summer of 2016 Hailee also had her biggest musical hit yet with "Starving," her collab with Zedd and Grey which got to No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100, and she was about to re-charm critics with The Edge of Seventeen, for which she earned her best reviews since True Grit, as well as a Golden Globe nomination.

Murray Close/STX Productions

"This girl goes through experiences I totally went through, where it felt like it was the absolute end of the world," Steinfeld told Seventeen. "Just having so many moments where you question who you are and what it is that you're good at and what you feel good in."

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Though she didn't spend much time in regular high school, she insisted that she could relate to her outcast character, who's dealt a packed hand of turmoil when her dad dies unexpectedly and her best friend starts hooking up with her brother.

"I was very awkward," Hailee told the Independent. "I had a tough time in school, trying to find my way and figure out who I was and how I was supposed to fit in." Working on True Grit was the first time she ever felt comfortable asking questions or otherwise speaking up for herself.

"I remember feeling in school that if you raised your hand too many times that the kids in class all start looking at you, so you couldn't raise a hand again without being laughed at," she recalled. "The fear of learning is something that was not even of question when it came to being on this set."

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With The Edge of Seventeen, Steinfeld told Indiewire, "We wanted other teenagers to watch this movie and see themselves in the character. She comes off as being super-tough and has the answers to every question, but on the inside, you see that she really is just fragile. That's real life. We all have those moments where it's comical how overdramatic we can be."

Better comical onscreen melodrama than the super-serious, real-life kind. Steinfeld turned 18, and then made it all the way to 21 in 2017, with no discernible scandals on her record. It turned out that her wise-beyond-her-years patience and reluctance to waste her time career-wise extended to her off-camera world as well. 

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images for dcp

Steinfeld has performed at iHeart Radio's Jingle Ball, on New Year's Rockin' EveThe Voice and the American Music Awards, to name a few; teamed up with the likes of Machine Gun Kelly, MNEKFlorida Georgia Line and, earlier this year, the New Zealand-based band Drax Project, on songs and videos; and returned to the Bellas for Pitch Perfect 3.

She sang the song "Capital Letters" on the Fifty Shades Freed soundtrack, talked up the Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (she was the voice of Gwen Stacy) at Comic-Con 2018, and hosted and performed at the 2018 MTV EMAs in Spain. Screen, song, screen, song.

She still hasn't finished the debut LP she's been talking about for three years now, but that's because she wants to get it just right—and, of course, other projects keep leap-frogging to the top of her to-do list.

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"I want to make the best first album I can possibly make," she told Seventeen in 2016. "And I want to get to a level where I can headline my own arena tour. I know that I can make it happen. It's just the beginning. I see the future being really big."

"I'm working on the music," she reiterated to The Guardian in 2017, "and I'm just getting it in the perfect place for them to hear it." What's taking so long? "Well, I'm sort of out of the game when I make movies, which is a big reason that it takes me a while."

The music that has been released includes her tune "Back to Life" for the Bumblebee soundtrack, "Woke Up Late" with Drax Project and Steinfeld's latest, "Afterlife," which was for her new Apple TV+ drama, Dickinson, a quirky period-setting-meets-contemporary-vibe take on poet Emily Dickinson's life.

So, another thing that put the album on hold: her two new roles, as star and an executive producer on the streaming series, which is giving The Morning Show a run for its money as far as word-of-mouth buzz.

Apple

"I truly felt like this was so different from anything that I had read," Steinfeld told The Hollywood Reporter in November. "I try to be very specific with what I spend my time doing, and I want it to be something that I believe in and feels interesting and cool, but this was all of that on a deeper level. I'm executive producing this as well, and I wanted to show up as something more than just an actor. I wanted to be a part of this on a deeper level."

She acknowledged to Wonderland, "I wasn't incredibly familiar with her before. I had come across her a bit in school but… I am now newly obsessed, and I'm so excited about the show and the idea of introducing her to people that don't know about her."

Just like with Romeo and Juliet, Steinfeld feels there's plenty to convey about the "Because I Could Not Stop for Death" poet that translates to the 21st century. 

Apple

"Women are very much still in the fight to be heard and understood and seen as equal," she explained, "and I think what's so exciting about this time that we're living in is that we're a part of a generation that is banding together more than ever, and empowering each other and lifting each other up. To have something like Dickinson, where we are introduced, if not reintroduced to this character that really did pave the way for women today, I feel is really exciting."

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Juggling music and movies was all part of her life plan, but she didn't even know she'd be contributing music to Dickinson until after she had shot the first season in New York. She was back home in L.A. when she got the call.

"I went back into a folder of music that was further along, and I had 'Afterlife,'" she explained to THR. "So 'Afterlife' was something I actually did a couple of years ago and tweaked a few things just to make it feel slightly more accurate to the show, and I think that people will, after they watch the whole thing, listen back to the song and realize that there are some specifics in the verses. Overall, after playing this character, fully embodying her and learning to appreciate her and her work, I have a more fearless approach to my art in all aspects—a fearlessness that I know I've always had but never used in this way."

But unlike Emily Dickinson, she's being appreciated for who she is in her time.

Erik Pendzich/Shutterstock

"I do feel that I'm very much in that same place that I feel many of my fans connect to me through," she told E! News at the junket for her 2018 movie Bumblebee. "That's being in that place of still figuring out who I am and what I'm doing. I'm lucky enough to have found something that I'm good at and that I enjoy at a young age, but I'm still figuring it out.

"I make mistakes," she added, "and [my fans] know that, and they get to grow with me and I love that I have them to experience going through life with—and I appreciate that they are so incredibly supportive of me and what I do."

And yet you'd be hard-pressed to come up with a noticeable mistake in Steinfeld's past, box office disappointments that have happened to literally every actor aside.

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Headlining her own tour still remains in the future, but she opened for Meghan Trainor in 2016 and in 2018 was on the road opening for Charlie Puth and Katy Perry. Earlier this year she was nominated for Kids' and Teen Choice Awards, and while the HFPA didn't include her in its odd assortment of Golden Globe nominations, she's getting great reviews for her Dickinson performance. 

Meanwhile, dating seems to be on the back burner for now, or at least dating in public is, since her breakup with Niall Horan a year ago.

"For the longest time," Steinfeld told an audience in July 2018, "part of me was like 'this is not love, it's falling and it's great, but it's definitely not love. I'm fine. I'm fine. This person could leave tomorrow and I'd be fine.' And then I realized no, I wouldn't. This is love. This is love."

She had known the "Slow Hands" singer at least since 2017, and they first sparked romance rumors exactly two years ago when Horan wished her a tender happy 21st birthday.

Jeff Kravitz/AMA2017/FilmMagic for dcp

"I feel so lucky that [my fans] care enough about me to know what I'm doing every second of every day, but I think that sometimes it's hard for people in general to realize that there are boundaries to a person's life and personal life," Steinfeld told Us Weekly in response to reports that she caught a performance of Hamilton in London with the former One Direction member. "I am a very private person. I do love that I have the opportunity to share with them what I'm comfortable with and they're there to listen and support me."

However, she and Horan were finally photographed on what very much looked like a date at the Backstreet Boys' Las Vegas show in February 2018, and she just so happened to be at one of his shows at London's O2 Arena the next month. And eventually they kissed in public last summer, so that answered that.

But they called it off a few months later, with a source telling E! News they "really tried to make it work," but "Hailee realized she had a lot on her plate and her work schedule was insanely busy. She was gearing up for a huge press tour for her new movie."

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Indeed, her big 2018 action film Bumblebee, an '80s-set Transformers spin-off centered around everyone's favorite only-seemingly-broken-down yellow Volkswagen Beetle, came out right before Christmas.

Though acting in front of a green screen and talking to very few humans face to face while the cameras were rolling was new for the actress, Steinfeld once again was drawn to playing a scrappy young woman with hidden depths that don't stay hidden for long.

"She's a normal girl but she's capable of the world," Steinfeld told E! News at the press junket. "She's smart, she's driven, she's strong—and you see that."

That we do.

(Originally published Dec. 11, 2018, at 3 a.m. PT)