Hailee Steinfeld rushes through the door of New York City espresso bar Sant Ambroeus, serving TMZ chic in cat-eye sunglasses, her slight frame swallowed up by a brown Fozzie Bear–textured winter coat. But any of the associated stereotypes that come with the arrival of a teenage movie star vanish as soon as she opens her mouth. “Sorry I’m late!” the 18-year-old gasps. It’s all of five minutes after 11, our scheduled interview time for this morning. And she already called ahead to warn me.
Slipping off her coat, Steinfeld is clad in a black Tory Burch sweater, Citizens of Humanity jeans that she scooped from the set of her upcoming Vince Vaughn action-noir, Term Life—with a men’s black sweatshirt from American Apparel tied round her waist. As we settle into the corner of the bright café, Steinfeld holds herself with the kind of earnest poise that cracked up the Coen brothers during her deadpan audition for vengeful cowgal Mattie Ross in her breakout film, True Grit. That stoic, Eastwood-esque performance earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress at the age of 14. “I was a wreck,” she says of the Oscars. “And I was, like, freaking three.”
That’s right—as other teenagers were worrying about failed math midterms and where to sit in the cafeteria, Steinfeld’s teen anxieties centred on holding it together at the Oscars. Since then, her adolescence has been a blur of long days on set. She’s already released eight films, starring alongside A-listers like Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo (the heartfelt love-in-the-time-of-iTunes Begin Again) and Kristen Wiig (the Alice Munro adaptation Hateship Loveship), as well as tackled the Shakespeare canon (Romeo & Juliet) and a space opera (Ender’s Game). This year alone brings five—five!—more, including the Civil War–era thriller The Keeping Room, the coming-of-age drama Ten Thousand Saints, the broad teen-com Barely Lethal and the rabidly anticipated Pitch Perfect 2 (opening May 15), in which she joins the Barden Bellas as chipper freshman Emily Junk.
Student life was a new experience for Steinfeld, who has long been home-schooled, a decision the press has attributed to bullying. “It was a factor,” she concedes, furrowing her brow. “Along with [my film] schedule picking up. I was the new kid in school so that came into play. There was no second thought, because it was all around a not-so-great experience.” But her home-schooler status came with its own challenges: on the set of Pitch Perfect 2, her co-star Rebel Wilson made an offhand remark about home-schooled kids being “super strange and socially awkward.” After the take, Steinfeld whispered in her ear, “I was home-schooled.”
“There’s clearly nothing weird about Hailz,” Wilson says in an email. “I guess the only thing weird about her is that she’s so accomplished at such a young age! She’s so young and yet so professional and mature.” Steinfeld has never gone into specifics about her grade-school tormentors, preferring to leave her personal drama in the past. “There’s that initial, Oh, I’m going to go back to that person, and I’m going to say something,” Steinfeld says. “I’ve learned the best idea is to do your thing.” This take-the-high-road attitude comes from a solid upbringing: her interior designer mom and personal trainer father have put their careers on hold to take turns travelling the world as her chaperones. (Steinfeld also has a 21-year-old brother, Griffin, who’s a NASCAR driver.)
Steinfeld began home-schooling after the success of True Grit, leaving school halfway through grade six. Though she had to begin the grade again, she raced through both the grade six and seven curricula before the end of that school year. Today, Steinfeld is thriving, even if there are times when she keenly feels the consequences of choosing an anything-but-normal life: “It is definitely hard, being on the other side of the world, knowing that you’re missing out.” For her 18th birthday, Juicy Couture Black Label threw her a party in L.A. that was hosted by The Coveteur; guests included her friends Sarah Hyland of Modern Family and Just Jared blogger Jared Eng. But Steinfeld spent her actual b-day in Tokyo—where she sat front row at the Esprit Dior Tokyo pre-fall show. “I was texting my friends: ‘Guys, I’m 18!’” she says. “The next day I woke up to all these messages saying happy birthday, and by that time, I was kind of over it.”
So it was an almost-too-good-to-be-true melding of her surreal movie star existence and typical student life when she was cast in Pitch Perfect 2, the sequel to the surprise Anna Kendrick hit about a misfit a cappella troupe. (If Pitch Perfect U had a curriculum, courses might include An Introduction to Riff-Offs and The Pitbull Songbook: An Overview.) Steinfeld was already a Pitch Perfect superfan. “Every reference they made, I knew what they were talking about because I’d seen the movie a million times. There was this strange feeling that I was already a part of it.”
Steinfeld never thought she could survive in an all-girls’ school, “but that’s basically what this was,”she says. “I was able to go to set every day and feel comfortable. There was just this feeling that every imperfection and all your weirdness was accepted and embraced and wanted.”
Pitch Perfect’s original Bellas, including Wilson, Anna Camp and Alexis Knapp, had become real-life besties on the set of the 2012 film. “It was like a sorority,” says Salvador Pérez Jr., the costume designer for both Pitch Perfect films (as well as The Mindy Project). “The girls really bonded on the first film. Kelley Jakle and Brittany Snow live together now. It was very refreshing to see how both Hailee and Chrissie [Fit, who plays new character Flo] came in and were instantly bonded.” Such friend-crushing is understandable, though, he says, as “anybody that meets Hailee falls in love with her.”
With her casual attire and wearing next to no makeup, Steinfeld looks much more like a college student than the fashion muse who worked an orange pre-fall 2015 Fendi kimono jacket the day before at the opening of the New York City flagship. She works frequently with Canadian celebrity stylist duo Kemal Harris and Karla Welch, who dressed her not only for her FLARE cover but also for her three all-time favourite red-carpet looks. “As much as this isn’t in a specific order, it kind of is,” she says, listing the 2011 Oscars, when she wore an adorable blush-pink tea-length dress by Marchesa; the 2011 Golden Globes, for which she donned a sleeveless white Prabal Gurung gown; and the 2011 Screen Actors Guild Awards, when she rocked a striped orange, black and neon pink Prada maxi-dress. “It’s hard not to love everything Prada does,” she says of the Italian brand, which plucked her for its fall 2011 Miu Miu campaign and has been dressing her ever since (she’s dying to wear the loud prints, crop tops and pencil skirts from Miu Miu’s spring 2015 collection).
This May, she’ll attend the Met Gala in New York for a fifth time. She calls the annual fashion ball “the most overwhelming thing I’ve ever experienced in my life” (and yes, that includes the Oscars). Cast in Pitch Perfect 2 at the last minute, she was due to start filming in Louisiana the morning after last year’s event. She slayed in a sophisticated sleeveless black-and-white ball gown by Prabal Gurung, who doubled as her (platonic) date, before she ran off to catch a flight for her first day on the Pitch Perfect 2 set. “I got off the plane in Baton Rouge and went straight into a dance rehearsal,” she says. Wilson remembers when Steinfeld arrived on set. “She was wearing, like, a super dope cap and sweatpants, and I just knew instantly she was cool,” she writes. “Hailee jumped straight into dance rehearsals and by the end of the first day was already totally CRUSHING IT!!!”
The role gives Steinfeld a chance to share a stealth talent: her killer voice. While the songs were recorded in studio, she opted to sing live during a key scene. “I realized not only could I not match myself lip-synching, it was just easier to go live,” she says. The end result was so good, director Elizabeth Banks scrapped the studio recording in favour of Steinfeld’s live performance. “Singing is something I’ve always loved to do, and I’d never considered taking it further than the shower,” she says. But since filming Pitch Perfect 2, she’s discussed recording an album. “It’s being thought about,” she teases, “so we’ll see.” Her own musical tastes veer toward Top 40. A playlist she made for FLARE’s cover shoot included Sia, Tove Lo, American X Factor alumni Bea Miller and Fifth Harmony, plus The Weeknd, whom she swooned over when she saw him live on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
Before she presses play on those musical ambitions, however, Steinfeld’s next post-Pitch passion project is Ten Thousand Saints, alongside Ender’s Game leading man Asa Butterfield. “It’s the most mature role I’ve seen her in,” says Butterfield. “For both of us, it was a step toward becoming adult actors, which is a step you’ve got to take.” The public often bristles when a teen star transitions to adulthood, especially as some handle the evolution less…elegantly than others. But Saints was warmly received at Sundance for its story of teenagers united by tragedy against the backdrop of the punk scene in ’80s-era New York City. Huffing turpentine, taking psychedelic mushrooms and smoking a Snoop’s worth of marijuana play pivotal roles in the Eleanor Henderson novel the film is adapted from, with Steinfeld’s character, Emily, beginning her story on a cocaine-fuelled New Year’s Eve. “There were things I’d heard of but had no idea how they were done,” she says. “Maybe it’s because I’m not as exposed to it as much as the average high school student when they go to parties, but it was definitely a lot of research.”
While she landed this coveted role, she has famously missed out on others. Corners of the Internet are still shaking their fists that Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games went to Jennifer Lawrence and not Steinfeld, who had been in talks for the job. Her friend, Sophie Turner, best known as Sansa Stark on Game of Thrones, recently beat her for the part of Jean Grey in 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse. But all of those women, fictional and non, are still her heroes. “Even though there are roles that you and I both know I didn’t get, the women that did get them have paved the way,” she insists, leaning across the table. “Just because I didn’t get it, the person who did has created a standard that we have to live up to, which is amazing.”
She squirms over the idea that she, too, is a role model, calling it flattering but also terrifying. “Everyone makes mistakes,” Steinfeld says. “In the world we live in, our mistakes are highlighted over everything else. But I think as long as I do what I love, then people can choose to look up to me or not.” She loves the Pitch Perfect message of promoting and encouraging imperfections and hopes it’s one moviegoers will be inspired by. “It needs to be said and heard: it’s OK to be who you are.”
Hair: Marco Santini, Ion Studio NYC, The Wall Group.
Makeup: Hung Vanngo, CK One Cosmetics, The Wall Group.
Nails: Leeanne Colley, Tips Nail Bar, P1M.ca
Art director: Jed Tallo.