Her feisty heroine in True Grit has launched Hailee Steinfeld into a higher orbit. She talks to Tim Adams.
The last time we saw Hailee Steinfeld, she had fallen down a hole and was being menaced by rattlesnakes. By that climactic point in the Coen Brothers' 2010 version of True Grit, she had so stolen the show as a debutante actor in the daunting company of Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin that you had no doubt she would face down the ordeal. Steinfeld had been chosen for the role of the pigtailed Mattie Ross, heroine of the Charles Portis novel, from an open audition of 150,000 girls in her native California. The idea of a star being born has rarely had as much credence: she went along as a 13-year-old with hardly any acting experience, left on the list of youngest-ever Oscar nominees alongside the likes of Tatum O'Neal and Jodie Foster, and with critics falling over themselves.
Nearly three years on and Steinfeld is set to make good on those prophecies. She took a year off after True Grit to attend award ceremonies, keep up with schoolwork, catch her breath ("The only words I think I spoke all that year," she says, "were 'thank you so much, I had so much fun'.") Since then she has worked on seven films with a roster of co-stars that includes Keira Knightley, Kristen Wiig, Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank and Kevin Costner.
Her two latest films are Julian Fellowes' take on Romeo and Juliet, in which she falls head over heels with Douglas Booth, and Ender's Game, the adaptation of the cult science-fiction book, in which she is mostly in zero gravity with fellow prodigy Asa Butterfield (of Hugo fame) and Harrison Ford.
Now 16, Steinfeld is, in person, both older and younger than she appeared in True Grit. It is hard to imagine anyone more determined or wise beyond her years than her beetle-browed Mattie Ross, so you don't expect her to still be a smiley teenager. But she is, determinedly, as she is keen to stress, having fun. We talk first about the particular fun of Ender's Game, in which a hit squad of young Xbox addicts is recruited to save the world from alien invasion. There is a good deal of floating upside down in spacesuits, firing laser guns.
It required a very different skill set from those she needed in her first film. There was a military bootcamp to begin with, on set in New Orleans, where they "learned to march and did a lot of core body work". (Steinfeld's father is a fitness trainer, her brother a Nascar driver, so you guess that came quite easily.) And then she had to learn to act in space. "The hard thing," she says, "was trying to do all your character work while hanging from a wire, unable to bend at the waist."
She went to the set straight from Italy where she had been filming Romeo and Juliet for three and a half months, which was a more emotionally challenging experience. "Ender's Game was always something I could look forward to," she says. "It was very amusing in that there was always someone spinning out of control, 15ft up in the air."
After True Grit Steinfeld was not short of offers and mostly let her team - "my agents and my family" - decide what she would do next. As she gets older she'd like to "try to weigh in a bit more myself". It doesn't seem likely she will do a Miley Cyrus though - she's far too calm. She has no interest in the career trajectory of other child stars, though actors she has worked with "have incredible stories about starting young, giving up, going back to it. You know there is going to be a lot of struggle and conflict along the way. I'm ready for that."
She is still getting used to the idea of seeing herself on screen. I wonder, what did she make of her larger-than-life self in True Grit?
"My mum and dad and older brother and a few people had a private screening on the Paramount lot," she recalls. "I sat in front of everyone, in a row on my own and I didn't turn around until the very end of the credits. I was scared to in a way. It was the first time I had seen it. I knew they would tell me it was good no matter what. But anyway, I turned around eventually and looked at my parents and we all just got really, really emotional. The Paramount people said they wished they had this response to all their screenings. But it was so overwhelming for me. The way it translates on screen is so different to how you imagine."
She has not been short of famous co-stars in her career, but does she feel at home in the company of Harrison Ford and the rest now?
"Well, you have so many pinch-me moments you have to stop pinching," she says. "I still consider myself very much a beginner; maybe that never changes." On Ender's Game she was able to swap stories with Butterfield whose career has had a similar trajectory. "People keep telling us it is so rare to have what we have had in out first films, that you can wait forever for it. But we seem lucky enough to have it every time so far."
Steinfeld was attached to the Romeo and Juliet project from when she was 13, and assisted in the casting of her star-crossed lover, Booth. "We met maybe two years ago at the Metropolitan Ball in New York," she says. "We knew that we were going to be screen-testing with each other, so he came up and said hi. When we read together it was a really great experience. There has to be certain chemistry between the two characters and we had that straight away."
Listening to Steinfeld say this, you are aware of the kind of hard-won confidence in her that shone through so luminously in True Grit. Where does she think that came from? "I don't know," she says, "but as a kid I wanted to try new things all the time. I went to my mum at about 7 or 8 and said 'I want to start acting', but the week before I had said I wanted to do ballet. She said if I took acting classes for a full year, she would look further into it, and that's how it started. When I auditioned for Joel and Ethan [Coen] I had to read opposite Jeff Bridges, and I was beyond nervous. I think that made me seem so, so serious. I thought it was going okay, but Joel and Ethan started laughing. I just kept on going. I guess that's what they were looking for. And when I look at the film now, it looks hilarious to me, too. This 13-year-old girl thinking she can stand up to Jeff Bridges."
Who: Hailee Steinfeld
What: Ender's Game (at cinemas now) and Romeo and Juliet (opens February 13)
- TimeOut / Observer