On the big screen, high school is more often than not portrayed as a glossy, candy-colored place where everyone’s drowning in suburban non-problems and is pretty enough to walk down the runway at a fashion show (even the nerds). Anyone who’s made it out of high school alive knows it to be a veritable horror show full of apocalyptic over-the-phone break-ups, long stretches of crippling depression and stresses so suffocating that the first day of summer feels more like the first day outside after a ten-year stint in prison.
Exaggeration aside, high school can be a sad, scary place, and The Edge of Seventeen is the rare teen movie that’s willing to tackle the uglier side of adolescence head-on. Hailee Steinfeld plays Nadine, a walking thunderstorm of dark emotions who frustrates everyone around her with sudden outbursts of eloquent cruelty, from her history teacher (Woody Harrelson), to her older brother (Blake Jenner), to her widowed mom (Kyra Sedgwick). Her world spins desperately out of control when her best friend (Haley Lu Richardson) starts dating her brother, leaving her socially adrift and perpetually pissed-off.
Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, the film doesn’t shy away from Nadine’s misery or sugar-coat her depression with cheap humor and cartoonish personalities. The characters feel real, and while Nadine’s grumpiness may be unpalatable to some, the wallowing is earned through neatly constructed storytelling and rich performances that elevate the movie high above its teen-movie peers.
During a visit to San Francisco, star Hailee Steinfeld spoke with PopMatters about The Edge of Seventeen, her surging career, the anxieties of being a teenager, her unforgettable performance in True Grit, and more.
Are there similarities between your character’s personality and yours?
I read the script and I felt like it was a true interpretation of what being a teenager feels like today, with social media and the open world of judgment we live in. I didn’t go to a traditional high school — I was homeschooled — but I was and am a teenager. That consists of trying to answer all of these questions that we have no way of finding the answer to other than learning the hard way. Who am I? Where do I fit in? Do I want to fit in? What am I good at?
There are all of these questions you ask yourself daily. There’s the struggle of showing up to school in your mom’s car that’s, like, definitely not cool. There are all of these internal and external struggles that we all go through no matter who we are, where we’re from, whether we’re in school or not. I’ve dealt with all of that, and expressing that through this character was pretty freeing.
In a lot of teen movies, the protagonist often comes off as annoying or whiny or unsympathetic, as teenagers can be at times. You don’t always understand why the main character is so anguished. In The Edge of Seventeen, we can clearly understand, step by step, how your character gets to be so depressed and feels so alone. Tell us about developing your character and building her journey.
The conversations started before I even had the part. In the audition process, Kelly and I would talk about real-life experiences, what the parallels are, the language in the script. If at any point I felt like the dialogue was slightly off, I could change it and make it feel real. She allowed me so much freedom to say what I felt was real and right. Discoveries were constantly being made in terms of this character. The development process never really stopped. The first time you see her in the movie, she’s not smiling; the last time you see her, she is. It’s a beautiful trajectory.
There are Asian people in this movie in major roles, which is always heartening to see.
Do you know that I’m Asian?
I do! It’s nice to see an Asian American like yourself do well in the industry. There’s also your co-star Hayden Szeto, who does a fantastic job.
Kelly said that that was the one role they thought they would struggle with to find the right person, and Hayden was one of the first people they saw, which was not what they expected. He’s so perfect for it.
Despite all of your career accomplishments, you’re still, as you said, a teenager. You have so many connections to people your age, from your movies, to your music career, to social media. What is your relationship like with your fans?
It’s constantly evolving. I was late to the social media game, but after my first movie came out, I got onboard with all of it. It was amazing to see that people had been waiting for me to get on Twitter and Instagram. The fans that have been introduced to me through my music, too, are amazing. I feel like I’ve done a few movies that have different demographics as well, which is cool.
You seem to be picky with the roles you play. Your choices throughout your career thus far have been really interesting and varied.
I’m picky in the best way possible. I have an amazing team of people who help steer me in the right direction. I’ve had the honor of working with great filmmakers and actors, and when it comes to making a decision in terms of what films I want to do, it comes down to the director and the people involved.
You must hear this all the time, but your performance in True Grit blew me away. It’s now been years since that movie came out. Has it felt good to have that movie as a foundation to build your career upon?
It’s crazy. I don’t even know what my life would be like without True Grit. Having that as my first ever film, constantly looking back on that experience, constantly referencing lessons I learned and things I picked up on and will forever take with me in everything I do… it’s pretty crazy.
The scene in The Edge of Seventeen that really resonated with me is the one at the house party, where you have trouble making friends or even finding a group of people to stand with. In real life, you’re famous and you go to all of these industry parties with lots of people and drinks and food, and I imagine you’re the center of attention a lot of the time. Did that kind of environment make you uncomfortable when you were younger, just starting in the business?
Yeah. It still does. One thing that’s so funny in that scene is that, when we were filming it, I was walking around, trying to figure out what I could do to make it look like I was fine, and I was at the fireplace, looking at the family photos of whoever’s house we were in. Who does that?! Who looks at the family photos of strangers? She’s so hard on herself for not being able to make it work.
You and Woody have a natural flow to the way you exchange dialogue. You’re great together.
His timing is impeccable. Everything is always on point, which kept me on my toes. It was very exciting, but also terrifying. He challenged me. He’s a great person, has the best sense of humor, and was a delight to work with.