At the age of 13, Hailee Steinfeld burst onto the scene in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, earning the young actress an Oscar nomination for her efforts.

Considered by many as her finest performance to date – that’s a statement now in question, following her remarkable turn in Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen. Produced by James L. Brooks and also starring Woody Harrelson, Steinfeld plays the lead role of Nadine, vying to discover exactly who she is as she navigates her way around the unforgiving landscape that is high school. Garnering rave reviews, the film walks a thin line between comedy and pathos and Steinfeld discusses the challenges in getting that tone spot on. She also speaks about the freedom Craig allowed her actors, and what it was like collaborating with Harrelson. Steinfeld went on to discuss the similarities she has to the role, Nadine’s imperfections, and whether she has given much thought to directing herself one day. 

So what was it that initially attracted you to getting involved in this project?

So many things. I’ve always felt like I’ll read the script one time and decide if I like it or not, then read it through again and start to pick up on things that grab my attention, things that I like, and so on and so forth, the more you read it the more you discover. But after the first time I read this script, there was so much from this character and her wit, and her toughness and tenderness, and so many internal struggles that this character had, and things she struggled to say but never struggled to show, and vice versa in some situations. She has so many layers, and that alone was of interest to me.

She’s incredibly flawed, and the whole film thrives on her imperfections – that must have been refreshing?

Absolutely, a character that is unapologetic and has no shy approach to anything. She speaks the way you hear teenagers talk if you walk down the hallways of a high school. Playing a character like that is really a rare opportunity.

Do you share many similarities to Nadine?

I do, more than I’m willing to admit. The awkwardness levels for one, we definitely share that. I think I play it off a little bit better than she does, though. The main thing I would say is that Nadine is trying to find answers to these questions, and those questions are, ‘who am I?’ and ‘what is my place in this world?’. She also asks, ‘what am I good at?’ and ‘how do I fit in? And do I even want to fit in?’. Those are questions that I have been trying to find the answers to in the last couple of years in my life, and some I have, and some I’m still searching. But that right there alone made this feel like it was in no way a teen movie, or a high school movie, it’s a movie about figuring out who you are.

Hailee Steinfeld

It’s a really tough age, but it’s also a glorious one too because everything seems to matter more than anything else has ever mattered before.

It’s true, very true – and this movie walks a very thin tightrope, balancing the comedy and the drama. Some of the most comedic moments come from this character being so overly dramatic, feeling like one second everything is amazing, she’s the happiest she can be, she’s in a great mood and everything is awesome and she loves everybody. Then like 30 seconds later it’s the complete opposite, it’s the end of the world and she hates everybody, and making that apparent and so it can be felt by the audience was a challenge.

When you were 17, your life was somewhat abnormal, in a sense that you’re involved in the film industry and already had an Oscar nomination to your name. Do you think you live that normality through your characters? You get to experience some of the experiences you perhaps didn’t have, through a character like Nadine?

Absolutely, yes. You articulated that in a way I haven’t been able to, but yes. People have said to me before because I didn’t have a traditional high school experience as I was home schooled, that I’ve bypassed all of the nonsense and the drama. The girls, the boys, everything, but I didn’t. My experience was different, but I didn’t just bypass that, I didn’t skip through it, I didn’t go from 13 to 20. I was still 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18. I’m still in it, as is everyone else, and I was really, truly able to express that through this character in this movie.

The older you get, roles like this will start escaping you – is there a sense of trying to get in as many as you can before it’s too late? Because it’s such a wonderful sub-genre.

Well I will say that there’s not very many of them, and in ways, yeah there is only a certain period of time you can get away with playing characters like these in terms of the age and stages they’re at in their lives, but in some ways I didn’t necessarily want to play them. I wanted to play characters who were older than me and felt like they were more mature than I was, because I felt like that’s where the challenge was, and I was wrong. I read the script and felt that the complexity of this character is where the challenge is, it’s not in the age.

A word on Woody Harrelson – what it was like collaborating with him so closely? You have a great rapport in the movie.

It was great sharing the screen with him, and as much as there is, I just wish there was more. We had the best time together, we quickly became friends, he really is such a cool person and an unbelievable actor, with a great sense of humour and amazing timing. He kept me thinking.

This film is already being spoken about on very high terms, as a real classic film in this genre. Will this have that same watchability factor as the likes of Mean Girls, to be as quotable, and to garner that same cult status?

I guess you never really know until it happens, I don’t know if that’s something you can plan. But I hope it is, I hope it’s something that my generation feels they can call their own – which is why I am so excited to be giving this film to my generation.

The Edge of Seventeen follows a familiar formula in an affectionate way, but at the same time it completely subverts expectations. That must’ve been nerve-racking beforehand, because so much is dependant on the tone?

It is a very thin line, but Kelly was absolutely there every second of the way to help us if anybody ever stepped off the tightrope, but it was so apparent in the writing, it didn’t feel like there were many moments where we needed to be reminded, because it was so there.

Interview conducted by Stefan Pape.

The Edge of Seventeen is out to download now and on DVD from Monday