At just 21, she’s already an accomplished actor and megawatt pop star. But this is only the beginning
Words by PETER DAVIS
Photography by BEAU GREALY
Creative and Fashion Direction by ALISON EDMOND
At only 21, actor/pop star/campaign model and soon-to-be television star Hailee Steinfeld already has a master plan—one that could make her one of the most successful and famous entertainers of her generation.
She’s fresh off a summer tour as the opening act for Katy Perry in the U.K. “I was trying to take everything in and also trying not to cry and trying not to freak out,” Steinfeld says when she shows up for breakfast at Manhattan’s Public hotel in a black bodysuit and black pants with zippers racing across her legs. The outfit may look like she’s heading to a music video set, but she is actually on her way to a fitting for her first television series, Dickinson, a comedy directed by David Gordon Green and shot in New York, in which she plays the reclusive young poet Emily Dickinson, for the soon-to-launch Apple TV streaming platform.
“It’s a grind,” Steinfeld admits of her hectic schedule. “I would love to take a couple of months off and just live at home and clean my house and walk my dogs—stuff I never do. Just be with my family and maybe go on a vacation.”
Since she beat out 15,000 girls to win the role of Mattie Ross in the Coen brothers’ True Grit (2010) at age 13, which led to an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress, Steinfeld has not stopped working. She’s run the gamut of movie genres, from big-budget sci-fi (Ender’s Game, 2013) to Shakespeare (Romeo & Juliet, 2013) to her Golden Globe-nominated role as Nadine Franklin, a teen who says she wants to commit suicide, in the indie The Edge of Seventeen (2016).
She is ambitious beyond her years, and it seems every career step has been shrewd and calculated: For one, rather than just deciding to become a pop singer on a whim, she made it her mission to land a role in Pitch Perfect 2 (2015) to both hone her singing skills and show audiences that she had the chops to actually be a singer. Like Barbra Streisand used Broadway musicals to launch her singing career, Steinfeld utilized film to achieve the same goal. “I was able to use [the film] as the perfect segue into music,” she says. “I signed with Republic Records and it all just happened from there.”
The list of successful singers-turned-actors is long (Madonna, Cher and, more recently, Lady Gaga), but actors who have become successful singers—think Jennifer Lopez and Donald Glover as Childish Gambino—are a rarer breed. Steinfeld isn’t dissuaded by the Herculean task of becoming a performer who can literally do it all. She even plans to tackle theater. “I’ve always looked at that as the ultimate challenge. Theater in general, but musical theater would be pretty cool,” Steinfeld says.
In between making movies, she put out a single in 2015, the self-empowerment ballad “Love Myself,” which quickly hit platinum and left her millions of fans craving more. “Music had always been part of my plan,” she declares, sitting up straight like a young CEO addressing a board of directors. “Music happens so fast. You come up with an idea, it turns into a song, then it turns into another song, then you have a single, then it’s on the radio, then you’re on tour.”
She debuted Haiz (2015), an EP which was titled after a nickname fans had given her online, and released more singles in the three years that followed, including the hit “Most Girls.” A full-length album is still in the works—something her legion of fans beg for on social media. The original plan was to release an album this fall, but then Dickinson came along and now Steinfeld says she is going to take her time before releasing her debut record. “It’ll be worth it when I’m so ready and secure and confident—and every single song that’s on there I’ve taken my time with,” she explains assuredly. “That’s what I need to do. Slow it down and make it perfect. It’s the first time and I want it to be right.”
“Love Myself” turned the child star into a pop sensation and became an anthem for self-love, connecting her with young fans struggling for acceptance in a social media-driven world where likes have become a powerful currency. “That was definitely part of it,” Steinfeld says of the song’s message, despite some people believing the lyrics were about masturbation (“When I get chills at night/ I feel it deep inside without you, yeah/ Know how to satisfy/ Keeping that tempo right without you, yeah” she sings breathlessly). “Self-love is so powerful. When it comes to social media, it’s very easy to get caught up with what people are saying. You post it. You’re putting it out into the world to get some sort of reaction. If it’s something you love and that you’re confident with and not looking for validation through, then who cares what people are saying? And that plays a huge role in why that song was written.”
She uses Instagram sparingly. Sure, she will upload the occasional pouty-lipped glamour photo or goofy candid, but her feed predominantly consists of red carpet and on-set images, shots of her performing on stage and magazine covers—her strategy is to maximize social media to promote the Hailee Steinfeld brand to her 10.6 million followers.
Steinfeld has been photographed in Los Angeles with her rumored boyfriend, 25-year-old Niall Horan, one of the singers in the boy band One Direction and now a solo artist. Steinfeld won’t comment on her love life and she’s never posted a photo of herself with Horan. But he makes an appearance on the set of our cover shoot. “When you see people getting photographed coming out of their doctor’s office, it’s as invasive as knowing who they are dating,” she reasons. “I feel lucky to have fans that are interested in who I am. But I keep my personal life very private. I always have because there is very little I have control over in that aspect and when it comes to my personal life, my family, my home—all of that—that’s for me.”
So back to business. For now, the music is on hold as she starts filming Dickinson in Brooklyn. She’s also about to promote her new film, the sixth Transformers installment, Bumblebee, which will be released on Dec. 21. (Click here to listen to her new song, “Back to Life,” from the film’s soundtrack.) Steinfeld stars as Charlie Watson, a fearless teen who takes in Bumblebee, a huge, but friendly robot, then goes on the lam to protect Bumblebee from a government agency ominously known as Sector 7. From the start, director Travis Knight was dead set on casting Steinfeld in the lead. “During my very first meeting with Paramount, I mentioned only one actor: Hailee Steinfeld,” Knight says. “In my mind, Hailee was Charlie. She is the true heart and soul of the film. She was so open, bringing her life experiences, observations, imagination and exceptional talent to all of her choices. Hailee has no fear. Without uttering a word, she can break our hearts or lift our spirits.” Bumblebee is yet another example of Steinfeld showing off her range—moving from a big-budget sci-fi blockbuster to serious award season bait like Dickinson. Steinfeld’s master plan is all about proving that she can do it all.
Her unbridled spirit and drive were evident as a pre-teen growing up in Thousand Oaks, Calif., the daughter of Cheri, an interior designer, and Peter, a personal fitness trainer. The actor’s striking features—thick, dark hair; high cheekbones; and wide-set brown eyes—are the product of an eclectic background: She’s Jewish, Filipino and African-American. Her father reads every script his daughter considers and her mother is always by her side—at breakfast she sits a few tables away. She has one older brother, Griffin, a race car enthusiast who has driven in NASCAR races and attends almost all of his younger sister’s premieres and awards shows alongside the whole family.
Steinfeld started acting in short films and commercials at the age of 10, but not before her parents insisted she take a year of acting classes before auditioning for a single role. “I think back to the moment when I went into my mom and dad’s office at home and said I wanted to be on TV. My mom said, ‘If you take acting classes for a year and you stay with it, then we will look into it,’” she remembers, adding that her childhood passions changed frequently. “Up until that point, it was a new thing every week and my parents would fully support whatever it was. It was horseback riding and they would buy the three months worth of lessons and the gear—and then it was dance. It was just something new all the time. She put her foot down and said, ‘If you want this, you have to show us.’ And, sure enough, a year later I was still doing it.”
It was Cheri who found out about True Grit and searched tirelessly online for the audition sides (script excerpts) for her daughter to study. Miraculously, Cheri found the lines and helped her daughter master them. Steinfeld was preparing to put herself on tape when her agent managed to score her a last-minute audition. “Thank God I had been preparing because had I not, I would have had less than 24 hours notice,” she recalls, her eyes widening. “I went in and had three auditions over the course of a month and after my last one, a week later, I was on a plane. It was unreal.”
Instant stardom followed and an Oscar nomination. The whirlwind of acclaim and attention was overwhelming for a 13-year-old who had only made one feature film. “Every person I encountered in that year of the awards season would say to me, ‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.’ When I was 13, that went in one ear and out the other,” she admits. “I understood that it was the highest honor that you could receive. That was about it. And I understood that you got to wear a lot of really fun things.”
Cheri helped keep her daughter grounded and focused, and she has been a guiding force in both life and career. After sixth grade, Steinfeld was home-schooled so she could continue to make films. “The whole classroom setting wasn’t for me,” she confesses. “It was always about who else is in the class and who finishes the test first and who’s wearing what. It was just too much for me.” Cheri became her professor, not only teaching her daughter academics, but also maneuvering her career carefully. “My mom is superwoman,” she enthuses, glancing lovingly over at her across the room. “I would not be here without her. It’s crazy to see how far we’ve come. She’s incredible. She’s my everything.”
When Steinfeld is not working—yes, she fits in a day or two off—she’s recharging at her place on the west side of L.A. For her, California, like life itself, is about the possibilities it presents. “Having access to anything you want is a beautiful thing,” she says.
This story originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of C magazine.