Hailee Steinfeld Wants You To Forget She’s 16

7 minute read
Lily Rothman

On a recent afternoon at the museum of Modern Art in New York City, the actress Hailee Steinfeld paused in front of a video-game installation. Steinfeld–who, at 14, received an Oscar nomination for her role in 2010’s True Grit–isn’t a gamer, though her role in the new movie Ender’s Game (in theaters Nov. 1) involves, as the title implies, some serious time with a battle simulator. Nevertheless, she picked up the joystick to a game called Passage, in which the player progresses through a lifetime.

“The early stages of life seem to be all about the future: what you’re going to do when you grow up, who you’re going to marry, and all the things you’re going to do someday,” the game designer, Jason Rohrer, writes in his artist’s statement. “At the beginning of the game, you can see your entire life out in front of you, albeit in rather hazy form.”

For Steinfeld, now 16, that hazy future has begun to clear. October saw the release of her second film, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes’ adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, in which she plays the heroine. Now she’s appearing in Ender’s Game as the only girl in an army of children tasked with saving the world from aliens. She has roles in seven more movies either screening at festivals or due for release in 2014: Can a Song Save Your Life? and the Alice Munro adaptation Hateship Loveship, both of which showed at this fall’s Toronto International Film Festival, plus two thrillers, two period dramas and a teen action comedy, Barely Lethal, in which she stars. And while 16 going on 17 is still definitively young, she’ll soon hit the upper limit of what counts as precocious for an actor. Now is her moment to prove that she’s not just someone who once, when she was a child, did an incredible thing but that she can be a star.

“I don’t know that I’ve looked into [my age] as much as everyone else has,” she says. “I guess people sort of apply that as a compliment to my work, that factor of ‘and she’s 16!’ As I get older, whether that continues to be talked about or not, I hope people pay attention to the work.”

It’s not that Steinfeld wants to grow up fast. For now, her age is an asset to her acting, says Fellowes, who calls her “a cracking girl,” noting that only one so young could be an optimistic Juliet. “What Hailee has is that extraordinary gift of youth, that she plays the earlier scenes as if it’s going to be O.K.,” he says. “I think that’s something that life takes away from you.”

Steinfeld spent a quiet year after True Grit focusing on school and looking for her next project. Finding something right for her age was one goal. If the first two films out of the gate are any indication, she gets an A in age appropriateness–and filming in France on Three Days to Kill, a thriller due in February, helped her get an A on a project about the French Revolution too. Steinfeld is visibly proud to be the actress closest to Juliet’s 13 years to have played the character on film. (Claire Danes was 17 when Baz Luhrmann’s version came out.) Nudity was excised from the script when Steinfeld signed on, leaving some kissing and minor groping between her Juliet and Romeo (played by Douglas Booth). And while the Ender’s Game movie doesn’t reveal exact ages, many soldiers in the novel on which it’s based are younger than Juliet.

Her Ender’s Game character, who goes into space to train for interplanetary warfare, may seem like the bigger stretch, but then again, Steinfeld knows what it’s like to be far from home with much riding on her work. She says Juliet’s emotions–true love and the high stakes that attend it–are ones she has yet to experience. After all, she’s still a junior in high school, which she attends via an online homeschooling program. She’s taking driver’s ed. She lives at home in Los Angeles with her parents–her father Pete is a personal trainer, her mother Cheri an interior designer–and is close to her older brother, whose college graduation she attended instead of the Toronto Film Festival. Though she prefers hanging out and listening to music, she and her friends sometimes go to the Westfield Topanga mall. Her cheeks, both on and off camera, tend to glow baby-doll pink. This visit to MOMA was her first. (The piece that drew the giddiest enthusiasm: Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans.)

It’s almost enough to convince you she’s just an ordinary teenager who has had extraordinary luck, especially because she seems so aware of the rarity of her success. “I realize how fortunate I am to have found what I love so young,” she says. “I’ve had some really incredible opportunities.”

But of course normal teenagers aren’t nominated for Oscars. And while there’s no denying that her luck has been good–her former acting teacher, Cynthia Bain, recalls helping Steinfeld prep for a Nickelodeon pilot shortly before True Grit was cast; if the pilot had become a series, Steinfeld might not have been available for the movie–that luck has had little to do with what comes next.

Which is good news for Steinfeld, since there’s no planning for luck. Those who have worked with her say she has assets that can be counted on, assets that will aid her shot at stardom. There’s her training–Steinfeld’s parents made her take a year of classes before allowing her to even try anything professional–and also a level of talent that Bain says was evident early on. Combine that with persistence and a good support system and you have what Bain calls the ingredients of a fruitful career.

Those qualities pay off on set. “She’s very focused, very mature in her work, and I can see her simply going from strength to strength,” says Ben Kingsley, who plays military commander Mazer Rackham in Ender’s Game. “She’s very well rooted in her craft. There’s nothing woolly or peripheral about her.”

“I think she has a natural awareness of what she needs to do in front of the camera,” says Damian Lewis, who plays her father in Romeo and Juliet. “She’s got that freshness and that immediacy, which is so exciting. You can see it in her eyes all through her performance as Juliet. There’s a real light behind the eyes. That’s going to stand her in very good stead for film acting.”

Perhaps her talents will be applied toward other goals someday, since Steinfeld says she’d like to explore other sides of the movie business at some point. That part, however, is much hazier than the rest. “I tend to not go much further than planning my day out,” she says. “The future is so unpredictable. I don’t necessarily have a specific place I want to be or know where I’m going to be five years from now.”

After all, at 16, the future can seem only so clear–and there’s nothing wrong with just being a teenager. In the car on the way to the museum, Steinfeld turned on the radio and heard the voice of Lorde, the singer behind the chart-topping “Royals” and, at the time, a fellow 16-year-old. “I’m thinking to myself, This has got to be the coolest girl ever,” Steinfeld says. “I’m like, ‘She’s 16! That’s awesome, right?’ My brother was sitting right next to me and was like, ‘You’re 16 too.’ I’m like, ‘I know! That’s crazy!'”

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com