HAILEE STEINFELD IN NEW YORK, MARCH 2016. PHOTOS: JACK WATERLOT/DE FACTO INC. STYLING: AMY MACH. HAIR: ROBERTO DI CUIA USING ORIBE HAIR CARE AT L’ATELIER NYC. MAKEUP: CHRISTINE CHERBONNIER/THE WALL GROUP USING NARS COSMETICS AND SISLEY SKIN CARE. MANICURE: GERALDINE HOLFORD/THE WALL GROUP USING DIOR VERNIS. PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT: HERMAN VAN DEN BRANT. STYLING ASSISTANT: ALYCEN HUMPHREY-CASE. SPECIAL THANKS: GO STUDIOS.
Los Angeles native Hailee Steinfeld took her first acting class at age eight and, only five years later, gave an Academy Award-nominated performance as Mattie Ross in the Coen brothers’ frontier western True Grit. Although she was taking vocal lessons and recording song covers in a studio at the time, as acting became a serious pursuit, her musical beginnings were sidelined in favor of the screen. When the opportunity to combine the two interests arose in the musical comedy Pitch Perfect 2, however, Steinfeld became an a capella singing Barden Bella and began creating her own music.
In November 2015, the now 19-year-old released her debut EP Haiz (Republic Records), taking its title from a fan-given nickname. Her first single, the pop empowerment anthem “Love Myself,” was a telling, bouncy introduction that didn’t shy away from self-love—literal, or otherwise—with Steinfeld confidently singing, “Pictures in my mind on replay / I’m gonna touch the pain away … Gonna love myself, no, I don’t need anybody else.” Last week, Steinfeld released the music video for “Rock Bottom,” the second single off of the EP and featuring DNCE (a band she admits she’s “so obsessed with”). Collaborating with the four-piece was an obvious choice; Steinfeld’s friend Joe Jonas was working on DNCE’s debut EP at the same time Steinfeld was working on hers, and with the same team. As Steinfeld tells it, Jonas cut the second verse on the song and “it felt right.” The result is a catchy tale of a turbulent young relationship, perhaps best encapsulated by the lyric, “We play hard with our plastic guns.”
We sat down with Steinfeld in New York and after we addressed our similar first names and the undesirable nicknames that come with them (“Haiz” trumps than the more common “Hal,” we agreed), we spoke about how music informs her acting, songwriting, and more.
HALEY WEISS: Now that you’re pursuing music and film, have you found a balance between the two? Do you write songs when you’re on set?
HAILEE STEINFELD: It’s hard because I feel like the music never stops. It’s one thing with a movie to go away for a couple months. You’re stationed in one location if not two, you’re in that world, and once you wrap up you’re done with your part. But with the music, I’m in constant communication with my favorite writers and producers asking them what they have going on and telling them what’s going on with me. I feel that in the last couple of months since I’ve really gotten into music and since I’ve started writing more and more, I’ve become so much more aware of things that I’m going through and stuff that’s happening around me. I will jot it down on my phone so that way, when I’m in the studio, I can reference it, because it can be months before I get into the studio again. Whatever project I’m working on at that moment has 110 percent of my attention, but there’s always a part of me that has [the music] in mind.
WEISS: What’s your writing process like once you’re in the studio?
STEINFELD: Depending on the situation, sometimes I have a harder time getting it into words than others. I’ve been working with Justin Tranter [Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber, Gwen Stefani, Fall Out Boy] and Julia Michaels [Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber, Gwen Stefani, Demi Lovato] for the most part and when I get together with them, it’s seamless. I can tell them what I’m going through without feeling like I’m about to have a writing session, and I have to tell them something so that we have something to write about. It’s all a conversation and not only are they hearing what’s going on in my life, I’m hearing what’s going on in theirs. I had a session a couple of days ago and we were in the middle of writing a song when something came up and we went off on a tangent about a life challenge we’ve all gone through at some point. We were like, “This is our next thing. This is something that we can all talk about.” So a lot of the time I feel like it’s such a collaborative effort between the three of us and whatever producer we’re working with at the time.
WEISS: So you’re working on new music now?
STEINFELD: I am… I’m so excited about it. The one thing about being in the studio, first of all, is going in when it’s daylight and coming out when it’s nighttime is one of the best things ever. I love being there in the middle of the night and leaving so, so happy. Recently, within the last week and a half, I was so close to crying in the studio because I was so happy and I had never had that experience. It just seems like the music is ahead of itself, which is so cool. By the time I release it hopefully it will still feel that way. It’s constantly evolving.
WEISS: Do you find that your acting and music inform one another? Has acting changed for you because of music?
STEINFELD: I did a movie recently called Besties, and that was the first movie I had done since I had really gotten into music… With the music I do feel like I get to be myself, tell my own story, and take my life experiences and not put them into another story but into my own words. But in doing this movie, after having been in the studio so much and experiencing what it’s like not having anything to write about, playing a character that I obviously identify with but who will do things that I’d never do, say things that I’d never say, or get herself into things that I would never get myself into—in my research and preparation for that I learned so much more about that specific person and myself and I was able to say, “Wow, this is something I don’t think I’d ever experience but someone has and it’s worth writing about.” So I really do feel like [the acting and music] intertwine. Music is such a big influence in my acting. I always have headphones on when I’m working; it really keeps me grounded.
WEISS: Do you make playlists for your characters?
STEINFELD: I do. I need to figure out a more strategic way to do it though because I’ll be in a really emotional scene and have a song on that I can’t listen to on a daily basis because it makes me so emotional, and then a Flo Rida song will come on and I’m like, “All right! Next!” I need to have different moods of playlists but that’s one of my favorite things, creating a playlist for a character.
WEISS: Was music important in your house when you were growing up?
STEINFELD: There was always music being played. My dad played a lot of classic rock and I want to say my mom is a little more on the R&B side—she was Boyz II Men all the way, and Luther Vandross. My dad is The Eagles, Led Zeppelin. My brother is into rap and hip-hop, and I’m kind of in the middle of all of that and I like straight pop as well. I really feel like I only, or mainly, listen to pop music.
WEISS: Pitch Perfect 2 was a good segue for you to do acting and music at the same time. Do you feel like that made you more confident going into making your own music?
STEINFELD: What was so amazing about using Pitch Perfect 2 as a segue to get into music is that music has always been part of my plan but it was always a matter of, “How am I going to do this seamlessly and in a way that makes sense?” and not make it a matter of, “Oh, I’m now making an album and I’m going to release it in two months.” I knew it was going to happen because I wanted it to happen, and there were roles over the last couple of years that I auditioned for that could’ve been what Pitch Perfect 2 was for me but I think obviously it had to do with timing and I don’t know that I would’ve been as ready as I am now if I did it anytime sooner. So when Pitch Perfect 2 came along, my initial thought process with that movie was, “I have to be in it because I love the first one.” But once I got it and I got there and was in the studio I realized, “This is so amazing that I get to come to work everyday as an actor and sing and record music.” [I knew] I could definitely take it somewhere because it’s the perfect way of letting people know that this is something I love and something I’m going to take seriously. It came out and it just felt right. I had “Flashlight” from the movie and I did my own version of it which was really the first time anybody ever heard me sing a full length song. Then I signed with [Republic Records] and the rest is, not history, it’s now. [laughs]
WEISS: Do you feel more vulnerable as an actor playing a character or as a musician performing?
STEINFELD: I think as a musician performing because it really is solely me, whereas playing a character you’re masked by that character and any mistake you make you can get away with by saying it was a choice. Music and the live aspect of being on a stage, having to carry yourself… It’s a weird thing that I’m still getting used to and trying to comprehend. But it’s a very, very vulnerable situation and I’ve learned that quickly being out there. The hardest part for me is getting off stage and realizing, “How long until I can do that again so I can perfect what I missed?” I think I’m always going to feel that way about anything that I do but the idea of it really being me and also that people don’t know who I am and this is how they’re getting to know me, it’s scary because if you mess up, obviously, we don’t live in a very gentle world so everything gets pointed out. I think as long as I remind myself of why I do it and I don’t lose that feeling I get when I’m up there that I love so much, I’ll be fine.
WEISS: You’ve probably been asked a million questions about True Grit over the years, but—
STEINFELD: No! Oh my god, it’s been so long.
WEISS: I’m wondering, have you watched it recently? And if you have, are you able to detach yourself from it or do you see it and think, “Oh, that’s me at 13”?
STEINFELD: In fact, it was on TV recently—it’s been a couple of months, but not too long ago—and my mom was watching it and I walked in and stood there for a couple of minutes. I remember when I was 13 and I was auditioning for that part, I took it more seriously than anything I’ve ever taken seriously in my life. I went in there and was like, “I have this down.” I read for the Coen brothers, I met Jeff Bridges, and there was no scenario other than getting this part. I remember it like it was yesterday; I was in the audition flipping through the pages and I was there and the Coen brothers were sitting there laughing the whole time. I was thinking, “This is not funny. Why is everyone laughing?” And a couple of months ago when I was watching it I realized that I really see the humor now. I didn’t get it then and now I do feel like I’m able to detach and see what an incredible piece that really is.
For that entire year of my life, from shooting to running the awards circuit, everybody was telling me, “You have no idea how much of a once in a lifetime opportunity this is.” As a 14-year-old I’m nodding my head yes and smiling as it goes in one ear and out the other, but watching it now I can see what people meant.