We’ve Got A File On You: Hailee Steinfeld

Katia Temkin

We’ve Got A File On You: Hailee Steinfeld

Katia Temkin

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

Hailee Steinfeld carries herself with a sense of self-assuredness that all but ensures she will never fail. When the 25-year-old actress and musician went out for her first feature film, a supporting role in Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2010 version of True Grit, she entered the audition with unbridled confidence that it had to go her way. Sure enough, out of 15,000 submissions, she not only landed the role, but also earned an Oscar nomination for it. Around the same time that she joined the cast of Pitch Perfect for the franchise’s second and third installments, Steinfeld made a point of establishing herself as an artist beyond the realm of film and television. Her debut single “Love Myself” went double platinum, a certification eclipsed by “Starving,” the relentless pop earworm she crafted with superstar producers Zedd and Grey.

For Steinfeld, one of the keys to maintaining a balance of successful projects both on screen and in the studio has been reserving her energy for projects that feel true to her. Whether as Kate Bishop in Marvel’s Hawkeye or Nadine Franklin in the coming-of-age dramedy The Edge Of Seventeen, there’s always a lingering trace of her own personality beneath the fictional facades. Even when she stepped into the world of Emily Dickinson for three seasons on the Apple TV+ series Dickinson, she absorbed the sense of fearlessness the poet famously displayed into her own work. But another key is knowing when to let go. In 2020, Steinfeld returned from a brief musical hiatus with the five-track EP Half Written Story. As the title would suggest, there was another half in the works – but she felt she had said all that she needed to in the moment. 

As she awaits her return as Spider-Gwen in the Into The Spiderverse franchise, Steinfeld is shifting back into music mode. The singer recently shared “Coast,” her first single in two years, which recruited Anderson .Paak for a “driving down the coast with the wind in your hair” ode to California. In a recent phone call, Steinfeld cruised down memory lane making stops at the inception of “Coast,” joining Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” girl squad, her first-ever music video appearance, recording her Spiderverse voiceovers, and the years of highlights that fell in between. 

“Coast” (2022)

Tell me about the process of creating “Coast.” How do you see it as a reflection of how you’ve grown as an artist in the two years since you last released music?

HAILEE STEINFELD: At the top of 2020, I released an EP called Half Written Story, which was originally supposed to be one of two parts – it’s half the story – but I very quickly felt as though I got off my chest what I needed to with that EP. There were more songs that were of course meant to come on part two, but they weren’t finished and I thought I can either take the time and finish these records that I am starting to sort of drift away from, or put my energy and my time and this growing excitement that I now have into this new music and into this bigger project that I’ve been dreaming of making, that I’ve been losing sleep over.

I wanted to go from this place that I’d been in with Half Written Story, which was incredibly sad and lost and frustrated and angry and confused, to quite the opposite of all those things. And this came out of the time where we were all sort of finding ourselves rather stuck at home and I very quickly transformed my space into this little dream room of mine that I could create music in. I put some of my favorite records up on the walls and I shoved myself into the corner of the room with my mic and put a bunch of pillows around me. It took me a while, but I ordered some soundproof boards and tried to make it a little more official. 

And I wanted to sort of paint this world of joy and creativity and freedom and color and happiness and this nostalgic feeling in all of that in working on these records and coming up with these concepts and painting that picture and finding the visuals. I got to do that at a time where I really had time to allow myself to understand who I was and who I wanted to be and who I want to be moving forward. I got to use that time to let myself be influenced truly by the music that I grew up listening to. And by my roots, where I’m from. I’m born and raised in California and that has a lot to do with who I am, more than I think I realized in the past and more than I ever thought it could necessarily influence the kind of music I make. 

“Coast” came about right away, actually. It was the first song that we worked on. I was so excited to feel like we nailed this idea of what we were committing to moving forward which was this more sort of confident and relaxed, mellow energy in the songs. Especially going from Half Written Story, I think I found a confidence in this new music and in myself where I felt more secure. I knew what kind of music I wanted to make as far as what I wanted it to feel like. I was so pleased that “Coast” kind of kicked it off and sure enough, two years later, it happens to be the first one that came out.

Why was Anderson .Paak the right choice for this song and what did those early conversations about bringing him on look like?

STEINFELD: Anderson has brought something to the song that truly no one else could have. Other than him being a legend, I have to acknowledge that as well, he has this unbelievable energy – this infectious energy, this passion. He’s got this crazy rhythm and cadence that he brings that he found on this song that wasn’t a very obvious sort of song for a feature, if that makes sense. 

I think the funny thing is when I thought of Anderson for this song I was like, first of all, he’s born and raised in California not far from where I was born – just in Oxnard, which is incredible. It really cements that sort of West Coast feel to this song, to this record, and to this bigger picture that I’m working towards which is so exciting for me. And with this song being more relaxed, laid-back and mellow – at least compared to the songs that I made in the past – he brings that fire to it. And that still exists in this song because of the energy that he brings and the lyrics and the verse that he put on the song. Not to mention, beyond his verse, you feel him through this entire record. I’m so lucky to have had his commitment and his support on this record and beyond.

Interpolating Annie Lennox On “I Love You’s” (2020)

What initially drew you to Annie Lennox’s “No More I Love You’s” and what was your approach to flipping it into this statement of self-love and healing?

STEINFELD: I was so happy when this song came into my life because I swear I had a moment with myself coming out of this very strange time that I was in for what felt like forever. I, in the past, coming out of relationships have found myself looking for any type of distraction. Thankfully, I’ve had a busy schedule to turn to for a lot of that distraction. But in the past, I’ve found that sometimes we go into other relationships before we’re completely healed and can allow ourselves to fully be ourselves in that relationship. We give ourselves to that other person because we’re very newly out of something else.

I came out of something that I knew in my heart and in my head that I needed time. I needed to not look for the distraction of any other relationship. I needed to focus on myself. And at one point I had said to myself: “No more of this. No more I love you. No more just throwing that around like it’s nothing. No more falling into something because you think it’s more than it is before you even know what it is.” And so this song came around and into my life right around that time and it just felt like a no brainer. Obviously a huge Annie Lennox fan and to have her blessing with this song was an honor. And to kick off the Half Written Story little tiny era, if you will, it felt like the thesis statement. 

What was your experience being on both sides of the camera while making your directorial debut with the “I Love You’s” music video?

STEINFELD: I’ve been so lucky in the past to work with so many incredible directors on my videos that it’s always felt like an incredibly collaborative effort and experience that I’m so grateful for, from writing the treatments together to being able to voice my opinions on set and feel like they are being heard. That’s always a great thing as well. I don’t know if anybody knows this, but there was a video that we made for this that didn’t turn out so well. So when it came time to get it right, I was like, alright, I’ve got to step in a little bit more this time. And I was very happy and honored to share that co-directing title. 

I grew up – it feels like a pinch-me moment even now to get to say this – on film sets with some of the greatest directors and producers and filmmakers of all time. So to have that sort of come through into my music career is really exciting for me. Music videos have always been at the top of the list of my favorite parts of making music and being a musician, I think, because of my background in film and TV. It’s like I get to make a little mini one every time I get to do one. I’ve always loved the process and this one was fun to split between being in front of them behind the camera.

True Grit (2010) & Hawkeye (2021)

With True Grit, you landed that role out of 15,000 people and got an Oscar nomination for it. Flash forward a decade and you were Kevin Feige’s first choice to play Kate Bishop in Hawkeye. What are the signs or emotional cues that let you know which roles are the right ones to take? 

STEINFELD: When I was 13 and I was making that movie, well even before that, I remember walking into that audition – and I know that might sound crazy because I was so young and it wasn’t like I’d been doing it for that long at that point – but I had been on my fair share of casting calls and auditions and, at that point, I walked into that room and I had never felt more prepared in my life. I remember reading those sides and feeling like, “I simply don’t see anybody else doing this but myself.” And I found myself in the middle of all of these undeniably incredible actors and filmmakers. You know, it was just the most insane experience. Even now, I think I never in a million years would have thought I would have ever done a Western let alone that my first movie ever would have been a period piece, one with that dialect.

I feel like everything since then has almost sort of taken me by surprise in the sense that it’s obviously hard to plan the bigger picture. With what we do in music and in film and TV being so unpredictable, it’s like how do you know when you’re going to be where, where you’re going to be when, and what you’re going to be doing? But I think as far as emotional cues and feelings, I think I’m very drawn to playing characters – and I think anyone who knows my work will see this throughline – who have a strong point of view. Characters who absolutely have to experience a certain amount or certain type of struggle in order to find themselves on the other side. 

I feel lucky that I am considered by some of the greatest filmmakers to bring their story and their babies to life. I mean, it’s an incredible honor to have even been called back for True Grit, let alone having gotten the job. To be in Kevin Feige’s mind, like that’s absolutely insane. It just is an honor and I’m so grateful to each and every role that I played up until this point because they’ve all held such a key to the success that I’ve had.

During your first late-night appearance, you told David Letterman about the advice you received on set for True Grit. Then, last year, you did the same with Hawkeye, talking about what you learned working with Jeremy Renner. What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given that you carry with you?

STEINFELD: Oh, my god. First of all, that David Letterman interview was the very, very first talk show interview I ever did ever. And I will never forget that no one told me that I was going to have to introduce the clip that played. I’ll never forget it – scarred me for life, because Mr. Letterman looked at me and was like, “So, Hailee, tell us what we’re about to see.” And I had simply no idea. Whatever came out of my mouth in that moment was pure adrenaline and just a guess. 

But the greatest advice, my god, you know, I think there is so much value in – and I might have said this on Letterman, I don’t remember what my answer was – but I do remember Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin, all on separate accounts, telling me to have fun and not take life too seriously. And when I was 13, I was probably giggling as they were telling me and it may have gone in one ear and out the other. Obviously it stayed with me, but in that moment, I think it was like any other thing they could have said to me. But a decade later, I constantly remind myself of the importance of that. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the minutiae of things that you really shouldn’t or that a lot of people might not necessarily even care about at the end of the day. That doesn’t mean I should care any less. 

What I do, everything I do, I care so much about and I do take it seriously and I care a lot about what I do and I want everything to be a certain way. But it’s so important to remember that if you’re not having fun, if you’re not happy, if it’s causing you a certain amount of stress to the point which you are becoming unhealthy – it’s not worth it. And I’ve only realized the importance of that more and more as I get older just in life and in my work. But my god, have fun because if you’re not having fun then what is any of it for? It’s a pretty wild thought and it feels so simple, in a sense, but it is, and they told me that when I was 13 years old. I’ll be 26 in a few months and I really do feel like if I could tell my younger self at certain points in my life to just breathe and have a good time and relax and understand that, okay, this feels like everything in this moment, but you’re gonna wake up tomorrow and it’s gonna be something else. So just breathe, have a good time and stay true to yourself. I mean, I think those all kind of go hand in hand. 

Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse (2023) & Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse (2024)

The turn-around time for Hawkeye was so much quicker than what we’ve seen for the Spider-Verse films. How do you think about the build up of anticipation for Spider-Gwen’s return after such a long break? 

STEINFELD: Yeah, you know, it’s always exciting being on this side. A lot of the time though, I know just about as much as you do. The great thing about Spider-Gwen and being a part of this process, obviously now knowing what we’re getting ourselves into – the first time around, I remember, my recording sessions would take place when I was on tour. I would pull up to random studios in random cities in the tour bus. And I’d pop in for a few hours here, a few hours there and those sort of things are sort of crazy. You don’t know what you know, it’s a lot of back and forth of them matching the animation to you, you matching your performance to the animation. But what an unbelievable result. I can’t say I didn’t know — I mean, of course, obviously look who’s involved – that we had a feeling it felt special, like this is going to be something amazing. But, I mean, it’s groundbreaking. I cannot wait for people to see. If you thought the first one was any good, you are in for a super treat this time around. 

Bumblebee (2018)

The soundtrack for Bumblebee has a couple of songs from the Smiths on it, and your character spends most of the film in a Smiths t-shirt. Obviously that could’ve been a wardrobe choice, but I’m curious about whether that played a role in how you thought about embodying this character? How do you connect with your characters through music?

STEINFELD: Oh, absolutely. In fact, I’ve found that for quite a few of the roles that I’ve played, it’s a big part of their story and the story as a whole that music plays a big part in their life. Obviously music being a huge part of mine, it’s always been part of my process. As an actor, I’ve always created playlists for the characters that I have portrayed. Mainly because I feel like maybe because I would get distracted. I love listening to new music, I love knowing what’s coming, I love making discoveries in music, but when I’m in a certain headspace for a certain amount of time, I like to do what I can to help myself stay there and not get distracted. I’m a very easily excitable person, especially when it comes to new music, so I’ll find myself on one train and then I’ll hop to another and then I’ll need to reel myself back in. But I’ve always created playlists. What’s so amazing about playing a role like Charlie Watson in Bumblebee where music is such a huge influence on her life, on her relationship with her father who she lost, it has so much to do with the connections that she makes with the people around her. It obviously influences who she is, how she dresses, how she moves, how she walks, you know? Music is magic in that sense and I feel grateful when the playlist is sort of built in for me like it was in that movie.

Back To Life” was the first time one of your own songs had been featured in a film you starred in. What do you remember about writing and recording that song for the soundtrack?

STEINFELD: Yeah, it’s such an incredible experience because I feel like through the years that I’ve made the shows that I’ve made, I’ve been able to let it influence me as an artist and the music that I make, but never directly in the way that happened with Bumblebee. There was a weird moment I had where I felt like, “Are people gonna think this is like Charlie Watson singing this song? Is it gonna be confusing at all? Is it gonna feel like it’s from my perspective as an artist or as an actor?” And it was an interesting process finding that point of view. Honestly, just for me – again, I don’t think that’s anything anyone’s thinking about when they hear the song. But having been so in it, it was fun to write a song from the character’s perspective in a sense. 

I got to make that song with some of my favorite people. Kennedi [Lykken] is just an incredible songwriter. I’ll never forget the first time I met her, I remembered we were very close in age. She’s younger than me and I just was so blown away by the way she carried herself and I knew right away I wanted to call her and work with her on this song. Jorgen [Odegard], who produced the song, is also just a force to be reckoned with. I was actually working on season one of Dickinson at the time, and I called them and probably very poorly articulated or translated what was in my head. I was trying to give them the rundown of this movie. They hadn’t seen it. There was no trailer, there was no footage. And I was trying to explain it to them. Picture that, I’m like, “It’s the transformer and the robot and there’s this thing!” And they’re like, “Okay, well, if you could maybe think on this and let us know.” But we got into a place that felt incredibly right for the song and I was so grateful that the studio was open to the collaboration. It all came together. 

Dickinson (2019-2021)

How did falling so deeply into the world of a poet influence you as a songwriter?

STEINFELD: I’m so grateful for this show and for it coming into my life when it did. I think this show did for me what I wish a show might have done for me sooner in my life as a viewer. But I was able to be fully immersed into the world of this incredible poet and her work and her imagination and what we sort of interpreted her imagination to maybe have been like at the time of writing some of these fearless poems. And I think after having spent so much time embodying that fearlessness – people would look at her in disbelief that she even had the audacity as a woman to do anything other than what they were quote-unquote meant to be doing at a time, which was very little outside of the home or kitchen … that she had the audacity to to write so openly so vividly and ambitiously. 

I remember going into the studio, I had cut out this time for myself to write after season one not having anything to do with the show. I just knew that I was going to have some time and I wanted to be making music and I realized that I was completely moved and influenced by having spent so much time in the mind of this writer. When it came to writing my own music, I just felt this whole new level of fearlessness and an ambition to just put it all out there in a way that I hadn’t before. And I’m so so so grateful for that. 

“Starving” (2016)

In 2016, you worked with Zedd and Grey on your single “Starving” from your debut EP Haiz. Then, two years later, Grey and Zedd teamed back up for “The Middle” with Maren Morris, which was an astronomically massive hit. More than a dozen artists cut a demo for “The Middle” — had that ever come across your radar or did you feel like you had already made the perfect collaboration with them?

STEINFELD: Oh, man, no, it didn’t. But let me tell you, that song is just like laced with something so good. But no, it didn’t. I know that there were quite a few artists that I feel like people later found out about. I always feel like, I mean, maybe it was a timing thing, but I always feel like it ain’t broke, you know? I would love to work with them again. I feel like we absolutely had an amazing collaboration and an amazing time. I think that would be very fun. 

Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” Music Video (2015)

You played robot-like triplets piecing Taylor Swift back together in the music video for “Bad Blood” – what was it like getting swept up into the whirlwind of that era and the girl squad and everything?

STEINFELD: I was so grateful and so honored to be just in Taylor’s world – aren’t we all, by the way, to exist at a time alongside her genius? And to be in that “Bad Blood” video was like, quite possibly one of the coolest days. Just being a part of her world and her vision, and she has such a strong one for almost every single thing she does. I find that she is an artist that I reference often when it comes to so many aspects in my music career. What an honor to be a part of all that, how much fun, too. And looking back on it, it’s wild. It is crazy. That was a big thing. I mean, to be a part of that era was pretty special. 

The Cab’s “Endlessly” Music Video (2011)

Your first-ever experience filming an actual music video was on set for “Endlessly” from the Cab’s debut album Symphony Soldier. Were you already thinking about making music of your own at that point?

STEINFELD: Oh my god. Okay, actually, I’m so happy you asked about this. So basically, my family and I we were essentially on a road trip – in a minivan to be exact, just for the visual – and we were driving through … couldn’t tell you where, don’t know why I even attempted to tell you, but we were listening to the radio and “La La” was playing on the radio. When I tell you I was obsessed with that song. My family, for the three minutes that it exists, we’re so unhappy with me. I was like, windows down, singing out loud. Now I think at that point, I had to have been rather new to the Twitter, and I tweeted the lyrics. And then, as we were driving, we drove through a bad area with no service and I came back to all these notifications that the lead singer of The Cab tweeted me back, which is Alex DeLeon. And he tweeted back saying, “I’m a huge fan of True Grit. I think you’re amazing. Come to our show at Universal CityWalk and we’ll dedicate a song to you.” And it was like, oh my god, say yes. 

So you better believe I was like front row – actually it wasn’t the front row, I was way in the back kind of hiding – but I went to the show and sure enough, he dedicated the song “Endlessly” to me – just as a fan, just as a friend. It was just the most amazing moment to be recognized by somebody that I was a fan of. And he then reached out and asked if I would do the video. And then this is the coolest part of this whole story. For my 16th birthday, Alex gave me the guitar that he wrote “Endlessly” on, which I cherish with all my heart. It’s up in my makeshift studio. And he is just one of the most incredible humans that I’ve met. I feel like that experience for me has always stayed with me and I’m always almost reminded of it when I have moments with people that reach out to me about my music and then are fans of my music because I’ll never forget how that made me feel. And I felt like that was just so important. But anyway, to bring it back to the video … I don’t know that I was necessarily thinking about making music then … I was definitely kind of showing up for that video as an actor.

The Edge Of Seventeen (2016)

Anderson .Paak is on the soundtrack for your 2016 film Edge Of Seventeen, along with artists like the 1975 and Two Door Cinema Club. What makes the perfect coming of age film soundtrack for you? 

STEINFELD: Damn it. I think you got me here. I do feel I’ve crossed into the world of coming-of-age quite a few times in my acting career. And I feel like if there’s one that sort of stands out in its truest form of what it feels like to be coming of age, it’s in the Edge Of Seventeen. I feel like that movie was so incredibly well done. Kelly Freeman Craig, who wrote and directed — working with her is one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. Making that film was a real turning point I felt for me as an actor and as someone who found a certain level of confidence within that role. I think playing that role allowed me to come of age and lose my mind and have that teen angst and sort of let it off in ways I never had been able to before or maybe even knew how to before. But I don’t know if I’m completely dancing around your question. I would really need to think about that. I actually almost want to make a playlist of it now so I can understand exactly what it is.

Foo Fighters “Times Like These” Live Lounge (2020)

Towards the beginning of the pandemic, you were featured alongside a ton of artists performing Foo Fighters’ “Times Like These” for BBC’s Live Lounge. How did that song and experience resonate with you at the time?

STEINFELD: I was so honored and thrilled when they reached out to me to be a part of that. Not only to be a part of something alongside so many incredible artists, but to be a part of anything in this world that can help make a difference, that can help raise awareness, that can help make people feel good. That came out at a time where I think we were all looking for a little bit of something to turn to and feel good about and so I was really excited to be a part of that.

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