Hailee Steinfeld, the 22-year-old Oscar nominee and pop star, has briefly transformed before my eyes into an old-school diva, her husky, measured voice suddenly a funny and theatrical wail. “Don’t bring that up!” she cries, in mock outrage. I’ve asked about Katniss Everdeen, the tortured heroine of the Hunger Games franchise, and a role Steinfeld was reportedly close to getting in 2011. Does she ever look back… “… and think what my life would have been like?” Steinfeld interrupts. “No!” she sputters once again, her lip beginning to dramatically quiver. “Not at all!”
It’s a rare moment of levity in a conversation that starts off professional and businesslike but grows looser as it goes on. “I truly believe everything happens for a reason,” Steinfeld says, taking a second bite at losing out to Jennifer Lawrence. “There are so many parts that I wanted or didn’t get… But I think, weirdly, it’s the same feeling of having missed every high school dance and prom, and yet I somehow found my way to the Met Gala. I feel like I’ve made up for it.”
Steinfeld has had remarkable staying power for an actor who, if she weren’t quite as brilliant as she is, could easily have peaked at the age of 14. That was how old she was when she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in True Grit, the Coen brothers’ dusty 2010 western that marked her film debut. Alongside a cast of stars including Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, Steinfeld proved miraculous – projecting strength, fire and world-weary pluck, all while dressed in the patchy wardrobe of an old man.
From there, rather than disappearing into the child-star void, she has carved out a diverse and interesting career in film and music. She comfortably cemented her place as a leading lady via the 2016 should-be classic The Edge of Seventeen and last year’s genuinely endearing Transformers spin-off Bumblebee, voiced Gwen Stacy in the stunning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), immersed herself in music, and this week makes her major television debut in one of the wildest and most inventive surprises of the year: Dickinson on Apple TV+.
It is also one of the more under-the-radar treats on the new streaming platform, possibly because it is tricky to pitch succinctly. But, if you were to try, it would sound something like this: Dickinson is a playful and revisionist take on the young life of reclusive poet Emily Dickinson: a half-hour oddity that smoothly oscillates between comic farce, teen drama and heartbreaking tragedy. It is about the allure of the dark and naughty, the pursuit of agency as a young woman living in a world set up to work against you, and features rapper Wiz Khalifa as the embodiment of Death. It could have been a disaster. Even Steinfeld was surprised it wasn’t.