Watching Hailee Steinfeld own the screen as masterfully as she does in film after film, it’s easy to forget that she’s only 22 years old. She started acting professionally at age 10, and just three years later was scene partnering with Jeff Bridges in True Grit (2010) to such brilliant heights that they both earned Academy Award nominations. Steinfeld ran with that momentum, earning roles in Ender’s Game and the Pitch Perfect sequels, all the while fostering a burgeoning singing career.
But she really stuck the landing of 2018 with her integral participation in two critically acclaimed films, voicing the crazy cool Gwen Stacy (aka Spider-Gwen) in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and embodying the incredibly relatable Charlie Watson in Bumblebee. Both cemented her prowess at playing characters who readily reveal their vulnerability yet exude competency and compassion in equal measure.
With Bumblebee in particular, the film presents a heroine that the film franchise had been lacking to date. Even though the film is set in the '80s, Steinfeld’s Charlie feels like a young woman of our times as we watch her embrace her passions and who she wants to be, while navigating the often painful injustices of what life throws at you. Plus, she gets to become best friends with an alien robot masquerading as a VW Bug, and sells that just as assuredly.
As Bumblebee continues to roll out around the globe, SYFY WIRE got on the phone to ask Steinfeld about ending last year on a high note, and what she hopes it means for her future in the business.
After you got cast in Bumblebee, what was the creative process like working with director Travis Knight to make Charlie the kind of character you wanted her to be?
After reading the script one time through, the most important thing to me was making sure that the relationship between this young girl and this robot would feel real and meaningful and heartfelt and emotional, but also fun and exciting. And on top of that, I also wanted to make sure that I was playing a young female character in this franchise who is pretty and interesting, but smart and capable in the world. That was really exciting to me. I had endless conversations with Travis about the previous films and making sure that we were bringing to life a young girl who wasn't so much of an outsider and unattractive and unlikable. She still was just as cool and badass as the previous female characters we've seen in the franchise; she just has a different background and a different story to tell.
I loved the fact that here you can watch it and you forget that you're in a Transformers film. And then at the same time, you forget that you've got this character-based story because of all of the incredible, cutting-edge action that is still very much a part of this film. It was very important for me to hold onto that, and Travis as well. [Screenwriter] Christina Hodson wrote an incredible story, and this character had an amazing voice. I actually spoke to Christina after the film about where it all came from, and it's all real and truthful to her, and to her life, and to her family, and people in her family. It's amazing to be given the opportunity to play a story that not only feels so real on the page, but then allows me to dive into areas in my life that I haven't really expressed before. I was able to do that through this character. It was really important to me to make sure everything felt real and honest and authentic, and I think it did.
Pamela Adlon plays Charlie’s mom, and she’s an industry veteran that I imagine was wonderful to have around you as you’re anchoring this massive tentpole movie. Where there any moments that were special for you working with her?
I honestly don't even know where to begin with this woman. She really truly is incredible, and obviously she has a show [FX’s Better Things] that she writes, produces, directs, and stars in. It was amazing to be around such an optimistic and positive energy. We were shooting a film that, at times, we felt like, "Oh my God, are we ever going to get through this? Is this ever going to feel attainable?" Because we were trying to pull off things that make sense to some people and made no sense to us. (Laughs) It was so great to have her on screen as a mother figure, but off screen, to just really support me. She really believed in me from day one. She would go away for weeks and come back and say, "How is it?" And she would know that I was exhausted, and she would just encourage me to hang in there and everything. She really is amazing.
You’ve never led a film of this scope and scale before. What did you enjoy about it and what, maybe, tested you in ways that you didn't expect?
I loved the fact that with this film there really was never truly a dull moment. I was always faced with some sort of challenge, whether it was physical or emotional. I'm just thinking back on specific memories, and the whole thing was a challenge, and I knew that walking into it. I don't think I knew exactly how much of one I thought I was getting myself into. But my imagination was put to the test. My fear of heights was put to the test. My level of what I could handle was definitely tested throughout the whole thing, but I had an amazing team of people around me to help me through it.
Was there anything Travis asked of you that earned him a "Wait, you want me to do what?" reaction?
When it comes to doing my own stunts, I'm definitely at the point in my life where I'm like, “If I don't have to get hurt, I'm not going to.” (Laughs) When I was 13 and they didn't choose me to climb the tree [in a scene], I'd start crying. So, I'm just growing up a little bit. That said, there were times where Travis would come up to me and ask me to do certain things, and honestly whether it was climb a crane that was 150 feet up in the air, or just roll out of a dumpster, I would totally question them because I've had to question the showing up the next day uninjured. But basically, my feet would be on the doorstep and all I'd have to do was open the door, and he knew that I was capable of it. He never put me in any uncomfortable position, and he knew how much I could handle. So anytime he came to me, even though I would question him, the majority of the time I knew that there was a reason for it, so I tried to do it all.
I am most proud of the relationship we created between Charlie Watson and Bumblebee, because at one point that did seem somewhat impossible. I do feel we really pulled it off in a way that I'm very proud of. I'm also proud that we were able to give Transformers fans around the world an origin story of their favorite Transformer. Being a part of something that people can say that this is what they feel they've been looking for the whole time, or waiting for, it's just so exciting and just really an honor to be a part of something they feel does the story that they know, and love, justice.
Charlie gets a dramatic arc in the film that has a definitive payoff. But she’s a young woman with a bright future ahead of her, and potentially there are more Cyberton visitors landing. Have there been talks about where her story could pick up next?
There haven't been really any in-depth conversations about this, but I guess the possibilities are really endless. I think, first of all, it would be interesting to see where, and when, we are taking place. I think that would have a lot to say, but I really do feel like Charlie is one person at the beginning of the film and another completely different person at the end. And even then, I really feel like she's got a long way to go, a lot more to learn, and a lot more to say. Again, it would be exciting to see when and where, but to jump into those conversations more in depth and figure that out.
When you look at the characters of Charlie and Gwen, what do these two women add to the cinematic landscape right now?
One thing that I find they both have in common, and that I truly love the most, is that these are real-life stories, really. With Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, you have Miles Morales, a real-life kid who comes from a real family from a real place that a lot of us recognize, and many of us are from. The fact that I get to play a character in part of a story that is so real is really special. And with Charlie Watson, this is a character that doesn't necessarily have superpowers, but she's a superhero. I think both of these films can relay that message that you don't have to be a certain someone to pull something off. You can be who you are, and that's what's most important at the end of the day is being who you are, staying true to yourself, but knowing that you can accomplish the world. I’m playing a young, female character in both of these stories that are so intelligent and know they're intelligent. They're brave, and I could go on in terms of the adjectives of describing them, but being a part of these, what feel like, real-life stories has been pretty special.
So, with Gwen, she's a part of The Mary Janes, which we got a taste of with her playing drums. And you did the song for the end of Bumblebee. As the Spider-Verse is developed, is bringing the musical side of Gwen into the story something that you hope that you can get into future stories?
Absolutely! Any time music crosses over, it's a dream for me. I started acting, but music was always part of my plan. Acting was, and is, my home base, so any time the music weaves its way in organically, it's a dream. So, I hope so.
You mentioned how great it is to see women embracing their abilities, whether it's Charlie fixing cars and being ingenious, or with Gwen being such a capable superhero. Women aren't allowed to own that very often, and you have two characters that you've helped create that aren't apologetic about that. Do you hope as you progress with success in the industry that’s something you will be able to push into existence more?
I honestly can only hope so, but yes. I hope that playing these two characters have hopefully put me in a position to where I can further that along, because it's important to me. It's important to me personally. I aspire to these characters personally and obviously identify with them and feel I have a lot in common with them, but there are still traits and qualities and things about them that I can only dream of having. So, the more that I can continue to make it feel real and possible, then I would love to do that.