LOS ANGELES — The first signs that Hailee Steinfeld is no typical teenager come long before the conversation turns to kissing, which she does a lot of in the latest cinematic adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet.”
There’s the way she welcomes a visitor, asking, “How are you?” and appearing to be actually interested. And how she pauses to consider her own answers: no hormonal impulse control issues here. There’s laughing but no giggling, enthusiasm but no overt sense of entitlement. And then there’s how she talks about all of the lip locking.
Steinfeld, only now 16, does it with perfect professional detachment — despite the fact that Romeo to her Juliet is British actor Douglas Booth (“LOL” and the TV miniseries “Great Expectations”). He’s both seriously swoon-worthy and significantly older at 21. Then again, with an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress already under her belt for “True Grit,” Steinfeld is the name that “Romeo and Juliet,” opening Friday, was built around.
It was not, for the record, close to her first kiss, despite being hired for the role at 14 and filming at 15.
“No, noooo. . .,” she said. “But it was definitely interesting because on paper, you’re turning the page and with this script . . . there’s very little description, it was all in the dialogue, but what description there was was about how they’re going to [kiss].
“I thought it was going to be so weird,” she continued, “but then you get there and you realize it’s really not that big of a deal; we are doing what we have to do to tell the story.”
Plus, at Italian director Carlo Carlei’s insistence, Booth and Steinfeld had spent a bit of time together beforehand. Given her young age, Carlei also had eliminated any nudity and focused more on swordplay between the Capulets and Montagues than sex between the doomed lovers in this updated but relatively traditional retelling of Shakespeare.
“My suggestion to them from the very beginning was, ‘I don’t want to know if you are attracted to each other, I don’t want to know if one of you falls in love with the other, or you both fall in love with each other,’ ” Carlei said. “ ‘The only thing I care about is that you become great friends and become comfortable with each other.’ ”
That they did, Steinfeld says. (Again, for the record, there was no falling in love on either side.) She also says Romeo’s hotness didn’t hurt, then recovers her decorum by noting that all of the young British actors were handsome and made more so by their talent, “which, in my opinion, makes it even better.”
Career-wise, life could not get much better for the California-born Steinfeld, who counts seven as-yet-to-open movies she has completed since “True Grit” and can now count Kristen Wiig and Guy Pearce (“Hateship Loveship),” Harrison Ford and Viola Davis (“Ender’s Game”), and Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank (“The Homesman”) among her costars. She’s also got another two star turns in pre-production that cast her as an assassin — faking her own death to take on suburban high school in “Barely Lethal” and out to avenge the death of her family in “For the Dogs.” Steinfeld says she is especially looking forward to “Barely Lethal” because that cast, still in the making, will skew young. The same with “Ender’s Game,” slated to open Nov. 1, in which she plays a military academy student training to take on the next alien invasion; she got to play her age, with people her age.
“That was so much fun,” said Steinfeld, who has preternaturally adult responsibilities while also navigating the often difficult world of teen girldom. Asked whether she ever gets to kick back and be a kid, she says: “Are you kidding? I have moments all the time, every single day, every minute, where I’m totally . . . Listen, if you spend 10 minutes with me you’ll totally know I’m 16. I don’t ever think of this as forcing me to be anything but a kid. I am who I am.”
Of course that’s another unusually mature thing to say, but it sounds genuine. Steinfeld is 5-foot-7 and normally proportioned. There’s nothing half-starved about her, as with so many actresses of all ages. She seems comfortable in her clean-cut style (long loose curls, lavender nail polish, eyes made up to look like she’s wearing hardly any makeup at all) and clear complexion, for which she credits her parents (Dad’s a personal fitness trainer, Mom’s an interior designer). She also has an older brother and lots of old friends who’ve stuck with her since elementary school in suburban Los Angeles. She says she doesn’t worry about falling into the troublesome transitional traps of either Lindsay Lohan or Miley Cyrus — which she manages to make clear without dissing either young woman.
“I don’t know exactly how to answer that other than I am doing what I’m doing,” Steinfeld said. “I find that I have my parents all the time telling me, ‘If you’re not having fun or not enjoying it, you’re not in the right place.’ I truly believe I am. [But] that’s just me and how I was brought up.”
As the story goes, Steinfeld was brought up with lots of options: sports, dance, music. Then a cousin was cast in a commercial and a neighbor performed in a play. She told her mom she wanted to act. She was maybe 8 at the time. Mom insisted she take acting classes for a year and, if Steinfeld stuck with them — which she had a tendency not to do — her parents would help her pursue it. The rest is appearing opposite Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon history.
As Carlei put it when discussing Steinfeld’s British accent in a cast of true Brits, “If you required Hailee to speak Swahili one day, she would do it. She’s incredibly disciplined and strong-willed, like the girl in ‘True Grit.’ ”
That discipline had her working with a dialect coach and reading the original Shakespeare play, which, coincidentally, had just been assigned for school. She describes herself as “so honored to be a part of this generation’s ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ ” and also says she’s had a fun few years dipping into genres without being typecast or stuck in one style.
Steinfeld says all this without a publicist or handler present, or if one is around it’s at a discreet distance. At 16 she speaks for herself. That’s what comes with being asked to carry a movie almost overnight. Steinfeld says she tries not to think about the power or stardom — and that it helps that she’s hardly ever recognized, which she also understands could change with the roll out of her next movies. For now, though, she hasn’t had any “crazy experiences” with fans or other young actresses envious of her success, although “it can get really crazy with all the voices coming at you to do this or that.” Again, she credits her parents and says it’s their opinions that matter most. Still.
“It’s really hard for me to comprehend at times; it’s all so surreal. . .,” Steinfeld said. “It’s weird. As much as I feel that I’m a part of this world, you can also feel very distant at times because one minute you keep seeing the same person over and over again [on set] and the next minute it’s so many people and you don’t know where you stand. It’ll be really interesting to look back on all of this.”