By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Hailee Steinfeld is on a roll this spring. First, the sequel she stars in “Pitch Perfect 2” debuted at No. 1 in its opening weekend, upsetting the male-targeted actioner “Mad Max: Fury Road.” She then appeared in Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” music video. Soon afterward, the 18-year-old landed a record deal with Republic Records. Now, Steinfeld headlines a teen action comedy called “Barely Lethal,” which is likely to draw a lot of the same young women who flooded the theaters for “Pitch Perfect 2.” Not a bad run for a Southern California girl who hasn’t yet graduated from high school.
In “Barely Lethal,” Steinfeld plays Megan Walsh, a teenage special ops agent who yearns for a normal adolescence. After faking her own death she assumes the role of an exchange student and quickly learns that surviving the treacherous waters of a typical American high school can be even more difficult than international espionage. The film also stars Jessica Alba, Sophie Turner, Dove Cameron, Thomas Mann and the ubiquitous Samuel L. Jackson, who plays her unforgiving boss.
Having trained as an assassin from an early age, Megan doesn’t know how to interact with kids her own age but she is determined to fit in. She is methodical in her research, by familiarizing herself with classic high school movies like “Mean Girls, “10 Things I Had About You, “The Breakfast Club” and more. Kyle Newman (“Fanboys”) directs the film from a screenplay by John D’Arco.
Dressed in a black tunic top and slacks for an interview, her brown wavy hair loose about her shoulders, the busy working actress recently spoke about playing a secret agent, singing versus swinging (her fists) and working with the iconic Jackson.
Q: You were home-schooled, so did you feel that your experience of not knowing what attending a real high school is like much like your character? How easy was it or challenging was it for you to tap into the character and the experiences of high school?
Steinfeld: In some ways it almost made it easier because of the fact that I’m playing a character that’s never been on a school bus before or taken it to school, whose never really had a locker to put her things in and walk down the school hallway when the bell rings when and it’s complete chaos. I’ve never really had that and neither had Megan. There were a lot of parallel feelings, like feeling things for the first time that you get in a high school experience. I had quite a lot.
Q: So now are you glad you missed high school?
Steinfeld: I technically didn’t.
Q: Singing a capella in “Pitch Perfect 2” versus kicking butt in this film—which one was a bigger challenge or which one did you enjoy the most?
Steinfeld: I like to consider myself athletic. I’ve played sports my whole life, I’ve danced and my dad is a personal fitness trainer so I train with him. So I feel like I had some sort of background. I didn’t have specific fight training, but I’ve kind of had a version of that in my life before. I’ve done fight choreography before. I’ve never really sang professionally or a capella singing so that was new and terrifying. But I think this fight training was rather difficult and intricate. Sophie (Turner, who plays a rival teen assassin) and I for the most part were always with each other’s doubles. So when we finally got in the same room and we were doing it together, it was awesome and fun.
Q: When did you and Sophie meet? Did you have a chance to rehearse the fight sequences?
Steinfeld: We had never practiced it with each other so we met each other and did this.
Q: What was the most challenging part for you guys in making the project?
Steinfeld: I did deal with the challenge of doing schoolwork and having to film. I think one of my favorite things about this movie is we actually have a pretty decently sized cast. It did at the end of the day feel very intimate and felt like we were always on the same page and we all wanted to make a really fun, great film. Having that foundation that we all created coming back to made it easy.
Q: Your character, Megan, is very into doing her research by way of high school movies. What would you consider some classics of the genre that are amongst your favorites?
Steinfeld: “Mean Girls.”
Q: What drew you to the characters when you read the script?
Steinfeld: Well, the sort of through-line of my character, her sort of arc, is really interesting, where she goes from living a life where she knows absolutely everything to a life where she knows absolutely nothing. And I find that in my everyday life, in making a movie–even though it’s three months, high school’s four years–I go from thinking…Not thinking I know everything, but thinking like, “I’ve got it down, I know how this is going to go” to “This is a completely new experience every single time.” And so I think the message of that kind of goes for anybody, no matter where you’re from or what you do or how you were brought up. That’s what I loved about it.
Q: Was acting always an innate, natural process as a child, or was it a craft that you really honed? Do you still see moments in that journey that you’re still learning about acting as well?
Steinfeld: I feel like I never stop learning. Like I said before, each experience on a film set, on a TV set, on any set of any movie is completely different—I feel like. When I decided I wanted to start acting, it wasn’t a decision about wanting to act; it was a decision of wanting to be in commercials, because my cousin was in them. So that’s kind of what I went to my mom and said. She obviously knew that it involved a lot more of a commitment than I ever even experienced, so she told me if I stayed in acting classes for a full year, if I committed to it and showed her I could do it, then she said she’d look further into it. So, after a year, literally my mom took photos of me in the backyard, and sent them to 10 different agencies. One called. I signed with them, and the rest is history. But I haven’t stopped coaching. I haven’t stopped learning.
Q: Did you have fun working with Sam?
Steinfeld: Oh yeah. He’s amazing. Really, really awesome. And he’s so funny too.