Early in December, Hailee Steinfeld roused herself from bed and tweeted to her more than one million fans: “Woke up beaming with excitement this morning … ♥”
And why not? She was about to celebrate her 22nd birthday. The animated “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” in which she’d voiced Gwen Stacy, had just been nominated for a Golden Globe. Best of all, she’d spent the week bouncing between Berlin, London and Los Angeles, where she lives, to promote “Bumblebee,” the latest “Transformers” installment. And the word on the street was glowing.
“I’ve been getting so much love from fans, and I just have moments that it kind of hits me,” Steinfeld said. “I was like, ‘This is crazy!’ I’ve never been a part of something on this scale, and seeing it come together for the first time was just incredible.”
“Bumblebee” is not one of Michael Bay’s “Transformers” (although he’s a producer). Directed by Travis Knight, this Bumblebee origin story steps back to 1987, where the stouthearted, blue-eyed Autobot has been hiding from the evil Decepticons as a yellow 1967 Volkswagen Beetle in a California beach town.
And Steinfeld, the franchise’s first female lead, is not a typical “Transformers” babe. As Charlie — lonely, on the edge of 18 and grieving her dead father while tinkering on his 1959 Corvette — her body isn’t the eye candy of yore. Instead of cleavage and abs, Charlie flaunts her biceps and quads in punk rock T-shirts and ripped jeans, a symbol of strength, independence and self-reliance as she screeches along highways and puts up a fight. In fact, the only ones removing their tops in “Bumblebee” are the guys.
It’s the perfect vehicle for Steinfeld, who notched an Oscar nomination at 14 for playing Mattie Ross, a farm girl avenging her father’s murder, in the Coen brothers’ 2010 remake of “True Grit.”
She’s also a pop star in the making who showed off her voice in the second and third “Pitch Perfect” installments and last summer opened in Britain, Barcelona and Lisbon for Katy Perry on “Witness: The Tour.” In a phone interview from Los Angeles, Steinfeld spoke about sliding into the Transformer’s seat, her long-awaited album and discovering her own voice.
Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
You’re turning 22 in a couple of days. Any big plans?
I’ve been joking about this for a few days now. I’m flying to Hong Kong tomorrow night, which means I will be flying all of the 11th and landing on the 12th, so I will be spending this one in the air. [Laughs] We’ll see what that has to offer.
Were you a “Transformers” fan growing up?
My older brother is a racecar driver and mechanic, so my connection to the films was really through him. I remember seeing the first one with him and loving that there was something in it for the both of us — just feeling like this is our little thing.
The film’s producers have said that you were their first choice to play Charlie. Were you immediately on board?
I remember thinking, This is something that sounds incredible on paper and over the phone, but I wanted to dig a little deeper and see what it was all about. And the minute I heard that it was Travis Knight [who directed the Oscar-nominated animated feature “Kubo and the Two Strings”] and he was making a different kind of “Transformers,” I was immediately intrigued. This was a story that made you forget you were in a “Transformers” film [with] this grounded, character-driven story line happening. But there were times where I was like, “How is this going to work?” I’m spending the majority of this film talking to a tennis ball on a stick. I was actually concerned for my well-being and my level of sanity.
In another first, the screenplay was written by a woman, Christina Hodson.
She gave this character a voice that no one else really could have penned. This is an honest, authentic portrayal of what it feels like to be a young girl growing up, no matter what era, where you come from or what your situation is.
So, about that tennis ball …
Yeah, the majority of the time it was a tennis ball on a stick that was about 13½ feet high, the height of the Transformer fully transformed. Other times it was, oh, God, I mean, pieces of tape. At one point they had a Bumblebee head and shoulders on a mount that when any physical contact needed to be made, I could hug that. I did have his eyes to look into, and they would illuminate that gorgeous color blue.
What’s it like playing an action hero?
I had moments where I was like: “This is by far the most badass thing I’ve ever done. This is amazing. This is one for the books.”
Like jumping from the top of a crane onto an enormous tower with nothing between you and the ground?
That was terrifying! Here I am, 150 feet up in the air, and it happens to be the windiest day of the year. My mom has a fear of heights, and I wanted so badly to send her a photo of what I was doing. But I thought, “I should wait until I’m done because she in some way, shape or form will show up here and say, ‘This isn’t O.K.’”
The music of the Smiths is huge for Charlie. Who’s on the soundtrack of your life?
Oh, boy! Well, I grew up listening to a very wide, eclectic variety of music, but I’d have to say the Eagles. I feel like so many records of theirs represent so many summers of my life.
You’ve been promising an album for quite a while and have put out songs including “Most Girls,” “Starving” and now “Back to Life” from “Bumblebee.” Any E.T.A.?
Timing is a funny thing when it comes to this stuff. I had every intention of putting an album out this year, but this movie happened, and this show that I’m currently working on with Apple called “Dickinson” came into the picture as well. I finish that in January, and come February I will be finishing what I started with the music and getting that out there for everyone. I have not put out a body of work in music for three years now. So I feel very lucky that my fans have been so patient and have chosen to continue to listen to what I have out there while they wait for more.
What does music provide that acting doesn’t?
Well, it brings a whole live element that I don’t necessarily get with acting. It also gives me the opportunity to share my own experiences with my name and face on the cover. I’m not masked by a character’s name or story or different time era. This is who I am.
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