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Wherever Hailee Steinfeld goes, quality projects seem to follow.
The Oscar nominee’s latest return to the big screen in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse has received near universal acclaim like its Oscar-winning predecessor, Into the Spider-Verse (2018), and both animated projects are on a very short list of recent comic book films where critics and audiences align in terms of reception. This pattern of critical acclaim is nothing new for the Los Angeles native, as The Edge of Seventeen (2016), Dickinson (2019), Arcane (2021) and Hawkeye (2021) all follow suit. Her 2018 film, Bumblebee, is also the only well-received film in the Transformers franchise so far.
In the Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson-directed Across the Spider-Verse, Steinfeld got the chance to dive even deeper into Gwen Stacy/Spider-Woman, as the movie actually begins with her story, something that surprised even Steinfeld herself upon seeing the film.
“I was never given a script in its entirety. Seeing (Across the Spider-Verse) just a few weeks ago was like reading the script for the first time. So, realizing that this film does open with a lot of Gwen’s story was really special to see,” Steinfeld tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We dug a little deeper into who she is and why she is the way she is, and it’s a big evolution from where she was in the first one. I’ve always loved this character, but I love her so much more in this film from what we learn about her.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Steinfeld also discusses the reports of a Gwen-related spinoff, the scenes she’d most want reimagine in live-action and the astonishing recovery of her Hawkeye co-star, Jeremy Renner, following his Sno-Cat accident.
Well, we learn a lot about Gwen in this movie, and we learn a lot very quickly. Was that a pleasant surprise when you opened up this script?
It was, actually, (because) I was never given a script in its entirety. I felt this way about the first film, but seeing (Across the Spider-Verse) just a few weeks ago was like reading the script for the first time. So, realizing that this film does open with a lot of Gwen’s story was really special to see. But knowing what I did throughout the process, we dug a little deeper into who she is and why she is the way she is, and it’s a big evolution from where she was in the first one. I’ve always loved this character, but I love her so much more in this film from what we learn about her.
My favorite scenes in the movie involve Gwen and her dad (Shea Whigham).
And it’s rather emotional material. Were you also pretty moved by those scenes once you finally saw them put together?
Absolutely. Thankfully, I was able to be in the room with Shea Whigham when we did those scenes. We had already done them on our own to each other’s readings, but then the filmmakers brought us in to do it together. So I kind of loved that in a way, because I already knew it really well. A lot of the time, we’ll get the material just a few days before, if that, so I got to live with it and have a really clear understanding of Gwen and where she was coming from in those scenes with her dad. But they are very emotional and very moving.
It’s a rare occurrence to record with other actors, so was Shea the only castmate you worked with in the booth?
No, there were others, and I was so excited about it. The first time around, I didn’t do anything with anyone else in the booth, but then I found out that (Miles Morales actor) Shameik (Moore) had. So I went straight to those filmmakers, and I was like, “If we do this again, you better put me in the room (with someone else).” So I was with Shea, Shameik and Issa Rae, which was just amazing. There’s nothing like that real-time banter and human interaction, and bless our sound department, but a little overlap never hurt anybody too bad. So it was really special to have the authenticity of a real-life conversation.
So when did you start recording for this one? How far back did this begin?
We started right after the first one came out, so about four years ago.
And how many sessions do you think you did in total?
You know what, I would actually love to know that. So I have no idea, but I’m actually curious. I’ll try and find that out. There were a lot!
Actors often tell me that when they’re on location for something else and they need to do some voiceover, they’ll have to find a local recording studio or create some makeshift vocal booth wherever they’re staying. So did you have to record anywhere unusual?
Yeah, I searched for some closets in random places and just any place I could create a makeshift vocal booth. But that’s sort of the beauty of something like this, and I feel I owe everything and more to our filmmakers. Wherever I was in the world and wherever we were in the process, (co-director) Kemp Powers, (writer-producers) Phil Lord and Chris Miller had this innate ability to help me get exactly where I needed to be, emotionally, physically and mentally, in order to deliver the performance that they knew I wanted to give, because it’s not easy. If there’s one thing I did not know before doing this project, it was the length of time in which it takes to complete it. You will be somewhere random, and the schedules with other actors might not align to be in the same room for a scene like you’d hoped. But I am so grateful for their help in getting me exactly where I needed and wanted to be for this.
Recording voiceover versus recording vocals for your music, how similar is your routine?
Quite similar, I’d say. As far as any vocal prep and warmup, I always try to be mindful of how I use my voice, especially since I started singing. It’s easy to get into a booth and get a little excited about the action that’s happening, and then you’re told that there’s a lot of distance between you and the person you’re talking to. Or the score is going crazy, the action is loud and suddenly, you’re yelling. So I’ve just become more mindful of how to use my voice, but I would probably compare a day’s work in a live-action film to a voiceover film, versus recording a song. Mentally and physically, (live-action and voiceover) are more similar, and the biggest similarity is just feeling in the right place, emotionally, to deliver the performance that I wanna give.
There’s some fun surprises in this movie. Did you hear whispers along the way? Or were they new for you too?
I don’t know how they do it, but they were new for me, too. There were moments where I jumped in my seat and laughed out loud and gasped loudly. So they do a good job of keeping all these surprises, reveals and exciting parts under wraps.
Have you already started recording for the next movie?
(Steinfeld smiles.) Uh, nope! (Laughs.) As you can imagine, this has been an ongoing thing since the moment the first one came out. There’s been so much focus, and everyone’s blood, sweat, and tears has been put into making this the most incredible and best version of itself that it can be.
Is there still talk of a Gwen spinoff?
I mean, there’s been reports, but you know how reports can go.
(Laughs.) I do, but this is one I haven’t heard of.
Playing Gwen in live-action, would that be the easiest yes of your career?
Would you deliver Gwen’s lines the same way in live-action? Or do you make things a bit bigger for animation?
That’s an interesting question. (Steinfeld takes a few moments to genuinely ponder the question.) To answer the second part of your question, I generally thought that you would make things bigger in animation, but in this film and with these characters, there’s a lot of importance on being grounded and being real and feeling authentic. There may have been a time where I felt the need to overcompensate because it wasn’t live-action. It wasn’t me doing the thing. So I felt like in order for you to feel it on the other end, I had to go bigger, but I very quickly realized that there’s no need for that. With everything that’s going on and all the different animation styles and the music being such a huge part and the score being so moving, all I had to do was feel as real in the material as possible. So, would I deliver the lines differently in live-action? That’s such an interesting thing. I imagine if they’re coming from the same place, it would feel similar, but with some physicality added in there, it would inherently be different.
Have you bought a Gwen costume just to see the proof of concept?
(Laughs.) I have not, but I need to. I’d like to see how it fits.
Would Kate Bishop be cool with you playing Gwen Stacy in live-action?
I think that she’d only be jealous if she couldn’t be friends with her.
Well, how’s Kate doing?
(Laughs.) She’s great! The last time I checked, she was doing great.
Are you the least bit surprised that Jeremy Renner is already back on his feet? He did some jogging recently.
I mean, if there is a real-life superhero in anyone, it is that man. I am just so beyond grateful to see how well he’s doing. So I guess I could say I’m not surprised. He is just so unbelievably strong. The amount of strength and bravery and courage that he has had through his whole recovery and healing process has just been astounding. I was able to see him a few weeks ago, and again, he’s a freaking superhero. (Laughs.)
Seven years ago, you and Kelly Fremon Craig made The Edge of Seventeen, which is a masterpiece of the coming-of-age genre. Have you had a chance to see her long awaited follow-up yet (Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.)?
I have not, but I’m so excited to. She is a force to be reckoned with, and (The Edge of Seventeen) is still one of my favorite experiences I’ve ever had.
I know she did some stuff on Bumblebee, but you’d team up again in a heartbeat, right?
The Edge of Twenty-Five has a nice ring to it.
Well, by the time we get there, it might be more like The Edge of Thirty. (Laughs.)
Hey, you said it, not me.
I’m sure Haley Lu (Richardson) is on board.
She is crushing the game, and it’s so fun to see. She is so, so talented, and yeah, I would hope she’d be on board. That would be very fun.
I’ve interviewed her a bunch, and when I brought up Edge for the first time, she mentioned that she prepared for her current role at the time by just watching your performance in Edge.
Was she kidding!?
No way! Wow. This might sound so silly, but I’ve been lucky enough to have a handful of these experiences where you can feel a sense of magic in the middle of a take. And I had that moment multiple times on Edge of Seventeen and with Haley. So I’m honored to hear that she said that, because I was equally as moved by her performance in that film and the work that she’s continued to do since then.
In light of what’s happening in our industry right now, can you think of a time where you recognized the difference that great writing makes?
Oh my God, yes. I’ve been incredibly lucky to learn what great writing is and to be trusted with great writing. I’ve had moments with Kelly and her script, and Joel and Ethan (Coen), where I truly felt like all I had to do was show up and take what they created and bring it to life. And while that might sound like it’s a big feat, it felt like it was nothing, because it was all there on the page. There was nothing I had to fill in.
I had a moment when I saw True Grit for the first time, and that was the first time I’d ever seen myself in something. (The screening) was a very intimate setting. I was with my family and a couple of my team members, and we were in this small little theater. I sat in a row by myself because I was a little antsy; I just needed to be on my own. And so I was sitting a few rows in front of everyone, and when the credits rolled and the lights came on, I could hear everybody start to move and get up. But I didn’t move until the credits had stopped rolling, because every name that came up, I was like, “That’s my friend. I know that person and that person. If it weren’t for that person, I wouldn’t have had my costume on right, or I wouldn’t have remembered to enunciate that specific word.”
So I didn’t even think twice about this until somebody had brought it to my attention after the fact, but it was then that I realized the amount of people that it takes to simply make me look and feel my best. And it all starts with the writing. So I have definitely felt the impact of great writing, and I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of projects that are what they are because of the writing. And I can only hope that I’m lucky enough to continue doing what I’m doing based on these characters that have been so beautifully written.
You made the best-reviewed movie in the Transformers franchise. Were you surprised that they didn’t make a direct sequel to Bumblebee?
Not necessarily. I don’t know that I knew the plans beyond that, but I like to take everything one step at a time. I’ve gotten a lot better at that in my life. I tend to get ahead of myself, and so when it comes to these bigger projects that have whispers and more of a future and whatnot, I like to just focus on what’s in front of me and make that the best that I can.
I remain shocked that you don’t have your own musical drama yet. Have efforts been made? Is that something you still want to do?
Yeah, I would love to. That would be two of my greatest loves and passions combined. So I would love that, and anything is possible.
Is there a real-life musician you’d want to play someday in a biopic?
That’s a very tough question and one that I’d be conflicted to answer. While I might have one, I would never want to touch that. But if the right one were to come along and I felt like I could do it justice, then I would love that opportunity.
(The following answer contains a mild spoiler for Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.)
Lastly, what Spider-Verse scenes do you most want to reimagine in live-action?
I would love to do the scene between Gwen and her father where she reveals her secret identity. That was the first that came to mind, and then, honestly, any scene in this film where Gwen is doing something that would require me to do some wild, wild stunt that I wouldn’t consider doing anywhere else.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is now playing in movie theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.