Nothing says ‘turnt’ like Hailee Steinfeld. That’s how MTV Video Music Awards host Miley Cyrus, using slang normally reserved for a rowdy party, introduced the actor-singer during the Aug. 30 show, a presumably sarcastic description of a Taylor Swift pal and Pitch Perfect 2 star with an immaculate child-actor past. She may not have realized that, despite its seemingly empowering title, Steinfeld’s rising hit single “Love Myself” is a suggestive double-entendre. Cyrus’ joke even confused Steinfeld. “I still don’t know what it meant. I probably should have Urban Dictionary’d ‘turnt,’ ” says the 18-year-old a week later. “I was just so stoked that Miley Cyrus was saying my name.”
Probably best-known as the Oscar-nominated teen from Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2010 western True Grit, Steinfeld attended the Academy Awards at 14, and has been to the Met Ball five times. On this September morning at Manhattan’s Edition Hotel, she has just returned from the Venice Film Festival. She may be an old pro in Hollywood, starring in films alongside Jeff Bridges, but she gets genuinely giddy when it comes to rubbing shoulders with music stars like Cyrus. She giggles while recounting a recent run-in with Drake: “It’s one of those things where you’re hugging and you’re like, ‘I hope someone is taking a picture of this,’ ” she says. (Someone did, and Steinfeld posted it on Instagram.)
Last November in New York, she and her mother were randomly seated next to Republic Records executive VP Charlie Walk at a dinner, and right there at the table, they played him Steinfeld singing a Pitch Perfect 2 song on headphones. Steinfeld signed to Republic in May and her first single, “Love Myself,” is already a Billboard Hot 100 hit, leaping 44-36 in its fifth week and putting her real-life, off-screen persona front, center and solo for the first time. “Music is the most moving art form,” she says, comparing her new career to her first one. “It moves in such a personal way. There’s something about the control you have — I love it.”
Steinfeld isn’t abandoning acting, however. In 2015, she is appearing in four films in addition to Pitch Perfect 2, including drama Ten Thousand Saints with Ethan Hawke and Civil War thriller The Keeping Room, out Sept. 25. She’s also shooting an undisclosed Gracie Films project in October. “Someone asked: ‘Are you a singer or an actor?’ ” says Steinfeld. “I didn’t know how to answer because I was almost insulted anybody would make me choose. But my answer is … both.”
A chance to bridge her careers came earlier this year, when Swift, whom she met at a 2011 pre-Oscar party, called about playing triplets in her star-filled “Bad Blood” video: “The only things I remember hearing on the phone were ‘Crazy idea,’ ‘There’s three of you,’ and ‘It’s tomorrow,’ ” says Steinfeld. “I’m like, ‘Great, awesome, let’s do it!’”
Growing up in Thousand Oaks, Calif., with older brother Griffin, a NASCAR driver, Steinfeld always loved to sing. Her mother was an interior designer, her father a personal trainer, and her uncle, Jake Steinfeld, the “Body by Jake” fitness icon. At 8, she saw her cousin True O’Brien, now a regular on soap Days of Our Lives, in a commercial and decided she wanted to act. Around 12, she got hooked on music, recording Bruno Mars covers: “I did it once and knew I had to do it again,” she recalls of her first time in a studio.
But she was already landing guest roles on sitcoms, so acting took precedence over music. Pitch Perfect 2, a film comedy about a college a cappella group that has grossed more than $180 million domestically since its May release, offered a way to do both. Her character came with her own ballad, “Flashlight,” co-written by Sia and Sam Smith. “I walked into that movie with most of my excitement in the music,” she says.
In May, Steinfeld released an acoustic version of “Flashlight” with Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz on guitar, but her first original single is far more intimate. “Love Myself” preaches self-empowerment through sexual euphemisms (“I’m gonna touch the pain away/I know how to scream my own name”), winkingly functioning as both Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself” for post-millennials. In person, Steinfeld, who says she’s “dating” but won’t name names, is coy about the innuendo: “The song is about taking care of yourself, whether that means physically, emotionally or with material things. There’s power in being able to provide for yourself. Being able to say, ‘I love myself’ — it’s revolutionary in a way.”
But in the video, she dances around in a bodysuit that reads “Self Service.” The implication is clear: “Of course,” she concedes, finally. “Regardless of how people interpret this, I have nothing to be ashamed of.”
“I love that she started with ‘I Love Myself,’” says Pitch Perfect 2 co-star Ester Dean, who got along famously with Steinfeld on the set. “It’s a great tune and it tells the world she’s comfortable with exactly whom she is.”
“Love Myself” is also a declaration of intent for future music — she has been working with producers Mattman & Robin (Selena Gomez, Swift) and others on an EP that’s due this year. “A lot of what’s to come has a similar edge,” she offers, citing brash but vulnerable alt-poppers like Tove Lo and Alessia Cara as role models. Steinfeld probably has more in common with Cyrus than the former Disney star realizes. In fact, Steinfeld has adopted Cyrus’ VMAs dig as her own motto: “I say it everywhere I go. If anybody’s like, ‘What do you want to do?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know, let’s go here, because” — she lowers her voice to a whisper — “nothing says ‘turnt’ like Hailee Steinfeld.”
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 26 issue of Billboard.