Actress Haley Lu Richardson is on the edge of her big break—literally. This fall, the 21-year-old stars in the drama-comedy The Edge of Seventeen as Krista, a wise-beyond-her-years high schooler whose relationship with her best friend, Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), is tested when she falls for Nadine’s older brother.
“Their friendship is a pretty cool dynamic,” Richardson says, speaking over the phone from her home in Topanga Canyon, right outside of Los Angeles. “Nadine is a bit lost and wacky. She embarrasses herself and goes through all these struggles, and Krista is kind of her rock. But when Krista starts dating Nadine’s older brother, I feel like [the film] could so easily have gone to a place of like, ‘Oh, they’re enemies now.’ But Krista wasn’t out to get Nadine—she just ended up in this position where she wants to explore this [relationship] for herself, but that maybe it doesn’t have to ruin [their friendship]. And that, if anything, maybe it can bring them all closer together, or Nadine and her brother closer together. She’s not the stereotypical villain.”
And for Richardson, there was no better scene partner than Steinfeld: “It was super easy playing best friends with Hailee,” she says of the 19-year-old Oscar nominee. “We had such a good time. I was really inspired by her. She’s younger than me, but she has such a strong sense of her work and she’s so confident in her choices, because she’s been acting for so long.”
Surprisingly, Richardson hasn’t been. Even though she’s a self-described ham (“It’s part of the baggage of being an only child,” she says, laughing) and tried musical theater as kid, acting wasn’t the center of her young life. Rather, from ages nine to fifteen, she devoted herself to competitive dance. “I learned to be really hard on myself [through dance],” she admits, “which can be detrimental if it’s not balanced. It’s one of those best friend-frenemy things I have with my own self. But [dance] was still the only that really meant anything to me besides my family and friends.”
However, when she started considering her future, the Arizona native found herself at a crossroads. She wasn’t psyched about the thought of attending a traditional college (“My friends had Stanford flags up in their rooms. I was never that kid!”), but she also couldn’t see herself dancing professionally. So she pitched an idea to her mom and dad: She wanted to move to Los Angeles to give acting a serious shot.
Her parents weren’t keen on the idea at first, but after numerous discussions—Richardson even made a poster-board mapping out where she’d live, how she’d finish school, how they’d do it financially—they said yes. So, at 16, she and her mom moved to the City of Angels, where she finished high school online. But once she turned 18, her mom moved back to Arizona, and the pressure was on.
“Since I’ve been living here on my own,” she explains. “The only person I have to rely on to hold me accountable for anything—to have me to go auditions, to get me to work on time, to keep me going even when things get really tough—is myself.”
Luckily, Richardson doesn’t flinch under pressure—and so far, she’s been up to the challenge. In 2015, she starred as an Olympic hopeful gymnast in The Bronze. And after The Edge of Seventeen, she’ll appear opposite James McAvoy in M. Night Shyamalan’s upcoming feature, Split, slated for release in 2017. No pressure.