Seated at a communal table at the Hungarian Pastry Shop on Amsterdam Avenue and 111th Street in New York, Sarah Steele blends in seamlessly with the cafe’s crowd of students typing away frantically on laptops and downing espresso. Dressed in a print cardigan and nondescript black jeans, the 21-year-old actress hardly seems interested in channeling a prototypical young “It” girl persona — in real life or on-screen.
“I’m much better at things if I believe in them, and a lot of those little teenage starlet roles, they have problems, too, and a lot of movies just ignore that,” says Steele, who is finishing up her junior year at Columbia University, where she is an English major. “We see these cute, perfect bombshells that make me feel like I’m not good enough, I’m not pretty enough. I don’t think I could pull off playing a person like that, and do I want to? I don’t know.”
Fortunately, Steele — though fresh faced enough to tackle those parts — has found plenty of creative fulfillment in what one might term “antistarlet” roles. In her latest project, Nicole Holofcener’s “Please Give,” which opened last week, Steele is Abby, an adolescent growing up in Manhattan and struggling with all manner of teenage issues, from skin problems to having the right pair of designer jeans. She clashes with her furniture dealer parents (Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt).
The film quietly but painstakingly lays bare its characters’ material and emotional preoccupations, and Abby is no exception. For one, her acne is an ongoing source of embarrassment, a condition Steele had no reservations about tackling.
“I never had skin problems, but I feel like every girl, I hope, can relate to feeling like the ugliest girl on the planet,” explains Steele, whose blemishes in the film were the handiwork of makeup artist Rebecca Perkins. “Abby is smart and funny. She was a real teenager and real teenagers have those problems. I would feel much more weird playing a teenager I didn’t believe exists.”
A sense of realness was one of the major draws to Holofcener when she decided to cast Steele as Abby.
“I loved that her face and chest flushed during the reading — she was vulnerable,” recalls the director. “But Sarah has a strong personality and that was important if she was going to go up against Catherine Keener.”
Steele has exhibited a sense of independence from a young age. Growing up a middle child in Philadelphia, she was “kind of the odd one”: her parents were both scientists and her siblings both excelled at academics and athletics, areas Steele didn’t find particularly interesting. So when she was 10, she joined a community theater troupe, the Rainbow Company, that performed hip-hop musicals about issues such as homosexuality and poverty at inner-city public schools.
She got her acting break when she starred as Bernie in 2004’s “Spanglish,” opposite Adam Sandler and Téa Leoni. Not unlike Abby, Bernie was a smart, funny girl grappling with adolescent traumas, in this case weight gain.
“I guess because I had never been fat, the thing that everyone in my life seemed to react to was, ‘Whoa, you played a fat girl!’” recalls Steele, who wore a fat suit while making the movie. Though it was a critical success, “Spanglish” helped Steele realize she wasn’t game to be the quintessential child actor. “I wouldn’t trade that experience, but I could also see that I didn’t want to be a Hollywood kid. That seemed really clear to me that that shouldn’t be my path.”
Instead, she focused on her studies and entered Columbia, where she’s been maintaining a normal student life, American lit classes and all. Aside from, say, her cameo on a few episodes of “Gossip Girl” earlier this season, in which she played one of Little J’s classmates.
“If I’m being entirely honest, I went in for it not thinking I would be cast,” she says of the experience. “It was probably the most glamorous role I’ve ever played.…You’re wearing 4-inch heels all day and I was like, ‘Uh, I’m kind of missing Abby’s big clothes right now.’”
As for what future roles hold, Steele is leaning toward a more multidisciplinary approach to her postcollege life.
“I know that eventually I will combine [acting] with other things. Acting is a lot of waiting to be picked and I like to do a lot of things at once,” says Steele, who has been enthralled by her English courses and has toyed with the idea of graduate school. “I think I will have to find things that are totally mine. I have so much comfort that school and my academic life are totally mine. I hope that there’s not a lot of idleness in my future.”