A star is born

Hayden Szeto breaks through in ‘The Edge of Seventeen’

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Hayden Szeto grounds his character in relatability in The Edge of Seventeen.
Courtesy of the Denver Film Festival

One of the many pleasures of going to the movies is the discovery of new ideas, new voices and new faces. Last weekend, that discovery belonged to newcomer Hayden Szeto as he walked the red carpet at the Denver Film Festival and charmed the screen in The Edge of Seventeen.

Though The Edge of Seventeen centers on Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) — a volcano of a teenager who thinks the world revolves around her and that no one is as broken as she — it is the supporting cast surrounding Steinfeld that makes Edge such a pleasurable experience. The real breakout is Szeto, who plays Erwin Kim, Nadine’s classmate with a crush who turns into a giant bag of awkward anytime he tries to talk to her.

But Erwin isn’t your typical nerdy friend hoping for more. He is a fully fleshed out character that is as self-conscious about his awkwardness as he is self-aware.

“Kelly [Freemont Craig, the writer/director] and I worked on the character a lot, and we made sure that he just had that one objective: try to get Nadine to like him — with the super-objective being that he just wants to be somebody,” Szeto tells Boulder Weekly. “Everybody wants to be somebody in high school. … For [Erwin] getting the girl would mean that.”

Szeto points out that the key to Erwin’s development was grounding the character in truth; otherwise, Erwin would simply be a punch line. Groundedness is a rarity in teen rom-coms, but The Edge of Seventeen isn’t your ordinary teen rom-com. That is thanks to Szeto, Steinfeld, Craig and the film’s decorated producer, James L. Brooks.

Brooks — whose credits include The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, The Simpsons, Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News — not only helped get Szeto the role in Edge, he also got Szeto into Larry Moss’s much lauded acting studio in Los Angeles. Brooks saw something in Szeto that he didn’t see in anyone else. That “something” is Szeto’s ability to inhabit the character without stepping outside of him and judging.

“That’s rule number one as an actor, you don’t judge your character,” Szeto says. “I saw [Erwin] as an opportunity, as a challenge, because he is such an overplayed stereotype and archetype.

“How do I give this guy strength? How do I make him appealing? Because it has to make sense that Erwin gets Nadine at the end,” Szeto says. “I won’t get her if I’m just being awkward. I actually have to fight through it and be appealing in some way. So I made sure that he had redeeming qualities — really trying to charm her instead of just trying to be awkward around her. Because if you try to be awkward, you’re already defeated.”

But stereotypical nerdiness isn’t the only thing that Szeto has managed to transcend with Erwin.

“The part of Erwin is such a rare and revolutionary part for an Asian-American, let’s just be honest,” Szeto says. “Nobody says it, but it is true. And it’s definitely turning heads.”

Szeto, who caught the acting bug back in high school, has spent his young career relentlessly pursuing his dream. When describing the lean years before roles like Erwin, Szeto humorously recreates the anguish and frustration of being an out-of-work actor: “Annually I would have a breakdown: ‘What did I accomplish this year? Nothing! I just stayed in acting class and I did absolutely nothing! I’m paying people to act, and nobody’s paying me to act,’” Szeto says with a chuckle. “It’s all about mental fortitude, man. You just got to keep on doing it and trust that you’re on the right path.”

And if the lessons an actor learns in real life translate to the screen, then the lessons from the screen can help the actor in the future. Talking to Szeto, it sounds like Erwin will continue to be a motivation in his life.

“I guess in any coming-of-age movie, people are growing and people are evolving and people are trying to fight through their obstacles and whatever life throws at them,” Szeto observes. “And for me right now, I’m evolving as well. … So I’m going to try and take his approach, his positivity and his strength and try to move on to the next chapter of my life right now.”

The Edge of Seventeen opens everywhere Nov. 18.