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SAG Contender: Hailee Steinfeld of 'True Grit'

Call the rookie star of 'True Grit' determined — as single-minded as her character in the film. 'We'll both stop at nothing to get what we want,' she says.

January 11, 2011|By Glenn Whipp, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • The young actress makes her film debut in the Coen brothers' western.
The young actress makes her film debut in the Coen brothers' western. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

Jeff Bridges has a long history of success working with first-timers, including, of course, his Oscar win in 2010 for "Crazy Heart" with first-time director Scott Cooper.

But that history didn't make Bridges any less worried when the Coen brothers chose Thousand Oaks youngster Hailee Steinfeld for the lead in "True Grit." Steinfeld, then 13, had never acted in a movie before, and now here she was, responsible for carrying the film.

"I was so concerned about that because, God, it's a tough role," Bridges says of the part of Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old frontier girl determined to track down the man who killed her father. "She's practically in every scene. I was concerned right up until the first day of shooting. Then, I thought, 'Oh, yeah. This girl has got it.'"

Playing opposite Bridges' soused, one-eyed lawman, Rooster Cogburn, the Screen Actors Guild Award-nominated Steinfeld perfectly delivers the film's high volume of contraction-free, King James-cadenced dialogue and does so with an intensity and conviction that startled her high-profile costars.

"Nobody that young should be that good," says Josh Brolin, who plays the killer Mattie follows. "Everything she did was easy. The rest of us made it look hard."

Steinfeld holds her own in conversation too. She may have just celebrated her 14th birthday last month, but she speaks with the confidence of a veteran actress, albeit one still a little star-struck at the commotion surrounding her.

Legend has it that you auditioned wearing a burlap skirt.

It might have been corduroy. [Laughs] My mom threw it together at the last minute. I had that, and I wore boots and this ruffled-up, old-fashioned-looking thrift shop shirt. I wanted to go in with exactly what I felt was my vision of this character.

Had you done that kind of thing before?

I had an audition where the character was a goth girl. I arrived in character and felt so uncomfortable the minute I walked in the door. I felt everyone was looking at me, even though everyone else was dressed the same. But with "True Grit," I felt 110% comfortable.

Even though you're reading with Jeff Bridges in front of the Coen brothers?

The minute I met them, I realized that they're all so easygoing and soft-spoken. The Coen brothers were giggling while I was reading the scene. And it was a rather serious scene, so I was a little thrown. But I figured if they're giggling, it can't be bad.

Giggling is good. Especially with these guys. Had you seen any of the Coens' movies?

I'm not allowed to see most of them. My favorite is "Raising Arizona." I have some older cousins who are completely into "The Big Lebowski," so I've seen that. But just a few scenes.

When I first heard Mattie's formal way of speaking, I couldn't help but think of Julianne Moore's character in "Lebowski." There's a fantastic musicality to their language, but it can't be easy to learn.

It was almost like learning a new language. I had to go through the entire script and, with every line, make sure I understood what it meant. And then I had to understand what it meant to me emotionally and how I could relate to it in my own life.

Could you relate to her?

Totally. The biggest similarity between her and I has to do with going after the job. We'll both stop at nothing to get what we want. That's a good trait, I think, determination.

And, obviously with Mattie, the stakes are high.

When I first read it, I had to understand how a 14-year-old girl could be so set on revenge. For her, finding the man who killed her father is just the right thing to do. Preparing, I built these imaginary relationships with her mother and her sister and her little brother, who are hardly mentioned in the film. I imagined her brother would wake up in the middle of the night and ask when Dad was coming home. And Mattie isn't one to just sit by and hope things work out on their own.

She's pretty good in the saddle too.

I used to ride English at Elvenstar Riding Academy in Moorpark. It's funny. Up until the point where I decided I wanted to start acting, I'd tried every kind of sport, every kind of dance, and never stuck with anything. I don't know why.

Maybe because you're a kid?

[Laughs] Probably! But it was fun to pick up again with riding.

And pigtails …

I hadn't done two-braids since third grade. I think I'm going to stick with wearing my hair down.

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