John Wayne’s original “True Grit” was a vehicle for a worldly wise actor in his 60s in another gruff Old West role he long since had perfected.
The new take on “True Grit” is a star-making showcase for Hailee Steinfeld in her screen debut as Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old who sets the violent story of retribution in motion.
Wayne’s main trail buddy was Kim Darby, who was in her early 20s when she played Mattie in 1969’s “True Grit,” based on Charles Portis’ novel. Joel and Ethan Coen’s version, opening Wednesday, more faithfully adapts Portis’ story, with Steinfeld’s Mattie pulling a team of veteran actors in her wake, including Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper.
Steinfeld, who just turned 14, earned a supporting-actress nomination for the Screen Actors Guild Awards for “True Grit,” and she has buzz for the same honor at the Academy Awards.
Is she practicing her Oscar speech?
“No-o-o-o, not yet. I mean, honestly, just to be a part of it, that’s the biggest award I could get right now,” she said in an interview.
“It is so surreal. Recently, when I saw the film for the first time, just as the credits started rolling, I thought back immediately to the day I was sitting on the floor in my bedroom just waiting for the phone to ring, thinking to myself … whoever gets this job, it’s like winning the lottery. And now I see this film put together, and it’s just so incredible. I’m so proud of it.”
Her character is a force of nature, a 19th-century pioneer teen with a fierce puritanical streak who hires ornery lawman Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) to hunt down her father’s murderer (Brolin), with Damon a preening Texas Ranger joining the search.
The flowery rhythms of Portis’ dialogue, delivered with almost Shakespearean flourish, were tough enough for the seasoned actors, let alone a newcomer who had acted onlyin student films, commercials and a couple of small TV roles.
Casting directors traveled the country for months, looking at thousands of girls, and the Coens met with a handful of the best.
“They’re all 14-year-old girls, and predictably, they’re all terrible. Not all, but 99-point-whatever percent,” Ethan Coen said.
Mattie was an especially hard role, requiring an inexperienced actress to convey her “very adult, very self-possessed, very stiff-necked Protestant sensibility,” Ethan Coen said. “You think, boy, that whole adult self-possession and the acting chops, maybe that doesn’t exist in a real 14-year-old girl.”
A few weeks before shooting started, they found Steinfeld, who lived in Los Angeles. The Coens auditioned her opposite Bridges and Pepper, who plays another outlaw Mattie encounters.
Just as Mattie was fully formed at 14, they found Steinfeld had maturity and instincts beyond her years.
“She’s totally unintimidated coming into this room with Jeff Bridges and Barry Pepper and doing these scenes,” Joel Coen said. “It’s not a question of experience or training or any of the rest of it. Either you’ve got it or you don’t, sort of genetically, naturally, whatever it happens to be.”
Bridges spends almost the entire movie in Steinfeld’s company, but any worries he had about his young co-star quickly vanished.
“I was concerned right up to the first day we shot a big dialogue scene, and then I saw how invested she was in the character, how much talent and skill she had as an actress,” Bridges said. “I was so thrilled and relieved.”
Brolin, whose breakout role came in the Coens’ “No Country for Old Men,” said his own daughter auditioned to play Mattie. But there were no hard feelings when she got a look at who had won the role.
“I remember when my daughter came on the set and met Hailee, and shegoes, ‘Oh my God! She’s perfect!’” Brolin said.
Steinfeld decided at age 8 she wanted to try acting, inspired by a cousin who was doing commercials and a friend who was in a stage play. She raised the idea with her father, a personal fitness trainer, and mother, an interior designer. Her parents insisted that she study acting for a full year to make sure she was serious.
Then she got an agent and started trying out for roles. Like many actors, child or adult, she spent years auditioning with little to show for it.
“The most frustrating part was, I would get very close to booking things, and the biggest thing that was held against me was I was always too green,” Steinfeld said. “I would be up against girls who had been acting since they could speak.
“That was frustrating, because I was thinking to myself, ‘I must not be that bad if I’m getting that close, but I’m not getting it.’ So I hit that point where I definitely became a little bit more serious about it. … And then, after that, things started to change.”
Once Steinfeld landed the “True Grit” role, the Coens treated her the same way they did the rest of the cast, making no note of her precocious talent, Damon said.
“It was almost like, don’t talk about the fact that this person next to you is levitating. Don’t make a big deal out of it. We’re not even going to acknowledge that it’s happening. Then at the end, you go …, ‘That girl was flying!’” Damon said.
Pepper marveled at Steinfeld’s stamina as they shot in the cold mountains near Santa Fe, N.M., “and she’s being dragged through rivers, and she’s got my cold leather boot on her neck, and she’s getting tossed around and shot at. I just thought, ‘This is remarkable, the poise and the professionalism of this young woman.’ She’s just off to the races. She showed true grit in a lot of different ways, because she took everything the brothers threw at her,” Pepper said.
Steinfeld is looking for her next film role. The acclaim she’s earning for “True Grit” should help, but she’s not fretting too much about where her career is headed.
“Don’t get me wrong. I don’t take this too seriously. I have fun with it,” Steinfeld said. “My parents always tell me, ‘If you’re not having fun, you’re not in the right place.’ And there’s not a moment in this, in everything, that I’m not having fun.”