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Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for
December 9, 2010

A stylized tale of vengeance set against the backdrop of a classic western, the Coen Brothers' 2010 retelling of True Grit--decidedly rooted in the 1968 novel by Charles Portis rather than the subsequent 1969 film adaptation starring John Wayne--is memorable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is a brilliant, scene-stealing performance from its young lead, Hailee Steinfeld. Making her feature film debut, the 13-year-old actress deftly fills the central role of Mattie Ross, a resourceful and precocious teen who employs a brash U.S. Marshal with a reputation for toughness to hunt down her father's murderer.

Hailee landed the coveted role after an extensive search in which a pair of casting agents auditioned girls across the country for 18 months. Writer/director Ethan Coen jokes that they could have saved themselves a lot of trouble had they known about Hailee earlier, referring to the fact that she is a native of Thousand Oaks, California and was essentially living in Hollywood's backyard, acting since the age of 8 in commercials, shorts, and TV guest spots. Now, in her biggest project to date, she impressively shines amongst an ensemble cast that includes Jeff Bridges as Mattie's hired gun, Rooster Cogburn; Josh Brolin as her father's killer, Tom Chaney; Barry Pepper as the ringleader of Chaney's gang; and Matt Damon as a Texas Ranger who joins in on the manhunt.

In the following interview excerpts (which took place two days before Hailee's 14th birthday), the breakout star of True Grit talks about being a part of the acclaimed movie, while castmates Jeff Bridges and Josh Brolin and filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen fill in a few behind-the-scenes details and offer up some well-deserved praise.

MEDIA: Hailee, how did you approach the very specific style of language that the characters in True Grit speak?

HAILEE: When I first got the script, that was like the first thing that I really had to work on, was making sure that I understood what everything meant. And then I had to go back through and make sure that I understood what everything meant to me emotionally, and how I could relate to it in my own life. And then with the accent...I mean, just after getting on set and everyone talking, it kind of happened naturally.

JOEL: I have to say, one of the things that when we first saw the first tape of Hailee doing a scene from the movie...99.9% of the hundreds or thousands of girls who read for this part didn't have the facility to [perform the dialogue]--they sort of washed out at the level of not being able to do the language. And that was something which was never an issue with Hailee. I mean, right from the beginning, it was clear that she was completely comfortable with the language. And the language isn't--as everyone's pointed out--our language. So that was the sort of "threshold level"...But Hailee had it right from the get go in a very, very natural way.

Hailee, what aspects of the shoot did you particularly enjoy?

HAILEE: The horseback riding was fun. I used to ride English a couple years ago, so to be able to pick up back on that was fun.

What were some specific skills that you had to pick up for Mattie?

HAILEE: I had to learn how to shoot a gun and roll a cigarette. Those were the two main things I had to learn.

Did you get to do any of the stunts?

HAILEE: I did most of them. There aren't really any...Besides the falling down the snake pit... [to the Coen Brothers] That was the biggest stunt, right? Other than that, I mean...

ETHAN: That was the biggest stunt, per se, yeah. Hailee did all the riding, except some of the riding in the river. But all the other riding, yeah.

HAILEE: So there wasn't too much of that. But I learned to shoot a gun. Before I went on location, that was one of the things that I wanted to make sure I had a clue of what I was doing. So I had my dad take me to a shooting range with a friend of ours who's an LAPD officer. So he kind of told me everything I needed to know.

Josh and Hailee, how did the two of you approach and collaborate on the dramatic scene you have between Mattie and Tom Chaney?

HAILEE: [laughs, to Josh] Like 15 minutes after I met you for the first time, we were rehearsing that, and you were like on top of me with a knife to my neck. [laughs] So that was kind of interesting...

JOSH: She's so precocious and amazing and present, and just kind of went with it...I think it was more nerve-wracking for me than it was for her. She's very comfortable in her own skin, you know? And that scene was about her talking and being super confident, and this little man-child [Tom Chaney] hating the purity of her, you know? And Josh loves her purity. Loves it. I mean, I'm so taken by her in every which way. I just think she's incredible. So it was much harder for me. Everything she did was easy. The rest of us make it really hard, you know? [laughs] But it was great. I had a really good time.

We understand Hailee administered a curse jar that everyone had to pay into when they cussed on set...

JOSH: You know, between me and Matt and Barry and... [pauses] Barry doesn't curse so much...

HAILEE: No, Barry was good.

JOSH: [to Hailee] Yeah. How much did you earn? I think the F-word was $5 and the S-word was...

HAILEE: ...The other one was a dollar.

JOSH: Yeah, she made about $100,000.

HAILEE: [laughs]

JOSH: An incredible experience, though. We had a great time--a really, really great time. I can't really tell you the process because it was a fairly easy process. In rehearsal, it was different. We really searched a lot in rehearsal for character and all that. But she had already had it. She was the one person who had it down before the rest of us really started.

Hailee, did you get any advice from your veteran co-stars?

HAILEE: I think the best advice that the actors have given me is to not take anything too seriously. [pauses] Well, take it somewhat seriously, right? [laughs] But just to have fun with things.

Jeff, Mattie is such a formidable character. Did you know Hailee could be so sassy?

JEFF: [laughs] I didn't really, you know? Because she's got a very sweet side as well.

Did she ever intimidate you?

JEFF: Sometimes...You know, we played a lot of Pass the Pigs, and she was known as "Bo Bacon." And she would be very intimidating--you know, she would throw those double leaning jowlers occasionally and scare me.

Hailee, how was it working with a bunch of guys?

HAILEE: It wasn't bad. [laughs] They're awesome. They're amazing. And I was surrounded by women the entire time--you know, the hair and make-up people, and wardrobe. My mom was with me, my tutor...But I feel like all of them are like big kids, so it was a lot of fun.

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