True Grit - Hailee Steinfeld
True Grit - Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) © 2010 Paramount Pictures, Photo by Lorey Sebastian

The casting directors for True Grit, Ellen Chenoweth and Rachel Tenner, spent months seeing thousands of young girls across America for the role of Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old heroine who is out to avenge her father’s murder. Then, right under their noses, 13-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, from Los Angeles, walked into their office. The Coen Brothers, who wrote and directed the movie, were impressed by her vivid personality and her seeming fearlessness, and she was hired just before the movie started shooting.

Hailee has done commercials and several short films, and was seen on Kelsey Grammer’s short-lived TV series, Back to You. True Grit is her first feature film.

As Mattie Ross she hires a boorish, drunken US Marshal named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to help her bring her father’s murderer to justice.

True Grit is your first movie, what advice did the actors give you that you took to heart?

True Grit - Hailee Steinfeld
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) © 2010 Paramount Pictures

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

What attracted you to the role of Mattie?

Who wouldn’t be attracted to Mattie? She’s tough, she’s witty and she’s just fourteen, which is incredible. She has one goal, to find the killer of her father, and she tells herself she will not go on with her life until it is done – and then she goes for it. That’s the main similarity between us: that we would both stop at nothing to get what we want.

Tell us about your audition for this?

True Grit - Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) and Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) © 2010 Paramount Pictures

I was put on tape the first week in January and I got a call back two days later to read with the casting director. They told us at that point it would be a month before we would hear anything at all. And five weeks later I got called in to read for the Coen Brothers.

During that five weeks I was working on the material not knowing if I was going to get a call or not, just being prepared if the time were to come. And it did, and I was prepared and ready and I was really excited. I actually read with Jeff Bridges and Barry Pepper, so it was pretty cool for an audition.

I was more fascinated by the Coens than intimidated by them. They, and all the actors, were so humble that they didn’t come off as intimidating at all. They all treated me like one of their own.

What kind of training did you do for the role?

True Grit - Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) and Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) © 2010 Paramount Pictures

I used to ride English a couple of years ago, so to be able to [ride again] was fun. I took lessons to get me in the zone of Western riding.

Shooting a gun was completely new to me, so before I went on location that was one of the things that I wanted to make sure that 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 is a L.A.P.D. officer. He told me everything I needed to know. It really helped, because I learned about the kickback. There’s no kickback with a blank gun, but Mattie gets knocked back and I had to know what that felt like.  I also learned to roll a cigarette.

Can you talk about speaking the dialogue in this movie, which is very unusual?

When I first got the script that was 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. With the accent, just getting on set and everyone talking in it that happened naturally.

How was it being the only girl with all these dudes?

True Grit - Hailee Steinfeld and Matt Damon
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) and LaBeouf (Matt Damon) © 2010 Paramount Pictures

It wasn’t bad. They’re awesome, they’re amazing, and I was surrounded by women the entire time, the hair/make-up people and wardrobe, my mom was with me, my tutor, so I was surrounded by women the entire time, but I feel like all [the actors] were like big kids so it was a lot of fun.

What was it like working with Jeff Bridges?

We’d be filming and he’ll be so in character and so amazing, and then they’d call cut and we’d have a 15 minute break, he’d just flip his eye patch up and he’d be Jeff again. It’s really cool to watch somebody work.

Mattie is looking for someone with true grit – what does that mean to you?

True Grit - Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) and Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) © 2010 Paramount Pictures

True grit is never taking a step back, staying grounded, don’t ever retreat, only take a step forward and I think that’s what Mattie especially carries through this whole film. You never see her back down or back out of anything, and that’s what it’s all about, perseverance. You get knocked down and you get right back up again.

What surprised you about doing your first movie?

You know, you read the book and you have a vision in your mind of what it’s going to be, and then these guys do it and it’s completely different and not at all what you might expect. It was really amazing to experience that because it’s how I want to be as an actor.

For me it was a lot to comprehend that I was making a movie with this amazing group of actors. I just felt blessed and thankful to be exactly where I want to be.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.