Interview: Coen Brothers Discover Tween Star For TRUE GRIT

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Ethan and Joel Coen and Hailee Steinfeld on set of TRUE GRIT

Chloe Moretz (Kick Ass, Let Me In) isn't the only tween breaking out in Hollywood in 2010. Fourteen year-old newcomer Hailee Steinfeld's stellar performance in TRUE GRIT, the Coen Brothers' adaptation of the classic American novel, is earning the young actress rave reviews and recognition during award season.  Academy Award winning filmmakers Ethan and Joel Coen searched high and low for a young actress to lead the cast of TRUE GRIT but little did they know she was in their backyard the whole time.

Matt Damon AND Jeff BRidges in TRUE GRITFinding a teenager to play TRUE GRIT's main character Mattie Ross was no easy feat for TRUE GRIT's production team. The right actress would have to bring to bring to life the feisty heroine-narrator of Charles Portis' novel and hold her own against veteran Hollywood actors Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin. Two casting agents scoured the states for eighteen months in search of TRUE GRIT's 14 year-old farm girl determined to avenge her father's death. Enlisting the help of a trigger-happy, drunken U.S. Marshal, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff ridges), she sets out with him — over his objections — to hunt Tom Chaney (Jeff Brolin), her father's killer.  The search for Mattie Ross would be a difficult task because of the age and the challenge of mastering the vernacular of the time period. According to Ethan Coen, the problem for most young actresses was the "foreign sounding nature of the dialogue" spoken during the 1870's. The Coen Brothers wanted to remain very faithful to the original material and lifted the dialogue straight from novel so it was up to the actors to capture the authenticity. "99.9% of the hundred or thousands of girls who read for this part didn't have the facility for the dialogue", added the filmmaker. "They sort of washed out at the level of not being able to do the language."  

Hailee Steinfeld, who lives an hour outside of Los Angeles, stood out in her audition tape for nailing the dialogue from the "get-go." "Right from beginning, it was clear that she was completely comfortable with the a very natural way," said the Academy Award-winning director.  The directing duo spent months seeing thousands of girls within the age range of Mattie Ross but ultimately found their leadihg lady in Thousand Oaks, California. Ethan joked they waisted all that time searching all over the country when they could've stayed in Los Angeles.

True Grit's Hailee Steinfeld

Acting since the age of eight, Hailee tackled the accent first when she received the script. "I tried to understand what everything meant, and I went back through to understand what it meant to me emotionally and what it meant to my own life," said the TRUE GRIT star. Once the thirteen-year old arrived on set to make her feature film debut, she listened to the other actors' take on the dialogue and then it came "naturally."  Jeff Bridges, Barry Pepper, and Josh Brolin admit the language didn't immediately come naturally for them.  Joel Coen credits Jeff in figuring out how to read the words on the script by dropping the contractions.  As Lucky Ned Pepper, Barry Pepper read his parts as if he were "doing American Shakespeare" with iambic parameters, rhythm and musicality. There was no room to improvise and they had to work with what was on the script to maintain the tone.  Josh was concerned with the vernacular at first but once he got on set, he merely imitated Jeff.  Jeff, however, refers to it as a "fun challenge to take on" but every once in a while a contraction would slip.

Josh Brolin in TRUE GRITTRUE GRIT co-star Josh Brolin complimented Hailee Steinfeld for her confidence in mastering the language and being well-prepared for her feature film debut. Calling her "incredible," the novice actress was not fazed about sharing screen time with Academy Award winning actors and directors. "She was comfortable in her own skin" and "far more prepared" than the adult actors on the set. "Everything she did was very easy. She was the one person who had it down before the rest of us really started," proclaimed the Academy Award nominee.  Brolin joked it was more nerve-racking for him working with a minor in such a physical scene where he puts a knife to her throat.

The language wasn't the only skills Hailee had to master to play Mattie. She learned to shoot a gun and roll up cigarettes for the role of the 14 year-old character.  Being an experienced English-style horse back rider prepared Hailee for her for the many scenes on a horse. She shot most of her scenes without a stunt-double except for a treacherous fall and riding through a river.

Hailee's TRUE GRIT co-stars and directors aren't the only ones acknowledging the young actress' talent.  Hailee Steinfeld received a Screen Actors Guild (SAG) nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor In A Supporting Role and will be competing with Amy Adams (The Fighter), Helena Bonham Carter (The King's Speech), Melissa Leo (The Fighter), and Mila Kunis (Black Swan) for the statue.

Like her TRUE GRIT character, Hailee is wise beyond her years which should serve her well in Hollywood.

TRUE GRIT is in theaters December 22.

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