The Coen brothers know the meaning of grit, as their new Western, and its breakout young star, will attest.
November 29th 2010
By Gwynne Watkins
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
True Grit, written by Charles Portis in 1968, is a plainspoken adventure tale set in the 1880s. It centers on the memories of Mattie Ross, who, as a 14-year-old, hired a dissolute, one-eyed lawman named Rooster Cogburn to find and kill the drifter who murdered her father. The book was first turned into a film in 1969, with Mattie (Kim Darby) relegated to Cogburn's sidekick, thanks to the unmistakable top-of‑the-credits star playing him, John Wayne. In interpreting the part, the Duke sacrificed a lot of crust for a good deal of ham. Country music's reigning nice guy, Glen Campbell, co-starred as La Boeuf, a Texas Ranger who joins in the search. It was, all an all, pretty clean-cut for a Western.
Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross.
When Joel and Ethan Coen make a Westem, it's as far from clean as you can get. In their truly gritty, violent, wittier-than-you-might-think, and much-anticipated adaptation (opening December 22), Cogburn is played with greasy bluff by Jeff Bridges (reuniting with the Coens for the first time since The Big Lebowski), La Boeuf by a wisecracking, mustachioed Matt Damon, and Mattie by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld.
Jeff Bridges as Marshal Rooster Cogburn.
In the Coens' version, Mattie is again the driving force of the story, a proper girl from a Christian home‑no longer Darby's pixie but solid and unnervingly tense. Through the course of the film, as Mattie and Rooster hunt down the bad guy (Josh Brolin), they both come of age: She grows up fast, and he faces his demons and the end of his life. Of the 15,000 actresses who auditioned, 13-year-old Steinfeld was the one whose "unusually steely nerves and straightforward manner"‑to quote the casting notice‑won her the coveted role. "She's a very poised, clever girl;" says producer Scott Rudin. "She could handle ornate language, which a lot of the kids couldn't."
Matt Damon as La Boeuf
Steinfeld herself is sweet and excitable, with an endearingly goofy chuckle that punctuates her stories‑like her description of a typical day on the True Grit set. "We were in some really crazy remote locations" she says, "and half the time, I was lying in the dirt. There are more pictures of me playing with, like, random rocks in the dirt than any other pictures."
The actress (whose highest-profile role prior to this was talking about "blingitude" in a Kmart ad) made a point of seeing all the films of Bridges and Damon before shooting began, "so I'd know what they're talking about if they're talking about one of their movies, you know?" But they ended up behaving more like surrogate parents; both are well tested in raising daughters (Damon has four, Bridges three). The Coens, on the other hand, became Steinfeld's all‑time favorite teachers: "They were always asking if I needed explanations and giving me encouragement.” She was most impressed by the relationship of the notoriously private brothers. "Joel and Ethan were so cool with each other,' she says. "I love my [16-year-old] brother to death, and he's my best friend, but I don't know that I could ever direct a major motion picture with him. I mean, they're just so easygoing‑always agreeing with each other and making sure that the other's happy with whatever happened:'
Did she take anything away from the original film? "The main thing that inspired me about Kim Darby's performance was that she held her own next to all these guys and the Duke," says Steinfeld. "And I felt that I wanted to bring that to the role of Mattie Ross: holding my own next to the Dude."