LOS ANGELES—Hailee Steinfeld has been vigorously spanked by Matt Damon, and she has expertly rolled cigarettes for Jeff Bridges. But it’s possible that neither experience compared with her initial encounter with Josh Brolin. “Like, 15 minutes after I met you”¦you were, like, on top of me with a knife to my neck,” the young actor says to her rather larger costar in a Los Angeles hotel room. “It was kind of interesting.”
Watch the trailer for True Grit.
In fact, all of these “interesting” things happen in True Grit, the latest film from perpetually hip duo Joel and Ethan Coen, and Steinfeld’s first movie, like, ever.
Before True Grit (which opens Wednesday [December 22] in Vancouver), Steinfeld had done only a few television roles, some short films, and a TV commercial for Kmart in which she enthusiastically extolled the virtues of “blingatude”. In the film—which the writing-directing Coens based on Charles Portis’s 1968 novel, rather than the 1969 movie starring John Wayne—her character, Mattie Ross, journeys through brutal terrain in an 1870s Arkansas winter to seek revenge on the man who killed her father. She exhibits much grit, zero blingatude. The headstrong Mattie hires one-eyed bad-ass U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) to accompany her into Indian territory. Also hunting the killer (played by Brolin) is a smug, muttonchopped Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Damon)—notably pronounced “la beef”.
Despite being practically the only female in the testosterone- and Oscar-heavy cast, the then–13-year-old Steinfeld held her own. “She’s so precocious and amazing and present and just kind of went with it,” Brolin says. “I think it was more nerve-racking for me than it was for her.” He claims that he and Damon gave Steinfeld $5 each time they uttered “the F word” in her presence: “She made about a hundred thousand.”
The Coens had casting agents scouring the country for 18 months before they found Steinfeld in Thousand Oaks, California, just 40 minutes from Hollywood. Out of thousands of girls, she was the only one, Ethan Coen says, with a natural facility for the film’s highly formalized language (no contractions) “from the get-go”.
The role also called for horse-riding skills and other abilities needed to pull off a period Western. “I had to learn how to shoot a gun and roll a cigarette,” says Steinfeld, who has long, shiny dark hair that in the movie is braided into two no-nonsense plaits. In the course of the story, Mattie is almost strangled, shoots a man, and plunges into a pit occupied by rattlesnakes. Steinfeld did her own stunts, save for toppling into that pit. Before going on location, she went to a shooting range, because firing a gun “was, like, one of the things I wanted to make sure I had a clue of what I was doing”.
With her startlingly assured performance in True Grit, it’s unsurprising that Steinfeld was nominated for a Washington DC Area Film Critics Association award. More nominations are likely to follow. But for the moment, she and Bridges are busy recalling their on-set games of Pass the Pigs, a version of the dice game Pigs. “She was intimidating,” Bridges says. “She would throw these Double Leaning Jowlers.”
“I feel like all of them were like big kids,” Steinfeld says, apparently correctly, of her leading men. “So it was really fun.”