The Story Behind the Casting of 'True Grit's' Hailee Steinfeld

 Wilson Webb/Paramount Pictures

Legend has it that when John Wayne charged across a meadow at his enemies — reins in teeth and guns a-blazing — as hard-drinking, one-eyed U.S. Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn during the iconic climax of 1969’s True Grit, he was saddled upon a moving truck, not a galloping horse. When it came time for Jeff Bridges to mount up for the same scene 41 years later in Joel and Ethan Coen’s new version of True Grit, he made the dangerous ride himself, atop a live horse.

“That was something we — and even Jeff — assumed would have to be fudged in one way or another, but he actually did all that for real,” says Joel, who co-wrote, produced and directed the $35 million film with his brother. “It was really quite difficult, manipulating those two big heavy guns with the reins in his teeth without being able to control the horse except with his legs.”

In other words, the Dude outdid the Duke. Or, as Ethan jokes, “Our Rooster could take their Rooster.”

The comparison with Wayne is not one Bridges is eager to make, but he admits it is “the elephant in the room.” Bridges and the Coens first discussed getting together for a follow-up to their 1998 cult classic The Big Lebowski at a party in the mid-2000s.

“We were just talking about what’s up, you know, and I said, ‘What are you guys interested in doing?’ ” Bridges says. “They said they wanted to make a Western. I said, ‘I’d love to make a Western.’ ”

But later, when the Coens told Bridges the Western they wanted to make was True Grit, with him as Rooster, he was dubious. Hit movies are remade all the time, but Wayne is a larger-than-life screen icon who still ranks among America’s favorite movie stars, 31 years after his death. And this wasn’t just any Wayne movie: It was the one that earned him his only Academy Award for best actor. But the Coens — who reteamed with No Country for Old Men producer Scott Rudin on the project — assured Bridges they weren’t remaking the movie, per se, but going directly to the source by adapting the 1968 Charles Portis novel on which it was based.

“As soon as I read it, I saw what they were talking about because the book is wonderful, and it reads like a Coen brothers script,” Bridges says. “So I took those guys up on that and didn’t refer to John Wayne or that other movie at all and just looked at the book. Took it totally fresh like I would any other part.”

Casting Bridges was natural for the Coens, but it wasn’t as easy finding an actress to play Mattie Ross, the fast-talking, preternaturally self-assured 14-year-old who hires Rooster to bring her father’s killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), to justice.

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The filmmakers auditioned more than 15,000 girls via online video submissions and held open casting calls from November-December 2009 in Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas (as well as the usual major cities), looking for a girl from 12 to 17 to play the character they described as “sassy, fearless and sure of herself.” The girls were asked to read the rapid-fire scene in which Mattie negotiates with horse trader Col. Stonehill (Dakin Matthews) and verbally wrestles him into submission.

“Ninety percent of the kids just get eliminated for one very obvious reason: They’re not actors in any sort of natural way,” says Joel, the elder, taller Coen. “Beyond that, the screenplay, as a reflection of the novel, is written in a very particular kind of language, so it’s almost like casting a verse player.”

A month and a half before cameras were scheduled to roll, the Coens finally decided on their Mattie: Hailee Steinfeld, a 13-year-old from Thousand Oaks, Calif., who had only a few short films and minor TV roles to her credit and who was found in Los Angeles. She won the part after reading for the Coens with Bridges, Matthews and Barry Pepper, the actor playing villain Lucky Ned Pepper.

“Just the thought of it was kind of intimidating,” Steinfeld recalls about the audition, where she was up against three other finalists. “But the minute I met [Bridges], I realized that he was just there to do a job — and I’m there for the same reason, and I kind of clicked with him and the Coen brothers.”

Co-star Matt Damon, whose vain and verbose Texas Ranger LaBoeuf joins Rooster and Mattie in their pursuit, says he was floored by Steinfeld’s talent from the first scene they shot together.

“I saw the notes they were giving her, and they were some pretty complex adjustments,” he recalls. “And we’d do the scene again, and she’d just nail it. I remember looking up at [cinematographer] Roger Deakins and saying: ‘Is she doing this stuff every day? Is she that good?’ And he just nodded to me and said, ‘She’s that good.’ ”

Damon says the Coens made it easier for all the actors by giving them a book with reproductions of the storyboards along with the script — part of their usual M.O.

“Those are handed out to the entire crew, so you not only know the dialogue, but you can actually look at what the shot is going to be,” Damon says. “It moves the process along because the grips are pre-rigging anything that they can, knowing where the camera is going to go next. There was no place for any anxiety because they seem to have it so under control the entire time.”

One thing the Coens couldn’t control was the weather. The filmmakers scouted locations in Arkansas and Oklahoma, where the novel is set, as well as Utah, but it was determined they wouldn’t have the climate conditions required for their March-April shoot.

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