Any newcomer who can hold her own among acting heavyweights like Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin deserves recognition. But if that newcomer is a scene-stealing 14-year-old, she probably deserves her Oscar nom. For True Grit, the Coen brothers’ stylized retelling of Charles Portis’s 1968 novel, young Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross, a strong-willed and moxie-filled girl dead-set on revenging her father’s murder. Armed with a smart tongue and a vocabulary larger than most twice her age, Mattie corners and eventually cajoles Bridges’s drunkard U.S. marshal into her corner. Not long after, Damon’s Texas Ranger joins the hunt, which eventually lands the trio smack-dab in the path of the killer (played with dullard genius by Josh Brolin).
Throughout it all, Mattie stands her ground, firing guns, galloping on horseback, and going nose-to-nose with her father’s killer with fire in her eyes. It’s the kind of role most seasoned actors would undoubtedly have a tough time nailing, which is exactly the reason Steinfeld beat out thousands of other girls for the part. I spoke recently with Steinfeld on the day of her Oscar nomination to chat Bridges, Brolin, and award season.
Congratulations! Where were you when you found out about the Academy Award nod? I was actually sleeping! I woke up to my parents screaming in the other room. I was exhausted. I just could not get out of bed, but they had the volume on the TV turned up really loud so I could hear the announcement, so that was really exciting.
How’d you book the role of Mattie?
I actually heard about the film from my mom’s cousin, who heard about it on the news. I got the script after I got the job, but the lines were available online because it was this huge nationwide search. The big audition scene that I believe every girl auditioned with was the negotiating scene with the horse trader Stonehill, played by Dakin Matthews. That was my big auditioning scene. I worked on the material a lot, the dialogue in particular, and just off the bat from reading the description of this character, I had a full-on vision. I was able to kind of play that out when I read for the Coen brothers by dressing in character and just knowing the material.
Mattie has this almost inhuman combination of will and moxie. Did you relate to her character at all? Absolutely. I think the biggest similarity between Mattie and me is that we would both stop at nothing to get what we want.
Your role required you to go toe-to-toe with some extremely reputable actors. How did you prepare for those bigger fight scenes with Jeff and Matt and Josh? It was really crazy. Working with the people that I did, it was very intimidating at first, but after meeting them and realizing how down-to-earth they are and how fun they really are — I just had such a great time. I remember thinking to myself, “Who am I to be talking to Jeff Bridges like this?” But it was a lot of fun. We shared a lot of laughs through all of it. I honestly forgot it was work. I spent most of my filming time with Jeff, but I have to say, you spend 10 minutes with each of them and you just fall in love with them. I keep in touch with all three of them, and I’ve been seeing a lot of them lately, which is great.
John Hawkes and Hailee Steinfeld will be honored with SBIFF’s Virtuosos Award along with Andrew Garfield (The Social Network), Lesley Manville (Another Year), and Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom) on Friday, February 4, 8 p.m., at the Lobero Theatre. See sbiff.org for tickets.