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Cast And Characters
Driven as much by the dynamics of character as action, True Grit's casting would be crucial -- and, as with many of the Coen brothers' films, the screenplay drew a decorated roster of actors. However, carrying the film would be an absolute beginner: Hailee Steinfeld, who turned the larger than life tenacity, forbearance and spunk of the book's heroine-narrator Mattie Ross into the flesh and blood of an unusual child who doesn't varnish her opinions, or relent on her intentions, for anyone.

The task of casting Mattie was complex. The character is on a very short list of epically courageous female characters in classic American literature, and even on that short list, is quite unique. She has been compared to Huck Finn (by Walker Percy, Donna Tartt and George Pelecanos, among others) for her stark individualism and encapsulation of American qualities – and yet she is most assuredly not a boy. Smart, feisty, sharp-tongued and dead true, Mattie is a force to be reckoned with – and yet, she is undeniably a child. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, Mattie is a long, long way from home – and yet the way back must be extracted in blood. The challenge at hand was to find an actress who could imbue Mattie with equal parts innocence and insolence, who could get at both the girlish tenderness and the unassailable grit in her being. Casting directors Ellen Chenoweth and Rachel Tenner spent months crossing the nation, holding open casting calls and watching thousands of girls.

Then, at the very last moment, they found it. The needle in the haystack was 13 year-old Hailee Steinfeld who struck the filmmakers not only with her vivid personality, but her apparent fearlessness.

"After seeing people from all over, ironically we ended up choosing a young girl from the Los Angeles area so it just goes to show,” comments Joel. "We cast Hailee pretty much just before we started shooting, and we were very lucky to find her.” "Kind of like the character, she's totally imperturbable and unintimidated,” Ethan says.

Steinfeld is forthright about her love of the character. "Who wouldn't be attracted to Mattie?” she asks. "She's tough, she's witty and she's just fourteen, which is incredible. She has one goal, to find the killer of her father, and she tells herself she will not go on with her life until it is done – and then she goes for it. That's the main similarity between us: that we would both stop at nothing to get what we want.”

Hailee so wanted the part that she turned up at her final audition in a burlap skirt and outfit her mother had handcrafted from Salvation Army clothes. "I read with Jeff Bridges and Barry Pepper and I felt really prepared and ready. That was a good feeling,” she recalls.

There was no trepidation involved. "I was more fascinated by the Coens than intimidated by them,” she explains. "They, and all of the actors, were so humble that they didn't come off as intimidating at all. They all treated me like one of their own.”

Still, there was a lot for Steinfeld to learn, especially in the way of riding and shooting, Mattie being unusually skilled at both for a young girl. Hailee already knew how to ride, but in the English style. "I took lessons to get me in the zone of Western riding,” Steinfeld recalls. "And shooting a gun was completely new to me, so my Dad took me to a shooting range so I could get more familiar with it. It really helped because I learned about the kickback. There's no kickback with a blank gun, but Mattie gets knocked back and had to know what that felt like.”

For Steinfeld, one of the biggest surprises turned out to be her fellow actors' performances. "You know, you read the book and you have a vision in your mind of what it's going to be and then these guys do it and it's completely different and not at all what you might expect. It was really amazing to experience that because it's how I want to be as an actor,” she muses.

In one scene, Steinfeld had to endure an epic spanking from Matt Damon's LaBoeuf, but even then, she was unflappable. "After every take, Matt would say, ‘oh my gosh, are you OK? I didn't hurt you, right? You promise you'll tell me if I do.' But I thought it was fun,” she admits, "and also funny.”

She concludes: "For me it was a lot to comprehend that I was making a movie with this amazing group of actors. I just felt blessed and thankful to be exactly where I want to be.”

The casting of the key men in the story fell into place more directly. From early days, the Coens knew they wanted Jeff Bridges for the role of Rooster Cogburn. Bridges, who had just won an Academy Award® for his role as a down-and-out country singer in Crazy Heart, had previously worked with Joel and Ethan in 1998 creating the iconic character The Dude in The Big Lebowski. A self–described "one-eyed fat man,” Cogburn might carry a fearsome reputation that attracts Mattie, but he does not present an initial portrait of competence. Whiskey-doused, disobliging and leading a sketchy, degenerate's life living in the back of the General Store, he hardly seems like Mattie's savior when she comes to seek his much-rumored tracking expertise. And yet he manages, in the midst of alternately enchanting and disappointing Mattie, to become her respectful, unwavering, and poignantly devoted, partner on the trail.

Bridges came fresh at the role, leaving entirely aside John Wayne's performance in a very different kind of film from a very different era of moviemaking. Instead, he brought to the part his long-lived love of the Western genre (his father Lloyd starred in many) and his extensive riding experience (he rode as a child and has mounted steeds in numerous films), then focused all of his energies on etching out the grainy layers of perhaps his most hard-scrabble character yet.

"Rooster Cogburn kind of straddles the law, he's got one foot on the side of the law and one foot entirely against it,” Bridges wryly observes. "But Mattie is looking for a man who has true grit, and that, he certainly has in spades. He's got that thing where no matter how tough the situation is, he's going to see it through to the end.”

For Bridges, a big part of the pleasure of playing Cogburn was getting to quibble, quarrel and ride side-by-side with Hailee Steinfeld as the girl who pushes Rooster in ways he might not have known he could be pushed. "Mattie is the most challenging role in the film,” Bridges states. "The whole screenplay is centered around her. I was worried at first about Hailee because this is her first movie, but by the end of the first day of filming, I just said, ‘Oh, God, did we luck out with her.' She has a wonderful sweetness but then she overlays that with the hard edge of this character. She pulled it off so well, she didn't require much advice.”

With Bridges set as Rooster, Academy Award® nominee Matt Damon, most recently seen as a South African soccer star in Clint Eastwood's Invictus, was chosen in a departure as the self-possessed Texas Ranger LaBoeuf. Then, the Coens chose to reunite with Academy Award® nominee Josh Brolin, who had a breakout role in No Country for Old Men, as Tom Chaney, the craven killer who sparks the film's epic chase.

"Josh and Matt we thought would be very interesting,” says Joel. "With a lot of these things, casting movie stars like Matt and Josh, you think about them and then it's the process of sorting out whether or not it's actually going to work in terms of their availability.” Schedules aligned and Damon and Brolin came on board.

Both brought a bonus beyond their propensity for character: serious riding skills. "I guess we were aware t

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