Interview: 'True Grit' Star Hailee Steinfeld True Grit's young star talks to Melissa Block about playing smart, funny Mattie Ross -- a teenager who goes after her father's killer, seeking revenge.
NPR logo

Hailee Steinfeld: For A Young Actress, A Gritty Debut

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Hailee Steinfeld: For A Young Actress, A Gritty Debut

Hailee Steinfeld: For A Young Actress, A Gritty Debut

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Joel and Ethan Coen's "True Grit" opens in theaters next week. The Western is set in the 1870s, and it stars Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, making her film debut as 14-year-old Mattie Ross.

Unlike the earlier film version of "True Grit," which centered on John Wayne, this film restores Mattie Ross as the narrator and central figure, as she is in the 1968 novel written by Charles Portis.

This Mattie Ross is a force to be reckoned with: sober and intense with long, dark braids and her father's Stetson. In this scene, she's hiring U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn to chase down the man who robbed and killed her father, and she's demanding he take her along to see the job done.

(Soundbite of film, "True Grit")

Ms. HAILEE STEINFELD (Actor): (As Mattie Ross) Here's the money. Now, I aim to get Tom Chaney, and if you are not game, I will find somebody who is game. All I've heard out of you so far is talk. I know you can drink whiskey and snort, spit and wallow in filth and bemoan your station. The rest has been braggadocio.

They told me you had grit, and that is why I came to you. I'm not paying for talk. I can get all the talk I need and more at the Myark(ph) boarding house.

BLOCK: That's Hailee Steinfeld as the fiercely stubborn and very funny Mattie Ross in "True Grit," and Hailee joins us now from New York. Welcome to the program, Hailee.

Ms. STEINFELD: Thank you.

BLOCK: Let's talk about this character out to avenge her father's blood at age 14. She's got a lot of grit herself.

Ms. STEINFELD: Yes. You know, I think that really to this girl, I mean, you know, obviously revenge, the idea of revenge coming from a 14-year-old girl isn't, you know, exactly right. It's more of what she thinks as doing the right thing.

I like to think of it as, you know, her younger brother would wake up in the middle of the night and, you know, ask where Dad is, and she just, she couldn't sit there and watch, you know, her mother be completely grief-stricken. She took it upon herself to go out and, you know, of course do what she thinks is right.

BLOCK: You were laughing a little bit just now, Hailee, as we listened to that scene from the movie.


(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Why were you laughing?

Ms. STEINFELD: It's kind of funny because I love the fact that the stuff that comes out of this girl's mouth is stuff that you would never hear from a 14-year-old girl.

BLOCK: Braggadocio.

Ms. STEINFELD: Yes, exactly. And so that was a lot of fun to film, and to hear it like that, it's just funny.

BLOCK: She knows a lot, Mattie Ross does. She's very well-educated. She's got a big vocabulary. She is really smart.

Ms. STEINFELD: Yeah, and I think that's what's so great about her. There's so much to this girl, you know, what - you know, she's smart. She's clever the way she way she handles her problems. You know, she thinks things through all the way. And that's what's so, you know, cool about her is not only - I mean, and I love the fact that as much as she comes off as being this, you know, tough, witty, gritty girl, which she is, she's still a 14-year-old girl. She still, you know, takes after her mother, who, you know, the feminine side. But then, you know, she's being confronted by these men, and that's where her grit comes out, I feel.

(Soundbite of film, "True Grit")

Mr. MATT DAMON (Actor): (As La Boeuf) My name is La Boeuf. I've just come from Yale County.

Ms. STEINFELD: (As Mattie) We have no rodeo clowns in Yale County.

BLOCK: Can I tell you about one of the scenes in the movie that just, I could not stop laughing, and it's a really small thing. But it's when you're lying in bed, you wake up, and you realize that Matt Damon's character, the Texas ranger, La Boeuf, is sitting in your room.

You haven't talked to him really before, and you start talking, and you're trying to figure out who he is. And this is a man with, as we learn, some ego, and he does this thing where he gets this faraway look in his eyes, and he kind of opens his vest a little bit to show his badge, and he delivers this line: I am a Texas ranger.

(Soundbite of film, "True Grit")

Mr. DAMON: (As La Boeuf) That's right. I'm a Texas ranger.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: And there's something about the way he says that line, which you can just - it's all wrapped up in those few words about how he feels about himself.

Ms. STEINFELD: Yeah, it's - that scene, I do have to say Matt and I could not get through that without laughing.

(Soundbite of film, "True Grit")

Ms. STEINFELD: (As Mattie) Well, I'm sorry that you were paid piecework and not on wages and that you have been eluded the winter long by a halfwit.

Mr. DAMON: (As La Boeuf) You give out very little sugar with your pronouncements. While I sat there watching you, I gave some thought to stealing a kiss, though you are very young and sick and unattractive to boot. But now I have a mind to give you five or six good licks with your belt.

Ms. STEINFELD: (As Mattie) One would be as unpleasant as the other. If you wet your comb, I might tame that cowlick.

BLOCK: When you auditioned for Joel and Ethan Coen for this part of Mattie Ross, what do you think it was that convinced them that you were that character? This is your first feature film ever. They were taking a gamble, really.

Ms. STEINFELD: I went into the audition, when I went to read for them, I went in dressed in character and, you know, in kind of what my vision of this character was. And I really think that's what it was, is my vision kind of clicked with theirs.

BLOCK: You said were dressed in character for the audition.


BLOCK: What were you wearing?

Ms. STEINFELD: It's kind of embarrassing. My mom helped me with that. She actually, the day before the audition, I think it was like 9 o'clock, we ran out to Jo-Ann's, and she got...

BLOCK: Oh, the fabric store?

Ms. STEINFELD: Yes. She got I think - I guess you could call it like a corduroy burlap kind of material, skirt. She sewed it together, and I wore boots and this ruffled-up 1800s-looking shirt from a thrift shop, and that was it.

BLOCK: Did you have the hat? You wear your dad's hat through the movie.

Ms. STEINFELD: I did not have a hat. I actually put my hair back up in a messy bun.

BLOCK: I think the hat kind of makes the character. When you put that hat on in the movie, did you feel like OK, I'm riding off?

Ms. STEINFELD: Yeah, yeah, it's really, it's that kind of finishing touch, basically. You know, she puts that hat on, and like you said, she's ready to go. And I think that, you know, that's like, you know, she has her dad's jacket. She's got her dad's, you know, his belt, and, you know, his pants.

But I think that that hat is what means - you know, it's kind of interesting because, you know, the fact that this girl is looking for, you know, a father figure, and she doesn't have anyone out there with her, and at the end of the day, her horse is her best friend, and her hat is the closest thing that she had to her dad and stuff like that. I think that's interesting to look for.

BLOCK: Would you stay in character after you were done with a day's shooting on "True Grit"? Would you try to be Mattie Ross? Would you try to leave her behind? What worked?

Ms. STEINFELD: You know, I just think the character grew on me so much that I just kind of - I don't know, and the locations we were in had so much to do with it. You know, we were in such remote locations, in the middle of nowhere.

And it just kind of puts you in that mindset, I guess. And I just, you know, I would go home at the end of the day, and I don't know why, but that accent would stay with me.

But, you know, I was still myself. I'd go home and text my friends, I'd video-chat with my friends, and then I'd go back to set the next day, and, you know, you go through hair and makeup, you go through wardrobe, and it's so amazing that, you know, what little that can do to make your performance even better.

And so, I mean, I guess neither. But I just, I think it just kind of grew on me so much that I just kind of - it was just, like, naturally became a part of me.

BLOCK: Well, Hailee Steinfeld, it's been great to talk to you. Thanks so much, and congratulations.

Ms. STEINFELD: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: That's Hailee Steinfeld, who just turned 14 herself, talking about her film debut as Mattie Ross in the new movie "True Grit."

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.