‘True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld on Her Screen Debut & the Coens’ Amazing Synchronicity

Here’s at BlackBook, we’ve been on a little bit of a Hailee Steinfeld kick. We included the 14-year-old actress in our 2011 New Regime, and last week, put her toe-to-toe with Elle Fanning to determine who gave the best tween performance of 2010 (apologies to Chloe Moretz). Steinfeld won, and since that victory, she’s continued to rack up accolades for her screen debut as the plucky Mattie Ross in the Coen brothers’ square-jawed Western, True Grit. Last week, the Screen Actors guild nominated her for Best Supporting Actress – despite the film centering on her character’s quest for revenge – and she also won the Chicago Film Critics award for Best Supporting Actress. At this point, an Oscar nomination seems more like a probability than a possibility. Here’s Steinfeld speaking about how she beat out 15,000 girls for the role and what it’s like working with the brothers Coen.

Are you getting used to all this new attention? I don’t know if I’m getting used to it. It’s still a first for me. I guess it’s something I have to get used to, but it’s definitely something I enjoy. This is such a huge journey for me, and it’s such an amazing time in my life, and every day is a new day and I have something to look forward to.

How has your life changed on a day-to-day basis? I’m much busier, but my life at home with my family, that hasn’t changed, and I don’t think it’s going to change. I think everything is practically perfect in every way, and I just want to keep it that way.

Why did you choose to be homeschooled instead of attending a typical school? It was actually half and half. Some of it had to do with the acting— the school was really not supportive of me leaving to shoot–and the other half was social issues. Now that I’m homeschooled, it’s been a lot easier, a lot more flexible.

What was the path like that led you to True Grit? Were you trying to land a part like this? Honestly, when it came along, it was just kind of that idea that whoever gets this, it’s like winning the lottery. It felt like that one-in-a million opportunity. I don’t think I really thought it through. You would think that from me doing a couple shorts and a couple of guest stars, I would work my way up to doing a movie like True Grit, but it really felt that I went from A to Z with this one.

What made you want to be an actress? Up until I was 8 years old, I had tried every type of dance and every kind of sport, but I didn’t stick with anything, I just kind of jumped from one thing to the next, and it was hard for my parents because they invested a lot of time and money. But I had an older cousin who at the time did some Barbie doll commercials, and that was absolutely all I was into. It was a huge inspiration for me.

Did you leave your final True Grit audition feeling confident? You know, I went in that room feeling like what I thought was Mattie Ross. I was dressed in character, I was prepared, and I think that was the first time that I didn’t doubt myself in the 5 or 6 years that I’ve been doing this. There was something about this project, something about having the connection right there with the guys, that didn’t make me doubt myself. I was really confident walking out, and I had that idea in the back of my mind that if it wasn’t this, I’d be seeing them soon anyway.

How familiar were you with the Coen brothers’ work before this? Of course I knew who the Coens were, but I hadn’t seen too many of their movies. Most of them are really bizarre. But the ones that I have seen are really incredible. And now after working with them for as long as I did, and seeing really what it’s like behind the camera and how things really go down, it’s more fun for me to watch Coen brothers films now. I know what to look for.

Has making a film like this changed the way you watch them? Yes, it’s hard. I’ll go to the movies with my friends and they’ll literally tell me, Hailee, don’t say anything, just let us watch the movie. I’ll be pointing out everything there is to know about everything. But I try my hardest not to pay attention to the little things. image

People still consider you a child actress, but you’re already a teenager, so you won’t be playing children for much longer. Are you prepared for that? Yeah, I am, actually. It’s not exactly a problem, but I have this thing where I’m very tall for my age, so I’ve kind of been pushed to go for the older roles. When I was 12, I did a pilot where I played a 15 year old. I have an older brother—this has nothing to do with it—but my brother used to play football, and I would cheer for his team, but he’s 3 years older than me, so I would always be with older girls. I think I’m a little bit more mature, well, so I’ve been told.

How did the Coens treat you compared to the other actors on set? They were very patient with me, and they were very open to working with any idea that I had, which was amazing. They never made me feel intimated, and always made me feel like I was part of the team. Honestly, I feel like they treated me exactly like they treated the other actors. Maybe they would give me a bit more… what’s the word?

Pointers. Exactly. But other than that, they were just—god, the way they work is so amazing/ The way they work together as brothers, and their connection as brothers is incredible.

Can you describe how they work together, and how it related to you? Joel did most of the directing, at least with me. I would go one-on-one with Joel if I ever needed help with anything. I love my brother to death, but I don’t think I could ever direct a film with him. Nothing would ever get done. They’re always on the same page, they always agree with each other. If one of them has an idea, the other one encourages it. You’ll ask a question and they’ll both answer the same exact thing.

What was the biggest learning curve for you on set? The entire thing. I know that’s not the answer you were looking for, but I see where exactly where I want to be. I have a vision now for my career, to have one like all of my costars have had.

What is it like working with those three guys? Those are three of the best actors working today and you got to work with all of them. From day one, they really made me feel like I was one of them. I feel like I learned more from their actions than I did from any of their words. And I feel like what I’ve learned will come out in my next performance. It’s hard when I get that question–what have you learned –because you just take it all in. If you were to spend 10 minutes with one of the guys, you would get it. They just leave such an impact on you. All of them have such an incredible presence.

I would imagine you’re getting a lot of scripts sent to you by people who haven’t even seen the film. Yeah, it’s crazy because I’ll go to these events and I’ll go to some general meetings, and these people are like, We heard you’re amazing. And it’s like, oh my god, you haven’t seen anything, I don’t want you to be disappointed or anything.

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Photography by Santiago Sierra.

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