Little-Known Young Actress Beats Out 15,000 Hopefuls for Lead Role in ‘True Grit’

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Movie Talk
Jeff Bridges & Hailee Steinfeld Paramount Pictures
Jeff Bridges & Hailee Steinfeld Paramount Pictures

Acclaimed directors Joel and Ethan Coen have worked with some of the most famous and most talented stars in Hollywood, including George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Tom Hanks. But for a lead role in their latest film, they went looking for someone who was a complete unknown.

To find an actress to play Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old protagonist of "True Grit," the Oscar-winning Coen brothers took the unusual step of searching for a fresh face on the Internet. In addition to open calls in locations around the country, a website was set up with instructions for how hopeful actresses could videotape their auditions and submit them to casting agents.

The website called for a young woman between the ages of 12 and 16, and that previous experience was not necessary. It said, "We are looking for a girl who's tough, strong and tells it like it is." According to Deadline.com, over 15,000 hopefuls auditioned for the role, but the part finally went to 13-year-old Hailee Steinfeld.

Steinfeld was not a complete beginner when she won the role. Her first appearance was on the Kelsey Grammar sitcom "Back to You" in 2007. But nothing on her short resume was comparable to carrying a big Hollywood movie.

The casting of Steinfeld was also a clear indication that the Coen brothers were taking a different approach to their adaption of Charles Portis' novel "True Grit" than the previous movie version. The 1969 original, which won John Wayne his only Oscar, had 21-year-old Kim Darby playing the role of 14-year-old Mattie Ross. Co-writer/director Ethan Coen told IGN that by sticking closer to the novel -- which was told through the girl's point-of-view -- allows them to retain more of book's humor. But he also added that the novel is "a lot tougher and more violent than the [1969] movie."

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While Steinfeld might be new to movies, she will be surrounded by a cast of film veterans. Last year's Best Actor Oscar winner Jeff Bridges plays U.S. Marshal "Rooster" Cogburn, who is hired by Mattie Ross to track down her father's killer. Matt Damon costars as La Beouf, a Texas Ranger who joins them on their hunt. And Josh Brolin -- who was nominated for an Oscar for his last film with the Coens, "No Country for Old Men" -- portrays Tom Chaney, the murderer they are all chasing.

The Coen brothers' new take on "True Grit" rides into cinemas on Christmas Day.

Watch the new theatrical trailer for "True Grit":