written by Gregg LaGambina
It is sometimes perfectly fine to stare at a 13-year-old girl. to stare and stare, with her mother now perched just around the corner, out of sight, sipping coffee and nibbling at a scone, confirming with a tentative handshake moments earlier that her daughter was indeed ready to talk. Yet, had the mother stayed to witness this prolonged staring, this outright ogling, she might have called the whole thing off. (Still staring, by the way. Safely staring and staring.)
However, the staring is not at all about what you think it’s about. It’s about trying to see with the eyes, four of them in total, of Joel and Ethan Coen (they both wear glasses; does that make it eight?), the filmmakers of the forthcoming True Grit. To see with their eyes what they saw in this Los Angeles-born 13-year-old–to not just pluck her from the fuzzy, distorted obscurity of everyday life, but to thrust onto the young shoulders of this Hailee Steinfeld the full weight of a major motion picture. To make not just a film with the shopworn and marquee-approved Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, but to rest it all upon this unknown and new Ms. Steinfeld, 13 years hence on this earth, smiling now, not even ordering coffee. Do 13-year-olds drink coffee? Did we mention her mother is here?
“I heard 15 thousand, but that’s a big number, so I don’t know!” says Steinfeld. “It was huge. A lot of girls auditioned for it. I heard about it through my mom’s cousin. We went to my agent about it and she said the Coen brothers had already gone back to New York and it was down to three girls. But then I got a call to put together a tape and two days later I got called back to read with [the casting director] and then a month later with the Coen brothers.”
Steinfeld was tasked with the role of Mattie Ross, the narrator of the 1968 novel by Charles Portis, True Grit, mostly known by its first film version, starring John Wayne. This, the Coen Brothers adaptation, is rightly based upon the novel, so not a remake, thereby centering it squarely on Ross as played by Steinfeld. Bridges reprises Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn, a one-eyed, alcoholic bounty hunter hired by the teen gal to avenge her father’s murder by the hands of the coward Tom Chaney, as played by Josh Brolin. Damon, as the ranger La Bouef, joins in on the hunt, teaming with the drunken Cogburn in pursuit of the dual rewards of death and cash.
“Honestly, I feel like there were little signs along the way,” Steinfeld says, impressing a notion of destiny, maybe a mark of residue left from exploring Old West notions of Biblical justice. “I was really prepared for this. I was ready and I wanted it. There was something about [this story], I just had this thought in my mind that it was me and nobody else but me and I’d never felt that way before.”
So, you can stare, but you’ll probably never see just what you need to see to understand what the Coen Brothers saw—because for Mattie Ross, a 19th century girl grown-up quick by all the ways a life of God and guns and dust and saloons, years can be stolen away in silence. Filmed over the course of three months in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Austin, Texas, the home-schooled Steinfeld doesn’t seem as young as her years. That might be it.
Poised and polite and self-assured, seemingly steady and alert for the attention and sure accolades to follow the unveiling of True Grit, this Steinfeld has grown up a bit quick already. Though not through the kind of hardship of her onscreen heroine, but a grateful grace and humility that’s all but extinct here in the 21st century among her so-called peers, the bubblegum fly-by-nights forgotten before they’re grown. What she learned most from an old hand like the seasoned and beloved Bridges should do her well and carry her far, as long as she remembers to continue to be just like how she describes him.
“He is the most humble, loving, giving guy you will ever meet,” she says of Bridges. “He is such a joy to be around. I love it when someone I look up to is not only good at what they do, but is a good person, too.”
All evidence here this afternoon over no coffee, points to her remembering it well. For the benefit of her and the rest of us who ever doubt that old-fashioned things can’t last much longer, here is a girl we might just watch grow up in the movies, unspoiled and powered by that unseen thing Webster’s defines precisely as “strength and resolve.” It’s the thing they saw when they stared: grit.
written by Tahirah Conliffe
A quintessentially english day at london’s dorchester hotel: very apposite for the set of today’s shoot with the fresh, young English actress, Georgie Henley aka Lucy Pevensie from The Chronicles of Narnia trilogy. The Narnia stories are childhood classics, written by C. S. Lewis in the 1950s, along the lines of timeless tales between good and evil, darkness and light, and the usual sacrifice and rebirth. Sounding a little familiar? Well, you know your Bible. Matthew Chapter 28:1-10.
The hotel’s grandness evokes the lost feeling of Narnia. It also adds to the anticipation of an encounter with a 15-year-old acting adolescent. From the age of eight, Henley has been splitting her time between her hometown of Ilkley, West Yorkshire—in a school uniform with her hair scraped back, working through “Maths course work”—and on a film set surrounded by film crews and, at times, surly actors. The photo team preps for the shoot, nattering about whether or not we are to be faced with a stereotypical moody child actress.
In, from what looks like a glass closet, enters a Lolita-type figure. Everyone is immediately lured into her presence, drawn in by her grace and stunning crown of long, reddish hair punctuated by a warming smile. Instantly doing as she is told, like a good little girl (“Nothing wrong with being a teacher’s pet,” she says cheekily), Henley takes her place, ready to be made up and styled for her first ever fashion shoot. When asked how she feels about having a rail full of Prada, Paul Smith, Christian Louboutin, and the like waiting for her, she excitedly says, “Really! I love fashion and experimented a lot when I was younger. I have been through preppy; bright colors kitsch. I wore some pretty gross stuff, like everybody has!”
Henley talks openly and comfortably. She surprises, not with her precious flights of girlishness, but with her precocious confidence. For a moment, she’s not 15; she’s 30. “I feel like I live two lives, almost,” she admits. “It is kind of surreal for me and means I never get bored. Ever! Reality versus fantasy. My friends never see me in this situation and we never talk about it. We are normally discussing more important topics like—”
“Schoolgirl crushes?” your interviewer interjects.
“Hardly!” she says, alighted. Then she falls into a confidential lean and murmurs, “I normally go for older men, really, which is quite unnerving. I like Bill Nighy, who is like a granddad. I think he is amazing. I also love Russell Brand, and fancy Simon Cowell. He is why I watch The X Factor… Ummm!” She thinks deeply about more men she fancies.
“Johnny Depp is seriously talented and seriously gorgeous—he would be my dream co-star, which is weird ‘cause he is old enough to be my father.” She sighs. “I also love Marion Cotillard. She is incredible, stunning, and talented. I would love to work with her or be her child.”
She goes on. She is on a roll: “Kristen Stewart inspires me. I respect her for being true to herself, not conforming or doing what people tell her. She deals with the fame really well. I think fame is what you make it. If you don’t want the fame, you can still practice your craft.” Is this what Georgie wants? Will she grow into a strong, confident actress that budding young thesps can look up to?
Moving into the hotel ballroom for the first shot, Henley gasps, “It’s like Strictly [Come Dancing] in here, but less cheesy.” She adds that ours has been “the most genuine interview [she] has had all day” following a stream of hasty press junkets to promote the film.
What does the future hold for Henley? “To continue with acting,” she responds. “I can’t imagine myself doing anything that would give me more fulfillment in my life. That might be big words for a small girl, but that’s how I feel. You are never going to learn anything if you stay in the same closed-in world. My future is quite ambiguous. I really don’t know what I am going to do; there are so many options. I would love to experiment with music and be in a band. That would be great.”
Henley clearly has a command of herself unusual for girls her age, surely the symptoms of an acting upstart. But perhaps there’s something deeper than a hurried plunge into adulthood. “I am a bit different,” she says, “and not in a good way, most of the time.” Is it possible this sweet face is just a façade that allows her to get away with a dark and somewhat macabre mindset?
The hairdresser pipes in to offer, “You are going to be one of those childhood actresses that turns into a Charlotte Church, turning her back on youthful innocence.”
“You are exactly right,” Henley grins. “That is what I am planning now.”