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Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for
December 9, 2010

A stylized tale of vengeance set against the backdrop of a classic western, the Coen Brothers' 2010 retelling of True Grit is decidedly rooted in the 1968 novel by Charles Portis rather than the subsequent 1969 film adaptation starring John Wayne. Remaining extremely faithful to its source material, the story is told from the perspective of young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a resourceful and precocious teen who hires a brash U.S. Marshal with a reputation for toughness (Jeff Bridges) to hunt down her father's killer (Josh Brolin). The unlikely duo are joined by a Texas Ranger (Matt Damon) who is also in pursuit of the rogue murderer for his crimes in the Lone Star state.

True Grit's plethora of strong performances easily catapults it into the discussion of top movies of the year. The banter and dynamics between its eccentric cast of characters are thoroughly entertaining, with the actors delivering weighty passages of speech with a certain rhythmic, poetic cadence. The flowery language blended with an uptempo timing seems to feel old-fashioned and contemporary all at once, lending itself equally well to both moments of comedy and moments of drama. Leading the charge is the movie's breakout star, Hailee Steinfeld, who easily holds her own opposite her veteran castmates in an impressive feature film debut.

In the following interview excerpt, Jeff Bridges talks about slipping into the role of U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn and working on Joel and Ethan Coen's critically acclaimed western.

MEDIA: Great job on this film...

JEFF: Thank you.

What was your initial reaction when you were first approached for the role of Rooster Cogburn, given that it had been played by John Wayne in the 1969 film?

Well, I was curious why these guys wanted to make that movie again. And I think it was Ethan who I talked to first, and he corrected me. He said, "No, we're not making that movie, we're making the book as if there wasn't any other movie ever made. And we're just referring to the book." And I wasn't familiar with the book. And he said, "Well check that out and tell me what you think." And I read the book, and then I saw what they were talking about, because it's such a wonderful book and it suited them so well, I thought. And God, what a great character. You know, most westerns have that strong, silent type, and here's this boorish, [talky] guy. [laughs] So that was going to be a lot of fun, I thought.

You have a particularly climactic moment in which Rooster is charging headlong into the enemy on horseback. What do you remember about the filming of that scene?

I remember that day well, and right in the beginning of the day, Joel coming over to me and saying, "What do you think about really trying this deal?" And I said, "All right, that's kind of interesting..." A little anxious, a little fear...It wasn't as tough as I thought, actually. It was kind of cool. We had a horse that kept the rhythm well. You know, that's basically it from my point of view.

How would you describe your process of bringing a character to life? Does it happen mostly on-camera, or do you prepare a lot before shooting?

Gosh, you know, each scene is an opportunity to show a different facet of the person you're portraying. But I begin developing a character pretty much the same way every time. You're looking at the script, or if you're lucky enough to have a book, you're looking at that material and seeing what other characters say about your character, and what you say about yourself or the author says about you. And that tells you quite a bit. And then one of the first things you do when you're hired on to make a film is you work with a costume designer. In this case, it was Mary Zophres, who was also the costume designer on The Big Lebowski. And that's one of the cool things about making movies. It's a collaborative art form, so you have all these other artists who are concerned about just specific areas--it might be what the room your character lives in looks like, and [what] the clothes look like. So the first people you meet is the costumer, because they have to make all those clothes. So Mary has these wonderful books that she brings out...and the character starts to fall in place. And as you dress it, you're looking in the mirror, and there comes a time when the character starts to tell you what it wants. And you might prefer, "Oh, this scarf looks nice, let me see..." And the character [disagrees]. It just won't stick, you know? [laughs] And probably the same thing happens when you're making a movie, too--you know, sometimes you want to do something, and it's not what the movie wants. And that's a wonderful time when that happens. And I'm not sure if there's one particular time it happens. It's just kind of a slow process of coming into focus.

Was your own vision of Rooster based on anyone in particular?

You know, I used to love it when my dad would play a western. When he'd appear at the front door all dressed up in his cowboy clothes, it was a thrill to me. So I guess there was some of my dad in there.

There was some overlap with the filming of this movie and your work on TRON: Legacy. How did you feel about switching between the clean, sterile world of TRON and the dirty, outdoorsy world of True Grit?

[laughs] Well, that's the fun of my job--that I get to play all different kinds of guys. We did a reshoot for TRON about a week after we completed True Grit, and I had the same make-up guy, Thomas Nellen, on both. So going from Rooster with all the dust and the grime and those dirty teeth [to] a few days later, lying back in the chair, and him putting a hundred little black dots on my face to have motion capture done...How bizarre. But that's the gig. That's the fun of it.

What do you think constitutes "true grit"? What qualities of Rooster should we aspire to?

True grit, I believe (this is my definition of it), is seeing one thing through to the end, you know? And that's a good thing. I aspire to that.

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Interview with Hailee Steinfeld on True Grit
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