Interview: Jeff Bridges, Josh Brolin, and Hailee Steinfeld Talk True Grit

In True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen's latest movie -- and first full-blown Western -- Jeff Bridges plays the one-eyed Marshal Cogburn and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld the young girl whose father's murder he's helping her avenge. Josh Brolin, who starred in the Coens' No Country for Old Men, plays the villain. I sat down with all three recently to discuss the making of the movie.

Note: light spoilers.

Cole Haddon: Jeff, did you have any hesitation taking on a role that was made famous by the Duke?

Jeff Bridges: Well, I was curious why these guys wanted to make that movie again. 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 was no other movie ever made, kind of. We're just referring to the book." And I wasn't familiar with the book, and he said, "Well, check that out, tell me what you think." I read the book and then I saw what they were talking about, because it's such a wonderful book. It suited them so well, I thought, and God, what a great character. Most Westerns have that strong, silent type and here's this boorish ra ra ra, so that could be a lot of fun, I thought.

CH: Speaking of fun. Tron: Legacy just opened. Was there a difference in the kind of enjoyment you got out of acting in a dirty Western and a hyper-clean sci-fi movie?

Jeff BridgesBridges: 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. I had the same makeup guy; Thomas Nellen was on both. So going from Rooster with all the dust and the grime and the dirty teeth, a few days later back in the chair, him putting 100 little black dots on my face, motion capture darts ... bizarre, but that's the gig. That's the fun of it.

CH: Hailee, what's fun about Westerns? They're an uncommon playground for actors these days.

Hailee Steinfeld: The riding was fun. Horseback riding was fun. I used to ride English a couple years ago, so to be able to pick up back on that was fun.

CH: What was it like being the only girl and how did you learn to shoot a gun? Did you do your own stunts?

HS: I did most of them. There aren't really any, besides the falling down the snake pit. That was the biggest stunt, right? So there wasn't too much of that, but I learned to shoot a gun. Before I went on location that was one of the things that I wanted to make sure I had a clue of what I was doing, so I had my dad take me to a shooting range with a friend of ours who's an LAPD officer. He kind of told me everything I needed to know.

CH: What about working with the guys?

HS: Right ... it wasn't bad. They're awesome. They're amazing and I really wasn't [the only girl]. I was surrounded by women the entire time. The hair and makeup people and wardrobe. My mom was with me, my tutor. So I was surrounded by women the entire time, but I feel like all of them are like big kids so it was a lot of fun.

CH: Josh, join in here. How did you two prepare for the confrontational campfire scene between your characters, a young girl out for vengeance and the bastard who killed her father?

HS: Like 15 minutes after I met [Josh] for the first time, we were rehearsing that and [he was] on top of me with a knife to my neck. It was kind of interesting.

Josh Brolin: I don't know how to answer that question, really. She's so precocious and amazing and present and just kind of went with it. There was never any moment [where she hesitated]. I think it was more nerve-wracking for me than it was for her. She's very comfortable in her own skin, you know? That scene was about her talking and being super confident and this little man-child hating the purity of her. I'm so taken by [Hailee] in every which way. I just think she's incredible, so it was much harder for me. Matt DamonEverything she did was easy. The rest of us make it really hard, but it was great. I had a really good time. Other than the cursing, between me and Matt [Damon] and Barry [Pepper]. How much did you earn? I think the F word was $5, the S word was...

HS: Every other word was a dollar.

Brolin: She made about $100,000. An incredible experience, though. We had a great time. Really, really great time. I can't really tell you the process because it was a fairly easy process. In rehearsal, it was different. We really searched a lot in rehearsal for character and all that, but she was the one person who had it down before the rest of us really started.

CH: Hailee, you got to work with some acting heavyweights in this movie, like Jeff and Josh. Did you get any advice from them?

HS: I think the best advice that the actors have given me is to not take anything too seriously, but to have fun and ... well, take it somewhat seriously, right? But just to have fun with things.

CH: Josh, where do you have to go to find a violent simpleton in you?

Josh BrolinBrolin: When I came, I talked to Joel and Ethan about it in the beginning and they said something about he's sort of a dim bulb and I thought, "No, he's more like a broken bulb. No filament at all." I like the idea of doing this duality of a guy who he's talked about throughout the whole movie so when you see him, you expect a monster. Especially when he turns around the first time, that shot with the horses. He's got that look, whatever he's doing, I'm not sure what the look is. Then he starts talking and it's a different kind of guy. It's like, "So what are you doing here? I don't understand what you're doing out here." I like that better because it's different than what you [expect].

The mythology of what's been created from the movie is ripped from you, whatever pigeonhole that you've created in your mind of what a sociopath is. Then you see it come back when he's alone with her. You see that great low shot that they do of that transition that happens of, "I'm not taking this shit anymore and now I realize I'm out in the middle of nowhere and now I have to manifest this rage again." You realize it's true, he's a true sociopath. It was fun. It was fun to be able to do that.

CH: What about you, Jeff? How did you find the character of Rooster Cogburn?

Bridges: Gosh, each scene is an opportunity to show a different facet of the person you're portraying. 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, what you say about yourself, what the author says about you. 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. That's one of the cool things about making movies, there's a collaborative art form so you have all these other artists who are concerned about just specific areas that might be what the room your character lives in, what it looks like and what the clothes look like.

CH: Is there a reason you wear Marshal Cogburn's eye patch on the right eye as opposed to the left like John Wayne in the first True Grit?

Bridges: [Laughing] I'm a commie.

CH: But did you think about that?

Bridges: No. We put it on the right eye, it felt good. Put it on the left eye, not so good. Put it on the right eye: "This feels right. What do you think, guys?" We went back and forth like that. Sometimes I would forget to put it down for the scene. So I would be very pleased with a take and I'd say, "What do you think, guys?" They'd just ... [point at the eye patch.]

CH: In the end, you do mimic the iconic scene from the original where Rooster Cogburn rides into battle with his reigns between his teeth, guns blazing.

Bridges: I remember that day well. Right at the beginning of the day, Joel coming over to me and said, "What do you think about really trying this deal?" I said, "Oh, all right, that's kind of interesting." A little anxious, a little fear, I'm going to ride myself, do it in my teeth -- so we did it that way. It wasn't as tough as I thought [it would be], actually. It was kind of cool. We had a horse that kept the rhythm well. That's basically it from my point of view.

CH: And Jeff, just to wrap up. What qualities of Rooster Cogburn should men aspire to have?

Bridges: Well, true grit, I believe -- and this is my definition of it -- is seeing one thing through to the end. That's a good thing. I aspire to that.