LOS ANGELES — On the set of “True Grit,” the new Coen brothers Western, Hailee Steinfeld established a crafty money-making scheme. Surrounded by a cast and crew of adults, the then 13-year-old created a “swear jar.” Every time someone uttered the f-word, she’d collect $5 from the perpetrator; other bad words were worth a buck. As a trade-off, she had to pay up 50 cents if she said “like.”
Her total haul — $350 — was impressive. Many teenage girls would head straight to the mall and spend the dough on lip gloss, an iPod or a new wardrobe from Forever 21. Not Steinfeld.
“I matched it and donated it all to an Alzheimer’s foundation,” she said, beaming proudly.
It’s exactly the kind of brassy initiative, imbued with moral rectitude, that one might expect from a modern-day Mattie Ross, the willful girl at the center of “True Grit” who hires crabby, often intoxicated lawman Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to find and kill the fugitive who shot her father to death. And it might help explain how the precocious Steinfeld beat 15,000 other young hopefuls for the role — despite having never acted in a film before.
Steinfeld grew up in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and none of her immediate family members is in the entertainment business. Her father is a personal fitness trainer, her mother used to work as an interior designer, and her 16-year-old brother races off-road trophy trucks. Like many kid actors, she’s home-schooled. She attended Colina Middle School for half a year in sixth grade, but said the administration wasn’t “accommodating, and the girls weren’t fun, so, yeah, that didn’t work out so well.”
At any rate, she was focused on acting. Much like Anna Paquin and Dakota Fanning before her, Steinfeld holds her own opposite established actors in a film with largely adult subject matter. Last week, she was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award, and many critics predict she’ll nab a supporting actress Oscar nod come January. (Young newcomers are traditionally nominated in the supporting category, even if, like Steinfeld, they appear in nearly every frame.)
Paramount Pictures, which produced and is distributing “True Grit,” is clearly proud of Steinfeld’s work. On Saturday, the studio hosted a special birthday party screening of the movie, inviting 200 friends and family members to fete the young star, who turned 14 this month. About an hour before the celebration, Steinfeld arrived for an interview at a cafe near the lot with her publicist, her mother and her best friend, Katee, in tow.
In “True Grit,” Steinfeld comes across as fresh-faced and prim in tightly braided pigtails and 19th century pioneer garb. Off-screen, she seems determined to appear en vogue but not saucy: Her long hair had been straightened and fell almost to her waist. Teetering in a pair of high heels, she was remarkably slim and tall in a miniskirt, a dark blouse and a trendy blazer.
“My stylist helped me pick it out,” she said of her outfit. “Do you like it?”
Her small entourage sat down at a table across the restaurant, and her mother instructed a waitress to take a plate of eggs to her daughter. The actress barely touched the food.
“Did you eat anything?” Steinfeld’s mother asked later, having wandered over to check on her daughter.
“Yes,” she fibbed, nodding her head insistently. “When I get nervous, I can’t eat. And I’m nervous.”
While the prospect of her friends seeing her on the big screen for the first time had Steinfeld a bit jittery, little else appears to shake her. She seemed so comfortable filming “True Grit” that costar Matt Damon admitted he’s still baffled as to how she turned in such a strong first performance.
“She’s remarkably poised and confident for a kid that age. Like, I really don’t know what to make of it,” said Damon, who plays a swaggering Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf, in the movie. “I still haven’t quite figured out how that all happened — how she did that. When a kid is good in a movie, it’s usually because they’ve been put in an environment where they can relax and play some version of themselves, and that’s not what happened with Hailee. The language she’s using in the film sounds nothing like her in real life.”
Damon would know: He’s worked with child actors before, most recently alongside 12-year-old twin boys in Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter.”
“With those boys, when the camera was on them, Clint and I were saying all different kind of things to them to pull out genuine reactions from them,” Damon recalled. “We really didn’t have to do any of that kind of trickery with Hailee.”
Steinfeld attributes her skills to her mother’s resolve that she “study,” as she calls it, at an acting school in Studio City. But Bridges, who said he and Steinfeld would play dice games during breaks on set, noticed the youngster had none of the “tough or sour” posturing of a child trying to fake the attitude of an adult.
“A lot of 14-year-old girls are like 35-year-old girls, you know?” said Bridges, the son of actors Lloyd and Dorothy Bridges, who got his first screen credit before he was a year old. “It’s a natural thing to want to be older when you’re a kid, especially these days, and she might have a little of that. ... But she’s got her head on straight.”
Innate talent notwithstanding, Steinfeld is clearly not skipping her homework. To learn how to navigate her new Hollywood life, she went through media training twice before the cast of “True Grit” began promoting the movie. She attended the premiere of Disney’s “Secretariat” to get a sense for what red carpets are like.
Already, she peppers her speech with industry slang, and refers to her agent and manager as her “team.” She’s keenly aware that her next roles will be critically important in shaping her career. It’s rumored she’s in the running for the lead role in the screen adaptation of “The Hunger Games,” the bestselling series of young adult novels by Suzanne Collins, though Steinfeld said she met only once with producer Nina Jacobson months ago.
“Our biggest concern right now is, you know, finding what’s next coming off of ‘True Grit,’” she said earnestly. “We’ve gotten a number of offers, but I’m told it’s nothing compared to how many I’ll get when the movie comes out.”
Despite her preparations, there are moments when Steinfeld’s age pokes through her grown-up veneer. She often ends her sentences with an endearing, somewhat self-conscious, “So, yeah!” She admits she gets “easily starstruck,” and is hoping to meet Johnny Depp and Natalie Portman soon. True to her character, though, she’ll likely be seeking more than just autographs.
“I do have to say, I idolize Jodie Foster and Natalie Portman, because of the fact they’ve maintained such an amazing career since they were my age or even younger,” she said.
“And that’s really my goal. So maybe they might be able to give me some advice.”
Los Angeles Times staff writer Geoff Boucher contributed to this report.