Newcomer Steinfeld makes big impression in 'True Grit'

In “True Grit,” the character Mattie Ross shows steely resolve while trying to track down her father’s murderer. Yet it’s the film’s casting directors who deserve equal attention for their determination.

Along with the film’s directors Joel and Ethan Coen, Ellen Chenoweth and Rachel Tenner considered more than 15,000 actresses before settling on Hailee Steinfeld in the role of Mattie. The doggedness paid off as Steinfeld has nabbed critical acclaim and a Screen Actors Guild supporting actress nomination for more than holding her own in scenes with Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon.

For casting directors, this process can be just as daunting as it is for the unknowns they discover. They hold open casting calls, look at tapes and headshots and consider every candidate from established professionals to anonymous amateurs, searching for the perfect performer. Then there’s the pressure of getting it right.

“There is always the fear factor,” says casting director Fern Champion, who found Cameron Diaz — a model who had never acted before — after considering more than 2,000 actresses for the 1994 comedy “The Mask.” “It’s a gamble as a casting director. Your heart is in your mouth. You don’t go to casting director school; you just feel something and you say to yourself, ‘Please let my feelings be right.'”

“American Idol”-style casting calls have a historic place in the film industry. David O. Selznick famously conducted a nationwide search for Scarlett O’Hara when casting “Gone With the Wind” before hiring the established Vivien Leigh. Otto Preminger looked at some 18,000 options before picking Jane Seberg, who had never done a film, to play Joan of Arc in the 1957 movie “Saint Joan.” In more recent years, the young stars of the “Harry Potter” films survived huge competition to nab their iconic roles.

While performances have varied among these unexpected stars, a certain characteristic seems to be prevalent among them all: a unique confidence, according to Champion.

“When a young (unknown) talent walks in, there is something to them — they light up,” Champion explains. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I can count the times it’s happened on two hands. … They have no fear.”

Now Steinfeld joins that list of special finds. She is not alone among notable newcomers who impressed this year opposite big-name talent (think Frankie and George McLaren with Matt Damon in “Hereafter” or Miles Teller with Nicole Kidman in “Rabbit Hole”). But will Steinfeld be able to parlay her plucked-from-obscurity opportunity into a durable career?

Alan L. Gansberg, who is a film historian and a dean at Columbia College Hollywood, believes it’s particularly difficult for out-of-nowhere stars to gain traction.

“With young actors, more often than not, the audience tires of them,” Gansberg says. “They are seen as the character that made them famous and made their career.”

Hollywood.com’s box office chief Paul Dergarabedian agrees that it’s tricky to make the jump from complete obscurity to sustained success, but he considers Steinfeld the type of talent who could defy that expectation.

“You don’t want your first movie to be your ‘Citizen Kane,’ because you are always trying to live up to that,” he says. “Where there were no expectations, all of a sudden there is a ton of expectations. But she is an old soul who brings so much to the role. The most interesting thing with Hailee is the way the Coen brothers showcased her in an early trailer. They don’t mess around and they must have known she delivers the goods because she was the heart and soul of the trailer.”

There is some precedent that augurs well for Steinfeld. A 9-year-old Anna Paquin beat out a reported 5,000 aspiring stars to earn the role of Flora McGrath opposite Holly Hunter in the 1993 drama “The Piano” and won the Oscar. Since then, she has performed in big-budget movies (“X-Men”), well-received films (“Almost Famous”) and a popular television series (“True Blood”).

Moving forward, Steinfeld’s mantra should be focus on the company you keep, according to Dergarabedian. That includes seeking out marquee directors and also making sure she has “handlers who know her brand … and surrounding herself with people who understand how to have a long career.”

One thing is for certain: That career will almost certainly not include competing for another role against 15,000 actresses.

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