A 13-Year-Old, A Burlap Dress And A Career Launch That Took ‘Grit’

May 18, 2015

As part of a series called My Big Break, All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.

Hailee Steinfeld is a new face in the Barden Bellas; she’s joined the college singing group for Pitch Perfect 2. But the 18-year-old actress is not new to cinema.

Her feature-film debut was less cheery than an a capella blockbuster: She played a stubborn teenager determined to track down her father’s killer. In the Coen brothers’ version of True Grit, Steinfeld starred as Mattie Ross — a character she credits as her life-changing role.

Ethan and Joel Coen had spent months searching for the right actress to play Ross. Then, just weeks before filming, Steinfeld showed up — dressed in character.

The night before her audition, she and her mom had taken a trip to a fabric store.

“She got, like, a burlap material and the night before, my mom had sewn together this skirt for me and an old top that we found in her closet … I don’t even know where it came from, but it was perfect and it worked,” Steinfeld says. “For the first time I really felt like I was confident enough to go fully in that sort of era, in that look.”

She went to Paramount Studios and auditioned.

Two days later she got a callback, before finally auditioning with Jeff Bridges in front of the Coen brothers.

“And then I think it was like a week after that, I was on a plane to make the movie,” she says.

Steinfeld was 13 years old, and she’d found her big break.

“My last day of filming, I could not stop crying and I remember I just thought the world was coming to an end,” she says. “And I remember Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon looking at me and saying, ‘This is just the beginning.’ ”

The film was released on Dec. 22, 2010.

“Seeing the film for the first time was so overwhelming,” Steinfeld says. “I remember sitting there and the movie ended but no one moved, no one got up until the credits were finished rolling.”

She was nominated for best performance by an actress in a supporting role at the 2010 Academy Awards.

And Bridges and Damon were right: It was just the start.

“Right now, I mean, acting — it just makes me so happy and I love it so much,” Steinfeld says. “I definitely see myself doing it forever.”

We want to hear about your big break. Send us an email at mybigbreak@npr.org.

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