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Alongside acting heavyweights, teen’s the real deal in ‘Grit’

It’s not child’s play, stealing scenes from Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin.

But in the new “True Grit,” 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld not only holds her own against those seasoned performers, she establishes herself as one of a handful of pint-sized actors who this year gave Oscar-worthy performances.

In the Coen brothers’ new screen adaptation of Charles Portis’ picaresque novel from 1968, Steinfeld is a force to be reckoned with.

She has the plum role of Mattie Ross, a pigtailed angel of vengeance bent on tracking down and killing the no-good felon who gunned down her father and made off with his horse and money.

With an unshakeable faith in her Protestant ethic and her own righteousness, Mattie gets to work hiring trigger-happy, one-eyed U.S. marshal Rooster Cogburn (Bridges, reprising the role played by John Wayne in the original 1969 film) and striking a deal with an egocentric Texas Ranger (Damon).

This steely-eyed girl buffaloes a horse trader (leaving the man a quivering wreck), packs her papa’s pistol (it’s so heavy she can hardly lift it), fords a river and treks through the Indian territory of the 1870s.

“What attracted me to Mattie was the description of the character in the book,” Hailee says. “She has such a drive.

“That’s really how I related to her. She has this goal, and she’s not going to sleep at night until she reaches it.”

Hailey is familiar with that sort of determination. At age 8, she declared to her parents that she was going to be in movies and television.

“My cousin was doing commercials at the time, and to watch TV and see my cousin come up was huge for me. It made it seem possible that I could do it, too,” she says.

But her parents – Dad is a personal trainer, Mom an interior designer in the Los Angeles suburb of Thousand Oaks – weren’t about to throw their youngest child into Hollywood’s voracious maw.

“Before I could go out for even one audition my mom made me study acting for a full year,” Hailee says. “She wanted to make sure I’d stay with it.”

Not only did she stay with it, she began getting work as soon as her year of training was up. Nothing too impressive – several short films, a couple of TV appearances – but they allowed the girl to get a handle on this acting business. She learned about research and getting in touch with her emotions.

But the role of Mattie almost got away from her. She auditioned late in the process.

“I heard about ’True Grit’ through my mom’s cousin, whose daughter is acting as well,” she says. “We kind of called my agent and asked if I could get in on it.”

Luckily for Hailee, filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen hadn’t yet found the right young actress despite reportedly considering nearly 15,000 candidates.

To prepare for her audition, Hailee spent a weekend reading the novel and watching the John Wayne movie – the only time she’s seen it.

That gave her an idea of the idiosyncratic language Portis put in his characters’ mouths, a bracing blend of florid oration and clipped American vernacular.

“When I showed up they gave me 25 pages of script,” she says. “I read with Jeff (Bridges) and Barry (Pepper, who plays the leader of an outlaw band).”

Hailee’s work blew away the Coens.

“It was apparent from the very beginning that Hailee was going to have no problem with the language,” Joel Coen told The New York Times.

“We only cast her three or four weeks before we started shooting the movie, and we had been looking for a long time. But that was a crucial – maybe the crucial – aspect of making the film.”

Hailee auditioned on a Saturday. She learned she had landed the role on Tuesday. Within a month, the then-13-year-old was riding a pony through a remote part of New Mexico.

It helped that she already knew how to ride. And she didn’t have time to be nervous.

“It’s amazing how the hair, the makeup and the costumes can affect your performance,” she says. “Sometimes it’s like they’re acting and you’re just going along. And the location, too. Being out in the middle of nowhere.”

Though it has plenty of action and atmosphere, “True Grit” is terrifically funny – although none of its self-absorbed characters would see themselves as amusing. Which is part of the joke.

Hailee says she was surprised, when she saw the finished film with an audience, by the laughs it was getting.

“Really, I guess I didn’t understand when we were rehearsing and filming just how funny it is,” she says. “We knew there was humor there, but not as much as is in the final film. That’s the Coen brothers’ touch, I guess.”

Another thing that worked in her favor, Hailee says, was that she really had no preconceptions about Westerns.

“It’s a genre I really hadn’t been introduced to before,” she says.

So instead of recycling cliches absorbed from other movies, she burrowed into the character of Mattie.

“What’s so cool about her is that she’s so clever,” she says. “And stubborn. She always seems to get her way.”

Since completing filming early this year Hailee has led the life of a normal eighth-grader – though for a while it was hard to shake the experience.

“Mattie’s accent and way of talking stuck with me for a month or so,” she says. “That was weird. But it’s gone now.”

She continues to audition, but no big gigs have come her way. With the release of “True Grit,” though, one suspects that’s about to change.