Coen brothers bring Grit to Berlin Film Festival

By Emma Jones
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Image caption, True Grit stars Jeff Bridges as bounty hunter Marshall Rooster

The 61st Berlin International Film Festival has opened with Joel and Ethan Coen's Oscar-nominated Western, True Grit. Its star, Jeff Bridges, talks about walking in John Wayne's footsteps, the awards circuit and his young co-star, Hailee Steinfeld.

Awards may be like buses for Jeff Bridges - he waits years and then two Oscar-worthy performances arrive one after the other.

The 61-year-old already holds the best actor prize from last year for Crazy Heart - and he was nominated this year for his role as the one-eyed, whisky-swilling, grizzled bounty hunter Marshall Rooster Cogburn in True Grit.

Cogburn, who can't recall how many men he's shot, is hired by an outspoken and determined 14-year-old girl, Matty Ross, to avenge the death of her father.

'Twists and turns'

The part was made famous by John Wayne in 1969, but Bridges was more concerned about filling some bigger boots - those of his father, Lloyd Bridges, who acted in many Hollywood Westerns.

"I love dressing up as a cowboy," he says. "It reminds me of my childhood - my father was in so many of those films and I'd remember him coming through the door, in his boots and hat.

"He'd let me wear his things, and I'd call up my friends to come and play."

Although True Grit is a classic Western, its makers, the Coen Brothers, were anxious not to recreate the original film.

Image caption, True Grit opened the 61st Berlin International Film Festival

"I couldn't think why they wanted to do it, or why they wanted me to do it, because John Wayne is the icon as far as cowboys are concerned," Bridges says.

"But they said what they were making had nothing to do with the 40-year-old film, but the original book by Charles Portis.

"And when I read that, that's when I understood, because it reads like a Coen Brothers script. There are so many twists and turns, and some really interesting characters."

The texture of True Grit is softened by the humour that occasionally emerges from under Bridges's 10-gallon hat, and also the relationship between Cogburn and his teenage companion.

Hailee Steinfeld was selected for the part from 5,000 hopefuls - it is her first feature film and she gained Bafta and Oscar nominations for the part.

"I was concerned about whether she - or any young actress - could pull off the part, because the film is dependent on her," Bridges says.

"I was worried right up until the first scene we have together, where I am drunk in my hammock and she has to wake me up.

"Then I realised she was fantastic. She is the centre of the film, not me, and she is the one who has taken us across the finish line."

Box office success

Bridges' peers claim this generosity is typical - described by his co-stars as "the nicest man in Hollywood", there was widespread delight when he won his Oscar in 2010.

"It's been pretty crazy - I've been involved in a few awards seasons and you think you're always going to get used to it, but you don't," he says.

"It's always slightly disconcerting to walk down the red carpet and have these flashbulbs going off in your face.

"It is wonderful though - I have had a wonderful career and some great opportunities. You just have to have fun and not take it all too seriously," he adds.

True Grit has been nominated for eight Baftas and 10 Oscars, but has also been going great guns at the box office.

Since its release in the US in December, the film has so far taken $150 million (£93.9m), which is unheard of for a Western.

Bridges dismisses the idea he has helped make the genre fashionable again.

"I think these things are cyclical and the Western is just part of American history and could never really go away," he says.

"I think this is more to do with the Coen brothers and what they will do with a script.

"Also it's unusual, because there's not many hard-hitting films with a 14-year-old girl who is the central character. None of us can quite believe how well it's done though," he adds.

As it stands, True Grit could become the highest grossing Western ever. That should remove Jeff Bridges from the shadow of even the Duke himself.

True Grit' is released in the UK on 11 February.

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