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The Spotlight: Dakin Matthews in 'True Grit'

January 5, 2011 |  9:58 am

Dakin
Hitchcock. King Lear. C.S. Lewis — Dakin Matthews has played his share of hefty dramatic roles on Los Angeles and Orange County stages as well as in television and film. Theatergoers familiar with Matthews' deft touch should catch his memorable turn in the Coen Brothers’ movie “True Grit.” In two tart scenes, Dakin's hapless character Col. Stonehill is hornswaggled by 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who sells back the ponies her late father bought from him.

How did your role in “True Grit” come about?  

I put an audition on tape and then didn’t hear anything for a couple of months. The Coens were doing a nationwide search for the girl and weren’t going to cast anyone until they found a Mattie. Then my agent called to say I was still in the running, and would I do a favor for the Coen brothers? Turns out they had narrowed the girls down to the last four. The Coens wanted the girls to read their scenes with Jeff Bridges, Barry Pepper and me over at Paramount. That’s when I found out I was being offered the role.

Who was up for Mattie?

Chloe Moretz (“Kick-Ass,” “500 Days of Summer”). Also a Scottish girl. They all read well. Hailee was the last one. 

What was your first impression of Hailee?

She was completely self-possessed. She didn’t seem to be acting. She also handled the language, which is a little bizarre, with complete ease. And she had a really good look. She’s 5-foot-7 without heels. You believe that she would take it upon herself to be an adult. 

The pleasure of your scenes together comes from Stonehill’s increasing consternation that this young girl is getting it over on him. The harder Mattie bargains, the higher your eyebrows go.

The scenes are a lot about timing. The Coens actually trimmed both scenes for the final cut, which I think made them funnier. 

There’s such a mystique around the way the Coen brothers work. Can you break it down for us?

They really do work in tandem. They’re both in the room when you’re shooting. Either may give you notes. In my scene, Joel did most of the talking. He sat on the floor right next to me while Ethan was back by the camera. They’re completely in sync. They certainly don’t over-direct. They wait and see what you give them. 

What do you think of the finished film? 

I just love the clean storytelling. The delineation of character is terrific. Josh Brolin really astonished me in that small role. He found a voice and a way of carrying himself. You didn’t know quite how to react to him. The film is not a Hollywoodization; it stays true to the eccentric vision of the novel, which is rather dark. 

What’s your next gig? 

My company, Andak Stage, is starting rehearsal on a 17th century Spanish play I translated, Lope de Vega’s telling of “Romeo and Juliet.” He turns the tragedy into a comedy. Waking up in the tomb is played as absolute farce. 

Sounds kind of Coen-esque.

It does have a very odd spin on it. 

— Charlotte Stoudt

“The Capulets and the Montagues” opens Jan. 29 at The New Place in North Hollywood.

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Photo: Dakin Matthews in "True Grit." Credit: Paramount Pictures.

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