<i>True Grit</i> Star Barry Pepper Talks 'Hillbilly Shakespeare'

Adapted from Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, True Grit — the latest work from filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen — follows a young girl from Arkansas who enlists the aid of two colorful gunmen in her efforts to locate her father’s killer. They learn that the wanted man is hiding out with a band of outlaws led by “Lucky” Ned Pepper, who is played by Barry Pepper.

Spinoff Online had the opportunity to speak with Pepper about his work with the Coens last week when he was in New York doing press for Casino Jack, an entertaining portrait of former Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, which opened in limited release on Friday. Pepper admits that on first viewing True Grit in Los Angeles at an Academy screening, his feelings about the film were “mixed.” He had a completely different experience when he saw it for a second time at New York’s historic Ziegfield Theater last Wednesday, however, bringing him to realize what had distracted him from enjoying the movie the first time around: the sound.

“Many of the characters in the film have quite a gravelly tone and the dialogue is so specific, it’s almost sort of like what I’d call ‘hillbilly Shakespeare,’” Pepper explained. “It’s got this real sort of rhythm and poetry to it, this real musicality to it, and with that gravelly tone if the sound in the theater isn’t quite right you can lose the nuances of some of the humor.”

“It’s going to be interesting to see [how it will be received by] a foreign audience, because the dialogue is so specific and authentic to that American period of the Old West,” he continued. “Many people were illiterate and they were raised on the King James Bible. They spoke with that sort of Old English pattern and phrasing. It's very unique to us as Americans.”

True Grit was first adapted for film in 1969, but the Coen brothers have said all along that they aimed for their adaptation to fall closer to the book than the original film did. The book is written entirely in the voice of Mattie Ross (played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld in the film), but the 1969 adaptation is much more of a John Wayne show. It's an understandable decision, though Pepper believes that capturing Mattie’s voice is vital to evoking the spirit and tone of the novel.

“It's such a lovely story in the way that it breaks out of the mold of the Western genre in the sense that it's sort of like a female Huckleberry Finn,” he said. “It's all entirely from the voice of this 14 year old girl. It's really kind of her adventure. It received a PG-13 rating and a lot of people can take their kids to it. In fact, the Charles Portis novel is a wonderful bedtime story to read to your children. He's an American classic, that guy. I think it's a beautiful piece of work.”

Pepper also admitted that much of the cast and crew, including himself, were not familiar with the original film going into production, so much so that he didn’t realize until after the fact that there were mighty big shoes to fill in the role of “Lucky” Ned Pepper. “I didn’t even know Robert Duvall played the character I play,” Pepper said, laughing. “I felt like a big jackass when I found that out. What I was really pleased with was that I had an opportunity to create my own version of the character based on the book as opposed to being influenced by his interpretation on film.”

The original adaptation True Grit has achieved a measure of film classic status, thanks largely to the fact that it’s the role John Wayne won his Oscar for. “When you look back in the film archives and interviews, you’ll see that many people are very open about the fact… that he won that as an honorary Oscar for the 40 years of work. It wasn’t really so much deserving of that role as it was to his body of work, which is sometimes how that happens,” the actor said. “I think that’s just the nature of the awards season. There are so many fantastic performances, how could you choose? It seems so subjective.”

Pepper eventually watched the original True Grit adaptation, and once he did, he appreciated what he saw. “I thought [John Wayne] was wonderful in it,” he said. “[The performance wasn’t] as understated and as vulnerable as his performance as J.B. Books in The Shootist, that was probably one of my favorites. But he was very vulnerable and very humorous in True Grit. When I did eventually see the film, I thought he was charming. I think because it was a John Wayne film, he had a sort of responsibility to his audience to re-craft the story from the novel and make it more about the Rooster Cogburn character.”

Joel and Ethan Coen were under no such restrictions with True Grit. Actor Jeff Bridges takes the Cogburn role in this latest adaptation, and he differs from Wayne in a crucial way: while the older actor had an established personality which he carried with him from film to film, Bridges excels at disappearing into his roles, fully inhabiting the characters he plays. The sibling filmmakers saw the shortfalls of the original adaptation and perceived that there was an opportunity to be had.

“That’s why the brothers wanted to [go] back to the source,” the actor revealed. “They said, ‘Oh no, there’s so much more here.’ [The book] is so Coen-esque. They do that with all of their films, Raising Arizona, anything you can think of, they create their own language. So many of the big scenes in the film are [lifted] verbatim from dialogue from the book.”

True Grit arrives in theaters on Wednesday, December 22, 2010.

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