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St. Scholastica grad is behind many faces in 'True Grit'

Lake Nebagamon native Debbie DeLisi spent months touring rodeo circuits and studying Southern civilian faces as the assistant casting director for "True Grit."

Debbie DeLisi knew what she didn't want in a woman: dyed hair, whitened teeth, breast implants. No manicured eyebrows or trimmed bangs.

As for the men: beards -- or at least the ability to grow one -- ideally unkempt with mutton chops.

"We were looking for grit, for personality," she said.

The Lake Nebagamon native spent months touring rodeo circuits and studying Southern civilian faces as the assistant casting director for "True Grit," which is nominated for 10 Oscars -- including best picture -- at today's 83rd annual Academy Awards.

She helped casting director Rachel Tenner fill the principal roles, including the hunt for a young girl to play Mattie Ross, and then took the lead on finding extras for the 2010 Coen brother's adaptation of the novel by Charles Portis.

"Everything from a beefy farmer to a man on a train with a gift for gab," DeLisi said in a phone interview from her home in New York City. "How does that look? It's up to me to interpret their vision and present it to them."

When it comes to the award-winning Minnesota directors Joel and Ethan Coen, extras aren't just faceless background filler. Each one is plotted on a storyboard, according to DeLisi, who also helped cast their 2009 movie "A Serious Man."

DeLisi caught acting fever at the College of St. Scholastica, but watched from the wings instead of jumping into productions. Just days after graduation she ventured into Duluth's local theater scene with shows at the Playhouse and what was then called Renegade Comedy Theater.

Brian Matuszak, then the artistic director at Renegade, remembers DeLisi as an upbeat actress who kept the mood light when rehearsals for a holiday show dragged into the middle of the night.

"She has a good eye for people's strengths," he said. "She's that positive force of energy. She's not going to let a set-back bother her. Anything she wants to tackle, she can do."

Then came local commercials, Minneapolis, Chicago and now New York City, where she straddles acting and the production sides of the movie business: Casting extras for "True Grit," acting in a short film, finding hosts for programs on the DIY Network, a small role in "A Prairie Home Companion," and another in "A Serious Man," jetting off to Los Angeles to celebrate with the crew of the western starring Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld and Matt Damon.

"To me, acting is the heart that beats," she said. "It's my favorite. I'm really happy where I'm at. I can pick projects I really love that have nothing to do with money or notoriety. I can make money working in production. I'd rather work in production than have my soul sucked."

All roads lead home, DeLisi is fond of saying.

When it is time to decompress or prepare for the next thing, she makes her way back to her hometown -- which she describes as having a "Waiting for Guffman" charm. She sets up at a local coffee shop or her parents' dining room table. Home is also on her mind when it comes to casting, whether it is for "True Grit" or a program on HGTV. To know DeLisi is to receive e-mail blasts soliciting talent.

"It gives me comfort to know my peeps are with me," she said. "Home is where it all started, and I'm very loyal to how I feel about people I know and care about."

Her mom landed in HBO's "The Vagina Monologues." A young girl from Maple, Wis., auditioned for "True Beauty," and a friend's baby was considered for a Target advertisement. Local poet Ryan Vine was an extra in "A Serious Man." So was Thomas Zelman, a professor at St. Scholastica who was on staff when DeLisi spent some time studying in Ireland during college.

Zelman said he was outfitted in a metallic green suit, indicative of late-1960s fashion. He plays a man sitting in a synagogue in the 2009 Coen brothers' movie, and though he has no acting ambitions, Zelman said he was pleased with the results.

"I really was sitting in a good place," Zelman said. "My face was on screen for a few seconds."

Zelman described it as two days of fun: Watching the Coen brothers at work, meeting other actors and seeing DeLisi wrangle hundreds of extras, directing them to wardrobe and the dining area. He's game to do it again. And in true DeLisi form, his name has been added to that famous e-mail list.

DeLisi was scheduled to spend two weeks assisting Tenner in casting for "True Grit." Two weeks turned into 10 months, while the duo scoured rodeos in places like Texas, Missouri and Oklahoma looking for a girl who could rope and ride horses. One day they saw 700 girls. They also viewed 10,000 videos.

They wanted someone able to play a girl who is logical, not ruled by emotions.

If she looked like she had ever kissed a boy, she was not a fit, DeLisi said. The part eventually went to Hailee Steinfeld, a relatively unknown now-14-year-old who is up for Best Supporting Actress.

"There were two casting people that spent, basically, 18 months going everywhere, just everywhere, seeing thousands of young girls in that age range, and they could have stayed in L.A.," Ethan Coen told the Los Angeles Daily News.

"Hailee, to me, was anointed to play the part," DeLisi said. "She not only had that other-worldly grit, she also had the acting chops."

Once the principal parts were cast, DeLisi devoted the same kind of attention to finding extras. She deserves a lot of the credit for the way the movie looks, according to costume designer Mary Zophres, who is up for an Academy Award for her work outfitting the characters. Zophres described a scene in a courthouse, which is filled with extras, as looking like a painting.

"She has a knack for finding that kind of face," Zophres said. "I don't ever want to do a period movie without her."