Chance led Ruth Morris to 'True Grit,' but her role isn't a new one

Ruth Morris wasn't looking for a movie role. She just happened to be in the right place at the right time -- and for this role, she just fit the bill.

You can see the 2004 Texas Christian University grad in the new Coen brothers film, True Grit. It's just a glimpse, a shadow, a silhouette; Morris was the body double for one of the story's key characters. But that brief glimpse, that silhouette, is one of the film's most powerful moments -- and a moment that means a lot to Morris.

The movie, which opens Wednesday, stars Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, who plays a young girl who joins forces with a U.S. marshal and a Texas Ranger to track down the man who killed her father.

The Coen brothers film isn't really a remake of the 1969 John Wayne movie -- instead, it's more true to the book by Charles Portis that inspired the first film. And -- spoiler alert -- in this version, as in the book, 14-year-old Mattie Ross falls into a pit, is bitten by a rattlesnake, and loses her left arm in the painful aftermath.

When an adult Mattie (played by Elizabeth Marvel) appears at movie's end, her loss is visible and affecting. To pull it off, the directors needed a body double for Marvel -- an actress who looked much like her but was missing an arm.

Enter Morris, 29, who was born without a left forearm. Last spring, when True Grit's casting director sent out a nationwide call for a body double matching her description, Morris's friends and contacts in the prosthetics field started forwarding her the e-mails. The movie was filmed, for the most part, in and around Austin -- she could drive there.

"I got the information and thought, 'Oh, OK, I'll send [my photo] in,'" Morris says.

Soon after submitting her photo and description, Morris got a call and was summoned to meet the casting director and try on the costumes -- corsets and stockings, stiff dresses that seemed to be straight out of the 19th century.

They fit perfectly.

So in May, Morris spent two weeks driving back and forth between Fort Worth and Austin, filming her parts a day or two at a time.

Sending a message

Being a body double isn't exactly glamorous or high-profile. You're seen from the back or from the side, always playing backup to the actual star. In True Grit, though, Morris made one of the film's most moving moments possible. When a grown-up Mattie Ross arrives at a train station, her body tells the story of what has happened to her since she was a child seeking justice on the frontier: The left sleeve of her dress is tucked up to reveal a missing arm. Her silhouette moves through the sunlight at the station with a quiet dignity, skirts swirling and head held high.

It's a powerful scene in the film. It was even, Morris says, a powerful moment on the set.

"There was something about that scene," Morris says. "You could just feel it coming together and feel the magnitude of it."

Afterward, she says, people on the set had tears in their eyes. One of the directors' friends approached Morris to tell her he could see, just watching, how much the moment meant to her.

"It's a very poignant point in the story," she says. "It has meaning, the loss she's experienced and how she's continued on with her life."

It turns out, that's exactly the message Morris has worked all her life to send.

Helping others

Morris got her first prosthetic arm at 6 months --"I learned to crawl and walk with the prosthesis," she says. At 2 1/2, she was the youngest person to be fitted with a myoelectric prosthetic arm.

"I was in tabloids," she says. "There was a lot of newspaper coverage. I was really kind of like the original bionic baby." As she grew and technology advanced, Morris went through many prosthetics. But she's always known she wanted to help other people with disabilities.

Morris was born in Houston, went to high school in San Marcos and moved to Fort Worth when she entered TCU as a dance major.

"Before orientation was even over, I had switched to a social-work major," she says. And since then, she has focused on helping people with limb loss. After TCU, Morris went on to Columbia University to earn a master's degree in social work, specializing in disabilities. After five years at Advanced Arm Dynamics in Irving, Morris has started work on a doctorate degree in public health. This month, she moved to San Antonio to study at the University of Texas School of Public Health. When she's finished, Morris plans to return to Fort Worth.

In the past few years, much of Morris's work has involved grief counseling, helping patients and their families adjust to the loss of a limb. And as part of that counseling, she has often brought in a film or a book that might help a patient see their disability in a new light or to be able to picture a future with a missing limb. Now, she imagines True Grit might be one of those films.

"That's very meaningful to me," she says, "to be a part of something that could also be a therapeutic tool for other people. It's huge."

Her what-the-heck turn as a body double, then, has dovetailed nicely with her purpose and work.

"My passion in life," Morris says, "is to help people with limb loss adjust and to move forward and live independent and meaningful lives. To be able to help portray that, and to help support that, is very special for me."

Moving ahead

On the set of True Grit, Morris got her own tiny trailer, and she spent time on the set in Austin and a ranch near Bastrop. It was a quick baptism into the long hours, repetitive work and "hurry up and wait" nature of the film industry.

Morris hadn't had any acting experience since high school, so it was nerve-racking to share a movie set with the pros. She did a lot of walking to show her silhouette and her shadow on the ground. Other scenes required some close-up body shots designed to show the character's missing arm. And thanks to that dramatic scene of arrival at the train station, Morris ends up with at least as much screen time as Marvel, the actress hired for the role of the older Ross.

"I was thinking: 'I don't want to be the reason why we have to shoot this 20 times. I'm going to do it right the first time,'" Morris says. She soon discovered that, no matter what, each scene was going to be repeated at least 10 times, if only to change the lighting or the camera angle.

For the record: Yes, she met Jeff Bridges, and of course she worked with directors Joel and Ethan Coen. No, she didn't ask for an autograph -- "I wanted to be a professional," Morris says.

When her 15 minutes are up, Morris plans to devote her career to research that will help upper-limb amputees. But she is thrilled that she was in the right place at the right time for True Grit.

"I think it's kind of neat how it's come together," Morris says. "My being a part of this story is more than just being a person missing a limb. It really has meaning."

Alyson Ward, 817-390-7988