Jennifer Lawrence: In ‘Hunger Games,’ a heroine for our times

LATimes: Jennifer Lawrence is relishing her last few weeks of anonymity. The 21-year-old actress understands that her starring turn in “The Hunger Games” is about to change her life. Opening Friday, the highly anticipated film, faithfully adapted from Suzanne Collins’ bestselling young adult novels, promises to transform Lawrence into one of the most famous movie stars on the planet.

Some things already have changed for Lawrence. Just a few weeks ago, paparazzi began hiding in the bushes around her house, and a chauffeured SUV temporarily has replaced her Volkswagen. When she arrives at a Beverly Hills restaurant for an interview, though, it’s a tabloid-invented rivalry between herself and “Twilight” star Kristen Stewart that’s upset Lawrence far more than the idea that she soon won’t be able to go to the grocery store without causing a ruckus.

“Things like this tabloid war shouldn’t stress me out, but it’s kind of like being in high school when one friend says you said something bad about your other friend and you know you didn’t say anything. It gives you a knot in your stomach,” said Lawrence, nibbling at a bread roll. “I’m afraid that’s what it’s always going to be like.”

Like “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” before it, “The Hunger Games” is the latest in a string of popular book series to capture the imagination of young readers and blossom into a pop culture juggernaut. Set in a dystopian future in which teen warriors must battle to the death as part of an annual televised spectacle, the trilogy of books has more than 23 million copies in print in the U.S. alone and has been published in 47 foreign editions since 2008.

The key to the series’ appeal is the resourcefulness of heroine Katniss Everdeen, who volunteers to take the place of her sister in the brutal games. When Lionsgate announced its plans to turn Collins’ books into a four-film franchise, nearly every actress between the age of 14 and 21 hoped to land the role.

From the start, though, director Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit”) had his eye on Lawrence, whose starring role in the gritty independent drama “Winter’s Bone” propelled her to the national stage as the second-youngest woman ever to receive a lead actress Oscar nomination.

Still, Lawrence admits that she spent some time deliberating over her answer before ultimately accepting the role.

“I needed three days, I guess, to kiss my personal life away,” she said. “I wanted to iron everything out so that when my life was completely flipped upside-down and different, it was because I thought everything through and was positive” about the decision.

The precipice of ?ber-celebrity on which Lawrence is poised is the same one that consumed Stewart with the massive success of the “Twilight” franchise, and in many ways, it’s the same one that threatens to swallow up Katniss in “The Hunger Games” books. Her world is upended when her younger sister Prim is selected to participate in the brutal event, a sort of science fiction Super Bowl in which 24 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 must try to survive inside a sealed arena while the whole world watches. Katniss goes to fight in her place, representing her impoverished District 12 alongside fellow tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson).

With its commentary on today’s fascination with celebrity culture and reality TV, not to mention broader themes about economic injustice and humanity’s capacity for violence, “Hunger Games,” like the best science fiction, has managed to attract fans of both genders and of varying age groups. Ross worked closely with author Collins to ensure that the spirit of the novel remained relatively intact.

“The thing I like about this movie, which is different from many others, is Katniss is focused on survival, focused on a revolution and not focused on who is going to be her boyfriend,” Lawrence said.

For Lawrence, growing up in Louisville, Ky., as the youngest of three children of a construction worker father and a mother who ran a summer camp, acting was as viable a career option as becoming a professional surfer. She loved movies, though her family was more familiar with John Candy’s oeuvre than Woody Allen’s. Lawrence spent most of her playtime pretending to be a telephone operator, and she thought she’d go to college and maybe find a career as a travel agent. She suffered through school, never quite finding her niche.

“I always felt dumber than everybody else,” she said, recalling an incident in which a math teacher embarrassed her in a class when she kept asking questions because she didn’t understand the material. “I hated it. I hated being inside. I hated being behind a desk. School just kind of killed me.”

Lawrence’s perspective changed during a trip to New York with her mother. It’s a story that seems impossible today ? one that happened only to pretty, young girls in a bygone era, before fame was a top career choice for teenagers. A talent agency photographer snapped Lawrence’s picture, and that photo landed her a few auditions and meetings with agents during her short stay.

“I remember being in New York, reading a script and I completely understood it. I knew I could do it,” she said. “They were offering me contracts on the spot and telling my mom I was good. I was finally hearing I was good at something. I didn’t want to give up on that.”

Lawrence spent the next few months prodding her parents daily before they agreed to let her return to New York for the summer to launch an acting career. She landed work in a few commercials, a TBS sitcom and some independently financed films, including Guillermo Arriaga’s “The Burning Plain” and writer-director Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone,” which cast her as Ree Dolly, an intrepid teen living in poverty in the Ozarks who’s forced to risk her life to save her family’s home after her absentee father jumps bail.

“I don’t know what it is with me and maternal wilderness girls, I just love ’em,” Lawrence quipped. “Even before ‘Winter’s Bone,’ the first movie I ever did, ‘Poker House,’ I was caring for my younger siblings in a tough, dark situation.”

Although she’s drawn to more troubled characters, in person, the actress is light-hearted, even goofy.

“The funny thing about Jennifer is that she is nothing like the persona she projects on-screen at all,” said Jodie Foster, who cast Lawrence in her film”The Beaver.” “There’s not much serious there. She is as normal as they come and she never stops being funny. She was just born with that deep stare.”

Despite her reputation as a promising young actress, Lawrence said her career hit a speed bump after “Winter’s Bone.” She had trouble landing auditions for more feminine characters, so to shake up her image, the actress posed in a skimpy bikini for a well-orchestrated photo shoot in Esquire magazine.

“There’s just no imagination” in Hollywood, she said. “I wanted to show people ‘Winter’s Bone’ for the performance, but it ended up having the opposite effect. People were like, no, she’s not feminine, she’s not sexual.”

Lawrence endured a good heap of criticism for what many saw as an exploitative play, but it worked.

“A lot of people said, ‘Oh, now we have a great actress come along and she’s showing her boobs.’ But that’s exactly what I had to do so I could keep working. Honestly, that photo shoot is what helped me get ‘X-Men,'” she said, referring to the comic-book blockbuster “X-Men: First Class” in which she played the sexy mutant Mystique.

For “The Hunger Games,” Lawrence returned to her “wilderness girl” persona, with she and the rest of the film’s cast and crew enduring a particularly brutal shoot in North Carolina last summer, a six-day-a-week schedule fraught with intense humidity and run-ins with snakes and bears. She said she found the experience of shooting the action scenes for the PG-13 film to be physically exhausting, but she responded well to the emotional demands of the script, which Ross adapted with Collins and Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass”). Hutcherson (“The Kids Are All Right”) said he found working with Lawrence refreshing and especially appreciated her authenticity.

“When you are acting with her, when you look into her eyes, you see that she is being that character,” he said. “There is no lying.”

Ross echoed those sentiments, comparing her audition to what it must have been like the first time a basketball coach watched Michael Jordan play ball.

“It was stunning to me,” said Ross, who had Lawrence read the scene when she says goodbye to her sister Prim. “It’s almost hard to characterize. It was a powerful performance, with such strength and clarity in it. She was being so strong for her sister at that moment, yet at the same time there was a layer of vulnerability under that. She showed so many different colors, so subtly, with such control, that it was really remarkable.”

Lawrence said her favorite scene to shoot in “Hunger Games” was opposite Stanley Tucci inside the opulent Capitol ? the nation of Panem’s power center where the government operates and its citizens flounce around in garish dress and makeup. She said she loved sparring with Tucci, who plays Caesar Flickerman, the Hunger Games emcee, a sort of wildly flamboyant, futuristic Ryan Seacrest, with bright blue hair and brilliantly capped teeth, who interviews the contestants before the event begins.

“It was … the moment when Katniss realizes that she has to play the game,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence, too, understands that she now needs to play the game. With her face plastered on billboards across the country and fans lining up to see the film ? which is on track to open to more than $100 million at the box office, according to early estimates ? the actress says she is excited to play Katniss as the character takes a more active role in the fate of her nation in the three upcoming “Hunger Games” sequels.

But she’s also taking pains to keep her independent streak alive. She’s set to appear opposite Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro in David O. Russell’s “The Silver Linings Playbook,” due out in November, before re-teaming with Cooper to star in Danish director Susanne Bier’s “Serena,” based on Ron Rash’s novel about ambitious Depression-era newlyweds.

“Susanne emailed me yesterday and I saw her name and I started giggling,” she said, sounding like a giddy teenager when speaking about the respected filmmaker (“In a Better World”). “Susanne Bier has my email. I love her.”

Even as the rest of the world discovers her, she is expecting her loved ones to help keep her grounded. Prior to the film’s March 12 premiere, she’d been cleaning her house and stocking up on new sheets and air mattresses to prepare for her family’s visit to Los Angeles. No matter how much fame Katniss Everdeen brings her way, Lawrence says she’ll never be able to pass off a snooty movie star pose with her parents and her two brothers.

“Could you imagine [if I said to them], ‘Follow my assistant around, I’m too famous’?” she says with a laugh. “I could have an out for almost anything. ‘Will you go to the store and buy me this? I’m too famous. Sorry guys, I can’t make dinner, I’m too famous.’ Then everything I say will be used against me.”