This interview and feature with Jennifer Lawrence ran as a cover story for Malibu Magazine
Jennifer Lawrence is multitasking. I can hear her negotiating with a zipper on her suitcase as we talk over the phone from her hotel room in New York City. It’s early morning, and Lawrence is scheduled to fly back to Los Angeles directly after this call, having been postponed a day due to a blizzard. While Manhattan’s streets are dusted white, it’s hard to imagine this modest snowfall has fazed the 20-year-old actress, whose breakout role last year as Ree Dolly in Winter's Bone, was set in the desolate, chilling Ozark Mountains.
A native of Louisville, Ky., Lawrence has known what she’s wanted from an early age. At 14, despite never taking an acting class, the aspiring star descended upon New York with her mother, capturing the attention of talent agents. The visit was prosperous enough for Lawrence to uproot herself and move to Manhattan, opting for home schooling in order to look for work in the business. Now based in Santa Monica, Lawrence reminisces about that time in her life. I ask if there’s anything she didn’t get to experience by leaving high school. “I don’t feel like I missed out on anything,” she says, “because I didn’t really like it. The childhood and the teenage-hood that I had — I couldn’t have wished for anything better. I was doing exactly what I wanted to do. I was still hanging out with people my own age. I don’t think it was bad or different, but I’m different.”
Her career trajectory has been different than most rising stars, defined by the tough women she’s taken on. Lawrence embraces characters whose burdens precede them in years. In The Burning Plain (2008), she radiates as Mariana alongside Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger, as a daughter tormented by the knowledge of her mother’s affair with another man. In an accident, she is the catalyst to their deaths and soon takes the slain man’s son as a lover. In The Poker House directed by Lori Petty, Lawrence plays the daughter of a drug-addicted mother, caring for two little sisters and raped by her mother’s pimp. Based on Petty’s life growing up in a poor town in Iowa, Lawrence represents her flawlessly, and the role foreshadowed her next part as the 17-year-old Ree Dolly.
Much has been written about Lawrence’s phenomenal performance as Ree. After we’ve spent five minutes on the phone together, its not surprising that she was able to channel her intensity so effectively. Everything about the young actor is compelling, from her voice, her manner of speech and her inner confidence. As a squirrel-skinning, persevering daughter of a runaway drug dealer, Lawrence leads Winter’s Bone. Too inexperienced to be taking on the responsibility of raising her brother and sister, tending to her mentally detached mother and snooping into the dangerous insular drug community to find her father, Ree is at once resolute and vulnerable and ever the heroine.
It’s hard to imagine the film’s director, Debra Granik, hesitated when casting her as the lead in the indie drama. But it almost didn’t happen: Granik thought Lawrence was too pretty to play such a crude role. Lawrence is pretty. Actually, she’s beautiful, but she has a versatile look that could just as easily convey glamour, girl next door or down and out. But as the story goes, Lawrence wouldn’t accept being dismissed by Granik and flew on a red-eye after her first audition to convince the director to give her the job. It’s a testament to the actress’ faith in her abilities, and tenacity to manifest what she believes in, that has led to her early success.
The film has propelled her into the spotlight as if overnight, with phrases like “it girl” and the “next big thing” being dropped in nearly every article written about Lawrence. All of this Lawrence finds hilarious, commenting, “I haven’t really thought of myself as the ‘it girl’ yet, thank God, but that’s nice that people are saying that.” In fact, Lawrence would never take credit for the film’s success, adding, “I know as hard as I worked on that movie, a hundred other people worked just as hard as me, so I don’t really feel like taking credit for it. I’m completely surprised by it, and I’m completely taken aback by it.”
As the press has heated up since Winter’s Bone premiered, so has the branding of her image. The antithesis of the homely Ree Dolly, Lawrence was photographed in hardly-there swimsuits for a feature in Esquire, illustrating that she can evoke sex appeal as comfortably as she can play the downtrodden. This begs the question: Will she ever do a nude scene? Lawrence offers diplomatically, “Never say never, if it was the right thing. Right now, I’d say no, because I don’t think anyone ever really plans on it, like ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to take my tits out.’ But never say never.”
If and when she does take on more sexualized jobs, she’ll have a suite of female examples to rely on for guidance. In male-dominated Hollywood, Jennifer Lawrence has aligned herself with an influential set of women directors — including Jodi Foster, who directed her in the upcoming film The Beaver starring Mel Gibson and Anton Yelchin — that serve as her friends and mentors. The actress concludes that their presence in her life happened organically. “I gravitated toward the scripts, and when I met each of the female directors that I worked with — Jodi, Debra and Lori — we just kind of hit it off.” She continues, “Jodi is just the most normal person that I’ve met since doing this. It’s like somebody forgot to tell her that she’s famous. I was just so relieved when I got to know her. I felt this wave of relief come over me. I was like, ‘Thank God, I don’t have to change who I am at all.’ And Debra is a genius. She thinks completely out of the box. It really changes your perspective and changes your life when you are around people like that. I learned so much about thinking from her. And Lori is one of the strongest people that I’ve ever met. I mean, that woman has been through the ringer, and she came out perfect. She came out like her own version of herself. They’re just good, good friends.”
That she is able to bring to life these extreme personalities given that her own upbringing was loving and supportive is also a demonstration of her gift. She explains that it is her family who will keep her grounded if fame ever threatens to go to her head, “I have a great family that would smack me upside the head if I turn into an a-hole. That would just be humiliating.” Lawrence has two older brothers that she considers her best friends. She continues, “I think the most important thing is to remember what the real world is, and what’s normal and what’s not normal. When I’m on set, and I say the word ‘water’ and five water bottles show up and everybody gives up their seat, that’s not normal. That’s not the real world. I’ve seen how easy it is to start thinking that way, but as soon as that becomes my reality, I’m pretty much done.” I ask what she considers “normal” if acting isn’t. “Family and friends and home and when I’m not talking about work. What I love about my friends and family is that they don’t really care. That sounds kind of mean, but like, they really, really don’t. I talked to my cousin for an hour when I was home about her job at the Cheddar Box. I was smiling throughout the whole conversation, because not to sound like a total douche, but it was a relief not talk about myself for a little bit.”
On the other end of the phone, I can tell for a moment that Lawrence is preoccupied, perhaps scanning her hotel room one last time for items she forgot to pack, though, at this point, she’s probably become an expert traveler. She recently returned from five months in England filming the comic book thriller X-Men: First Class coming out in June. She spent the majority of her time overseas coated in blue makeup for the part of Mystique. She admits her undergarments — now all lined in a thin coat of blue — have suffered, as have her eyes. Mystique is a super villain, a shape shifter who’s more than 100 years old with piercing yellow eyes. To get the effect, Lawrence had to wear colored contacts, which, along with the eight hours a day getting “blued,” ended up being arduous. She elaborates, “A lot of time, the [contacts] would track paint underneath the lens, so the paint would between the pupil and the lens. Oh gosh, it was so painful.” I suggest that in the original comics Mystique was written as a lesbian, to which Lawrence counters, “No! That’s the first time I’ve heard that. She has kids, she has night crawlers, and she sleeps with Magneto!” And then she jokes, “Unless I’m completely wrong, I mean, she is 100 years old, she definitely had time for a lesbian phase.”
With a penchant for playing troubled women, it may come as a surprise that Lawrence also has a knack for humor, dropping witty one-liners, adding just the right amount of sarcasm and flourish to our 40-minute phone call. “Jennifer’s got a mouth,” Jodie Foster has said of the actress, and some may have seen Lawrence at premiers giving her best impression of Snookie from the Jersey Shore. And The Beaver is an unsettling comedy. Lawrence exercises her funny bone as Norah, a high school cheerleader and valedictorian, and Yelchin’s love interest. Yelchin isn’t typical of the kind of guys she’s normally interested in, but she quickly quips, “I’m not his type either.” They had fun on set “making fart jokes” and kidding around more than she’s used to on serious films. One day she called her agent after filming to say, “I think I’m going to do comedies from now on, because this is really fun. But the truth is I’m not really method, so just because I’m doing a dark movie doesn’t mean I’m going to be in a dark place throughout filming.”
Lawrence has nabbed numerous awards and recognition for Winter’s Bone, including a Golden Globe nod and as of press time had just received the Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Speaking with Lawrence a week before the Golden Globes, it was her choice of dress for the evening that has evoked the most emotion I’ve heard in our entire conversation. A hint of panic is evident as she explains, “I’m completely lost. I had no idea how hard it was going to be. I grew up with boys; I never would have thought that this would be that complicated. I pictured that day being all dressed up like a princess, and now I’m just like, ‘Put me in something black so that Joan Rivers won’t make fun of me.’ I think I’m just going to go straight for her on the red carpet and be like, ‘Please don’t make fun of me!’ I didn’t go to high school, so I never got bullied, and I feel like now is going to be my time. Only, it’s going to be on E! and I’m going to be watching it.” The night of the Globes, she didn’t take home an award but did walk the red carpet in a gorgeous flamenco-inspired Louis Vuitton dress. Rivers was nowhere to be seen, she got out unscathed, and now it was time for her to take on the Oscars.
Her options for roles have opened up because of this newfound attention, but she’d still resort to stalking again if it’s for the right part. She’s currently vying for the lead in director Scott Cooper’s adaptation of Lie Down in Darkness, where she would play another character from a dysfunctional family. “I told Scott Cooper that if he didn’t hire me, I would sleep outside his house. I was like, ‘Dude, I chased Debra Granik and Jodie Foster to New York. Do you hear me, Scott? I’m coming for you.”
Lawrence is now trying to put me on speakerphone so she can use one hand to tame the overflowing luggage and the other to zip, but her iPhone is not cooperating.. Her flight leaves in an hour, and I’m just one of the many who will want something from Jennifer Lawrence today. In fact, this early morning phone interview could be used as a barometer to gauge the pace her life has taken, indicating that every hour of her day is accounted for. With the Oscars right around the corner, even more multitasking will be required of her in the future. Fortunately, Lawrence has proven to be a quick study. If she can tackle the haunting persona of Ree Dolly, surely she can master the speakerphone option.