LITERALLY bowled over by her Oscar, Hunger Games heroine Jennifer Lawrence is determined to keep it unreal
On the big screen, Jennifer Lawrence is as tough as they come. But in the flesh, she’s quick to assure you that she’s no warrior goddess.
Instead of kebabbing enemies with archery skills, she managed to knock herself backwards with her own bow during filming. After two days shooting on a beach, she started to panic about developing trench foot. And when she arrived back on the Hawaiian set, two days after her Oscar win, Hunger Games co-star Jeffrey Wright gave her a present that reduced her to rubble.
“It was a Tiffany box,” she recalls. “And I said, ‘Oh my God, you didn’t have to do that’.” But Wright had gone a lot further than a jeweller’s for a memorable gift. “When I opened it, a million crickets flew out and jumped all over me. And I screamed.” However, payback was already in the works – Wright had filled the box in his hotel room, and not all the insects had gone obediently into their plush blue home, and the others kept him awake for the rest of the week.
Lawrence takes a delight in pranks and pratfalls that is entirely appropriate at her age. Of course, not every 23-year-old has an Oscar sitting in their parents’ house, or an ability to command £6 million per picture, but that’s something she is still getting used to. When film companies book her into first class, she is acutely aware that she is out of her natural environment: “I just sit there while everyone’s got their newspapers and they’re on the computer, and I’m like, ‘Can I get a colouring book, please? Can I get some crayons?’”
It’s tempting to compare Lawrence to the heroine of her young adult franchise, The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen. In a dystopian future, Everdeen is a regular girl who becomes the focus of intense scrutiny by taking part in a gladiatorial game where teenagers are forced to fight to the death, watched by the rest of the world. Hollywood isn’t quite as cut-throat as that yet, but like Everdeen, Lawrence is poised on the edge of a kind of celebrity that can consume everything normal in life. Already she walks a tightrope between taking her work seriously, and keeping a sense of perspective.
“My job is imagining things, none of this is real,” she says, very matter of fact. “I may be lucky but I don’t feel special. If I were a doctor saving people’s lives I might be a little arrogant or standoffish but being an actor doesn’t entitle me to feel self-important.” She’s also observant and careful of the impact her celebrity has on others. At the British premiere of Catching Fire, the second of the trilogy, she was in the middle of red carpet interviews when she spotted a girl sobbing in a wheelchair behind the crowd barriers, and made her way across to comfort the child, sign an autograph and pose for a picture.
She has also learnt in her downtime not to make eye contact with strangers, or shop at supermarkets in LA, where the paparazzi hang out. Fame means she avoids Googling her name, and has to laugh off pictures of herself in a bikini, or sweaty and without make-up playing basketball with her boyfriend, British actor Nicholas Hoult.
She also struggles with interviews. Her instinct is to be candid, but sometimes people take advantage of this, so she shies away from confirming that she and Hoult are still an item. After two years of dating, they split up this year, citing the problems of commuting between LA and London. However, when they resumed their roles in X-Men: Days Of Future Past this summer, witnesses reported the young stars also resumed lunches together on the set and going on family visits. More recently, Hoult accompanied her to the Catching Fire premiere party last week.
Rather than discuss Hoult, Lawrence prefers to praise another X-Man, James McAvoy, for his ability to balance a public life on films and a private one with family. “He knows what’s important,” she says. “He has a wife, he has a baby, and he has a calm peacefulness about him that comes from just knowing that this is what life is about.”
Concealing boredom is another challenge for Lawrence. When promoting independent film drama Winter’s Bone at the Edinburgh Film Festival, she could barely hide her dismay at the conveyor belt of interrogations that had been laid on for her. Now she uses the disarming tactic of getting all the possible punches in first. “I’m the worst talker in the world,” she says within five minutes of sitting down. “I start listening to myself and go ‘you suck’.”
In fact, Lawrence is one of the better A-list interviewees. Despite a run of serious roles – Katniss Everdeen, Mystique in X-Men: First Class, and her Oscar-nominated debut in Winter’s Bone – she’s very funny about how her Academy Award has changed her life. Not enough, she eventually decides. “I actually wish that the cast of Catching Fire didn’t know about it, especially Woody Harrelson,” she says. “Because every time I messed up a line, Woody said, ‘You better give that Oscar back!’”
Her co-stars were also merciless about her run of dress malfunctions during awards season. Josh Hutcherson, who is one third of Hunger Games’ romantic triangle, particularly enjoyed the SAG award, where the lower half of her outfit came apart as she walked upstairs to accept her prize. “On the way up to the stage someone tripped me, so all I was thinking was ‘Just try and keep it together’ – and then my pants fell off.”
She managed to top this at the Oscars when she collected her Best Actress award for Silver Linings Playbook in a long Dior haute couture gown and almost fell flat on her face. “Thank you so much,” she said to the applauding audience. “This is nuts. You guys are only standing up because I fell and you feel bad. That was embarrassing.”
“There is nothing magical about falling flat on your face in front of the entire world and forgetting to thank your director David O Russell or Harvey Weinstein on stage,” she groans now, burying her head in her hands. “But eventually time went by and I could stop slapping myself on the face every time I thought about it.” Perhaps high heels might be part of the problem. Last time we met, Lawrence tottered into the room on a pair of stacked Louboutins, took a look at the three steps to the rest of the room, then shucked off the platforms rather than risk an ankle wrench. “I was just at my brother’s wedding and there were stairs and I was like, I can’t fall any more,” she says. “I’m just going to use sheer willpower and focus.”
Despite the klutzy talk, Lawrence is quite delicate in the flesh, with catlike cheekbones, dimples and a new vanilla and latte bob. “No, this is not how Katniss is going to look in the next movie,” she says. “It was at the awkward stage of growing out, so I just cut it off.”
Lawrence is good on dramatic decisions, having elected from an early age to eschew romcoms and glamourpuss roles in favour of more serious work. She was 14 when she announced to her family that she was going to be an actress, although her parents took some persuading. Karen Lawrence ran a children’s summer camp, while her husband Gary worked in construction management. Neither had any experience of show business, or much faith in it, although Karen recently told a local paper that her daughter first showed dramatic potential in a church play about the Book of Jonah, where Jennifer played a prostitute. “This little extra just took over,” according to her mother, who shares Lawrence’s wry sense of humour. “She played the best prostitute.”
Eventually Lawrence and her parents struck a deal to give acting a shot, provided she kept her grades up. Privately, they hoped their daughter would soon get frustrated and give up, but they were unstinting in their support. “I wouldn’t be here without my parents, who took out a second mortgage to let me do this,” says Lawrence. “My brothers told them to let me go, and I lived without parents for a couple of years. They are my rock. They are always there.”
In her teens Lawrence landed roles on sitcoms and bit parts in dramas. By 17, she was playing Kim Basinger’s daughter in a gloomy show called The Burning Plain. Then in 2010 she scored an arthouse success as the feral teenager in Winter’s Bone, and found herself up against Natalie Portman at her first Oscars ceremony. She lost, but by then she was already thinking ahead. After that role as a girl from the backwoods she found that Hollywood had decided she wasn’t glamorous enough for bigger projects, so she hoiked herself off to Esquire for a swimsuit photoshoot to prove otherwise, and endured a lot of headshaking in some quarters.
But Lawrence is unrepentant: “That shoot helped me get X-Men.” Nor has she caved in to those who try to dictate body rules and regulations. Told to diet, she stood her ground. “In Hollywood, I’m obese,” she told Elle magazine when she began shooting Hunger Games. “I’m never going to starve myself for a part… I don’t want little girls to be like, ‘Oh, I want to look like Katniss, so I’m going to skip dinner.’”
There’s a thrawn quality to Lawrence that emerges every so often through the wisecracks. She admits that initially she wasn’t that intrigued by Hunger Games, until she realised that almost every actress in her age group coveted the role. “Everyone was auditioning and if I’m honest, I was being competitive.” Once she was offered the role, she hummed and hawed for three days, and almost turned the part down. Now, she admits she rather admires her alter ego, and with its commentary on celebrity culture and reality TV, not to mention broader themes about economic injustice and humanity’s appetite for violent spectacle, Hunger Games has attracted fans of both genders and of varying age groups. It also gave her the clout to land the female lead in Silver Linings Playbook last year.
Officially, Lawrence was far too young to play a grieving widow, but she dyed her hair darker and deepened her voice to close the gap between her and co-star 38-year-old Bradley Cooper. Even so, she says that in the first few weeks of filming a love story between a distraught woman and a bipolar man, she was jittery: “There was this fear of ‘am I going to ruin this for everybody?’”
To add to her anxiety was her big dance finale with Cooper. In rehearsals, he proved a natural hoofer but Lawrence could “barely walk across the room”. She studied Gene Kelly films, and spent hours practising with Cooper. The upside was that the jitterbugging brought them closer together, to the point that they have sought each other out again in two other films – Serena and American Hustle – and were rumoured to be an item off-camera. Actually, says Lawrence, feigning weariness, it is her friends that have been gunning for Cooper. And if it is hard being an in-demand Oscar-winning Hollywood actress, it apparently even more onerous being employed as the social convener for your single actor pal.
“All I’ve been doing is setting him up,” she says with resignation. “I tell him, ‘I’m just going to get you a booklet with pictures of my friends for you to pick out, because this is getting exhausting’.”
• The Hunger Games – Catching Fire (12A) is on general release from 21 November