With futuristic action film The Hunger Games set to make Jennifer Lawrence a household name, Siobhan Synnot talks to the rising star about the fear of celebrity life which almost saw her turn down the role
JENNIFER Lawrence is savouring her final few days of anonymity. “The last year has definitely been busier,” she says, cheerfully clomping around her London hotel in a chic woollen dress and some thick-soled Louboutins. A few years ago Lawrence was still doing bit parts on American TV shows like Monk, Cold Case and Medium, and for some, she is still just another young indie movie actress who can’t quite manage to navigate hotel stairs in vertiginous designer heels.
However, in a week or so, her face is going to be everywhere as the poster girl for a film that could leave Kristen Stewart and the Twilight cast sulking in their caskets. Of course, it helps that the film in question is The Hunger Games, drawn from a trilogy of books for young adults which has outsold Twilight since the first instalment was published four years ago.
The story is set in a future where America has been drained and devastated by unspecified wars. The land of the free has reconfigured itself as Panem, a post-apocalyptic Roman Empire whose favourite spectacle is an annual event where teenagers from the impoverished colonies are placed in a wilderness and forced to fight each other to the death on TV.
Conflating Logan’s Run with Lord Of The Flies, the book is unsparing in its body count of spearings, maulings, shootings and death by weaponised bees. Since they keep the Saw series in business, it’s not surprising that teenagers find The Hunger Games compulsive. What is startling is that many adults also find it mesmerising – Stephen King is one devotee – and when the movie was first announced, internet message boards lit up with speculation as to who could play the heroine Katniss Everdeen, a prickly teenager with preternatural survival skills and moral strength.
“She’s a futuristic Joan of Arc,” agrees Lawrence, who beat 30 other actresses to the role, including True Grit’s discovery Hailee Steinfeld, Atonement’s Saoirse Ronan, Kick Ass child star Chloe Grace Moretz, and Little Miss Sunshine’s Abigail Breslin.
All of these actresses were closer to the age of character in the novel. Lawrence’s main controversy is that, at 21, she’s four years north; but Hunger Games’ author Suzanne Collins says that she was “the only one who truly captured the character I wrote”.
Lawrence was in London when she was told the role was hers, and at that point she hesitated. “I was in a café when I got the call, and it struck me that if I said yes, maybe this time next year people in this coffee shop would be turning round and taking pictures of me with their phones. My life was going to be completely different, and that’s a scary thing to accept because it can never go back to what it was before.”
She’d already surfed a wave of intense A-list attention last year as the second youngest woman to be nominated for a best actress Oscar, for Winter’s Bone, in which she plays a poor teenager who has to find her drug-dealing, bail-jumping father to avoid losing the family home.
Famously, she almost didn’t get the role because the film-makers thought she was too pretty to be downtrodden. “I got on the first plane to New York to read for them again. I hadn’t slept so maybe I wasn’t so pretty that time,” she deadpans.
Trapping squirrels in a duffle coat and winter beany hat, it wasn’t her looks that grabbed attention when Winter’s Bone was released but her stoic tenacity. Whether she’s teaching her sister how to gut the local wildlife for dinner, or steering a diplomatic path around the rules of Omerta in the Missouri backwoods, Winter’s Bone’s Ree is as compelling and dogged in her quest as John Wayne in The Searchers.
From here on, Hollywood clocked her as a hot prospect. “Dark, depressing wilderness? Squirrels? For a while, I was their go-to girl,” says Lawrence. Steven Spielberg stopped her in the corridor at DreamWorks to ask if she was the Jennifer Lawrence who starred in Winter’s Bone. On Oscar night, Lawrence and her father watched Natalie Portman collect the statuette, but instead of disappointment, Lawrence realised she felt relief that the limelight of the awards season was about to be switched off.
“It’s an awful thing to say because it’s a huge honour, but you go from a normal life to being treated differently,” she says of the three-month campaign of chat shows, parties and ceremonies. “Every day I had people putting me in new dresses and painting my face. Which is pretty much what Katniss goes through before she appears in front of the cameras for the first time in The Hunger Games.”
Celebrity and fame get a twisted treatment in The Hunger Games. Like contestants on an especially vicious series of Big Brother, the teenage gladiators are not only rated on their warrior prowess but have their backgrounds and love lives scrutinised by the cameras. When Katniss appears to fall for one of her opponents, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), she becomes a ratings hit.
Off screen, Lawrence managed to keep her relationships with British actor Nicholas Hoult secret for almost a year until they were outed leaving a gym in LA by the paparazzi. They met on the set of X-Men First Class, where she played Mystique, the blue-skinned, yellow-eyed shapeshifter whose make-up required eight hours and seven make-up artists every day. Like Lawrence, Hoult has been acting since his teens – he was the square kid who adopts Hugh Grant as his mentor in About A Boy. And like Lawrence, Hoult is determinedly low-key. They steer clear of red carpet events together, and when she’s in the UK, she stays at his house in Wokingham, several zones away from the braying crowds of Soho and Shoreditch.
Lawrence’s last brush with a tentpole movie was four years ago when she auditioned for the part of Bella Swan in Twilight. Kristen Stewart has spoken often about the smothering attention the role brought, and Lawrence clearly paid attention. In the end, it was her mother who finally talked her into The Hunger Games by accusing her of inverse snobbery.
“She said, ‘This is a story you love and you’re thinking of saying no just because it’s a big-budget movie!’ ” recalls Lawrence. “And I realised that I couldn’t say no to the script just because I was scared.”
Lawrence dyed her blonde hair brown and spent six weeks learning archery under four-time Olympic medallist Khatuna Lorig, who made her shoot 100 arrows a day and disdainfully proclaimed her pupil “helpless”. Stung, Lawrence picked up the bow and finally scored a bullseye. “She pissed me off,” she shrugs.
She also did a bang-up job of concussing Hutcherson with a high kick that went slightly off-target, caught his temple and knocked him out. “It was an accident,” she says, breaking into a smile, “but yeah, I did that! I’m very uncoordinated and I move like an idiot, but I love sports so I was passionate and willing to do it over and over – just not very well. I did lots of running sessions, because Katniss never walks anywhere, as well as climbing, yoga, combat and vaulting.”
But contrary to reports, she did not bust a gut during training. “Ah, the burst spleen,” she laughs when I ask after her internal organs. “That’s just one of those brilliant things that you say that suddenly appears as a giant quote.”
The truth, apparently, is more mundane. Lawrence was doing wall runs, in the manner of Donald O’Connor in Singing In The Rain. But a sudden traction failure meant that Lawrence’s attempt was more like Wile E Coyote, which is to say that she ran flat into the wall.
Her trainer sent her for an MRI scan and afterwards she made the mistake of joking to a reporter that her stomach had been hit with such force that her trainer thought she had ruptured her spleen. “At least it didn’t damage the baby,” she says, and laughs at my startled face. “Just wanted to start a little rumour there.”
• The Hunger Games is in cinemas from 23 March