Shooting the sass easily as an arrow
Jennifer Lawrence’s on-screen characters are often marked by their flinty resolution, not their volubility, but in person Lawrence is just the opposite, an unfiltered sass who happens to look like a 1970s California prom queen and talk like a SoCal skater boy.
In just two years she has made an unusual leap, from indie character actress to action heroine, nimbly repeating the cycle while retaining her real-girl charm.
Minted as an Oscar nominee for playing a stoic Ozarks teenager in Winter’s Bone (2010) and as a box-office star with The Hunger Games this year, she will next appear in her mouthiest role yet, in David O Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook.
The film stars Bradley Cooper as a Philadelphia high school teacher who suffers a breakdown after discovering his wife’s affair. Lawrence is the unstable, sex-crazed widow he meets after he leaves the mental institution. Add Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver as his Philadelphia Eagles-obsessed parents and Chris Tucker as his inpatient friend, and the whole affair has the makings of a zany comedy.
But Russell, who adapted the script from the 2008 novel by Matthew Quick, adds sharpness and pathos, drawing early praise for depicting romance, psychiatric illness and family dysfunction with humour and risk.
The film won the audience prize at the Toronto International Film Festival, a harbinger of awards-season success. Shot before she became a household name playing Katniss Everdeen, the arrow-slinging champ of The Hunger Games, Silver Linings Playbook is again bringing statuette talk for Lawrence.
Russell, riding high after his success with the Oscar-winning boxing movie The Fighter, had his pick of leading ladies, though they had to pass muster with Harvey Weinstein, a producer of the film. Initially worried that Lawrence was too young to play the romantic interest — Cooper is 37 — Russell said he was won over by her audition, conducted partly via Skype. “There’s an expressiveness in her eyes and in her face, that many stars have to work for, that’s ageless,” he said.
The character, Tiffany, underwent some transformations, though. She was first meant to be Goth, so Lawrence dyed her hair black. “We shot camera tests with her in heavy Goth makeup and those plaid punk dresses they wear, and Harvey just freaked out,” Russell said. Lawrence kept the dark hair and some other touches. “The way she carries herself, the Gothic cross — all these things permeated into her character, which is maybe the most messed-up girl on the block but also the most confident,” Russell said.
“Jennifer,” he added, “is one of the least neurotic people I know,” and that confidence, coupled with glimpses of vulnerability, is a trait she shares with her character. “She always offers her opinion. She’s not afraid to talk to anybody about anything, and yet she can also turn around and have an 18-year-old’s ‘nevermind.’ That’s their version of being vulnerable.”
She credited Russell with helping her find herself in Tiffany’s fluctuating persona. “David is inside every one of these characters,” she said. He even persuaded her to speak in a lower register — a feat because she doesn’t like her naturally deep voice. “I think I sound like a hermit,” she said, “a deep, chain-smoking hermit.”
Lawrence has no qualms about discussing her 5-foot-9 physicality. Silver Linings Playbook involves a heavily choreographed dance number, which made her nervous. “When I dance, I look like I’m a dad at a prom,” she said. “I never grasped my limbs. Ever since puberty I’ve just kind of felt like we don’t understand each other.”
After shooting the first Hunger Games, she was asked by Russell to gain weight for the part. “I was like, ‘Hell, yeah!”’ she said. “That never happens in a movie.” But Tiffany spends much of her time in workout wear, with many close-ups of her figure. “For a second I just thought it was the camera guy,” she said. “And then I realised: obviously, David.” (“One of the things I love about her is her womanliness, both in her personality and in her form,” Russell said.)
Her life changed profoundly and suddenly with Hunger Games, the adaptation of the first in the best-selling Suzanne Collins trilogy of young-adult novels, about a dystopic society where children are sacrificed in yearly reapings. Fans and critics alike debated whether Lawrence was suited for the part, carping online about her physique and relative newcomer status. But the film, directed by Gary Ross, earned over $400 million and made Lawrence one of the top-grossing action heroines of all time. It also made her, overnight, a paparazzi target. “It gets overwhelming, where I’ll cry in my car, but not to the point where I don’t want to do what I’m doing,” she said.
Lawrence now lives in a condo in Los Angeles and has a mostly long-distance relationship with her boyfriend of two years, the British actor Nicholas Hoult, her co-star in X-Men: First Class. (She will soon reprise her role as the blue-skinned Mystique.) But blockbuster money or no, she is still paying for a leased Volkswagen. “I’m building up my credit,” she said proudly.
She began acting as a teenager, appearing as the snarky daughter on the TBS sitcom The Bill Engvall Show. But it was her first major screen role — as Ree, the hardscrabble girl trying to hold her family together in Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone — that was her breakthrough. Lawrence has never had an acting coach or teacher. “That’s how I can go about life free as an idiot: because I have no idea what I’m doing,” she said, deadpan. But Ross, who cast her as Katniss, said she needed little training. “She doesn’t make it too complicated for herself,” he said. “She doesn’t have anything approaching a self-indulgent process. She’s very relaxed, she’s chatty, she’s almost part of the crew in some ways because she’s so confident in what she’s doing. She doesn’t have a lot to be nervous about.”
She was thrown for a loop, though, by her best actress Oscar nomination, at the age of 20. “It was so much, so fast,” she said, starting with the 12 hours of interviews that follow the nomination announcement. “I was like: I just want to feel like it happened. I feel like I’m busy. I feel like I’m tired, and tired of talking about myself, which is very odd,” she said. “It’s such a PMS type of feeling, when something is so good that you’re sad that you can’t fully take it in and enjoy it.” She lost to Natalie Portman, for Black Swan.