This article appeared in the December 2010 issue of Louisville Magazine. Since that time, of course, Jennifer Lawrence was nominated for an Academy Award.
Filming on the outskirts of London has ended for the day, and Jennifer Lawrence is excited to return to her two-bedroom Notting Hill apartment. She has already been in England for a couple of months now, playing the role of the mutant Mystique in the X-Men franchise’s newest installment. Her costume includes six layers of blue body paint, five layers of spackling, “hand-glued scales” and yellow contact lenses, which Lawrence calls “snake eyes.” Sometimes it takes eight hours to get her looking like Mystique. “I’ve got my girls with me,” she says over the phone from England, “and we just giggle and watch Sex and the City and movies while they get me ready.”
Before Lawrence’s driver can take her home this November evening, they will pick up her friend Zoe Kravitz, Lenny Kravitz’s daughter and an X-Men: First Class costar, so the two can have a slumber party. The next day, maybe they’ll shop on Portobello Road. One thing, Lawrence says, is certain: The shooting schedule will let her sleep in tomorrow, and she is going to take advantage of that luxury.
The 20-year-old, who was born and raised in Louisville, has not had much downtime lately, especially since her lead role in this year’s Winter’s Bone, a dark indie movie that premiered at January’s Sundance Film Festival and took home the top award, the Grand Jury Prize for American drama. Soon after, some critics started writing Lawrence’s name and “Oscar nomination” in the same sentence. (A scene that involves a rowboat and a wailing chainsaw should impress Academy Award voters.) During the 45 minutes she spends on the phone with Louisville Magazine, Lawrence is talkative, trying to pack as many words as possible into each breath. I jokingly ask if she has already chosen a spot to display her Oscar.
“What?!?!” she practically shrieks. “Of course not!”
“When did you first hear your name and Oscar in the same sentence?”
“I have no idea,” she says. “I put my fingers in my ears and go la-la-la-la-la every time I hear that word. I have no idea how to talk about an Oscar at 20 years old. I can, like, make a dentist appointment, barely. I don’t even know how to shop online.”
She goes on: “It’s kind of like when you’re at a party and you have to have a conversation with somebody you don’t like and you just walk away. I mean, I do like the Oscar — oh-my-gosh, no! I can’t!”
The actress’s parents, Karen and Gary Lawrence, live in the same Indian Hills neighborhood where their daughter, a “surprise” and the youngest of three siblings, spent her childhood. Karen still runs a children’s camp called Camp Hi Ho, and Gary had a concrete-contracting business he eventually sold. It’s a recent Tuesday morning and their daughter’s Yorkshire terrier, named Alden, who is in Louisville while its owner films in London, bounds across the kitchen floor as Karen pulls up a video on her MacBook. It’s of Jodie Foster presenting a statuette to Lawrence at October’s Hollywood Awards for her “mesmerizing” Winter’s Bone performance. “Jennifer, you may be from Kentucky, but you can roll in my ’hood anytime,” says Foster, who’s starring in and directing an upcoming movie called The Beaver with Lawrence and Mel Gibson.
One of her father’s favorite stories about his daughter’s recent success, which he recounts in the kitchen, comes from Sundance, when Lawrence met Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Neither star knew who the other person was.
“What position do you play?” Lawrence asked Rodgers after somebody introduced them.
“Quarterback,” he said.
“I thought Brett Favre was the quarterback,” she replied.
Lawrence has been living some version of this peripatetic life since 14, when she went with her mother to New York on spring break for meetings at a couple of modeling agencies — one of which also focused on acting. “We went to get this out of her system,” her mother says. While they watched street dancers one afternoon in Union Square, a man scouting for an H&M clothing commercial approached with a Polaroid camera and asked to snap Lawrence’s picture. Soon after, agents were calling. And wouldn’t stop. Lawrence’s reluctant parents, at the urging of their sons, decided to let their daughter pursue her developing acting dream for two months that summer, putting her up in an apartment and having family members take turns staying with her. “She called one night and said, ‘Oh, gosh. I saw a rat as big as Shadow crawl out of the stove,’” her mother says. Shadow was one of the family’s black cats.
“I knew she was serious about this because she never complained,” her father says.
Says Lawrence: “I just started getting an overwhelming feeling of being exactly where I needed to be exactly when I had to be there. Every time I would leave an agency and stop reading a script, I just wanted to keep going and going.”
Wanting a professional opinion about their daughter’s potential, her parents took her to acting coach Flo Greenberg, who has worked with Matt LeBlanc from Friends and Kirsten Dunst, to name two. “I was eager for her to pursue her acting career immediately. I don’t say that about many people,” Greenberg says. “Sometimes, you need to know when to keep your hands off and let somebody’s natural technique blossom.”
Soon the resume was filling up: Abercrombie & Fitch photo shoots, a Burger King commercial, three seasons on a TBS sitcom called The Bill Engvall Show. Her father remembers the director on the set of the TV show Medium telling him and his wife how talented their daughter was. While filming The Burning Plain with Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger in Las Cruces, N.M., Lawrence was chatting with her father one second, then the next she was hyperventilating and reacting to an imaginary explosion. “We would have destroyed her had we not let her follow her dreams,” her mother says. “In our family, everything was about sports. If she could’ve thrown a baseball, we would have been able to tell that she could pitch. We just didn’t recognize her talent.”
As a young girl, Lawrence enjoyed whatever her brothers were watching, which were the movies Dumb and Dumber and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. “I got all of their hand-me-downs, so I was watching MacGyver and listening to Vanilla Ice,” she says. By age five she was quoting lines from Billy Madison and acting out Cheri Oteri’s cheerleader character from Saturday Night Live. “We nicknamed her ‘Nitro’ because she was so hyper,” says Lawrence’s brother Ben, 10 years her senior.
One home video takes place on Thanksgiving, when Lawrence was no more than three years old. Her grandfather was telling stories she had already memorized, and Lawrence corrected him every time he forgot what she considered an important detail. “I’ve always had this obsession with stories,” she says. “If I wasn’t watching TV or a movie, I was reading or you had to be reading to me.”
Her parents tried to get their daughter to play softball, tennis and field hockey, but Lawrence preferred turning cartwheels down the field. The only positions she liked were catcher or goalie so she could wear a bunch of equipment like a costume.
“She liked to be with her easel and her books; she had places in her mind to go,” her mother says. “She never fit in anywhere.”
“Careful,” her father says with a laugh. “This is being recorded.”
“Well, she didn’t,” her mother replies. “I can remember mumbling to myself, ‘I know what Robin Williams’ mother feels like.’ You wondered what was going to come out of her mouth next.”
One of Lawrence’s first times onstage was at Christ Methodist Church, as a prostitute from Nineveh in a play about the Book of Jonah. “This little extra just took over,” her mother says. “She played the best prostitute.” At Music Theatre Louisville, Lawrence had a role as a playing card in Alice in Wonderland.
Christopher Noah, who taught Lawrence ancient history when she was a Kammerer Middle School seventh-grader, remembers the class studying Greek mythology and acting out different parts. “If we were doing something about Cupid and Psyche,” Noah says, “Jen would take the role of Psyche and change her voice and mannerisms.”
At 14, before heading to New York, Lawrence went to Walden Theatre, at one point playing Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello. Charlie Sexton, Walden Theatre’s artistic director, says, “Jennifer stood apart from the standpoint of seeing herself in a career. Most eighth-graders weren’t thinking that far ahead, but she was ready to get to L.A.”
Says Lawrence’s mother: “That’s the only time I can say she really loved something and connected with it.”
Winter’s Bone was shot in February and March 2009 over 25 often-icy days in Missouri’s Taney and Christian counties, where cops are referred to as “the law.” Lawrence plays Ree Dolly, a poor 17-year-old raising her two young siblings. When Ree’s methamphetamine-cooking father goes missing after putting up the family’s home and timber acreage as bail bond, Ree tries to hunt him down and comes across a cast of folks (many of whom were from the area, with no prior professional acting experience) whose faces are as colorless and hardscrabble as the Ozarks land they live on. Knowing how to interact with so many different characters, says director Debra Granik, is one reason the Ree role is difficult. “It’s like taking an iconic American cowboy who doesn’t say a whole lot, and what Jennifer did, instead of being a cardboard Western hero, was to make sure Ree didn’t act the same with every character she meets,” Granik says. “Jennifer’s got a gift of being sensitive to the circumstances.”
Some 200 young women — in New York, Los Angeles and at an open Missouri casting call — read for the part, which Lawrence was drawn to because Ree “doesn’t take no for an answer.” “Jennifer was comfortable with the accent, and it made her reading really pop,” says Granik, unfamiliar with Lawrence’s other work at the time. “For the first time I felt like I was really hearing Ree.”
Two weeks before filming, Lawrence left her family’s Santa Monica townhouse near the beach, where she lives while in California, for Kentucky, where she learned to chop wood, “got comfortable around guns” and skinned a squirrel. On set, the physical transformation of Lawrence to Ree included a minimal amount of makeup, painting her teeth with a yellow polish and pulling a knit cap over her blond hair, which, she says, took “months” to get back to normal because it was coated in “some product.” Lawrence also couldn’t wear lip balm for six weeks, ensuring that the bitter winter wind would make her lips as cracked as the terrain she trudged across.
John Hawkes, who played Ree’s uncle Teardrop, says, “Jennifer always felt present; it always felt like I was there with that character when the camera would roll. It was easy to pretend with her because she became Ree Dolly when we were shooting.” During one violent scene, Teardrop grabs Ree by the hair. Granik shot it from several angles, and Hawkes says Lawrence told him to “bring it” with each take. The mood changed right before the camera started rolling, Granik says, and in that moment, Lawrence entered Ree’s world.
Lawrence has difficulty describing her method. “All I’m really doing is memorizing my lines. I understand each word coming out of my mouth,” she says. “It’s never my real emotions that are invested in it.”
“She’s not a person who lives the character 24 hours a day,” Hawkes says. “She has a different way of working than I do that allows her to access emotions — I don’t want to say it’s easy for her, but she makes it appear easy.” Granik noticed the same thing. “Jen knows that to be strong and to have self-preservation, she can’t blur a role with her own psychology. She has to keep them incredibly separate,” Granik says. “Between takes, she needed to be able to make jokes and lighten up the mood.”
After a little prodding during our interview, Lawrence tries to explain how she separates herself from the role: “If I’m thinking about me and my life to put fear across my face or make me cry,” she says, “then I’m reacting as Jennifer, not as Ree.
“And, also, I’m not a mental case, so I’m not going to be able to believe everything that’s going on in a scene. If I’m in a movie and my dog just died, well, I know that my actual dog didn’t just die.”
Lawrence will be home for Christmas but doesn’t get to Kentucky often. She’s usually in California or New York or, lately, England. Since Winter’s Bone, scripts have been hitting the Santa Monica townhouse’s doorstep daily. “Things are definitely changing,” Lawrence says. During a meeting at DreamWorks, Steven Spielberg recognized her as “Jennifer Lawrence from Winter’s Bone.” They talked for 10 minutes, then she got in her car and started sobbing “because what else do you do when you have a conversation with Steven Spielberg?”
Louisville, she says, has affected her opinion about her profession. “I think that growing up in a completely normal house, in a normal city, has made me crave normal,” she says. “This is just a job for me. I watched my parents work hard on something they were passionate about, and that’s what I do now.
“I think growing up in Louisville has helped me have an eye for seeing the normal side of things. It’s a weird job I have, but it’s still a job.”
Photo: Courtesy Roadside Attractions