We talked to Jennifer Lawrence about her Oscar-nominated performance in “Joy” and how her film career is redefining the role of ingénue in Hollywood.
My how our ingénues have evolved. While many of the female superstars of the silver screen who immediately preceded 25-year-old Jennifer Lawrence were pretty women crossing fingers that some latter-day knight might save them from streetwalking by whisking them off on a fiery steed – or in a, uh, limousine – or that she might be spared eons of penance in a Windy City tollbooth by the affection of an affluent, generously-browed “secret crush” who happens to be in a coma, their feistiness, pluck, and chirp stopped, more or less, with executing elaborate mating rituals and squeezing toes into proverbial glass slippers.
A second look at the pre-millennium oeuvre of fine performers like Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock fairly begs a question Tina Turner already indelibly growled to multi-platinum success: what’s love got to do, go to do with it? These aren’t films much about love, actually; they’re about rescue.
And Jennifer Lawrence ain’t nobody’s damsel in distress. Not as a bereft, overburdened teen searching for peace and her long lost father in the Ozarks (Winter’s Bone), nor as an indigo-veiled shapeshifter tossing moxie and pawns into the brewing war between humans and mutants (X-Men: First Class, Days of Future Past, and the forthcoming Apocalypse). Not as a volatile depressive widow who hitches her hopes of redemption to the romantic crusade of a bipolar ne’er do well (Silver Linings Playbook, for which she won an Oscar at 22), nor as an arrow-slinging coal miner’s daughter who ignites revolution in a dystopian near-future (The Hunger Games franchise, nearly $3-billion at the global box office). Even when the characters Lawrence portrays demonstrate all of the hallmarks of a fairy tale maiden (right down to the flaxen beehive and existential fatigue over having to scrub yet another floor) as in last winter’s Joy, Lawrence onscreen suffers no fools, takes no guff, and casually flings sassy bon mot while discharging a hefty firearm. Take that, Arnold Schwarzenegger!
In Jennifer Lawrence (who, while collecting a Golden Globe earlier this year for Joy, expressed her wish to be buried beside filmmaker David O. Russell, who wrung exquisite work from the young actress in Silver Linings, American Hustle, and Joy), the ingénue has been not so much born again as she has been madly reinvented, her beauty breathtaking, her eccentricities rooted in more than sit-com quirks, the resolution of her predicaments not hinged on the heroics of some meathead with an even bigger gun. “(Jennifer Lawrence) is the kind of movie star who turns everyone else into a character actor,” New York Times recently opined, while Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers writes that Lawrence “is some kind of miracle. . .Rude, dirty, funny, foulmouthed, sloppy, sexy, vibrant, and vulnerable, sometimes all in the same scene, even in the same breath.”
So the ingénue is dead. Long live the ingénue. In Jennifer Lawrence, her vulnerabilities have been weaponized, ladies and gentlemen, and she is not going to ask you twice to save her the last dance. Ain’t that a joy…
Most audiences got to know you – got to watch you grow up onscreen almost – with The Hunger Games franchise. That coming of age before an audience of millions, what was that like? Were there connections you made with the character that informed the ways you worked through the pressure and the scrutiny?
I hadn’t really thought about it in that way, but you might be right. There was enormous growth in that character (Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen). In the first Hunger Games, she’s just trying to save her sister, not really knowing what she’s getting herself into, not really sure of how enormous the obstacles and conflicts are around the corner, and then moving forward through the stories, she’s just trying to save (friend and possible love interest) Peeta, and this much bigger responsibility starts presenting itself. As things escalate, her relationships become more complicated, strained, and Katniss starts feeling fears she never did before. So yeah. . .I mean, No! (Laughs) This character is nothing like me at all! (Laughs)
The franchise was greeted warmly by many, who praised the strength of its female protagonist. Katniss Everdeen carries all of the heaviest weight in these films, leaving your co-stars (Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson) to ride sidecar. Do you give any thought to that kind of stuff, or is that the domain of critics and cultural pundits?
Well, I got to work with Liam a lot more on the last two, so that was really great. He normally misses out on all the action and stuff! They’re just the greatest guys in the entire world. I don’t know how I got so lucky. If I had met them in any other circumstance, I would have said the same thing, like, “We’re going to be best friends.” We’re really blessed. As for the rest of it, I’ve loved being a part of a film that can spark conversation. Hunger Games has been such an incredible chapter in my life, filming the movies, going out on the road and promoting them, so the fact that anyone could be touched by them or that it gets people talking about how maybe a girl actually can star in a film like this, that the films resonate with anyone at all, that’s really cool and amazing to me.
But it doesn’t necessarily inform your decision-making process?
Maybe it does. But maybe not. I just love playing human beings. Sometimes they’re strong. Sometimes they’re bold. Sometimes they’re capable. Sometimes they stumble. Katniss does all of those things, and I think the best characters do, don’t they?
On the other end of the spectrum, the character you play in Joy is no more deeply wounded, but it takes her a while to find her feet, so to speak.
Yeah, that relationship with her father, especially, leaves her kind of helpless for a while. But that’s mostly because she keeps hoping he’ll be something that he’s not, which is something we do sometimes, right? He’s not going to change, so Joy does the best she can with that – and she gets better at that as the movie goes on. But as helpless as Joy can be, she has this special quality too. She can see the brighter side of things. She can be her own hero. And I really like that.
All of that in spite of the ways her family constantly tries to dress her down and box her up.
Well, some of us have families like that, I think. Don’t we? It’s kind of sad. For Joy, her family’s always taking something from her. They’re taking her willpower. They’re taking her hope. They’re telling her she’s not good enough, not smart enough, telling her all the things she’s not and all the ways she’ll fail.
So it’s just like working in the movie business!
(Laughs) Maybe it is! (Laughs) I’ve been incredibly, incredibly lucky, but we all hear those terrible stories, right?
Nevertheless, Joy is able to overcome her obstacles and really become, like you said, her own hero. She doesn’t need a prince’s kiss or a fairy godmother’s magic wand to triumph.
Yeah, and I think that’s incredibly inspiring. It’s the American dream kind of, isn’t it? Joy didn’t have a leg up on anyone else in the world. In fact, she had her legs cut off by her father, her family. In real life, Joy Mangano is a woman who started in customer service at Eastern Airlines and she now runs a billion-dollar (household products) industry. If you have a dream, if you have an idea, if you’re smart enough, if you work hard enough, you can make it happen. You can make anything happen. I think it’s incredibly inspiring.
On Joy, you teamed again with a number of gentlemen who are fast becoming regular teammates of yours, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, and writer/director David O. Russell. What do you take from working with De Niro?
Bob is so paternal and lovely to me. He’s just always been so nice to me. It felt really natural for him to play my father. In so many ways, he’s been this paternal figure in my life, someone that I had raising me through these elements of my life with movies and fame that have happened pretty quickly. I can ask him anything. He’s just so happy to listen and talk and help guide me, and he always has been. Him being my theatrical father actually felt really touching and personal for me and, obviously, acting with him is just a whole different-level experience.
You’ve worked again with David O. Russell, who can be an exacting skipper, known for demanding the very best from his performers. While that hasn’t sit well with several past collaborators, when you accepted your Best Actress Golden Globe for Joy earlier this year, you shared with the world that you’d like to be buried beside him.
I know! I’ve never said that to anyone before, and I don’t know if I’d ever say it to anyone again! (Laughs) David is so committed to telling the truth behind a story. He’s committed to finding the truth in a character, the truth that great success comes with enormous growing pains. How did you get there? Where were you before? What happened and what did it take to get you to even just come up with this idea, let alone build a billion-dollar industry. David is a man who asks questions and then pursues answers passionately, even if the questions turn out to be unanswerable. He believes just the asking of the questions is important too. I love that about him.
Many actors eventually find aspects of the characters they play carrying over into their personal lives, or pieces of they’re “real life” bleeding into their performances. What kind of crossover is there between you and Joy Mangano?
One of my favorite characteristics in Joy – and it’s really one of my favorite characteristics I’ve ever seen in any character in any story, and I tell David this all the time – is this fascinating habit she’s had of gathering strength and learning life lessons and discovering who she wants to be in the most unusual way: by watching characters on television. On soap operas, specifically! That’s the world she chooses to disappear into, and it ends up sort of lifting her up so that she can reinvent her own world. I’d like to believe that stories can do that for people. I’d really like to believe that stories I’m a part of can do that for people. Wouldn’t that be cool?