By Josh Rottenberg
As she slipped into a corner booth in a restaurant at a Beverly Hills hotel on a recent afternoon, Jennifer Lawrence was buzzing.
An obsessive fan of reality TV, she had just spotted someone across the room who had appeared on a certain reality series she watches, and she needed a moment to settle down and focus. “Sorry, I’m still excited about my celebrity sighting,” she said. “I’m all jacked up.”
It goes without saying, of course, that Lawrence is not just a celebrity herself but one of the biggest ones currently inhabiting the planet. To date, her movies, including blockbusters in the Hunger Games and X-Men franchises and smaller films like Winter’s Bone and American Hustle, have collectively grossed more than $5.6 billion worldwide. At age 27 — two years younger than Meryl Streep was when she received her first-ever Academy Award nomination — she has already scored four Oscar nods, winning the lead actress prize for 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook.
To her legions of admirers, though, an essential part of Lawrence’s appeal is that, for all her success, she still comes across as just the sort of regular person who’d freak out at seeing someone she recognised from a reality TV show.
In her latest movie, the spy thriller Red Sparrow, opening tomorrow, Lawrence takes on a role unlike any she’s played, one that pushed her well outside of her comfort zone. She stars as Dominika Egorova, a Russian prima ballerina who is coerced by her spymaster uncle into becoming a covert intelligence agent. Trained in a top-secret school in the arts of seduction, Egorova is sent on a mission to pry secrets from an American CIA agent (Joel Edgerton).
Based on the 2013 novel by former CIA operative Jason Matthews, the R-rated Red Sparrow is sexually charged and often brutal, punctuated with scenes of assassination, torture and attempted rape. When director Francis Lawrence, who helmed three Hunger Games films, first approached her about the project, Lawrence immediately fell in love with the character. But, still shaken by the hacking in 2014 of her private intimate photos, she felt wary about diving into a film that would require her to act in such explicit scenes.
“It was really that — if it weren’t for that it would have been an easy yes,” said Lawrence. “But I knew that if there was anybody who could make this material that’s really salacious and daring tasteful, it’s Francis.” In the end, she says, the experience felt empowering. “It kind of belittled the whole thing in a weird way. It’s just a body. It’s my body. I love my body.”
“I think Jen is fearless,” said Red Sparrow producer Jenno Topping, president of film and television at Chernin Entertainment. “She’s just so committed to being an actor first as opposed to being a star first.”
When he began adapting Red Sparrow for the screen three years ago, Francis Lawrence was concerned that a Cold War thriller about a spy who uses sex as a weapon might not feel relevant. In a twist he couldn’t have foreseen, the film is now set to hit theatres as stories of Russian espionage are the stuff of screaming headlines and controversies over sexual misconduct continue to reverberate across Hollywood and beyond.
Against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, the filmmaker admits he’s not sure how audiences will receive the movie’s depictions of sexual violence, including a scene in which a wealthy, powerful man tries to rape Lawrence’s character. “These are themes that have unfortunately been happening in our world for hundreds, if not thousands, of years,” he said. “It’s a coincidence that this movie now happens to coincide with the events that are in the news. It’s really tricky for me to say how audiences are going to react.”
Moved by her experiences with sexual harassment and objectification and stories shared by other women, Lawrence is involved in Hollywood’s Time’s Up campaign. “We’re reshaping the way we want to be treated,” she said. “There was a norm that existed before that I had been a part of as well. I had, like, guys’ hands on my legs and I didn’t want to move them because I didn’t want to seem crazy or whatever. There was stuff that happened to me when I was younger that now is not going to be normal.”
Highlighting some of the trickier dynamics of the conversation over women and power in Hollywood, days later, controversy erupted over photos of Lawrence taken during the Red Sparrow press tour. She was wearing a revealing dress outside on a chilly London day, surrounded by male co-stars fully covered. Social media lit up with criticisms that the images represent how women are treated in Hollywood.
Lawrence responded in a Facebook post, calling the kerfuffle “utterly ridiculous”: “Overreacting about everything someone says or does, creating controversy over silly innocuous things such as what I choose to wear or not wear, is not moving us forward,” she said. “It’s creating silly distractions from real issues. Everything you see me wear is my choice. And if I want to be cold THATS MY CHOICE TOO!”
As for what gets depicted in a film like Red Sparrow, however, Lawrence argues that is an entirely separate matter. “At the end of the day, we’re the movie industry — we’re going to have (physical intimacy), we’re going to have violence,” she said. “If you focus so hard on making something that’s politically correct, the art will suffer. Art is subjective. Some people are going to hate it, some people are going to love it.”
That lesson has been brought home to Lawrence over the last couple of years. Her most recent film, Darren Aronofsky’s allegorical horror film Mother! sharply divided critics and received a rare F CinemaScore from audiences. The film before that, 2016’s sci-fi romance Passengers, co-starring Chris Pratt, looked like a project that couldn’t miss — “and then it did,” Lawrence said, grossing a less-than-spectacular $100 million domestically and earning generally poor reviews.
As she’s gotten older, Lawrence has become increasingly aware that the line between success and failure in Hollywood can be thin.
“It’s a very fickle industry,” she said. “I probably felt bulletproof when I was doing Hunger Games, but I was also young so I didn’t care. I was used to doing movies and then they go well — that was my reality. Then it’s scary because it’s just like any job. If you’re demanding a salary and you’re saying, ‘I am worth this,’ you have to prove you’re worth that or your worth goes down.”
She paused. “This is not an industry for the weak of heart.”
In conversation, Lawrence is a live wire, quick-witted and unscripted. One moment she is speaking seriously about how, following the election of Donald Trump as president, her “head kind of blew off” and she decided to throw herself into the cause of getting money out of politics. The next moment, chatting casually about a doctor’s appointment, she pulls off a cotton ball that was bandaged onto her arm after she had blood drawn and muses, “What if I just put this in my mouth and was like, ‘Anyway, what were you saying?’”
With her usual candour, Lawrence admits that when she won the Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook, she felt like an impostor. An unknown just a few years before, with no formal training, she was still figuring out her approach to acting and hadn’t thought her performance in the romantic drama was particularly strong.
“My best friend was like, ‘Bradley [Cooper] is amazing in it but I didn’t think you were that good,’” she said. “When I think I’m bad in a movie and it’s confirmed by my best friends and then I win an Oscar — that will give you impostor syndrome right away.”
Lawrence can be her own harshest critic. (Acknowledging the daunting process of working on a Russian accent for Red Sparrow, she joked, “watch me get annihilated for it.”) But she has grown more secure in her abilities and her place in Hollywood.
“It’s important for anyone in their job, especially a woman, to know their worth and own it,” said the actress, who wrote an essay in 2015 about the gender pay gap in Hollywood after it was revealed in the Sony hack that she and Amy Adams were paid less than their male co-stars in 2013’s American Hustle. “It’s not making the same mistake of believing what someone tells you you’re worth. You know your worth.”
As she has come more fully into her power, Lawrence — already precociously self-possessed from the moment she arrived in Hollywood — has learned to stand up even more firmly for herself. When the subject of her recent “worst actress” Golden Raspberry nomination for Mother! comes up, for example, instead of laughing it off, she fiercely defends both the movie and her own work in it.
“If I ever got nominated for something and I was like, ‘Yeah, that blew,’ I would totally go (to the Razzies ceremony),” Lawrence said. “But I popped a rib out doing that movie. Don’t try to tell me that that was a bad … performance.”
“I admire the way she’s learning to handle the ups and downs of public performance while remaining true to herself,” said David O. Russell, who directed Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook and later in American Hustle and 2015’s Joy, each of which earned her Oscar nods, and who is a close friend. “She keeps taking risks, keeps making movies and, most important of all, keeps her sincerity. Cynicism or talking things down is a dissipation at the end of the day.”
But even as impostor syndrome abated, Lawrence said wryly, “Many other syndromes have come to replace it. You pluck one out and six more show up at its funeral.”
She continued, “There are times when everybody is looking at you, listening to you, talking about you, and you feel incredibly vulnerable and it’s hard to sleep. It’s awful. But that only lasts for a few months and then it goes back to normal. If I could have told myself that when I was 21, I would have been a lot more sane.”
Having worked virtually nonstop, Lawrence has pressed pause on acting. She has projects at varying stages of development, including with Steven Spielberg, Adam McKay and Amy Schumer.
For now, though, she is happy to be throwing her energy into other endeavours she cares about, such as the grass-roots, nonpartisan anti-corruption group Represent.Us and the Time’s Up campaign.
As far as her career, Lawrence isn’t sure what the future holds.
“I no longer try to make predictions about movies,” she said. “It will drive you crazy. There are so many things that could stress you out. Keep your priorities straight. That’s my only advice to myself … . Don’t believe them when they love you, because then you’ll believe them when they hate you.” — Los Angeles Times/TNS
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