On Jennifer Lawrence: Guts, earth, self-reliance, and a little bit of Ingrid Bergman, too

This article originally appeared on Capital New York.

Stepping into the lead role in a beloved franchise, especially of the Y.A. variety, is not for the faint-hearted. Everyone and their grandma will have an opinion on whether or not you are “right” for the part. Fans of such books as Twilight and The Hunger Games have a fierce sense of ownership over those characters, and may even think they should be consulted over who gets to play what.

Along with the news that Jennifer Lawrence might get the plum part of Katniss Everdeen inHunger Games came a national outpouring of concern: Was she right for the part? How could Jennifer Lawrence, blonde and beautiful, even be in the running to play the olive-skinned, dark-haired Katniss? Was she hungry enough?
Apparently she wasn’t for some critics, who wrote after the film opened that she was too big for the role. (Others, like Slate’s L.V. Anderson, countered eloquently.)

Lawrence, who is fit but normally proportioned, responded: “I’d rather look a little chubby on camera and look like a person in real life than look great on screen and look like a scarecrow in real life.”

Katniss may be hungry, but she also spends her days running, fighting, climbing, and jumping, lugging around a bow and arrow. Lawrence’s body is appropriate in that context, although she is a bit old for the role as written. Katniss is a hardy, strong, self-reliant heroine. She is, in other words, the sort of character that has become something of a specialty for Lawrence in her short career.

Lawrence is only 21 years old. She already has been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar (the second youngest woman to be nominated in that category) for her portrayal of the mature-before-her-time Ozark girl Ree in Winter’s Bone, a performance so real that I thought they had actually just found a local girl who had some acting chops to play the part. I was shocked when I learned that Lawrence had been acting professionally since she was 14 years old, pounding the pavement in New York and Los Angeles. She didn’t seem like an actress at all.

She is stunning to look at, but it’s a natural beauty, and it’s almost beside the point when you see Winter’s Bone, a gritty drama showing her tromping through the woods with a shotgun wearing a woolen cap, and cuddling her younger siblings protectively against the harsh world. Her presence is palpably earthy and unfussy, reminiscent of Ingrid Bergman, another natural beauty who seemed uninterested in playing up her looks.

Winter’s Bone featured a host of eccentric and sometimes awful characters, most memorably John Hawkes as Ree’s deadbeat dad (he was also nominated for an Oscar), but Ree is the heart of the film. Lawrence had to carry it, and she did.

At the end of the film, her younger siblings ask anxiously whether Ree is going to leave them. Lawrence, huddled on the porch in her bulky winter coat, reaches out and hugs the two children to her, and says, in a flat, no-funny-business voice: “I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back. I ain’t goin’ anywhere.”

The pitfalls for sentimentality are everywhere in this type of material, and Lawrence deftly avoids them all. She had done a couple of small things before Winter’s Bone, but nothing so demanding or all-encompassing. She just seemed to show up, fully formed, from nowhere.

Katniss in Hunger Games, like Ree, was formed by a survival struggle, and by having to grapple at a too-early age with the task of caring for her family. Katniss’ father is dead, and her mother incapacitated by depression, leaving the protection of the younger sibling to Katniss. Katniss cannot afford to indulge in self-pity. This is another quality Lawrence embodies effortlessly.

Lawrence is not an intellectual actress. She is best when focused on a goal. Her focus is laser-bright with unselfconscious precision. Her expressive face does the majority of the work for the director, the script and the film.

Like Winter’s Bone, the world of Hunger Games is brutal. Katniss is so well-adapted to her harsh environment, between her archery skills and natural ingenuity, that there isn’t much tension in the “games” themselves. But Lawrence is riveting when she’s in action, when she’s figuring things out, when she’s struggling.

The response to Hunger Games has been mainly positive, notwithstanding a disturbing subgenre of racist tweets. And despite the complaints about Lawrence having an insufficiently hungry-looking body, her powerful presence as an actress cannot be denied.

Being attached to a popular franchise has become a rite of passage for young actors, and Lawrence already appeared in X-Men: First Class last summer as the blue-skinned, shapeshifting Mystique. Franchises are a blessing and a curse when building a career. If the fans of the books embrace your interpretation, you conceivably could be booked ten years in advance for sequels, prequels, and personal appearances.

But there is such a thing as being overexposed before your body of work warrants such attention. This happened to Kristen Stuart, of Twilight fame. She seems uncomfortable on the red carpet and in interviews, she seems uncomfortable with attention in general. She’s trying to build a career and evolve her talent while standing in a bright, inescapable spotlight. It’s not hard to imagine that her service to the franchise feels a little bit like a prison sentence.

Lawrence appears more self-composed, and also more ambitious and maybe even competitive than Stuart. She’ll need to be all those things now; publicity is brutal, and these days it’s unrelenting, in a way the stars of yesterday would shudder to contemplate. You never get a break.

Lawrence’s rise seems like a successful roll-out so far: She is on all the magazine covers, looking great, and she’s handled herself beautifully (see that “scarecrow” comment) in interviews.

But it is her down-to-earth submission to her roles that distinguishes her from the pack. In The Hunger Games, her fingernails are dirty, her hair is whipped back in a messy braid, and her prettiness is almost, but not quite, overwhelmed by her scrappiness.

When Ingrid Bergman first came to Hollywood from Sweden, she was embraced for her fresh, unadorned face and her natural hairstyles. She would cut her hair if it was right for the role, she would let herself be seen without makeup. All of this endeared her to audiences.

Lawrence has a little bit of that. But the pressure on young actresses to look a certain way is pitiless, and Lawrence will need to have some of her characters’ gutsy self-reliance in order to resist it.

In an early interview, Lawrence said, “I never felt like I completely 100-percent understood something so well as acting.”

It shows.

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