I admit it: I felt intimidated by Jennifer Lawrence. Before we met at a Toronto hotel on Monday, I was already impressed by the 19-year-old actress. In The Burning Plain, she grabbed my attention with her thousand-yard stare and her ability to convey a compelling inner life. And in the gritty drama Winter’s Bone – a Sundance hit that opens in select cities on Friday – her performance as Ree, a supernally mature Ozarks teenager who has to track down her meth-cooking father in order to save her meagre family home, is a revelation of control. Her sense of when to hold back and when to give over is almost freakishly impressive.
And in person, well, let’s just say this is one confident young woman. She arrived in skinny jeans, a textured silk bolero jacket and snakeskin peep-toe platform pumps whose soaring, six-inch heels would defeat a lesser woman, but Lawrence never wobbled. We started out on opposite corners of the sofa, but as she talked, Lawrence unfurled her legs inch by inch, unconsciously claiming more and more of the space (that is, I’m pretty sure it was unconscious). I ended up squished in a corner, but honestly, I didn’t care – I’m a Darwinian. The species evolves, and Lawrence is clearly the next iteration.
She’s in almost every scene of Winter’s Bone, many of them harrowing. There are beatings and dismemberments, and she has to communicate pain, disgust and sorrow, sometimes all at once. Most actors are happy to tell you how they suffered for their art. Not this one. “To you it looks emotionally straining,” she said, “but I don’t get emotionally drained, because I don’t invest any of my real emotions.” Not only does she not take any of her characters’ pain home with her, “I don’t even take it to craft services,” she zinged. (For those who don’t live on movie sets, craft services is the catered snack table.)
So if she’s not using her real emotions, what does she use? Lawrence fixed me with a patient look and replied, “Imagination. I’ve never been through anything that my characters have been through. And I can’t go around looking for roles that are exactly like my life. So I just use my imagination. If it ever came down to the point where, to make a part better, I had to lose a little bit of my sanity, I wouldn’t do it. I would just do comedies.”
She paused, looking at her hands. “So many people, after they’ve seen my movies, expect me to be intense and dark, and I’m not at all. Oh, look – I forgot to take the polish off this nail.”
Lawrence was so matter-of-fact about everything, I was continually blown away. For example, on acting, she said, “I never did theatre or took classes, which I think has helped me. I just had instincts and they were right.”
On being bossy: “I don’t think I’m always right. I’m a good listener, and I’m open to being told I’m wrong. But by the time I say something, it’s already gone through the nine levels in my head, and probably it is right. So I might as well say it.”
On cutting open a squirrel for Winter’s Bone: “I should say it wasn’t real, for PETA. But screw PETA.”
On the poverty she saw in the Ozarks: “I never felt sorry for the people. Those are their homes and their families. They probably feel sorry for us because we don’t have dinner with our family every night. And yes, there are men in our movie who say things like, ‘I told you to shut up once, with my mouth.’ But there are men in this city who say, ‘I’ll be spending the night at the office,’ and they’ll be sleeping with their secretaries. It’s different, but it’s the same.”