'Hunger Games' star Jennifer Lawrence talks filming and mall tours

'Hunger Games' star Jennifer Lawrence discusses the pressure of playing a well-known character and working with director Gary Ross

Matt Sayles/STF/AP
'Hunger Games' star Jennifer Lawrence says, 'I barely get a chance to put my name on the poster we’re signing before it’s slid over to Josh' of the movie's recent mall tour.

Jennifer Lawrence has already enjoyed a remarkably unique career path. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Lawrence had the nearly unheard of good fortune to be discovered on a visit to New York City when she was just fourteen years old. After a good deal of goading on the part of agents (who saw a rare talent in Lawrence), her parents agreed to allow her to stay in NYC and begin auditioning.

After a few commercial and guest star roles, she was cast in the TBS television series The Bill Engvall Show. Lawrence went directly from the short-lived sitcom to the role that would secure her a Best Actress Oscar nomination at the tender age of twenty: playing Ree Dolly in Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone. Shortly thereafter, Lawrence humanized Mystique, one of Marvel’s most beloved villainess’, in X-Men: First Class.

Lawrence is now taking on her biggest challenge: the lead role in a film that is poised to (potentially) be a worldwide phenomenon, The Hunger Games. In the film, Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl from a dystopic future in which a fascistic Capital selects one boy and one girl from each of the twelve districts of the nation of Panem to fight to the death in an annual tournament called The Hunger Games. Katniss is forced to volunteer to fight when her much younger, much smaller sister is selected in that year’s lottery.

We had the chance to participate in a roundtable discussion with the Jennifer Lawrence at the Los Angeles press event for The Hunger Games, where we discussed (among other things) her propensity toward roles that involve hunting and the woods, the pressure that surrounds taking on a much-beloved character, learning how to act backwards from Woody Harrelson and the surreal experience of participating in a mall tour.

Screen Rant: What is it about these downtrodden, strong women who take care of children? What is this pattern that we’re seeing here in your career? 

Jennifer Lawrence: “I don’t know, before I get the script I ask ‘Does she like the forest, does she have younger siblings? (Laughing) Jodie Foster told me I’d look back at my career twenty years from now and see a pattern, and what it has to do with my life. But now I’m just like ‘I don’t know.’”

You do you see a through-line between this and Winter’s Bone?

JL: “Yeah, they’re similar. Ree is much more of a walker at Katniss is more of a runner.” (Laughs)

What was the most challenging aspect of this film as an adaptation?

JL: “That she was already in the minds of so many different people. When you’re coming out with a movie where nobody’s really seen the character before you can say ‘here it is.’ I’m playing a character that most people have already seen in their mind. That’s scary.”

Did you have preconceived notions?

JL: “Yeah, but that’s just what I did. I understood her in a certain way and my understanding informed my performance.”

Speaking of scary, I hear you guys are doing mall tours, how’s that been?

JL: “Yesterday was our first one and I felt like Justin Timberlake from ‘N Sync. It was nuts. One girl almost fainted. But it’s never over me. I sit in between the guys, and they start with Liam (Hemsworth) and they say ‘Say something! Say something!’ And he speaks in his Australian accent and someone passes out, and I barely get a chance to put my name on the poster we’re signing before it’s slid over to Josh (Hutcherson). And it’s, ‘Oh my god so I loved you in…’ and then crying. And I’m like ‘It’s okay. I practiced my signature for so long and I didn’t get to use it.’”

Is there a star in the middle of it?

JL: “There was a heart, but I took the heart out.”

What kind of physical training did you do to play Katniss?

JL: “Free running for agility, archery, climbing, combat and yoga…But that’s all.”

How’s your archery now?

JL: “Good. I had an Olympian train me, so if I couldn’t say ‘good’ it’s my fault.”

How are your tree climbing skills?

JL: “Also good if I have a harness.” (Laughs)

Knowing that this is a franchise is fitness something you have to keep up?

JL: “When you’re in a movie called ‘The Hunger Games’ when you’re not working you eat. But as far as exercise goes I like to stay in relatively good shape anyway, running and so on. And it’s also so that when training comes along I don’t have to start from square one. There is relative maintenance. Just being able to withstand cardio.”

In the book, everything is conveyed from Katniss’ perspective. And the film is primarily from Katniss’ point-of-view as well. How many days off did you have during shooting?

JL: “None. For a while I had Saturdays and Sundays, and then I had Sundays.”

How useful was it to have the book and all those first person thoughts?

JL: “For an actor it’s an amazing thing to have my character’s inner dialogue. It never happens.”

At some point do you have to let go of the book?

JL: “Yeah, when you’re making a film, the book is a good tool, but once you have the script and you’re making a movie, you have to let go of the book. I held onto the inner dialogue, but yes, you do have to let go.”

You’ve has a chance to work with some strong directors Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone) and Jodie Foster (The Beaver) how does Gary Ross stack up? What’s his style?

 JL: “He doesn’t have one. He can communicate with every single actor. He can make anything work. I’m better with technical stuff, just tell me what you don’t like and I’ll fix it. Don’t tell me about what’s happening internally – that doesn’t work for me. Just tell me what’s right and what’s wrong, and he was very technical with me. With others he might give more emotional guidance, he could do that. He can work with any actor, he can communicate with the lighting director. He had a very specific vision and he never once gave that up. Which is hard when you’re doing a film, but to his credit he did it and the studio was amazing. He’s strong and he’s brilliant, but he listens to everybody. He’s artistically free.”

You said that you like technical direction, is that something you consider when you take on projects now?

JL: “It’s something I’ve always looked at when I look at scripts. You can love a script but if it doesn’t have a good director it won’t be that.”

And do you hope that they can adapt to your way of working?

JL: “No, I like to adapt to their way of working. I love doing that. Each director’s so different and you have to adapt to a new way of doing something. That’s amazing to me; I love that. I don’t want a director to have to work around me, I think it’s more fun to come in on their thing.”

Do you have a favorite scene in the movie?

JL: “Yeah, the scene when Stanley Tucci (who plays talk-show host Caesar Flickerman in the film) interviews me before I go to the games. One because it’s just hilarious to see that, but also that’s the moment that Katniss realizes it’s a game, and if she wants to win she has to play along.”

There is a sense that Katniss is playing to the camera. Do you have to be conscious of the moments where she is playing to the cameras and the audience that is observing the game and when she is being herself?

JL: “I think it was important to her to not look weak when she was on the run. Some of that would be too complicated to think about. When she does find the camera, then yes, but otherwise it was… running.”

There’s an interesting stylistic choice where the camera is all around you. Sometimes it’s from behind, which you normally don’t see. Does that change your performance? Or do you have to ignore the camera?

JL: “You can’t ever let yourself be thrown by a camera. That’s never good for an actor. So, no, that’s also trusting your director. When you’re reading the script, you want to work with someone you trust so there’s nothing to worry about.”

You’re working with veterans like Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, and Donald Sutherland here. Is there anything you have to be cognizant of, or is there anything you learn from going toe to toe with them?

JL: “I always try to be a sponge and soak up as much as possible when I’m working with them.”

What did your sponge soak up from Woody?

JL: (Laughs) (Does Beavis laugh) “Woody is the nicest person in the entire world, and you know he’d be the exact same person no matter what his job was. He’s just that guy from Texas, he can strike up a conversation with anybody. It’s just odd to see him on a movie set. He’s just one of the most incredible actors in the world, and he almost doesn’t fit onto a set. He’s just too relaxed – he’s got no airs about him. You see him hanging out, like someone brought their really nice cousin from Texas and then all of a sudden he does backwards acting. One time we were doing this scene where I stab a knife through his fingers and to do that you have to do everything backwards and they put it forwards in post. And so we would start and everything would go backwards and Woody said ‘I’m even doing backwards acting cause when I’m here I start to feel my desire for the jam.’ (Laughs) So he would go back and then he’d see the jam and want in. He’s full of gems like that.”

When we were talking to Liam and Josh, it was brought up that twenty years ago we probably would have seen Katniss be a guy and the love interests be women. I’m just curious from your perspective how you feel about that shift, being the strong female character at the end of this story?

 JL: “It’s great because I feel like we’ve gotten to the place where we have strong female leads. We’ve got Lara Croft as the female James Bond and we have someone who’s not even the female James Bond. We have a young girl being thrown in to this situation and not knowing if she’s going to survive it. It says a lot.”

Well, to be fair, Lara Croft is very sexualized, while you can’t say your character is objectified in the same way a lot of women are in these movies.

JL: “It is great.”

How did you steal yourself up emotionally for your scenes with Rue (seen above), especially your final scenes with her?

JL: “That was awful. Reading it in the book, and reading the script it was terrible, and then meeting Amandla Stenberg (the actress who plays Rue). The scene was hard because I knew that it meant that she would wrap. And then working with her – you meet her – she’s the funniest, sweetest little girl…she’s amazing.”

She kept telling us you were the one making jokes in between takes during the death scene.

JL: “Yeah, that’s true. I had to do something. There’s a funny picture of us in her grave laughing. But we were all thinking that people would leave the theater during that scene…but then, there were some hilarious moments for us. (Laughs)”

Roth Cornet blogs at Screen Rant.

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