2011 May 31

Jennifer strains at the chains of fame

‘Everybody’s treating me differently and talking to me differently and I know that they’re lying and that they’re sucking up to me’

Listen to an actor who made his name in indie movies — many of them critical successes but box-office failures — and went on to play in hundred-million-dollar blockbusters: “I know there are 18,000 trucks and 800 for lunch and the whole thing, but still, within the context of the process, it still feels very intimate… It still feels the same as a film with a 30-person crew. You’re still doing the work.”

Now here’s a young actress in small movies — many of them critical successes but modest hits — who’s about to become the new It Girl of Hollywood: “It’s all filmmaking. The behind-the-scenes is always different: You have a bigger trailer, there’s better food, things like that. I still do the movies for the same reasons. I still love the script, I love the director, I love the character and the other actors involved. So all of the reasons why I was there, they were all the same.”

The first quote was from Johnny Depp. The second, from Jennifer Lawrence.

Whether she can go on to Depp-like fame depends on two high-profile films: X-Men: First Class, a superhero movie that opens Friday, and The Hunger Games, a science-fiction adventure that hits the screens next March. Both will rely to a large extent on the appeal of a 20-year-old actress — too old, to some fans of The Hunger Games novels — who is best known for a gritty little adventure about a teenage girl in the Ozarks, searching for her father among a dangerous backwoods world of drug dealers and violent loners.

The movie, Winter’s Bone, earned Lawrence an Oscar nomination. She was the second-youngest woman to be nominated for a Best Actress award after Whale Rider’s Keisha Castle-Hughes, whose career since then hasn’t exactly turned her into Johnny Depp.

Lawrence is on a faster track: If the difference between the $2-million Winter’s Bone and the $120-million X-Men prequel (in which she plays Mystique, the character who eventually grows up to be Rebecca Romijn) didn’t guarantee an immediate splash, The Hunger Games cemented it.

She has now officially gone past all the other current It Girls, who are coined daily in Hollywood. Indeed, many of them rated higher than she did when fans were polled about who should play Katniss Everdeen, the teen warrior who is the heroine in The Hunger Games. An Entertainment Weekly poll anointed Skins star Kaya Scodelario (with 39 per cent of the votes), followed by Irish up-and-comer Saoirse Ronan (18 per cent), with some online rooting for Hailee Steinfeld, who got her own Oscar for last year’s True Grit. The main objection to Lawrence is her looks — she’s a blond, while Katniss has dark hair, olive skin and grey eyes — and her age. “If this ends up being a success and they make all three books, she’ll be 25 by the time it’s done and looking 30,” one fan wrote.

Lawrence herself has doubts about all of it.

“I am ashamed to say I auditioned three times before I even watched any of the movies,” she told The Telegraph about her X-Men tryouts. “And then, after I watched the movies, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been doing it all wrong; why are they calling me back?’ I was doing her all sweet and naive. I saw Rebecca Romijn and she’s sultry and mean. I know this is an origin story, but I was definitely doing it all wrong.” She ended up taking the role, partly for the chance to work with James McAvoy (who plays the Patrick Stewart role of Professor Xavier) and Michael Fassbender (Magneto, the Ian McKellen part).

She’s even more dubious about The Hunger Games, whose attendant debate is so heated that Entertainment Weekly put Lawrence on its cover last week to show how she could be transformed into Katniss.

It’s reminiscent of the online controversy when Kristen Stewart was chosen to play Bella in the Twilight movies, a series that appeals to the same demographic. Twilight gave Stewart a similar career boost, but her non-Twilight movies, The Runaways and Welcome to the Rileys, were both box-office flops.

Stewart began as a child actress, but Lawrence took a different road to fame. She was a Kentucky teenager with no acting experience when, on a trip to New York City with her mother, she was stopped by a photographer who asked to take her picture. A talent agency saw the photo and asked her to audition for commercials. Soon she was in Los Angeles for a screen test, and, by 2008, she was with Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger in The Burning Plain.

Winter’s Bone put Lawrence on the map and X-Men will make her a star. The Hunger Games, though, is a different matter.

“I got a taste of fame from the Oscars and I didn’t like it,” she told The Wall Street Journal. “That’s a terrible thing to say, because it’s such a tremendous honour. But I went from being normal Jennifer to being at these parties where I couldn’t just be the girl making dumb jokes in the corner. Everybody’s treating me differently and talking to me differently and I know that they’re lying and that they’re sucking up to me.

“It was a very bizarre time to be presented (with a part) that could make me arguably the most famous person my age, a year from now. I remember sitting in a coffee shop in London, thinking, if I say yes to this job, next year, at this time, people will be here, taking pictures of me with their phones. And I couldn’t find a bright side in it. But I didn’t want to say no to a script that I loved because I was scared.”

As she awaits the camera-phone people, Lawrence is keeping involved in the other part of her career. Just like Depp — who is following his new Pirates of the Caribbean movie with the offbeat The Rum Diary — she is continuing with smaller films. She has a role in Jodie Foster’s The Beaver, with Mel Gibson as a man who talks through a hand puppet, and the upcoming Like Crazy, a romance that won the grand jury prize at Sundance, home of the indie darlings. Lawrence proved in Winter’s Bone that she has a screen presence that is both resilient and vulnerable: She’s capable of being a muscular heroine that audiences can care for. If she can survive success, she’ll have it made.