2013 Dec 09

Life’s a ‘Hustle’ for Jennifer Lawrence

The Oscar winner is earning raves again for playing a demented housewife.

EW YORK — Work can be your salvation, your port in a mad, mad celebrity storm. Just ask Jennifer Lawrence, who finds solace and consistency on movie sets, surrounded by people who don’t care about her latest sultry Dior ads, or whether her new haircut is too extreme.

“Nobody treats you any differently. They see celebrities all the time. Especially on The Hunger Games, people have known each other for years. I feel like myself,” she says.

Her first day back on set, one day after winning an Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook, Lawrence earned a standing ovation from her Hunger Games: Catching Fire cast and crew.

“And then, nothing changed. We shot two more weeks in the mud. When she messes up her lines, she gets teased by Woody (Harrelson) that she’s going to have to give her award back,” says Fire director Francis Lawrence (no relation). “She’s smart and goofy and silly and talented and endearing. It’s all of those things. There isn’t an actress around like her right now. She has an intuitive talent for acting, but also a soul and gravitas that most girls her age don’t have. She captures the loneliness of Katniss.”

And the blowsy appeal of Rosalyn Rosenfeld, the lonely, yet certifiable housewife she plays in American Hustle. When filmmaker David O. Russell, who directed Lawrence to her Oscar for playing a disturbed, acid-tongued, yet vulnerable widow in Silver Linings, called her about Hustle, she had planned to take a break. But the script, about a ’70s scammer (Christian Bale), his pushy spouse (Lawrence), his manipulative mistress (Amy Adams) and the memorably coiffed, deeply ambitious FBI agent trying to get a career break (Bradley Cooper), proved irresistible.

“(Rosalyn’s) always screaming and drinking and you don’t know why. The first step was making her young, making her religious and making her someone I could forgive. She’s dumb as a fox. She doesn’t know any better. She doesn’t understand the repercussions of her actions,” says Lawrence. “She chooses when to be blind to something and I know women like that. You know those women who find themselves in very dramatic situations and don’t understand why.”

And for Russell, seeing Lawrence embody someone so comically, almost defiantly, deviant was a revelation.

“We’ve never seen her do a character like this. It was alive and freeing and fun, and she brought amazing energy to it. Her peculiar madness is her genius,” Russell says. “Jennifer and I share a process on the set where we laugh and we stay loose. But when she goes in, it’s on. It’s deceptive to everyone around. She looks like she’s goofing around and not paying attention. But she goes there. Magic happens.”

And people notice. The New York Film Critics Circle just named her best supporting actress, and she’s a contender in this year’s Academy Awards race. “Lawrence will get an Oscar nom for supporting actress. On that you can bet your lava lamp and collection of disco on 8-track,” predicts longtime Hollywood watcher Anne Thompson in her Indiewire review of the film. Justin Chang writes in Variety that “it’s Lawrence who steals the picture, giving another marvelously unpredictable performance.” The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney calls Lawrence “the film’s stealth weapon” who “is dangerously off-kilter but also shrewd; she’s both kitten and tigress.”

With heady reviews like these, and all that praise and money and attention thrown at her, it’s a wonder Lawrence retains some sense of being a regular person who had snuck out to a friend’s place the night before to eat paella rather than going to a celebrity-friendly restaurant. She says her work, not that accompanying hoopla, is what makes her tick.

“I had the choice between a vacation and this movie. I probably should have taken the vacation, but this was almost better. It was like creative epinephrine,” says Lawrence. “That was one of the best creative times in my life. David and I would be on the phone for hours, creating her together. She was my favorite being to be in between action and cut. That was the happiest I’ve been.”

Joy is one thing. Preparation, another. Every aspect of Rosalyn’s look, from the glitzy gowns she slips on for the rare occasions her husband trots her out to his cronies, to the yellow rubber gloves she donned in a cleaning scene where she belts out Live and Let Die in front of her son, was discussed by director and actress.

“Even the way she moves her fingers. She was a finger stretcher. I’m not like that. I have grubby paws. I move my elbows, not my hands. I’m just gross,” says Lawrence. “The red nails were the best part. I was getting a massage and anytime anyone would see me with those nails, I was like, ‘This is a work thing.’ People would think that was my thing.”

Initially, the age difference between Bale, 39, and Lawrence, 23, bothered the actor. “I was concerned because I felt like (her age) introduced a question mark about the character,” Bale says. “And I think it’s a kudos to her talent — seeing the film, for me, it’s absolutely clear that Rosalyn is a woman with a lot of issues. She’s certainly somebody who is searching desperately for a father figure. … And I realized I’d just been over-thinking it, over-worrying about it.”

To Lawrence, Rosalyn made total sense, as did her twisted version of marriage. She understood why Bale’s grifter was attached to someone so immature, so shrewish, so stunning. “She got married very young. He was doing the right thing. She’s completely against divorce. And I used some of my religious background. I remember one of my grandmothers or aunts saying it’s better to die than get divorced because if you die, at least you go to heaven,” says Lawrence, breaking into Rosalyn’s New Jersey accent.

Being around Bale, a famously intense actor who immerses himself fully in his roles, also rubbed off. “He did teach me a lot, not on purpose, but just by watching him preparing. Christian will start to prepare as everybody starts to get ready. It’s not noticeable. So now I do that,” she says, making a face of mock-disgust and again taking all the possible puffery out of the comment. “I hate rehearsing. I don’t like acting when it’s not 100% necessary. It’s so stupid and it’s the first thing I have to get out of my head. It’s because of my brothers. I was always more artistic and that didn’t bode well in our sports house.”

The reality is, despite her tendency to deflate any hysteria around her with a well-timed and endlessly requoted quip, Lawrence isn’t a well-oiled wit machine. She seems confident and gregarious, if a bit anxious and tightly wound, at finding herself in a very abnormal situation where she has to talk about herself all the time, especially while promoting The Hunger Games blockbusters. She jokes, half-seriously, that she feels responsible if people don’t see the films.

“There’s a nervous quality about her. Her attention shifts quite easily. I think that she seems to jump around from thing to thing to thing. Some people see it as being on, but it’s just a part of personality. She is always paying attention. She soaks up everything. She can read a room, a person, a vibe, in a second. It totally affects her,” says Francis Lawrence.

She worries that one day, the media gauntlet will be her new normal, and she gets especially twitchy when photographers scream her full name at her at premieres, something that reminds her of getting in trouble as kid. “A lot of times, I don’t have answers to the questions. I just have to give you something,” she says. “It’s weird anytime you’re having a totally one-sided conversation. But I don’t know, it’s gotten pretty normal. I’ll probably end up being very self-centered. But I still don’t enjoy it.”

Russell says that Lawrence has stayed “the same person. Everything around her has changed. The fame has enveloped her but she’s stayed true to her self. … She’s a real person. Her saving grace is that there’s a humbleness to her.”

Most of all, Lawrence retains a well-honed, if wry, sense of humor when talking about the craziness that seems to be part and parcel of her massive level of celebrity. One lesson she’s learned: Don’t go out wearing hats, because they only draw more attention to you. She loses herself in “(expletive) reality TV. Waking up in full makeup — and I still believe it. I’m still like, ‘Khloe, be careful,'” says Lawrence, who says the story lines of Keeping Up with the Kardashians permeated even a recent health scare involving abdominal pains and a hospital visit. “I was under anesthesia yesterday. I had to get one of those endoscopic things only to find out that I’m fine. When I became lucid, the first conversation I was having was about the Kardashians.”

She’s found ways to sneak out and be an actual human being, doing stuff other people do away from prying lenses. “I go to the driving range. I don’t play golf. You can just drink beer and walk around outside. You’re outside and hitting balls and drinking beer. It’s fun. I get it now. When I’m in Atlanta, no one expects to see me at a random driving range in Atlanta, so it’s OK,” she says of being on location for The Hunger Games.

Speaking of Hunger Games, is she going to miss her iconic warrior Katniss Everdeen when the series is done?

“I’m not so sure about just Katniss as (much as) the whole of the people. And my boys. Look at my boys,” she says, whipping out her iPhone to show a photo of her cuddling with Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson. “Wait, I have a message so you can’t see. I’m going to miss that. My angels. I’m mama cat and they’re my kittens.”