Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman, especially when you’re barely one in the Ozarks, an economically depressed area fraught with meth labs. It’s through this frigidly beautiful, and dangerous terrain that 17 year-old Ree Dolly desperately searches for her missing, meth-cooking father, who’s missed court date threatens her family home with foreclosure.
While it would be spoiling the many surprises of WINTER’S BONE to say what Ree uncovers on her quest, it’s no secret that Jennifer Lawrence’s understated, yet beguiling performance is one of this year’s major acting discoveries, one that just might dig up Oscar recognition come next year, especially after its recent wins for Best Feature and Ensemble Performance at the Gotham Independent Film Awards (a first stop in the Oscar circuit) and a nomination for Female Lead at Film Independent’s Spirit Awards (with co-star John Hawkes getting a Supporting Actor nod).
Hailing herself from Louisville, Kentucky, Lawrence would leave high school after only two years. However, Lawrence’s accelerated graduation was a result of creative desire, as opposed to any Ree-like misfortune. Lawrence’s determination to become an actress would soon get her discovered with early TV roles in MONK, COLD CASE and MEDIUM, all of which led to a recurring part as Lauren Pearson on THE BILL ENGVALL SHOW. Lawrence also began landing the first of gritty parts to come as the girl who survives THE POKER HOUSE and THE BURNING PLAIN.
Lawrence would dirty up her blonde, fresh-faced appeal to win the part of Ree in WINTER’S BONE, another extraordinarily gritty female character study from writer-director Debra Granik. And just as her last uncompromising film yielded a critically acclaimed performance by Vera Farmiga for DOWN TO THE BONE, Granik’s second skeletal venture has allowed Lawrence to critically shine with a character whose love for family, and determination to save it threaten to make her disappear along with her father, all as Ree tries to unravel a rural mystery afoul with drug dealers and an even more potentially sinister uncle.
If audiences were impressed with Jennifer Lawrence early this year, then the next will continue to show the actress’ versatility, first as a brooding cheerleader in the bound-to-be controversial Mel Gibson sock puppet vehicle THE BEAVER.
Then comic book fans will certainly be geeking out as Lawrence assumes the naked, lethally sensual form of Raven Darkholme- aka Mystique, one of the mutants who comprise X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, the latest exercise in superhero cool from Kick Ass director Matthew Vaughan.
Still a member of the Class as of this interview, the unaffected Lawrence talks from England about the cliché-breaking journey of WINTER’S BONE, then about the furry animals and blue mutants whom are sure to raise her promising profile, perhaps no more so than at an awards show that’s the furthest place imaginable from the Ozark back country.
ASSIGNMENT X: When some people in Hollywood think about a heroine from the Ozarks, what stereotypically comes to mind is someone who’s ugly and stupid- neither of which you, or your character are. Did you have to fight those pre-conceptions to get the role of Ree?
JENNIFER LAWRENCE: I didn’t get the part originally because they thought I didn’t have the right look for Ree. So I chased them on a red eye from L.A. to New York. So while they saw casting me as a bit of a hurdle, I think my determination to get this part scared the producers enough to hire me anyway.
AX: What helps make WINTER’S BONE so powerful is that it’s a realistic, and honest portrayal of people you rarely see in movies beyond the redneck clichés.
LAWRENCE: Yeah. It’s the truth. Deborah worked very hard on making sure that every frame you saw in the film was 100% authentic, even down to the wardrobe. Our costumer even traded new clothes with people in the area. So we ended up getting their used, real clothing, and they got brand new stuff.
AX: Before WINTER’S BONE, Debra Granik made a terrific, female-centered film about drug addiction called DOWN TO THE BONE. This is another example of her taking an incredibly dark, potentially depressing story and turning it into riveting entertainment.
LAWRENCE: I loved DOWN TO THE BONE. I think that Debra has a very unique style that whatever world she’s putting you in, she keeps you there and doesn’t let go. For some people like me, that’s exactly what I want when I go to the movies. I don’t want a break. I want to be thrown into the real world. And those are the exact films that Debra makes. They’re almost like documentaries.
AX: One thing that impressed me in that way is how subdued and naturalistic your performance is. Did you ever have to resist being to “actor-y?”
LAWRENCE: No. That’s not something I’d want to do anyway. I didn’t make a conscious effort to “act” too much.
AX: I read that you had to learn how to gut a squirrel for the part. What was that like?
LAWRENCE: Cold and gross, but you do something new every day!
AX: The young actress who played Ree’s young sister looked like she was going to barf during that scene.
LAWRENCE: No. Ashlee isn’t an actress. She lives in that house. We became close during pre-production, and we actually wrote her into the movie. She was calmer than any of us during that scene! She wasn’t phased by it at all. In fact, she was showing me how to skin a squirrel.
AX: What other real people ended up in the film?
LAWRENCE: Pretty much everyone who wasn’t a major character. Everyone else was local.
AX: The other amazing performance in WINTER’S BONE is by John Hawkes, who plays Ree’s uncle “Teardrop.” He brilliantly shows how that character is more than some woman beating badass.
LAWRENCE: Working with John was such an honor, especially since I’m such a huge fan of his. He’s such a sweet man, a legend and an incredible actor. John also thinks ten times faster than all of us put together. When he came to rehearsal, I saw that he’d written all over this script. I couldn’t even see where Teardrop’s lines were anymore! And every single script point that John brought up was right. I’ve never seen anything like it. He knew everything about Teardrop, and his relationship with Ree. I was obviously working with him, but when I saw John in the movie, his Teardrop was someone completely different than what I’d imagined, especially since I was watching him from the audience’s point of view. John’s character is truly enrapturing, and incredible.
AX: Some people think that it must be awful to live in the Ozarks – do you think that’s the case?
LAWRENCE: One thing that made me mad when I started doing press for WINTER’S BONE was that the reporters feel sorry for the people who live there, and I don’t, because they’re happy. The families we were with all day didn’t have a lot, but they always knew where their other family members were at. The things that matter to us don’t matter to them. And that’s the biggest misconception I want to get out there is that you shouldn’t feel sorry for people because they don’t have houses, or cars that are as nice as we have. They have dinner with their families, and don’t have a blackberry screeching at them all day. In the end, this movie is a story about Ree’s life, whom you do find yourself sympathizing with. She doesn’t have a pretty story, period. Yet the Ozarks is a beautiful place that’s filled with families who love, and are fiercely loyal to each other. I’ve never seen anything like that, and I really respected that.
AX: What do you think about how meth is devastating the Ozarks?
LAWRENCE: Meth has affected the area greatly, but I was very sheltered from that to be honest, because Ree isn’t a part of that life. She wants nothing to do with it. So while I didn’t feel the need to do a lot of research on meth because of that, I did learn about its effects from being down there, and how it tore apart these peoples’ lives who have been affected by it. It’s a great tragedy.
AX: WINTER’S BONE also brings up the point of the military as being the only way out for the Ozark in such economic hardship.
LAWRENCE: We didn’t want to put anything in a negative, or positive light, since this is a movie about a specific character. In Ree’s case, the army was the only way out because she was in school. She needed money fast, and saw a poster that tells her she’ll get $40,000 for enlisting. Unfortunately, there are many other teenagers who also feel that way, but I can’t really speak for them. I can only speak for our girl.
AX: You’re also in THE BEAVER, which looks like it’s finally coming out, a film where you have to believe that Mel Gibson’s become possessed by his hand puppet. One of the first impulses is to laugh at a tough guy star in that kind of situation. Did you also have to overcome that feeling while doing the film?
LAWRENCE: I think THE BEAVER’s humor is supposed to be there. It’s dark and twisted, and sometimes it gets so dark that you find yourself laughing. One of the things that made me fall in love with the script is seeing how this beaver sock puppet becomes a different entity from Mel Gibson. You start to listen, and believe the beaver. It’s such a crazy concept, and I hope it manipulates the audience in the same way.
AX: What do you think that Jodie Foster brought to the material as a star, and director in it?
LAWRENCE: Jodie’s brilliant. I think she’s made a film that’s sad, but also funny. And that’s life. I don’t think that movies have to make you feel one thing or the other. Sometimes life can get so messed up that it’s actually funny and I think that Jodie is brilliant enough to pull that off, to make something so deep and dark that you find yourself laughing. And that’s not an easy thing to do.
AX: Tell us about your character in THE BEAVER.
LAWRENCE: I play Nora, who’s a popular cheerleader with a dark secret. She falls in love with Mel Gibson’s son, who’s played by Anton Yelchin. Both of our dark secrets make for a very explosive love story.
AX: A lot of people are excited about seeing you play Mystique in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS next year. She’s probably my favorite character. What’s it like going through that body paint job that Rebecca Romijn previously endured?
LAWRENCE: For most of the movie, I’m “me” as Raven Darkholme. This is before she’s a mutant and proud as Mystique. In FIRST CLASS, Raven’s more of an insecure teenager who’s dealing with the insecurity that she’s blue and scaly. Then she learns to start embracing it. For that, I went through the body paint many times. It’s six to eight hours to put on. And it would be hell if it wasn’t for my makeup girls. We just have so much fun watching SEX AND THE CITY the whole time. The only problem is that when I’m done standing up or sitting on a bicycle seat for so many hours, I’m ready to go home, but I’ve got to start work right away.
AX: Is it liberating playing an empowered character who’s literally naked to the world?
LAWRENCE: I definitely have gotten used to walking around in my skivvies. I don’t know if that gave me empowerment as much as it took all of my modesty away!
AX: Mystique’s appeal is how she uses her sensuality as a weapon. What’s your personal take on the character?
LAWRENCE: In a sense, Rebecca Romijn and I are playing two different Mystiques. Her version is comfortable, and badass in her own skin, but my Raven is about figuring herself out, and wondering if it would be better to remain in her natural form.
AX: So I imagine we’ll have a scene with Raven’s liberating moment of ripping her cloths off?
LAWRENCE: I don’t know. Stay tuned!
AX: Another great quality about Mystique is her agility. What are the physical demands of the part like?
LAWRENCE: All of the cast that are playing X-Men are all going through training. I personally trained for two hours a day, except when I was being body painted. I did kick boxing, stretching and yoga, but it’s really my stunt girl who’s going to be doing more than me.
AX: One of my favorite films of the year was Class director Matthew Vaughan’s KICK ASS. Is he going for a similarly satirical tone here, or will his X-MEN be more serious?
LAWRENCE: Matthew’s an incredible director. He’s very smart, and has a cool style. While I don’t think he’s trying to be too serious here, he’s also not making the film jokey. About the only word that comes to mind when you’re looking around the set to get a feeling for what this film will be is “Cool!” I definitely trust in Matthew.
AX: You started acting at a young age. Thankfully we’ve never seen you on TMZ. How do you hold it together so well?
LAWRENCE: If TMZ followed me around, they’d find me to be very boring. They’re basically going to get pictures of me walking my dog. I think what I do is a job. It’s a weird job, but I’m no different from any one else my age. I just happen to be working at Pinewood studios now in England. I’m over here, and don’t have the internet. I’m not up to date on what’s going on, so I just focus on the work, but I do know that listening to the other, personal stuff will mess up your head if you care about it.
AX: WINTER’S BONE has turned out to be the little movie that could this year. If you and the film get some Oscar recognition like Melissa Leo did for the similar FROZEN LAKE, what do you think the reason will be?
LAWRENCE: All of us worked so hard to make the film authentic, so it means a lot to get this kind of critical recognition. It shows that people don’t want to be sheltered anymore when they go to the movies. The way that people have responded to this little indie is great. It would be great if we were nominated, because WINTER’S BONE is a terrific movie. Even if I wasn’t in it, I would still be saying the same thing.
Winter’s Bone is now available on DVD from Lion’s Gate Entertainment
Special thanks to Nancy Bishop and Venice Magazine