It’s tough to say just when Jennifer Lawrence became one of the independent-film world’s most talked about young actresses, but the 20-year-old Kentucky native’s performance in Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, a small film released earlier this year about a teen in the Ozarks who sets off in search of her meth-cooking father, is the stuff of which careers are made. Prior to Winter’s Bone, Lawrence, who began acting in her early teens, spent three seasons playing a sitcom daughter on The Bill Engvall Show, while taking lauded turns as a 14-year-old overachiever with a strung-out prostitute mother in Lori Petty’s semiautobiographical The Poker House (2008), and as a young woman dealing with the sudden onset of adulthood and her own burgeoning sexuality in Guillermo Arriaga’s tragidrama The Burning Plain (2008). But her work in Winter’s Bone, portraying a character who is at once youthful, innocent, maternal, childlike, compassionate, and complicated, with an almost poetic restraint, has signaled her unofficial arrival—and inspired not-so-subtle murmurs of Oscar-worthiness along with it.
Lawrence can next be seen starring alongside Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster in the dark comedy The Beaver, about a man (Gibson) who communicates through a beaver puppet. She has also been cast as Mystique in X-Men: First Class, due out in June 2011. Foster, who also directed The Beaver, recently caught up with Lawrence, who was at home in Los Angeles.
JODIE FOSTER: When I was around your age, I did a bunch of interviews for Interview magazine. I interviewed Nastassja Kinski [February 1983] and this professor guy who I knew [Vincent Scully, May 1981], and a couple of other people. It was always very social. But things have changed a little bit.
JENNIFER LAWRENCE: Now, when you do interviews, they feel a little bit like job interviews.
FOSTER: Exactly. [laughs]
LAWRENCE: I picked up an issue of Cosmopolitan the other day that had tips for job interviews, because I was like, “I need to get better at interviews.” The article was basically about how to get someone not to hate you in 20 minutes. Every single thing they told you not to do, I was like, “I do that every day.”
FOSTER: Really? Like what?
LAWRENCE: Well, one woman asked if she could throw her gum away in her interviewer’s garbage can. I never think it’s right to chew gum in front of other people, but a lot of times I’ll come in for a meeting chewing gum and I’ll forget I’m chewing it. Then you don’t want to swallow it because it stays in your system for seven years or something, so I’ve asked to throw it away. I’ve started to wonder if that’s why I didn’t get certain movies.
FOSTER: That must’ve been it. [laughs] Was that the top thing on their list?
LAWRENCE: Well, they had different examples of things not to do—like, one girl kept her sunglasses on her head during the interview. I would never do that. It’s disrespectful. But they also talked about what to do when the interviewer asks about your weaknesses. A lot of people say stuff like, “Oh, I’m really fickle about finishing things,” or “I’m super-organized—maybe too organized,” and try to turn their weaknesses into good things. But as soon as you do that, the interviewer knows you’re lying. So they advise you to say things like, “I’m really bad about organization, so I’m taking organization classes to get better!” and stuff like that that shows initiative. So this article in Cosmo basically helped me in no way whatsoever.
FOSTER: So what’s your story right now? You’re headed off to do another movie?
LAWRENCE: I’ve got a bunch of things going on. I’m doing a movie called House at the End of the Street [with Elisabeth Shue and Max Thieriot]. Whenever I really want a part, I’m not sure what to do. How do I let the director know how obsessed I am and willing to do anything for the movie? Like, I wanted to write this one director a letter, so I wrote him a handwritten note. But then I was like, How many people are writing this guy handwritten letters? Is it going to seem cheesy? What do I do? Do I sleep outside of his house until he agrees to give me the part?
FOSTER: [laughs] That might scare him off a bit—it’s like Fatal Attraction .
LAWRENCE: I know! It makes you feel supercrazy. It’s like, “Please give me this part! I’ll boil a rabbit!”
FOSTER: But I think having that kind of investment in things is good. We always used to say, “Don’t say anything bad about Larry Storch, because Larry Storch will always want to be in your movie.” I don’t know why we picked Larry Storch as the example—he was the actor from the TV show F Troop. But I do think it’s true that anytime somebody comes to you and says, “I’d like to be in your film,” it’s never good to dismiss them or make fun of them, because if they’re passionate and driven enough, they very well might find a way to be in your film.
LAWRENCE: See, this is the part where I need help. I really want to call this director 12 times.
FOSTER: Yeah . . . Maybe don’t call him 12 times.
LAWRENCE: Should I write him a letter?
FOSTER: Absolutely write him a letter! Every one of my most important roles—in The Accused , in The Silence of the Lambs —I had to really fight for. I’ve had to beat down the door a little bit and send letters and say, “I’ll fly anywhere to meet you.”
LAWRENCE: That’s how I felt about Winter’s Bone and, of course, The Beaver.
Photo: Jennifer Lawrence in New York, June 2010. Dress: D&G. Bra: Stella McCartney. Shorts: Diesel. Jewelry (throughout): Southwestern jewelry. Shoes and stockings (throughout): Proenza Schouler.
FOSTER: So here’s my big Interview magazine question for you: When you go from movie to movie, do you do so with a larger plan in mind, or is it really just about what speaks to you in a given moment?
LAWRENCE: Both. I mean, I’d like to think that I have a plan, but you can’t really pick what scripts you’re going to get or what movie is going to come along, so I’ll have the idea of, Maybe I should do something lighter now . . . After Winter’s Bone, I was like, I need to do something with a bigger budget and more resources now. And then I got The Beaver, with you, which was lighter and bigger, but never anything I could have anticipated. So maybe it is more about whatever script speaks to you and whatever part is available to you in a given moment, because you really don’t have the kind of control where you can plan. But I suppose you can have a general idea of where you want to go.
FOSTER: Can you see any pattern in the choices you’ve made and the parts you’ve been attracted to?
A friend of mine was like, ‘Everybody is going to want to see Mel Gibson running around with the top of a beaver in his pants.’Jennifer Lawrence
LAWRENCE: Yeah. They’re all dark. And I think there’s something of artistic value about them. When I did The Burning Plain , I was kind of going through that turning-into-a-woman phase and discovering what it was like to be a woman, and going through a kind of hell—and that was kind of what was happening to my character in the movie. Then, when I read Winter’s Bone, I was getting to a place where I would’ve done anything for that movie—and I did. So I think there is some kind of a pattern, but I don’t know . . . I know certain roles are important to me. I know that I really want to play them. I know I can do a good job. But I can never put into words why—and you have to have an answer because you get asked that question.
FOSTER: You don’t need to have an answer. You can just say, “I don’t know.”
LAWRENCE: But then it makes it sound like it’s an accident, and none of it is an accident really . . . I just don’t want to disappoint people. If people see Winter’s Bone, and they want to know more about why I make the choices I do, and I say, “I don’t know . . .” Then they’re like, “Okay. You’re an idiot.” [Foster laughs] Maybe I should just say, “I’ll know in ten years.”
FOSTER: Anthony Hopkins is a big “I don’t know” guy. It’s amazing to me. He’s always pretending that he doesn’t know—that he just kind of shows up and does all this stuff. And I do think part of that is true for him. I think there is something to being curious about your choices, but not wanting to kind of pierce the bubble of them, because it takes away from the act of discovering. Sometimes, you really don’t understand why something is important to you until you get halfway through the movie—or maybe even all the way through.
LAWRENCE: Or until you see the finished film, which was the case for me with Winter’s Bone.
FOSTER: God, I love that movie. It is just such a beautiful film. I love the fact that there isn’t this big narrative plot—that it just allows this character’s life to sort of unfold in front of the camera.
LAWRENCE: That’s what I loved about it, too. Then we got all of these reviews that were like, “Well, there’s not much of a story to it. It’s more like just a depressing home video.” Or something like that.
FOSTER: But that’s life . . .
LAWRENCE: Yeah! Thank you! Is anyone recording our conversation?
FOSTER: I don’t know. I think they went away. We could say anything right now and they won’t know it until they look at the transcript.
LAWRENCE: So right now I could tell everybody in the world that you tried to push me drugs.
FOSTER: Push you drugs? [laughs] Oh, god. That sounds so 1971.
LAWRENCE: I have an old soul. [laughs] I don’t know any real-life lingo, so I have to take it from movies.
FOSTER: I’m actually looking forward to all The Beaver jokes.
LAWRENCE: Nobody is going to forget that title. A friend of mine was like, “Everybody is going to want to see Mel Gibson running around with the top of a beaver in his pants.” Bottom line. Case closed.
Jodie Foster is a director, producer, and Academy Award–winning actress.
Photo: Jacket (customized): Gap. Dress: Stella McCartney. Fragrance: Stella by Stella McCartney. Cosmetics: Chantecaille, including hydra chic lipstick in Tiger Lily. Hair: Yannick D’Is for Cutler/Redken/Management+Artists. Makeup: Lisa Houghton using chantecaille/Jed Root, inc. Manicure: Sheril Bailey/Jed Root, inc. Stylist Assistant: Omaima Salem. Special Thanks: Knights Collision Experts, Inc.