Jennifer Lawrence: America's Kick-Ass Sweetheart

How the 'Hunger Games' star became the coolest chick in Hollywood

jennifer lawrence 1154 cover
Theo Wenner for RollingStone.com
Jennifer Lawrence on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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'Dude!" Says Jennifer Lawrence into her cellphone. "I'm lost as fuck! I've been driving around for, like, 10 minutes. Where the hell is this place?" She's looking for a horse stable. We have plans to go horseback riding in the canyons above Malibu, but neither of us can find the place. I tell her to pull over and I'll come find her.

The most talented young actress in America is idling on a side street in her white Volkswagen, in blue jeans, a gray T-shirt and designer shades. Her naturally blond hair is pulled back in a loose ponytail, and her elbows are sticking out the open window.

She's famous for playing vulnerable young women with wills of steel, as with her Oscar-nominated turn in Winter's Bone, or as the bow-and-arrow-toting Katniss Everdeen in the just-released Hunger Games. Right now her face says she means business.

"I have to pee so bad."

We drive a little more and find the stable, which, it turns out, isn't a stable, just a red-dirt parking lot where a horse trailer is parked. Lawrence jumps out of the VW and is off like a flash, running off down the trail in search of a bush. Two twentysomething hiker babes in sunglasses and sports bras, SoCal trail chic, do a double take as she sprints past. Was that . . . ?

Lawrence, 21, has a way of making a first impression. Woody Harrelson, her Hunger Games co-star, still remembers their first meeting. "I was on my bus," he says, "and on my bus I have a yoga swing. Jennifer comes on, and she goes, 'Hi, Woody, I'm J – is that a sex swing?' Her first sentence to me."

Josh Hutcherson, also from The Hunger Games: "When I got cast, she called me up for one of those five-minute 'Excited to work with you, blah, blah, blah' things. The conversation started with her saying, 'Think about a catheter going in – ouch!' and then turns into a 45-minute rant about zombies and the apocalypse."

And here's Zoë Kravitz, who appeared with Lawrence in X-Men: First Class and who is one of her best friends: "I'd met her a few times, and she was like, 'You should come over and we'll hang out.' So I go over to her apartment, and she opens the door in a towel. She's like, 'Come in, sorry, you're early, I was about to shower.' And she drops her towel and gets in the shower, and starts shaving her legs, totally naked. She was like, 'Are we here yet? Is this OK?' And I was like, 'I guess we're there!'"

Lawrence finishes peeing in record time ("I'm the fastest pee-er ever," she says later. "I'm famous for it") and starts heading back down the trail. She's barely had time to button her jeans when the two hikers stop her. "I'm sorry to bother you," one says. "But could I get your autograph? My niece is 15. It would make her year."

Fifteen-year-old nieces are Lawrence's sweet spot right now. The Hunger Games trilogy is the biggest teen juggernaut since Twilight, with 24 million copies of the books in print. And since its post-apocalyptic action-packed love story appeals to boys as much as girls, experts are predicting the movie to make approximately a gajillion dollars, with three sequels already in the works.

Back in the parking lot, we meet up with our guide, Jasmin, who introduces us to our mounts for the day. Lawrence gets a white mare named Nay-Nay, who Jasmin says had a cameo in HBO's Band of Brothers. "Oh!" Lawrence says, petting her on the nose. "You're famous!"

Jasmin hands out liability waivers – Lawrence puts her mom as her emergency contact – and helmets, and I get a panicked mental image of the linchpin of Hollywood's newest billion-dollar franchise tumbling headfirst into a ravine. But it passes as soon as Lawrence hooks her boot into the stirrup, and, in one fluid motion, hops up in the saddle like a pro.

Lawrence's family owned a horse farm when she was growing up. Her first horse was a pony named Muffin: "She was cute," Lawrence says, "but she was a mean little bitch." After that she graduated to a couple of males, Dan and Brumby. "Those two hated each other, but then one day there was a big storm and they spent the night huddled in the barn together, and suddenly they were inseparable. The sexual tension finally boiled over." Last came Brandy. "So white-trash," Lawrence says. "That was during my tube-top phase."

We start up the trail, an 1,800-foot climb into the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains. We ride past oak and willow trees and coastal sage scrub. Lawrence says she doesn't get to ride in L.A. often. "I did ride once, in some arena," she says. I ask what it was like. "It was like a big building," she says with a grin, "with a roof?" We climb some more. "I can see your horse's ass," she says. "It's sweaty. I can see its sweaty ass juice."

She talks a lot about throwing up. Recently she was back home in Kentucky and caught a bad flu. "I was throwing up everywhere," she says. She also has a vivid memory of the time she ate some bad salmon. "I threw up for, like, two days that time. Now I'm on a salmon vendetta." But she doesn't throw up from drinking, at least not anymore. "I've learned my lesson there. Now I stop before I get blackout. Anyway," she says, "when's the last time you barfed?"

Bradley Cooper, who recently finished a movie with Lawrence, says she's "the person you want on set with you at 4:00 in the morning when you're losing your mind." "She'll say anything," agrees Hunger Games co-star Lenny Kravitz. "Anything." (He also says she insisted on calling him "Mr. Kravitz," because he's Zoë's dad.)

Slow and steady, we wind our way to the top of the canyon. Stretched out before us is a Cinemascope view of the blue Pacific, with the white mansions of Malibu dotting the cliffs below. We reach a shady spot and slow the horses to a walk, and mine starts eating some grass. "Don't let him do that!" Lawrence says. "It's not good for him – he has a bit in his mouth."

But then a few minutes later, I look back and see Nay-Nay bent over, nibbling on some sagebrush. Lawrence is draped over her neck, whispering in her ear.

"OK," she's saying. "Just a little bit."

On a wintry morning in January 2011, Lawrence was drinking tea in the lobby of a posh Manhattan hotel. She was just days away from her Oscar nod, but she was more excited about a book. "I'm reading The Hunger Games right now," she said. She couldn't wait to go back to her room and finish. "They're adapting it," she added. "They're gonna start auditioning and stuff."

Lawrence had just arrived from London, where she was filming X-Men: First Class. For her role as the sometimes-topless blue mutant Mystique, she spent eight hours a day getting into makeup and two getting back out. At the end of the production, she had to fight to get the security deposit back on her Notting Hill apartment because she'd turned the bathtub blue.

Not long after that, she met Hunger Games director Gary Ross for the first time. "She was all dressed up because it was Oscar season," Ross recalls. "She came over to my office, with Styrofoam cups and takeout containers everywhere, dressed to the nines. So many girls would be enthralled with this idea of dressing up for the ball, but Jen was like, 'Can you believe I gotta put on this dress?'"

He asked how she was handling everything. To be honest, she said, "I feel like a rag doll." She had stylists and makeup people fussing over her, sticking her in weird dresses and uncomfortable shoes. It was kind of perfect, Ross said – because that's exactly what it's like for Katniss Everdeen.

Katniss is the heroine of The Hunger Games – a headstrong 16-year-old who's deadly with a bow. The book is set in a dystopian future America that's been ravaged by rebellion and war, where every year 24 children from around the country are brought to the Capitol to compete in a reality show. They get fancy makeovers and sit for prime-time interviews. And then they're put into an arena and forced to fight to the death.

Katniss was the most sought-after female role in Hollywood since The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's Lisbeth Salander. (Lawrence auditioned for that, too; she still has a picture of herself in leather and piercings, "fully gothed out," on her iPhone.) But in Ross' mind, "there wasn't much competition at all. I remember leaving our meeting saying I'd be stunned if I didn't cast this girl."

Lawrence underwent months of intense training for the part, including rock climbing and hand-to-hand combat. She also had an archery coach, a four-time Olympian from Georgia ("that Georgia, not our Georgia") named Khatuna. "It's annoying how perfect it had to be," she says. "You'd do one thing wrong, and you'd get whipped." (By the bowstring, not by Khatuna.) But the work paid off: She says that now out of 10 arrows, she can hit four or five bull's-eyes. She still has some arrows in her car. "You wanna go right now?" she jokes. "You wanna get a haystack?"

The shoot lasted four months in the woods near Asheville, North Carolina. It was basically like summer camp: There were prank wars, sleepovers, even a swear jar for grown-ups who cursed around the little kids. (Ross estimates Lawrence contributed at least half. "She's fantastic, but she swears like a sailor.") One night, Lawrence rang in her 21st birthday with the crew at a local bar; another night everyone crashed Lenny Kravitz's hotel room. "We were all crammed in there, trying on Lenny's clothes, having a great time," Harrelson says. (Meaning his wardrobe or his actual clothes? Harrelson: "It's kind of hard to distinguish.")

The film is an indictment of violence as entertainment, and Lawrence is predictably excellent in it. "I've worked with some amazing actors," says Ross, "and I've never seen anyone with more raw talent. There's a reservoir of emotional power in her that's sort of stunning. Sometimes I'd say to her, Where did you come from?' And she'd say, 'You know, I really don't know.'"

Lawrence was a surprise from the beginning. "I didn't realize why my nickname was Plays With Fire until I got older," she says. "But my parents played with fire, and they got burned." ("We thought we were finished having kids," her mom admits. "We got rid of the baby bed and everything.")

She grew up in a nice suburb outside Louisville, Kentucky. Her dad, Gary, owned a contracting business; her mom, Karen, ran a summer camp called Hi-Ho. Jennifer was the first girl born on her dad's side in 50 years, and her parents raised her just like they had her two older brothers. "I didn't want her to be a diva," Karen Lawrence says. "I didn't mind if she was girlie, as long as she was tough." Jennifer was so tough that in preschool she wasn't allowed to play with the other girls because she was too rough. "She didn't mean to hurt them," her mom says. "They were just making cookies, and she wanted to play ball."

Lawrence played Softball, field hockey and basketball on a boys' team her dad coached. But she was also a cheerleader for several years (Kammerer Middle School, go Cubs!). I ask if she remembers any of her cheers. "I do," she says, then shakes her head. "No way."

Come on, just one!

She rolls her eyes and puts her hands on her hips. "Ain't, no, sweat! [clap] This game ain't over yet! [clap]." She even does the fist pumps and everything.

When she was nine, Lawrence was in a church play based on the Book of Jonah. She played a prostitute from Nineveh and stole the show. "The other girls just stood there with lipstick on," her mom says, "but she came in swinging her booty and strutting her stuff. Our friends said, 'We don't know if we should congratulate you or not, because your kid's a great prostitute.'"

Lawrence spent a few more years doing church plays and school musicals. Then came the chance encounter that changed everything. When she was 14, she and her mother visited New York for spring break. They were watching break dancers in Union Square when a man with a camera approached and told them he was a modeling scout, and would they mind if he took some pictures of Jen. It sounded like something out of SVU – but this time, it happened to be true. Pretty soon Lawrence had an agent and was getting called for auditions.

For months, Lawrence begged her parents to let her move to New York and give acting a shot. Finally, they agreed to let her go for six weeks. Her mom had to work at the summer camp, so her brother Blaine, then 19, went with her. Their first night in the city, they ate at the Applebee's in Times Square. Another night, Jen called from their midtown apartment to say she'd seen a rat "as big as Shadow" crawl out of the stove. (Shadow was their cat.) But when she started booking gigs, her mom moved to New York, and six weeks turned into a year.

It was hard at first. "I didn't have any friends," Lawrence recalls. "I remember being kind of lonely." She took classes online in their apartment, and remembers her parents fighting a lot. "It might as well have been a different planet," Karen says. "Our friends thought we were nuts. We thought we were nuts. But her brothers told us, 'This is her baseball diamond. You've gotta let her play.'"

"And then," Lawrence says, "the ball kept rolling." She booked a Verizon commercial and got to meet the "Can you hear me now?" guy. ("I was so star-struck.") She played a victim's daughter on Cold Case and a school mascot on Monk. ("I think I was a bear or a cougar. I have a lot of respect for mascots.") She shot a pilot that never got picked up, Not Another High School Show, in which she thinks she played "Girl With the Boobs." ("I had to wear a push-up bra. My dad was not excited.") The best story is the time she did a photo shoot for Abercrombie & Fitch. "None of my pictures ended up getting used," Lawrence says, "and when my dad called to ask why, they sent over the negatives – like, here's why!"

Apparently the photographer had put all the kids on a beach and tossed them a football and told them to go play. "All the other girls are looking cute, modeling while playing football," Lawrence says. "And my face is bright red, my nostrils are flared, and I'm mid-leap, about to tackle this girl, like, 'Rahhrrr!' I'm not even looking at the camera. The other girls were like, 'Get her away from me!'"

Lawrence has said that if her parents had known she would be successful, they never would have let her go. "We thought she'd go to New York, and they'd say, 'Don't let the door hit you on the way out,'" Karen says. "If it wasn't for her agent literally almost choking me, saying, 'You don't understand, I've never seen a 14-year-old like this,' we might not have made it."

Lawrence paid her dues for a while, playing supporting roles in things you've probably never seen, like a Charlize Theron movie called The Burning Plain and a bad TBS sitcom starring Bill Engvall. (She also auditioned for Bella in Twilight and Emma Stone's role in Superbad.) Her breakthrough came with Winter's Bone, a gritty, gothic murder story set in Ozark meth country, where the men tell the women things like, "I said shut up once already, with my mouth." Lawrence starred as a tough-as-nails 17-year-old taking care of her little brother and sister. Karen read the book and told her she'd be perfect, but the director thought she was too pretty. So Lawrence hopped a redeye to New York, walked 13 blocks in the sleet, and showed up with a runny nose and hair she hadn't washed in a week. She got the part.

She spent a month filming in Missouri, hanging out with a local family and learning to shoot rifles and chop wood. (Actually, she already knew how to chop wood. "I went through a wood-chopping phase when I was nine or 10.") She disappeared into the role – yellowed teeth, cracked lips, lots of oversize flannel. In one scene, the actor John Hawkes, who played her fearsome uncle Teardrop, had to grab Lawrence by the hair and grip her throat. "I was always worried about hurting her," he says. "But she told me to bring it every time." The most talked-about scene was the one where Lawrence literally cut the guts out of a squirrel for that night's dinner. ("I should say it wasn't real, for PETA," she's said. "But screw PETA.") "I think she screamed pretty loud when it was done," Hawkes says. "Something like, 'I'll never eat spaghetti again.' I don't know that she's necessarily fearless – but she's good at convincing you."

The movie made Lawrence a sensation, albeit a hesitant one. On the morning the Oscar nominations were announced, someone snapped a photo of her and her family just as her name was being read. The look on her face, she said, was "like I'm being sent off to jail." Zoë Kravitz says she loved teasing her: "'You're up against Natalie Portman, you don't stand a chance.' And she'd go, 'You're right, I don't!'" (Lenny says he did catch her in the library at his house in Paris, though, holding one of his Grammys and giving a practice acceptance speech.)

As it turned out, she didn't stand a chance. (Although, let's be real – could Natalie Portman grab a fistful of dead squirrel and deliver a line like "Do you guys want these fried or stewed?") But even though she didn't win, Lawrence definitely made an impression on the red carpet, in a bombshell-red dress that was half-haute-couture, half-Baywatch. (Her stylist said they were "on a crusade to bring back nipples.") It was the opposite of Winter's Bone - ostentatious and sexy. The best part was, not 15 minutes before, Lawrence was up in her hotel room, scarfing down a Philly cheesesteak.

"Jennifer doesn't have a trace of arrogance," Harrelson says. "She's not trying to put on any airs or be anyone she's not. She's the real deal. She's just this frickin' amazing gal from Kentucky who hit it big."

'Are you hungry?" Lawrence asks. "Be-cause I have a whole burger-fries-Budweiser fantasy going on."

We're in Santa Monica now, where Lawrence lives in the same two-bedroom condo she and her mom used to share. Her mom has moved out, but Lawrence has a lot of sleepovers. "We get really stupid – like Beavis and Butt-Head level," says Zoé Kravitz. "We'll eat bad food and watch bad TV" – like Scare Tactics or Bad Girls Club – "and then she'll just lie down on the bed and curl up like a little puppy."

Lawrence likes it here. It's a two-minute drive to Whole Foods, a 15-minute bike ride to the beach. "But I should move," she says. "My address is on the Internet." When she gets back from shooting her next film, she's thinking of buying a house. "And a big dog," she says. "And a shotgun."

We can't find a restaurant that's open and serving beer, so we settle for one with a patio and lemonade. ("If there's one thing people take from this article," she says, "it should be the lack of support for day-drinking in L.A.") She orders a burger, medium-rare, and a small pot of mint tea – she feels a cold coming on, and she doesn't want to get sick before her big press tour. "This morning I was like, 'This cold is kind of a pussy' – but I think it's getting worse." She even went so far as to try her first-ever L.A. juice, some kind of "spinach-carrot-kale concoction. I took one sip, and immediately dumped a bunch of sugar in it."

Later, we pop into a bar across the street for a beer, and Lawrence goes for another shockingly fast bathroom break. This one takes less than a minute. "I don't do anything extra," she says. "No washing hands – after peeing? That's a little dramatic." She feels passionately about this. "I did a science experiment in eighth grade that almost shut down my school. I had this theory that hand-washing is overrated. And it was true: The bathroom door had the same bacteria as the toilet seat, and the sink was the dirtiest part – it was dirtier than the toilet handle! It had disgusting amounts."

After this, Lawrence has dinner plans with her boyfriend, 22-year-old English actor Nicholas Hoult, best known in the U.S. for the movie About a Boy. (He played the boy.) They met on the set of X-Men, in which Hoult played Beast. Zoë Kravitz saw it coming "a mile away. They complement each other in the most amazing way," she says. "She's crazy and impulsive, but he keeps her grounded. And she keeps him on his toes."

Jodie Foster, who directed Lawrence in The Beaver, says the actress has been smart about her career. "One of the great things about Jen is she's been very picky," says Foster. "Usually 21-year-olds get a job and suddenly they're doing every bad movie – a romantic comedy, a musical, a cameo in a break-dancing movie. They don't know who they are yet, so they think they can be everything. But she's been very specific about what she's wanted to do."

After The Hunger Games, Lawrence is starring in a dark comedy called Silver Linings Playbook, directed by David O. Russell. She plays Bradley Cooper's love interest. "It was a pretty sought-after role," Cooper says of a part whose shortlist included Blake Lively, Kirsten Dunst, Rooney Mara and Anne Hathaway. "I called her and we had this wonderful, totally lewd conversation. I thought, 'Oh, this woman is perfect.'" The two enjoyed working together so much that they've signed up for another movie. It starts filming in Prague this month. "I already know one word in Czech," Lawrence says. "Pivo – beer."

Lawrence knows her life is about to change in a pretty huge way. "I've started to get anxiety lately," she says. "I've started cleaning like a crazy person. I'm just now getting my first paparazzi and stuff. The other day, like 25 photos of me and Nick playing basketball showed up, and I said, 'Jennifer, you've got to start putting on makeup before you go play basketball, because you look like shit.'" She also recently got approached at an airport by a stalkerish fan who'd driven 300 miles and bought a plane ticket on the mere hope he'd run into her. "I know I seem crazy," he told her. "Yeah," she said, "you absolutely do. But here are your pictures."

She'll probably get jaded someday. But for now, she still gets giddy about her proximity to fame, while not realizing that she's famous herself. Take Silver Linings. One of her co-stars in the movie was Robert De Niro. On the last day of filming, she wanted to get his autograph for her dad, but she wasn't sure how to ask. "I was in my trailer, freaking out," she says. "I didn't want to bug him." She'd been sitting there for a while, fretting over what to do, when suddenly there was a knock at the door. It was De Niro's assistant. "And she was like, 'Would you mind autographing a couple things for Bob?'"

This story is from the April 12th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1154: April 12, 2012