Jennifer Lawrence: America's Kick-Ass Sweetheart

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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.

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