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."
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