If a Hollywood publicist were to make a list of conversational taboos for a young star, it might include the following: personal shortcomings, money, group sex and death. All of these were subjects that actress Jennifer Lawrence breezed right into over breakfast recently. It was like a Louis C.K. bit in a much comelier frame.
"The whole time we were like orgy, orgy, who's going to see the orgy, what are we going to do in the event of an orgy, we need to break up so we can be assured that one of us gets to see the orgy," she said of a family outing to "Sleep No More," the interactive, often racy take on "Macbeth" playing in New York. (They saw no orgies, which the Lawrence clan considered a bummer.)
Lawrence, 22, has also been thinking about her own demise. Her lawyers are having her draft a will because, she explained, "I'm rich now." Not that you'd know it; in the next breath she called herself a redneck and described going to Wal-Mart to shop for Rob Schneider movies. "I like making movies, but that doesn't mean I want to watch a black-and-white, freaking boring" -- here she amped up the sarcasm with an unprintable word -- "silent movie," she said.
Her on-screen characters are often marked by their flinty resolution, not their volubility, but in person Lawrence is just the opposite, an unfiltered sass who happens to look like a 1970s California prom queen and talk like a Southern California skater boy. In just two years she has made an unusual leap, from indie character actress to action heroine, nimbly repeating the cycle while retaining her real-girl charm.
Minted as an Oscar nominee for playing a stoic Ozarks teenager in "Winter's Bone" (2010) and as a box-office star with "The Hunger Games" this year, she is now appearing in her mouthiest role yet, in David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook."
The film stars Bradley Cooper as a Philadelphia high school teacher who suffers a breakdown after discovering his wife's affair. Lawrence is the unstable, sex-crazed widow he meets after he leaves the mental institution. Add Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver ("Animal Kingdom") as his Philadelphia Eagles-obsessed parents and Chris Tucker as his inpatient friend, and the whole affair has the makings of a zany comedy. But Russell, who adapted the script from the 2008 novel by Matthew Quick, adds sharpness and pathos, drawing early praise for depicting romance, psychiatric illness and family dysfunction with humor and risk.
The film won the audience prize at the Toronto International Film Festival, a harbinger of awards-season success. (The Oscar juggernauts "Slumdog Millionaire" and "The King's Speech" also earned that kudos.) Shot before she became a household name playing Katniss Everdeen, the arrow-slinging champ of "The Hunger Games" (but after she worked on that picture), "Silver Linings Playbook" is again bringing statuette talk for Lawrence.
Russell, riding high after his success with the Oscar-winning boxing movie "The Fighter," had his pick of leading ladies, though they had to pass muster with Harvey Weinstein, a producer of the film. Initially worried that Lawrence was too young to play the romantic interest -- Cooper is 37 -- Russell said he was won over by her audition, conducted partly via Skype. "There's an expressiveness in her eyes and in her face, that many stars have to work for, that's ageless," he said.
The character, Tiffany, underwent some transformations, though. She was first meant to be Goth, so Lawrence dyed her hair black. "We shot camera tests with her in heavy Goth makeup and those plaid punk dresses they wear, and Harvey just freaked out," Russell said. Lawrence kept the dark hair and some other touches. "The way she carries herself, the Gothic cross -- all these things permeated into her character, which is maybe the most messed-up girl on the block but also the most confident," Russell said.
"Jennifer," he added, "is one of the least neurotic people I know," and that confidence, coupled with glimpses of vulnerability, is a trait she shares with her character. "She always offers her opinion. She's not afraid to talk to anybody about anything, and yet she can also turn around and have an 18-year-old's 'nevermind.' That's their version of being vulnerable."
On a rare weekend break from shooting the second "Hunger Games" installment in Atlanta, Lawrence was holed up in a hotel room with an expansive view of lower Manhattan. In black jeans and a white top she sat cross-legged or sprawled on a bench at the foot of the bed, still unmade, eating breakfast and talking openly about her life, with many segues for dark humor. Honing her sarcasm to be understandable, "that's, like, my No. 1 thing that I have to work on," she said.
Her life changed profoundly and suddenly with "Hunger Games," the adaptation of the first in the best-selling Suzanne Collins trilogy of young-adult novels, about a dystopic society where children are sacrificed in yearly reapings. Fans and critics alike debated whether Lawrence was suited for the part, carping online about her physique and relative newcomer status. But the film, directed by Gary Ross, earned more than $400 million and made Lawrence one of the top-grossing action heroines of all time. It also made her, overnight, a paparazzi target. "It gets overwhelming, where I'll cry in my car, but not to the point where I don't want to do what I'm doing," she said.
Three more "Hunger Games" films are due: "Catching Fire" and "Mockingjay" Parts 1 and 2, all to be directed by Francis Lawrence ("I Am Legend"). His style, Lawrence said, is more fantastical than Ross', but both remain true to the books, a must with such a devoted fan base. "It's also something that I'm proud of," she said. "Like, I don't get annoyed when the guy at the bar says, 'May the odds be ever in your favor.' "
Lawrence has never had an acting coach or teacher. "That's how I can go about life free as an idiot: because I have no idea what I'm doing," she said, deadpan. But Ross, who cast her as Katniss, said she needed little training. "She doesn't make it too complicated for herself," he said. "She doesn't have anything approaching a self-indulgent process. She's very relaxed, she's chatty, she's almost part of the crew in some ways because she's so confident in what she's doing. She doesn't have a lot to be nervous about."