Fans of The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins’ terrifically urgent dystopian trilogy about children forced to fight to the death — have always been protective of 16-year-old heroine Katniss Everdeen. So when Lionsgate and director Gary Ross announced that they had cast 20-year-old Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) in the lead role, the community was thrown into an inevitable tailspin. Was she too old, too blonde, too pale, too pretty to do the gritty warrior girl justice? In this week’s cover story, EW was granted an exclusive interview with a newly brunette Lawrence, and spent hours watching her train on a Los Angeles archery range and track, just days before she was due on theNorth Carolina set. In a free-wheeling interview, Lawrence describes her first encounter with Ross last winter, during the height of Oscar season.
“He was asking me what the experience was like,” she recalls, “and I just kind of opened up and said, ‘I feel like a rag doll. I have hair and makeup people coming to my house every day and putting me in new, uncomfortable, weird dresses and expensive shoes, and I just shut down and raise my arms up for them to get the dress on, and pout my lips when they need to put the lipstick on.’ And we both started laughing because that’s exactly what it’s like for Katniss in the Capitol. She was a girl who’s all of a sudden being introduced to fame. I know what that feels like to have all this flurry around you and feel like, ‘Oh, no, I don’t belong here.’” When Lawrence was offered the role, she describes her response as a mixture of elation — and desperate anxiety. “I knew that as soon as I said yes, my life would change,” she says. “And I walked around an entire day thinking ‘It’s not too late, I could still go back and do indies, I haven’t said yes yet, it’s not too late.’”
And yet, who can turn their back on Katniss? “I love this story,” she says, “and if I had said no, I would regret it every day.” After officially signing on, Suzanne Collins herself called to offer a starstruck Lawrence her most hearty congratulations. “I feel like when you said yes,” the author told her, “the world got lifted off my shoulders.” For more on The Hunger Games, including photos of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss and a guide to the film’s other characters, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands May 20.