If you’re not among the 30 million people who already own a copy of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, here’s what you should know:
It has sold more than Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books had before they were made into films;
The big screen adaptation of part one of The Hunger Games was recently voted the most anticipated film of 2012 in a poll by MTV;
And it’s going to make its star, Jennifer Lawrence, a bona fide A-lister.
‘It’s called The Hunger Games, but I was constantly eating,’ the 21-year-old says in a throaty Kentucky drawl. ‘I play a warrior. I can’t be skinny. You know, Kate Moss running at you with a bow and arrow isn’t scary.’
Last month Lawrence was on the cover of Vanity Fair’s annual Hollywood issue (photographed by Mario Testino) flanked by the Oscar nominees Jessica Chastain and Rooney Mara, with Mia Wasikowska, the star of Jane Eyre and Alice in Wonderland, lounging at her feet.
Two years ago Lawrence was nominated for a best actress Oscar herself for her performance in Winter’s Bone.
‘It was really strange,’ she says of the experience. ‘Because one minute nobody knows who you are – I was just this girl in indie movies [Lawrence had won an award for her role in The Burning Plain, directed by Guillermo Arriaga].
‘And then all of a sudden all these people who used to ignore me at parties were sucking up to me.’
She sits with her legs apart, relaxed but straight-necked, shoulders squared, giving her a fearless, almost challenging look.
She is remarkably plain-speaking.Reflecting on the celebrities whom she now encounters at work and at awards ceremonies, she says, ‘I’ve met so many weirdos. So many famous people who’ve gone off the deep end. I was getting worried.’
She glances up with a look of dread. ‘Thinking, “Will I be the same?”’
In the midst of Lawrence’s concerns came a role in Jodie Foster’s film The Beaver, starring Mel Gibson.
He was mired in controversy throughout filming thanks to an acrimonious divorce, a domestic battery charge by his mistress and an endless stream of revelations regarding his drink driving arrest in 2006.
Was he one of those people?
‘He was great.’ She hesitates. ‘A terrific actor.’ And with that her mouth is pressed closed. Lawrence may be candid, but she’s not a blabber-mouth.
As for Jodie Foster, she and Lawrence have commented on how much of themselves they saw in one another. ‘I would say we bonded,’ says Lawrence a little bashfully. ‘I hope she would say the same.’
Meeting Foster was a reassuring experience . ‘Jodie gave me hope because she’s not only sweet and nice and great, she’s also the most normal and down-to-earth person. It’s like she has no idea that she’s famous.
‘I remember looking at her and thinking, “Thank God! It can happen!”’
Lawrence is over in Britain staying with her boyfriend, the actor Nicholas Hoult (Skins, About a Boy), in Wokingham but we meet in an elegant London hotel.
The suite is so excessively heated that, despite freezing temperatures outside, Lawrence is wearing a black T-shirt, which she’s teamed with grey skinny jeans and black ankle-boots.
With her plump cheeks, rosebud lips and slanted grey eyes she resembles a young Renée Zellweger, though her no-nonsense demeanour is a million miles from the ditzy charms of Bridget Jones.
Lawrence was a fan of The Hunger Games trilogy before she’d heard of the film. ‘I read all three in four days,’ she says, testifying to their addictive quality.
At the time of our interview, just before Christmas, it was still unclear whether the second and third instalments would make it to the screen.
But the hype has grown so frantic (the credit-ratings agency Standard & Poor’s has even issued an upgrade for the company releasing the film, in anticipation of its expected profits) that Lawrence is now scheduled to begin shooting book two, Catching Fire, this summer.
Mockingjay will follow in 2013.
The story is set in a post-apocalyptic America, now called Panem and divided into 12 districts.
Its totalitarian government requires each district to give up an adolescent boy and girl – called ‘tributes’ – to take part in the annual Hunger Games, in which they fight each other to the death on live television.
The tributes are given survival training, so it’s not over too quickly, and stylists, so they look good while killing each other.
‘I don’t read it as that much of a science-fiction story,’ says Lawrence. ‘Gladiators used to fight in an arena for entertainment.
‘Humanity has watched other humans die as entertainment before. It can happen again.’
Suzanne Collins came up with the idea while channel-surfing one night. She found herself flicking between reality-television shows and coverage of the Iraq war.
‘The lines began to blur in this very unsettling way,’ she told an interviewer last year.
There are echoes of Koushun Takami’s novel Battle Royale as well as the myth of Theseus (in which Crete made the Athenians send their children to fight the Minotaur) in her story.
‘Crete was sending a very clear message,’ Collins has said. ‘Mess with us and we’ll do something worse than kill you. We’ll kill your children.’
Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen, who volunteers as a tribute to spare her sister. (The cast also includes Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz and Stanley Tucci.)
It’s a return to meatier fare for Lawrence after her role as the blue-skinned shape-shifter Mystique in X-Men: First Class last year. She bursts out laughing as she describes her X suit.
‘The platform shoes were the funniest part. But also, you can’t move in ’em! We joked: the only thing [the suits] are is tickle-proof. Yeah, I can save the world and kill mutants, but I can’t bend my knees to do up my own shoelaces.’
Katniss is a virtual orphan, not unlike Lawrence’s character Ree in Winter’s Bone, who is struggling to raise her younger siblings in the Ozark mountains in Missouri.
In that film she delivers a layered portrait of silent heartbreak, grit and unassailable resolve. Yet, she says, she was laughing and joking between takes.
‘It’s acting,’ she says. ‘I’m not going to trick myself into thinking, “This is real, it’s really happening to me.” I’m not crazy! This is just a job. I won’t let it ruin my day, let alone my life.’
Ree is a distinctly unglamorous character, dressed in dirty, baggy clothes with a scratchy hat pulled low over her brow. After her Oscar nomination, Lawrence was sent endless scripts for similarly androgynous, hard-up roles.
‘Like it or not, the film industry is mainly run by men and men aren’t the best at seeing past appearances. If they see me with chapped lips, beat-up face and wool hat, they’re never going to cast me in a womanly, feminine role.
‘Men are stupid when it comes to things like that,’ she says with a shrug.
So Lawrence stripped off, oiled up and did a sexy shoot with Esquire magazine. Was she nervous? ‘No, I was counting on Photoshop,’ she says, with a laugh.
But it’s clear she feels ambivalent about it .
‘A critic said, “Finally a real actress comes along but even she can’t make it unless she shows her, you know – her tits.”’ She shifts uncomfortably.
‘I dress like an old woman in my real life. If you’re having conversations with people you don’t want them to remember you as the girl with the tits. You want them to pay attention to what you’re saying.’
But, she concludes, ‘it was absolutely necessary. I still get flak for it, but I don’t regret it for anything.’
As a child, Lawrence was ‘a bit of a tomboy’. She was a surprise baby, 10 years younger than the elder of her two brothers.
They nicknamed her ‘Ugs – short for ugly. We all get on now but the middle brother and I were just awful. I think my parents thought he would murder me.’
The family had a farm and Lawrence’s most vivid memories of Kentucky are of horse-riding. Her father had a construction business while her mother ran a summer camp on the farm.
‘As kids it was a blast. I was a really sporty child. I still like to win a race.’ (She and Hoult were photographed surfing and playing basketball together when he visited her in Los Angeles last month.)
It was an outdoorsy life, they were ‘a really loud, big family’, and she always had female friends.
‘Girls that don’t have girl friends worry me,’ she says. ‘Because girls don’t like bitches. Whenever I hear girls who say,’ she puts on a brattish Californian accent, ‘“Girls just don’t like me,” I’m like, “Well, girls don’t like bitches, so…”’
None the less, says Lawrence, ‘I spent a lot of time alone. My mum used to worry about me,’ she says. ‘She was prom queen, always socialising, and I never wanted to go to parties and that scared her.’
Even now, she says, ‘I have to be alone to recharge. I’ve only ever been able to live by myself. I can be at a party for two hours and be the loudest person there but then I have to go be by myself.’
Lawrence left home at 14 after being spotted by a model scout during a weekend in New York. She did a few modelling jobs – including a campaign for Abercrombie & Fitch – and auditioned for film and television roles, too.
One of her earliest was for the lead in a new Disney series. ‘[In one audition I was] asked if I could sing, and I was like, “No. To be honest I don’t think I’m a Disney kind of kid.”
‘When my parents picked me up they yelled at me so badly. They were spending a lot of money giving me the chance to do this – and I had the potential to be on a television show that would obviously pay for everything and I was like, “Nah.”’
Fortunately, she landed a part in the television series The Bill Engvall Show a few months later and, the year after, was cast in her first film role in The Poker House.
As to the future, her next film is The Silver Linings Playbook, starring Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper as a man who has ‘just got out of a mental institution where he was sent because he almost beat a man to death for having an affair with his wife’.
Lawrence plays ‘a recovering sex addict and the two of us form this explosive pair’.
She’ll be seen opposite Cooper again in Serena, an adaptation of Ron Rash’s novel set in 1929 Carolina.
And there is the rest of The Hunger Games trilogy, already talked about as the franchise to fill the hole left by Harry Potter and the Twilight series.
She tells me that hanging in her parents’ home is a framed photograph of the moment she found out about her Oscar nomination for Winter’s Bone.
‘My mum has her arms up in the air, my dad’s hugging me, my brother’s clapping – everybody’s happy. Except me. I just look aghast.’ They’ve jokingly labelled it ‘The worst moment of Jennifer’s life’.
Chances are, there will be another picture on that wall before long. And maybe second time around, she’ll remember to smile.
Source: Telegraph UK