After a long break, the Oscar winner returns with the ferocious satire Don’t Look Up, and talks to V.F. about love, fame, and boundaries.
At first glance, it appears that Jennifer Lawrence has either been institutionalized or is on the set of a horror movie. She’s sitting in a rattan rocking chair, slowly creaking back and forth. The walls of the otherwise empty room are colorless and bare, except for the discomfiting shadow of a ladder over her right shoulder. Her hair is long and wet. Her computer sits atop a stack of boxes, angled for this September morning’s stint in Zoom prison so that her pregnant belly is out of sight. There’s a scratching at the door behind her. No fool, her cat Frank, otherwise known as Fredericks, doesn’t want any part of this and is trying to get out.
Told to blink twice if she needs rescuing, Lawrence laughs. She and her husband of two years, art gallery director Cooke Maroney, are in a rental while their Manhattan town house is under construction. The austerity of the room feels staged to discourage any unwanted probing. So urgent is Lawrence’s desire for privacy that she recently gave up her beloved dog, Pippi. The paparazzi had come to count on their daily walks in Central Park, so now the dog can chase squirrels unbothered on her parents’ farm in Kentucky, and Lawrence fantasizes about a life with 15 cats.
“I’m so nervous,” she says at the start of our conversation. “I haven’t spoken to the world in forever. And to come back now, when I have all of these new accessories added to my life that I obviously want to protect….” She crosses her arms over her baggy gray sweater. “I’m nervous for you. I’m nervous for me. I’m nervous for the readers!”
After a long break from public life, Lawrence returns to the screen in Adam McKay’s end-of-the-world comedy Don’t Look Up, in which she and Leonardo DiCaprio play scientists screaming at a polarized society to take seriously the comet hurtling toward the planet. It’s her first comedy, and the timing of stepping back into the spotlight while pregnant with her first child is almost comedic.
By early 2018, Lawrence was one of the highest paid actors in the world—an Oscar winner who stumbled up the steps on the way to collect the trophy, further cementing her public image as the movie star you’d most like to chug a beer with—but she’d had enough. Her last four movies (Passengers, Mother!, Red Sparrow, and the 12th X-Men film, Dark Phoenix) turned out to be critical or box office disappointments. “I was not pumping out the quality that I should have,” she says, a sad statement for someone so fiercely talented. “I just think everybody had gotten sick of me. I’d gotten sick of me. It had just gotten to a point where I couldn’t do anything right. If I walked a red carpet, it was, ‘Why didn’t she run?’… I think that I was people-pleasing for the majority of my life. Working made me feel like nobody could be mad at me: ‘Okay, I said yes, we’re doing it. Nobody’s mad.’ And then I felt like I reached a point where people were not pleased just by my existence. So that kind of shook me out of thinking that work or your career can bring any kind of peace to your soul.”
Lawrence’s producing partner and best friend of 13 years, Justine Polsky, says: “The protocol of stardom began to kill her creative spirit, to fuck with her compass. So, she vanished, which was probably the most responsible way to protect her gifts. And sanity.”
I first met Lawrence when she was 20, freshly cast as Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games franchise. While sweating through an archery lesson in Santa Monica, she told me she hoped to work with Adam McKay one day because she was obsessed with his Will Ferrell comedies. So much so that at 19, just before her first Oscar nomination, she’d requested a meeting with McKay at his Funny or Die offices and showed up with a binder of notes on his movies. “I got this call that the wonderful actress from Winter’s Bone wanted to meet me,” says McKay. “And she came in and just for an hour we talked about Step Brothers. And I’m like, ‘I like her. We’re idiots too.’ ”
All those years ago, Lawrence also told me that she knew she wanted to be a mom. After she first moved to Los Angeles as a 15-year-old auditioning actor, she got a job nannying for a family with a nine-month-old baby. When she booked a sitcom, she was devastated that, after being there for the little girl’s first words, she would miss her first steps.
Opportunity comes at a price. You could already see a second skin of self-deprecation and self-consciousness taking hold of the young actor. “I don’t want to offend anyone,” Lawrence told me back then. “I don’t want to look stupid. I don’t want to be a douchebag. Part of me is like ‘Enh, fuck it.’ And then, every once in a while, I’m like, ‘God, I’m a loser.’ You think that’ll go away when I’m 30?”
Lawrence is now 31 and entering a season of full-circle abundance. She’s working with her heroes, and she’s going to be a mother, though her feelings around expecting, other than saying that she’s grateful and excited, are too sacred to share with the world: “If I was at a dinner party, and somebody was like, ‘Oh, my God, you’re expecting a baby,’ I wouldn’t be like, ‘God, I can’t talk about that. Get away from me, you psycho!’ But every instinct in my body wants to protect their privacy for the rest of their lives, as much as I can. I don’t want anyone to feel welcome into their existence. And I feel like that just starts with not including them in this part of my work.”
If anything was clarifying about Lawrence’s time away, it’s that she wants to be more thoughtful with her choices and words and less of a people pleaser, however excruciating she finds the practice of restraint.
She excuses herself to pee when I ask if she uses humor to mask feelings of vulnerability. “It’s just going to be one second, I promise I’m going to answer the question!” She shuffles around the corner to the bathroom. When she returns, she’s laughing and shaking her head. “I really wish I’d muted the recording. I was so self-conscious the whole time, thinking to myself, Can she hear this?”
This boundary business is going to be hard.
There was a moment, shortly before her break, when Lawrence was convinced she was going to die. It was the summer of 2017, and she’d boarded a private plane in her hometown, Louisville, Kentucky, bound for New York City. (“I know, flying private, I deserve to die.”) She had wrapped Mother!, her then boyfriend Darren Aronofsky’s horror movie of biblical proportions, in which Lawrence’s titular character is (spoiler alert—well, all kinds of alerts) burned alive after a teeming crowd eats her baby. All to say, her adrenals were a mess prior to takeoff.
Up in the air, there was a loud noise, and the air pressure in the cabin went kind of rubbery. The other passenger, the son of the Louisville doctor who delivered Lawrence and her two brothers, was called to the cockpit. He returned ashen-faced with news that one of the two engines had failed but stressed that they could still make a safe emergency landing with just the one. Then the plane went silent, and Lawrence knew that they were cooked. “My skeleton was all that was left in the seat,” she says. They’d lost the second engine.
Lawrence could hear the cockpit clanging in distress as the plane dipped wildly. “We were all just going to die,” says Lawrence. “I started leaving little mental voicemails to my family, you know, ‘I’ve had a great life, I’m sorry.’ ”
I interrupt to wonder about the apology in there.
“I just felt guilty,” Lawrence says. “Everybody was going to be so bummed. And, oh, God, Pippi was on my lap, that was the worst part. Here’s this little thing who didn’t ask to be a part of any of this.” She saw a runway below, awash with fire trucks and ambulances. “I started praying. Not to the specific God I grew up with, because he was terrifying and a very judgmental guy. But I thought, Oh, my God, maybe we’ll survive this? I’ll be a burn victim, this will be painful, but maybe we’ll live.” She pauses to crack a joke. “ ‘Please, Lord Jesus, let me keep my hair. Wrap me in your hair-loving arms. Please don’t let me go bald.’ ”
The plane hit a Buffalo runway hard, bounced into the air, and then slammed into the ground again. Rescue crews broke the jet door open, and the passengers and crew, everyone crying and hugging, emerged physically unscathed. Immediately afterward, Lawrence, anesthetized thanks to a very large pill and several mini bottles of rum, had to board another plane.
Sometimes it’s bullshit when people say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. “It made me a lot weaker,” she says with a rueful smile. “Flying is horrific and I have to do it all the time.”
Not all stress cycles can be completed. In 2014, iCloud hackers disseminated Lawrence’s private nude photos across the internet, granting every toxic person with a keyboard a peek. It was dehumanizing and, because the internet is the devil’s playground, it remains an ongoing act of violation. “Anybody can go look at my naked body without my consent, any time of the day,” she says. “Somebody in France just published them. My trauma will exist forever.” She shakes it off with a wincing grin. “Have you ever wanted to be an actress?”
“By the time I came across Harvey, I was about to win an Academy Award. I was getting The Hunger Games. It’s not like I’ve gone my entire career with men being appropriate. But that’s a perfect example of where getting power quickly did save me.”
This is a grim and fraught industry for women, of course. At the height of the #MeToo movement, Harvey Weinstein weaponized Lawrence’s name twice. In a 2018 motion to dismiss racketeering charges brought against him by six women, his lawyers argued, quoting Lawrence out of context, that Weinstein “had only ever been nice to me.” Her mouth curls at his name: “So how could he possibly be a rapist, right?” In a separate lawsuit, an unnamed actor claimed that as Weinstein sexually assaulted her, he lied pathetically, “I slept with Jennifer Lawrence and look where she is; she has just won an Oscar.”
Lawrence holds her hands up in weary disgust at being used as a false notch in Weinstein’s grotesque belt. “Harvey’s victims were women that believed that he was going to help them. Fortunately, by the time I had even come across Harvey in my career, I was about to win an Academy Award. I was getting The Hunger Games. So I avoided that specific situation. Of course, I’m a woman in the professional world. So it’s not like I’ve gone my entire career with men being appropriate. But, yeah, that’s a perfect example of where getting power quickly did save me.”
“I didn’t have a life. I thought I should go get one.”
Before her break, Lawrence had come to view the hermetic confines of movie sets as safe compared to the unpredictable dangers of the real world. “The attention on me was so high and extreme that, in a bizarre way, the set had become a great escape. Everybody treats you normally. It’s not like you walk into hair and makeup and people are like, ‘Oh, my God!’ But you get burnt out. Eventually I had to ask myself, Am I saying yes because I want to go to work the next day? Or am I doing this because I want to make this movie?”
With work on hold, she experimented with sleeping in. She hung out with friends, the same tight circle she’s had since before she got famous. She became active on the board of the grassroots anti–political corruption campaign RepresentUs. “We had a couple of real wins in Koch brother choke lands,” she says proudly.
Lawrence’s life simplified in ways she hadn’t believed possible. “Since The Hunger Games,” she says, “I had a security guard or some kind of comfort thing in case I walked into a restaurant, and everyone went, ‘Oh, God!’ Just for my baseline anxiety.” I tell her she makes a bodyguard sound like a kind of baby’s lovey. “Oh, my God, yeah, that’s so tragic and hateable,” she says, laughing. “So, when I started dating my now husband, I was so embarrassed to bring my lovey when he asked me out. I mean, how mortifying would that have been? So I didn’t, and it made me really nervous the first few times, and it turned out totally fine. I realized you get more privacy if….” She pauses for a sip and reconsiders her words. “I don’t know if this is even safe to talk about,” she says, changing course. “I have security all the time. Twenty-four hours a day. And a gun!”
She also took back some agency over her career. In 2018, Lawrence and longtime friend Polsky formed their production company, Excellent Cadaver. The grisly moniker refers to an old-timey term for a Mafia hit on a prominent person. Lawrence explains she picked it because it left a little bit of a disturbing taste in the mouth. “It’s not like Drew Barrymore’s Flower Films,” she says, laughing. “So, Donkey Shit. Zombie Rape. Camel Fat….” When I ask her what type of stories Excellent Cadaver isn’t interested in telling, she says “Well, that’s hard to answer, because if I answer honestly, I’m out of a job. I mean, haven’t we had enough stories about white women?” Whatever truth there is to that aside, the shingle recently put together a deal for Lawrence to star in a biopic of superagent Sue Mengers, which the Italian director Paolo Sorrentino (The Young Pope) will direct.
But Excellent Cadaver’s ribbon cutter will be a still-untitled soldier project starring Lawrence and directed by Lila Neugebauer, whose roots are in the theater. Lawrence plays a U.S. soldier with a traumatic brain injury who returns home to an uncertain life. “A very small, relatively abstract character piece with a first-time filmmaker after a hiatus?” says Polsky. “It definitely swerved comeback expectations. There was no thorough discussion among Jen’s team. She believed deeply in the piece, she believed deeply in Lila, and we were melting in New Orleans three months later.”
Years ago, Jodie Foster shared some wisdom with Lawrence that stuck: “At some point when you’re older, you’ll look back and see a pattern. You’ll see why you were making movies at a certain time in your life.” Lawrence was engaged to be married when Neugebauer’s film first went into production. “The script spoke to me as somebody who was healing from unseen injuries and was entering a world that was healthier and better, but scarier. Staying is hard. It’s scary when you’re used to leaving.” Production went on hold because of a hard out for Lawrence’s wedding and wasn’t able to pick back up for two years because of COVID. She returned to finish the shoot as a happily married woman, or as she puts it, “I came back with a better perspective on staying.” (The movie is set for a 2022 release.)
Asked what she likes about her marriage, Lawrence pauses to consider what she’s willing to share. “I really enjoy going to the grocery store with him,” she says. “I don’t know why but it fills me with a lot of joy. I think maybe because it’s almost a metaphor for marriage. ‘Okay, we’ve got this list. These are the things we need. Let’s work together and get this done.’ And I always get one of the cooking magazines, like 15 Minute Healthy Meals, and he always gives me a look like, ‘You’re not going to use that. When are you going to make that?’ And I say, ‘Yes, I am. Tuesday!’ And he’s always right, and I never do.”
Lawrence sips from a white water bottle covered in stickers from her favorite movie, Hereditary, including one of a terrified Toni Collette, who plays the film’s main character. Lawrence wears three gifts from her husband around her neck: her wedding band on a chain; a pearl necklace; and a diamond necklace Maroney gave her for her 30th birthday. He’d slipped it into a hardbound edition of Hereditary’s screenplay, where it lay glinting atop the glossy image of a character’s decapitated head on the side of the road, swarming with ants. “It was so sweet,” she says, with a happy sigh. Truly, there is a lid for every pot.
At the beginning of Don’t Look Up, Lawrence’s astronomy Ph.D. candidate discovers a comet of planet-killing magnitude. Her character, Kate, has a red mullet, double nose piercings, a taste in practical sweaters, and an inability to play nice with corrupt politicians (notably, Meryl Streep’s MAGA-esque president and Jonah Hill’s bloviating first son) or a callous, ratings-obsessed media. “Handsome astronomer, come back any time,” Cate Blanchett’s TV anchor says to DiCaprio’s Dr. Mindy after the scientists try to sound the alarm on a popular morning show, before frowning in Kate’s direction, “but the yelling girl, not so much.”
“No one has more beautiful anger than Jen,” says McKay. “When she unleashes, it is a sight to behold. Think of her in Silver Linings Playbook, her in everything.” After his last two corrupt-white-men movies—The Big Short and Vice—he wanted to write a script built in part around Lawrence’s capacity for honest rage. “I wanted to cut loose with a strong, funny truth-teller woman and that’s Jen Lawrence. I mean, that character poured out of me. I would just picture Jen and you knew exactly what she would say…. She’s going to be the one who doesn’t play the game. And, of course, she’s going to be pilloried for it, which will be heartbreaking, but she’s never going to play the game.”
“She is a bold and unselfconscious actress—someone whose gift is alive on her skin and in her being. She spins it out of the air in the room.” —MERYL STREEP
Lawrence plays the disgusted canary in a corrupt coal mine while DiCaprio is a Fauci-esque character who still wants to trust that the world will take effective action. (In real life, their roles are reversed. Lawrence says she recently sent a fingers-crossed text to her climate activist friend with a link to a news story on how nuclear fusion might put the brakes on global warming. “He put the kibosh on it pretty quickly.”) DiCaprio calls Lawrence “one of the most talented actors working today,” adding, “Jen’s ability to improvise and be so in the moment at all times was amazing to witness.” On set, Lawrence would joke with her costar about their child actor histories. “Like, when he went to eat something, I yelled, ‘It’s sprayed!’ ” she says. “They used to always tell us that when we were kids, ‘Don’t eat that. It’s sprayed.’ ” They didn’t want the young actors eating the props. “You only find out when you get older that there’s no such thing as spray.”
In an email, Streep marvels at the duo’s differing approaches to the work. “She is a bold and unselfconscious actress—someone whose gift is alive on her skin and in her being. In that, she is different from Leo, for whom the struggle is part of the job, who relishes wrestling with it, and whose work is serious and analytic and intense. She spins it out of the air in the room. I am sort of in awe of both of them.” Lawrence says she had one real goal on the set of the movie: “My biggest concern was I did not want to annoy Meryl Streep. That’s my worst nightmare. So, I will only speak if spoken to, and I will be the least annoying person in the room.” McKay says Lawrence was deeply unsure she could trust herself to play it cool. “She just kept saying, ‘I’m going to be quiet. I won’t speak.’ Meryl Streep shows up and Jen comes over to me like she’s a 12-year-old and is like, ‘What do I say? What do I do?’ ” But Streep immediately pulled her into her generous orbit by showing her Zillow house listings. “And now I would say she’s my best friend,” jokes Lawrence.
So much of Don’t Look Up’s biting comedy comes from McKay’s deeply recognizable send-up of our polarized society. In the film, the far right insists that all the comet hysteria is snowflake fearmongering; the left flounders in a state of smug and impotent panic, hoping for traction at preening celebrity events like the Last Concert to Save the World. There’s a scene in the movie when Lawrence’s character returns home to her parents, looking for a soft place to fall. “Your father and I support the jobs that the comet will bring,” her mother says. (The good news for Lawrence’s beleaguered character is that she does get to make out with Timothée Chalamet’s street punk. “It would have been a lot more enjoyable,” says Lawrence, “if you weren’t seeing your aging self next to a 17-year-old in a two-shot who weighs 100 pounds soaking wet. I’ve never felt fatter and older in my life.”)
In November 2020, Lawrence uploaded a rare video to social media that showed her running up and down the Boston street she lived on during production in her pajama pants, screaming with joy at the news of Joe Biden’s win. She was raised to be a God-fearing Republican by her conservative Kentucky parents and a state culture that keeps Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in charge.
I ask her if her folks have forgiven their daughter for being her liberal Hollywood self. “I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t really know.” Has she forgiven her roots? She’s silent for a bit before she scrunches up her face and gives me the finger. “Yeah, I mean…. No, there were certain things, in the Trump presidency, there are certain things that happened over the last five years that are unforgivable. And it’s been wild. It’s wild to disagree on things you thought you would never…there’s no way we’re going to disagree on this in 2021. White supremacy. Attacking the Capitol. Nazis being the bad guys. Or just, science. I don’t know.”
Will her parents see her new movie? “Yeah,” she says, considering. “Yeah.”
Would they see it if she weren’t in it? “Yeah,” she says, following it up with a big wink.
I tell her that, as somebody who lives in Texas, I honor her conflicting feelings about home-state politics. “Well,” she says, “if you ever need a schma-shmortion, you can come visit me.” It’s a big swing. We both burst into laughter, and she covers her mouth. “Now I’m anxious.”
There’s a moment when Lawrence and I are talking about Don’t Look Up that strikes me deeply. I mention the fact that her name appears first in the opening credits, hanging on the screen a half second before being joined by Leonardo DiCaprio’s. She gets a pleased little smile on her face, before saying, “I was number one on the call sheet, so….” It is a satisfying laugh. Then my own dregs of social conditioning, this nauseating impulse as a female to tiptoe around matters of influence, prompt me to ask, “Are you okay with that?”
“With being number one on the call sheet? Yeah. And I thought [the credits] should reflect that. Leo was very gracious about it. I think we had something called a Laverne & Shirley, which is this billing they invented where it’s an equal billing. But I guess maybe somewhere down the line, I kicked the stone further, like, ‘What if it wasn’t equal?’ ”
There’s something inspiring about a professional woman owning her worth. She points to the example of Scarlett Johansson taking on Disney over money from Black Widow. “I thought that was extremely brave,” she says. “If two parties understand how a movie is going to be released, and then it turns out that one of the parties did not agree to that, that’s unfair. She was also crowning! She was giving birth.”
Polsky tells me that Lawrence’s self-deprecation and humor is her friend’s “saving grace and superpower. In a social context—not to feed the ‘She’s just a regular gal’ trope—her self-deprecation makes others instantly comfortable. In a professional context, it yields an underestimation of her aptitude. Male executives don’t anticipate that an actress and walking GIF can probe every deal point on the table until they’re dripping in sweat. The bitch is deft.”
It’s only after our first interview that I learn that Lawrence was paid $25 million for the movie, compared to DiCaprio’s $30 million. In other words, she made 83 cents to his dollar. These figures are in startling line with Bureau of Labor Statistics data that showed annual earnings for women working full-time in 2020 were 82.3 percent of men’s. That gap is tragically wider for women of color in Hollywood and beyond.
When I talk to Lawrence next, I point out the bitter irony of her making less than the man below her on the call sheet. “Yeah, I saw that too,” she says, choosing her words carefully. “Look, Leo brings in more box office than I do. I’m extremely fortunate and happy with my deal. But in other situations, what I have seen—and I’m sure other women in the workforce have seen as well—is that it’s extremely uncomfortable to inquire about equal pay. And if you do question something that appears unequal, you’re told it’s not gender disparity but they can’t tell you what exactly it is.”
Some things that are bringing Lawrence joy lately: Autumn in New York. The city opening up again. “Being able to take Ubers again without feeling you’re going infect your family and die.” The pumpkin bread she made yesterday and took out of the oven in time so that the center stayed gooey. Sports and farm animal videos on TikTok. (Days after our interview, she’ll text me a video of a golden retriever puppy frolicking with his horse friend, writing, “I mean…”) Jennifer Coolidge’s performance in White Lotus: “Talk about somebody who knew the fucking assignment.” Bravo’s Real Housewives. Of a Potomac star, she asks, “What do you think about Candiace’s husband being her manager? Ugh, that is not a healthy dynamic.” The door behind her rattles, making her laugh. “What if Cooke just came in here like, ‘I want to be your manager!’”
Lawrence could write a dissertation on the mesmerizing toxicity of Salt Lake City housewife Jen Shah. “She has the strongest case of personality disorder I’ve ever seen in my life,” she says. “You know those people who don’t take any accountability ever—to where you almost feel jealous? Total lack of accountability, lack of shame. I’m almost like, How dare you? I lie in bed worrying about accidentally hurting someone’s feelings, worrying about everything. That’s probably why it burns my biscuit so much.”
“If I was at a dinner party, and somebody was like, ‘Oh, my God, you’re expecting a baby,’ I wouldn’t be like, ‘I can’t talk about that.’ But every instinct in my body wants to protect their privacy for the rest of their lives.”
Lawrence had been so worried before this interview. She felt awkward about not wanting to talk more about her baby. And her husband. And the sweet future they hope to build together in private. “I did have this whole fantasy of just doing the whole interview off the record.” Early into our conversation, I told her she seemed like she had a gun to her head. “Oh, my God, I’m so sorry,” she said. “It’s not your fault.”
There’s a scene in Don’t Look Up where DiCaprio’s panicked scientist begs a glib reporter to take seriously the need for actual engagement with each other. “We don’t always have to be clever or charming or likable!” he says. “Sometimes we need to be able to say things to each other and have an honest conversation.”
So, here’s what I say to Lawrence: She has a right to her boundaries. May they serve her and her family well. By leaving her baby out of our conversation, she has already started mothering her child.
Lawrence has to go to the bathroom again. This time she remembers to mute the recording. She smiles, her mouth making words I can’t hear, and gives me a big thumbs-up on her way out of frame.