Jennifer Lawrence hasn’t slept in 24 hours. “Hi!” she nevertheless says excitedly through the phone, her smile audible. Though she says she’d rather be doing something else–“anything else”–than telephone interviews, her greeting is playful, delivered in a singsong manner generally unique to young girls, which makes sense, in a way, since Jennifer Lawrence is only nineteen. In another way, her youthfulness is surprising. Even, perhaps, disappointing. Because Jennifer Lawrence should come from a broken home. She should be a recovering addict, or a grade school dropout, or live in a trailer.
For better or worse, we judge artists, in part, by how closely their real lives mirror the ones they project: we want rappers to come from South Central L.A.; we want rock stars to be genuinely tortured and angst-ridden; and we want to believe that A-list celebrities live like they’re on Entourage. Lawrence, who was born into a supportive, wholesome family in Louisville, Kentucky, and was discovered on a family trip to New York, doesn’t fit her onscreen image of the troubled independent. Instead, she has been forced to act in roles foreign to her. In so doing, she has grown as an actress whose presence owns the screen.
In The Poker House, Lawrence portrays a girl who is raped by her mother’s pimp and still manages to take care of two young sisters. Here the actor seems gritty and raw. Her performance in The Burning Plain, her most recent film, adds to that impression; Lawrence’s character is the catalysing half of a romance between the children of two murdered lovers. In both films, she is subtle and confident. In both, she plays girls who take on far more than their years should allow.
At present, Lawrence is in New York “chasing a movie,” though she doesn’t say which one and doesn’t invite questions regarding details. She doesn’t enjoy that part of the movie business (“I suuuuuck at auditioning,” she says, drawing the word out for emphasis the way teenagers do), even though she admits an audition was at least partially responsible for her role in The Burning Plain. The film is the directorial debut for Guillermo Arriaga, who wrote 21 Grams and Babel, and the character moralities of The Burning Plain are equitably ambiguous.
Pressed to address this, Lawrence shifts her tone. “Santiago and Mariana just had a fascination with each other,” she says, considering her character’s unconventional relationship. “Their parents were in love, their parents died together, and there’s this scene in the movie before we made love for the first time and he’s wearing his father’s shirt and I’m wearing my mother’s slip and we’re in my parents’ bed. I just couldn’t decide, ‘Is that sick? Or is that poetic?’ And I think that’s Guillermo’s theme for every movie—you just don’t know if it’s sick or if it’s poetic. And I think for Mariana, for the character I created, it was real. For me, it wouldn’t be, but I think the way he tells stories is very real and the way the romance bloomed, real or not, is interesting.”
She’s analytical about the work she does, though perhaps a little self-critically, especially when it comes to her performance in The Poker House. “I thought it sucked,” she says. “I’ve never said that in an interview, and I’ll probably ask you to re-quote that, but I didn’t really see what the big whoop was all about. Everybody was like, ‘Oh my gosh! It was so amazing!’ And I was like, ‘Really? I just looked kind of like sad and boring the whole time and didn’t really do anything.’”
Not doing anything, however, was kind of the point. The Burning Plain, like Babel, is quiet and troubling. Lawrence’s scenes were shot in Las Cruces, New Mexico, a border town in the desert where the beauty of the surrounding mountains is a reminder of the town’s harshly limited, lonesome nature. Lawrence understands this on an intellectual level. Where Arriaga spent 15 years carefully feeling out the film, Lawrence says her acting came from a place that was less emotional. This again begs the question as to how Lawrence has been so successful playing characters with which she has little or no personal connection. How much of her disconnect is a mastery of trade?
“Right now it feels like most of it,” she says. “I mean, my art comes from the craft that I... build? I dunno.” She inflects “build” as a question, testing it out, playing with its meaning. Then, deciding against it, she pauses, disliking her choice of words, reconsidering. “I never really…” she starts again and stops. “It doesn’t feel like art when it’s just me. I feel like when I’m reading a script or when I’m doing anything it’s all very technical. It’s like, ‘Well, this is how I’m going to feel, so this is how I’m going to say this line.’”
This type of acting, of course, has its limits. It’s evident in The Poker House, when Lawrence tries a little too hard to say, “Ain’t,” and when she speaks to her mother’s pimp, her affect occasionally overpowers her acting. But mostly she gets it right. Of her performance in The Burning Plain, she asks, “Can’t anybody do that?”
The answer is “no,” and she’s probably just being polite, but she says it with just enough earnestness to sound sincere. We want Jennifer Lawrence to internalize her characters the way we do, and to truly feel lonely and hopeless and sad, because these are the emotions she forces audiences to experience. If these moral crises, challenges, and perserverence connect with our lives, we want them to connect with hers, too. We want her to be able to feel like us.
Even if she can’t, though, even if she walks off set each day and forgets all about the person she is onscreen—if we can’t tell, then what does it matter? Lawrence’s characters, stuck between childhood and adulthood, are of debatable maturity; therefore, it’s difficult to say from which direction Lawrence herself approaches the roles, whether she’s a child playing an adult or vice versa. “I dunno,” she says. “I feel pretty mature. I keep thinking that I’m going to grow up more and then I’m going to really understand.”