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Jennifer Lawrence on Winter’s Bone

At just 20 Jennifer Lawrence has the world at her feet, yet the Louisville-born actor swaps glam for grim in her new film.

It’s lunchtime and Jennifer Lawrence is curled up on a sofa in the Point Hotel, Edinburgh.

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In town to promote her new film, Winter’s Bone, which has just received its British premiere at the film festival, she’s a little sleepy after a morning of interviews. Until, that is, she finds out I write for The Herald. “Is that in Harry Potter?” she asks. “If it’s not, it should be.” Like most her age -- she turned 20 last month -- she’s read all the JK Rowling books. Twice. “I’m a sucker for all those things. If I know something about the UK, it’s because of Harry Potter,” she says. “And then I got hit by the Twilight train. I think it’s a female thing. There’s some sort of chemical in there.”

In truth it’s a Robert Pattinson thing, the actor who played Cedric Diggory in the fourth Potter film before fronting Twilight. “I was immune to him until I saw Remember Me,” she says. “Now I’m daydreaming about him.” Aside from R-Patz, Lawrence loves YouTube and reality television shows such as Real Housewives Of New Jersey. “I was watching Wife Swap and Supernanny this morning,” she says, excitedly. “I’ve been watching Super-nanny since I was 14, which is stupid because it’s for parents, but it makes me want to have kids to prove how good a mother I am.”

Sassy and a little sarcastic, the Kentucky native does a mean impression of the average American adolescent. Well, almost. Arguably one of the most exciting prospects to emerge in Hollywood in the last few years, Lawrence has a Midas touch right now. Having recently been cast in the forthcoming X-Men: First Class, in four years she’s worked with everyone from Kim Basinger to Jodie Foster. When she appeared in 2008’s The Burning Plain, playing Basinger’s daughter, the jury at the Venice Film Festival awarded her the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actress. Winter’s Bone, meanwhile, won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. “Lawrence,” said USA Today, “deserves an Oscar nomination.” Don’t bet against her getting one come next awards season.

“We were the definition of a sleeper hit,” says Lawrence. “I went into Winter’s Bone with no expectations. I knew I loved it. And then we got to Sundance. First of all, when I pulled up to the premiere, I didn’t think how many people would be there, but there was a queue wrapped around the building. I started having an anxiety attack: ‘All these people are here to see the movie -- what if it’s bad?’ Then I realised I was on this bus, with all these people going to see the movie watching its lead actress scream, ‘What if the movie’s bad?’”

With her slim 5ft 8in frame encased in navy jeans and a translucent powder-blue top, and her long, blonde hair tied back in a ponytail, Lawrence has a face the camera melts for -- soft skin, emerald green eyes and a rich smile. Yet the best compliment I can pay her is that I almost didn’t recognise her in Winter’s Bone. As Ree Dolly, a tenacious 17 year old from a bleak backwater in the Ozark mountains of Missouri, her hair is lank, her teeth yellow and her skin free of make-up. Unsurprisingly, when she auditioned for director Debra Granik, she almost didn’t get the gig because she was considered too pretty.

“It’s not that it was important for me to be ugly in the film,” she explains. “It was just important for me to not try to be glamorous. It’s not important in Ree’s life.” In many ways, it’s not that Lawrence looks particularly different in Winter’s Bone. But as the gutsy Ree, the weight of the world’s problems seem etched into her face and the bubbly, trash-TV-watching teen giggling opposite me on the sofa never gets near the screen. She disappears so far inside the role you entirely forget it’s her; if you want a comparison, you could do worse than look to Jodie Foster’s turn as a young prostitute in Taxi Driver.

While Ree isn’t forced to sell her body, her adolescent experience is just as harrowing. Her father, a small-time drug dealer, has disappeared. Her mother is present but in body only, her fragile mental state leaving her silent and sullen. Living with her two younger siblings in a wreck of a house, Ree takes it upon herself to hold the family together.

“She’s forced to deal with something far greater that anybody her age should have to,” says Lawrence. “She doesn’t take no for an answer and she’s got a strength I could never possess.”

Part modern-day western, part detective tale, the story proper begins when the local sheriff arrives, telling Ree her father has skipped bail. He put their house up as his bond, so the family will be evicted unless he’s found within the week, and Ree takes it upon herself to track him. While rumours float that he may have died in a methamphetamine brewing accident, Ree relentlessly pursues the task in hand -- knocking on doors, confronting hostile townsfolk and gradually worming her way into a community where violence bubbles just beneath the surface.

Similarly willing to immerse herself into this world, Lawrence lived in the region for six weeks. It was bitterly cold, she says, and the poverty she saw was shocking. “It’s still surprising,” she says. “We’ve all seen poverty -- but it’s just different. When it’s an hour away from your home, it’s bizarre.” While this is shown unflinchingly on screen by Granik, who adapted the 2006 novel of the same name by Missouri writer Daniel Woodrell, the film does not depict the characters as redneck caricatures. “Debra asked so many questions to make sure every detail was authentic,” says Lawrence.

Admittedly, with Granik, she’s in good hands. Her previous film, 2004’s Down To The Bone, similarly introduced the world to Vera Farmiga, who won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance for her performance as a recovering addict (and this year went on to gain an Oscar nod for her work in Up In The Air). As it goes, Granik didn’t know Lawrence’s work but it was her enthusiasm that won her the role. “She wasn’t jaded,” says Granik. “I dealt with a few actors that were. They were like, ‘Oh, sure. Sounds interesting.’ But Jen was not like that. She said, ‘This attracts me, and I’d do a lot of work to be involved.’ It makes you feel the collaboration can flourish.”

Thankfully for Lawrence, her own upbringing in Louisville is far removed from the world of her character. Acting came naturally to her, like an instinct. “I was always an actress, we just never knew it,” she says. “I came out of the womb going da-da-da-da-dan-dan! I was always putting on shows and performing for my parents or for my class, and getting kicked out of the classroom.” Yet, surprisingly, she didn’t spend her youth in drama class or acting in school plays. “We lived in Kentucky -- acting was not a reality.” Her two older brothers were into sports while her parents ran a day camp for children. “I was the assistant nurse there,” she says, smiling. “I thought I was a doctor.”

For a while, she wanted to be a medic when she left school. “But I had a huge imagination. I was a storyteller. I was always writing. You can’t express that side of yourself when you’re a doctor. So there was always something missing. It didn’t quite fit.” When she was aged 14 she implored her parents to let her go to New York and audition. “My parents weren’t going to let me do it, and I begged and my brothers called. They said, ‘She went to every baseball and football game. This is her baseball diamond now. You guys have got to do this.’ Which is weird -- because I thought they didn’t like me.”

Eventually her parents relented. Once in New York, Lawrence got her picture taken and initially went to a modelling agency. “I told the woman I wanted to be an actress,” she recalls, “and she was like, ‘This is a model agency. You’re going to have to choose between being a supermodel and a starving actress.’ And I chose starving actress and left -- which was the dumbest thing in the world, but it worked out OK.” It didn’t take her long to find a talent agency willing to represent her. By the time the summer was over, she was being flown out to Los Angeles to meet and greet.

Her first role, in Company Town, a TV film about government officials in Washington, came when she was just 15. Within two years, after a few television appearances, she struck it big when she was cast in The Burning Plain, the first film by Guillermo Arriaga, who wrote 21 Grams and Babel. If she arrived at the Venice Film Festival an unknown, she left with her name on everyone’s lips. Outshining both Basinger and Charlize Theron, who played the older version of her character, Lawrence’s award for most promising newcomer was no more than she deserved. “That was a huge surprise,” she says. “It’s nice. It’s like getting a gold star. Like, ‘Good job, here you go.’ But it’s a tremendous honour.”

Curiously, it took America longer to wake up to her than Europe. “I didn’t get any offers after The Burning Plain,” she explains. A regular role on US sitcom The Bill Engvall Show helped, but it was the buzz around Winter’s Bone that really kicked her career into gear. Lawrence recently completed The Beaver, a new film directed by Jodie Foster and co-starring Foster and Mel Gibson, who plays a manic-depressive schizophrenic who walks around with a beaver hand-puppet that takes over his life. “It’s weird as hell,” says Lawrence with a smile. Her character, Norah, enters Gibson’s character’s life when she starts a relationship with his son.

So what was it like working with Foster? “Brilliant,” she says. “She’s got the mind of five men. She’s the most normal person I’ve met since I started doing this. Somebody forgot to tell her she’s famous. She has no idea. She’s just a mom.” Does Lawrence feel Foster is the sort of actress whose career she’d like to emulate? She eyes me, looking a little uncertain about what to say. “I admire a lot of people’s careers but I wouldn’t say I want to emulate a lot of them. My own path seems kind of different. But if you’re going to emulate someone, Jodie Foster is the best.”

Lawrence has also lived out her love of all things British. She recently completed the transatlantic love story Like Crazy alongside rising English actress Felicity Jones, and she’s working on House At The End Of The Street, a suspense thriller directed by the former Radio 1 DJ Mark Tonderai. And then there’s the big one, X-Men: First Class -- currently being prepped by Matthew Vaughn, the British director of Kick-Ass. Fleshing out the backstories of the mutant superheroes already seen in a trilogy of X-Men films, Lawrence has been cast as the shape-shifting Mystique -- played by Rebecca Romijn-Stamos in the originals -- alongside the likes of respected actors Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy and Nicholas Hoult.

What is remarkable is that somehow she’s managed to avoid the standard teen films -- rom-coms and gross-out comedies. Does she feel lucky? She looks surprised. “Yeah, of course I feel lucky -- incredibly lucky,” she says. “I could’ve just as easily been cast in five stupid things instead of five incredible things, with very special people to learn from.”

Feet firmly on the ground, she’s also in denial when it comes to the question of impending stardom. “I don’t really lie in bed thinking, ‘One day I’ll become a superstar,’” she says. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But I don’t think that’s my career path. Mine will be more of a slower build. I think it would be surreal if it was like Robert Pattinson -- all of a sudden you wake up and people are screaming. But I’ve been working for a while, so when you start to become successful, it’s not like all of a sudden going, ‘What’s going on? Why does this person recognise me?’ It is a weird industry anyway -- so I fit in perfectly.”

I ask her what she means by this. “I was always such a crazy drama queen, that when I finally moved to New York and LA and started acting, I fitted in perfectly,” she says. “I was always very dramatic. I remember when we first got the internet in the library at school, I would look up symptoms and then I would start crying because I thought I had skin cancer or something. I remember, I once called my mum because I thought I had SARS.” So she’s a hypochondriac? “Oh, yeah. And with other people. If you tell me you have a headache, I’ll take you to a hospital because you have a brain tumour.” Then, she looks at her hands. “Like right now, my fingers keep turning blue,” she says. “I’m worried.”

A concerned look then crosses her face. “I’m making myself sound like an idiot,” she groans, admitting she’s “dying to see how this interview turns out”. The only thing that gives her butterflies is reading her own press. “I Google myself all the time,” she says, “and that’s the only thing that makes me nervous. I don’t get nervous for auditions, shooting, red carpets, all of that. The only thing that makes me nervous is getting ready to read what I’ve said. One time I read an interview and I just sounded like a brat. My friend read it and was like, ‘Jen, jeez.’”

A brat she is not, at least on this evidence. While she lives in Los Angeles, she’s not a regular on the party circuit -- and there’s an air of maturity about her that suggests she isn’t about to follow the likes of Lindsay Lohan into rehab. Rather, she’s ambitious, and isn’t afraid to admit she’d like to go behind the camera one day. “I’m already asking a lot of questions on set. It’s very annoying.” By her own admission she’s an attention-seeker, a trait she feels is the consequence of growing up as the baby in the family. Now, after years of clamouring, she is the centre of attention. “It’s worked, hasn’t it?” she grins, as we say our goodbyes. Of that, there is no doubt.

Winter’s Bone (15) opens on September 17.

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