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Jennifer Lawrence on The Hunger Games and surviving fame

Do I know a great pizza place?" Jennifer Lawrence asks.

"Is that what you said?" Unfortunately for the owners of nearby Italian restaurants that was not my line of inquiry. Instead, I'd asked whether anyone had ever given The Hunger Games star a great piece of advice. "Oh, I'm sorry," she continues. "I seem to have a disorder where no matter what people say I always hear a food reference."

The Oscar-nominated actor laughs as she recalls a recent car journey she shared with a girlfriend. "My friend said something like, 'This is a really nice car,' and I was like, 'Did you say birthday cake?' It sounded nothing like birthday cake but that's what I heard. Actually, I wouldn't mind some birthday cake. Or a slice of pizza, for that matter."

To say food matters to Jennifer Lawrence, 22, would be an understatement given how often it crops up in conversation, although being newly elevated to the Hollywood A-list besides replacing Mila Kunis as the new face of Christian Dior, she's svelte and athletic, displaying no evidence of an obsession with food. The first of her industry breaks came when she was aged 14, a model agency talent scout spotting her in New York's Union Square and packing her off to numerous agencies. "Although somewhere on one of those early cab rides to an agency I decided I didn't want to be a model," she remembers. "I like food too much and thought I should be an actress."

Despite her age, Lawrence turned down several contracts, eventually signing with an agent who represented models and actors. Her career took seed. "I think I have always been quite self-assured," she says, "but nobody really noticed that in a positive way. Back then it was my 14-year-old stubbornness, saying, 'Of course I'm not going to fail.'"

She succeeded and the 22-year-old now stands alongside Twilight's Kristen Stewart as one of the most sought-after young actors in the industry, her last film, The Hunger Games, taking almost $700 million at the box office. Lively, confident and full of smarts, Lawrence has, however, learned to temper her self-assuredness.

"Before, if anyone told me I was going to fail I was like, 'No.' Now I'm like, 'OK, I might fail. Sorry.'" That said, her confidence is deep-rooted and does still bubble forth. She recalls her last trip to Scotland, which involved a few pints in a pub. "A guy grabbed my backside," she recalls, "then began celebrating with his mates."

Lawrence didn't take kindly to the intrusion. "So I shouted at him and he stood up and asked me whether I was going to hit him." She didn't. The situation was defused, but the point was made. She had stood her ground. Metaphorically speaking, Lawrence has balls. "That was a crazy moment." Surely it didn't happen in super-friendly Glasgow? "No," she confirms. "It was Edinburgh."

Like most Americans, Lawrence struggles with some English-language suffixes and pronounces the city "Edin-borough", although she apologises for "saying that wrong". She is polite by nature, hailing from the South – she was born and raised alongside two older brothers in Kentucky, where her parents ran a stud farm with an attached children's camp.

The family was crazy about sport and Lawrence was enrolled in field hockey, softball, cheerleading and track sports when at school. Her grades were only average, she says, but the sports training has come in handy. In The Hunger Games movies, for example, adapted from the bestselling trilogy by author Suzanne Collins, Lawrence plays a young woman who relies on her fitness to survive.

"She's such an athlete," says the actor of her character, Katniss Everdeen. "On the first film, I ate more than at any other time because there was so much exercise. I had to pack in the food to survive. I needed the energy. Katniss is a fighter, a survivor and a warrior."

We're catching up as Lawrence takes a weekend away from filming the second instalment in the series, Catching Fire, with new director Francis Lawrence (Constantine, Water For Elephants), who replaces the outgoing Gary Ross. The story is set in a dystopian future US where youngsters battle to the death in televised gladiatorial games, drawing comparisons with the Japanese cult film Battle Royale.

"It is awesome being back doing The Hunger Games again," Lawrence says with a smile, "and working with Francis is great." The director's predecessor left the franchise claiming the schedule for the remaining adaptations (the second and third books will play as three films) was too tight for his artistic design.

Lawrence says of her new director: "He's nice and sweet and has created this other world. He is a great actors' director, great visually, and there is nothing he can't do."

Surely she knows her character better than the new boy? "Maybe, but the director is the one that sees me and can tell me what looks and feels right – it's really not a case of I know Katniss better than him. He knows what's going on in front of camera and we have a great relationship. I love Katniss, too – she is strong-willed, like a future version of Joan of Arc."

Such characters feature prominently on Lawrence's CV, which includes the critically lauded The Burning Plain, written and directed by Guillermo Arriaga, who wrote 21 Grams and Babel. She featured in the Sundance audience favourite Like Crazy and earned good reviews for her performance in Jodie Foster's family drama, The Beaver.

She also starred in Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class, where she met her boyfriend, the English actor Nicholas Hoult, and earned an Oscar nomination for the 2010 drama Winter's Bone, in which she played a tough teenager in the rural wilds who cares for her mentally ill mother and two younger siblings.

She remembers the day she found out about her Oscar nomination, four weeks before the ceremony. "I heard at about five in the morning and all I wanted to do was to go back to sleep," she says. "My family was there and my brothers were there and I wanted to be with my family, but then I got an email telling me to be in my publicist's office within an hour and I had to do press all day. I did press from that day, every single day, until the awards."

Lawrence's first job came with the sitcom The Bill Engvall Show. "My parents were like, 'You should totally be an actress and move to New York.' I think maybe they thought it was going to be over soon. In fact, that is exactly what they thought: I was going to get it out of my system and I was going to fail and come home.

"We agreed to go to New York over the summer and then the summer got just a little bit longer and a bit longer, then there was LA and being called out for a screen test and then it just slowly started happening. My brothers were amazing. They were like, 'You would support us if it were sports, so we'll support you in this.' I didn't know they even liked me that much! We just kind of decided we would do it as a family."

Lawrence is now a bona fide superstar, though she is discovering that playing the lead in a successful franchise, while offering countless opportunities, also presents many potential pitfalls. A year ago, Lawrence was just a rising star in Hollywood, free to live her life hassle-free, enjoying her two-bedroomed apartment in Los Angeles while paying off her Volkswagen.

"In LA for me it is just a hornets' nest nowadays so I've had to move out," she says somewhat wistfully. "I have had paparazzi following me everywhere I go, and in LA people are less shy and have no qualms about coming up to you all the time to talk about the industry."

Her newfound fame has also prompted interest in her private life, with the actress only recently admitting that she and Hoult, who made his mark opposite Hugh Grant in 2002's About A Boy, are seeing each other. "We can go out in New York and in London," she says, "and we don't need separate cars or anything, but in LA it's difficult with the paparazzi."

The press intrusion, however, is not her biggest concern. "One of my biggest fears in taking on The Hunger Games series is that this character would overwhelm any other character that I play," she says, noting that the movies she makes in between the four franchise films will be vital in establishing her long-term career.

Lawrence has chosen her projects carefully and in her latest offering, Silver Linings Playbook, she takes on a kooky and mysterious supporting character in the romantic comedy-drama. Acclaimed filmmaker David O Russell (Three Kings, I Heart Huckerbees, The Fighter) directs the film, which places The Hangover's Bradley Cooper centre stage as a man with anger issues who meets and forges a relationship with Lawrence's damaged yet spiky character.

"I am such a huge David O Russell fan," Lawrence says. "I have seen everything he's done and I Heart Huckerbees was always my favourite. I thought it was the funniest movie I had seen in my life and I watched it like 11 times in one week because I had to show it to different people. His humour is kind of like a goofy Wes Anderson and I love the world he creates."

Lawrence also gets to share screen time with Robert De Niro, who takes a supporting role as Cooper's father. "There's me rattling on in De Niro's face," she says, remembering one key scene when she argues with him on screen, "and he was just so wonderful with me. He was always around and has so much knowledge about the craft and about filmmaking. You can learn so much from him."

Maybe so, but Lawrence, who recently finished shooting a second film with Cooper, the Depression-set drama Serena, didn't hang around the set when she wasn't working. "I am never at work when I don't have to be," she laughs. "No matter what. A dragon could walk on Bob's legs and I wouldn't stay to see it."

If she didn't hang around to pick up extra tips from De Niro, I wonder who has been a major influence, and who might have given her some good advice? (We're back to the piece of advice/pizza slice misunderstanding.) "Yes, of course," she muses, "though that is a hard one."

She thinks of Woody Harrelson, her co-star on The Hunger Games, who told her to take time for herself between films, and she plans to have a break once she finishes filming Catching Fire. And then she remembers Jodie Foster.

"Jodie told me that when I was older I'd understand the pattern of movies and it would reflect back on my life," Lawrence concludes. "She said she could look back at her movies and see things going on in her own life which she didn't understand at the time but did later on."

Lawrence laughs. "I don't know how to take that piece of advice, though, because I normally play white trash!" n

Silver Linings Playbook (15) opens on Wednesday.

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