Like the character she plays in the acclaimed Winter’s Bone, Jennifer Lawrence pursues the things she wants with absolute determination—in this case, the lead role in the film. “I basically chased [director Debra Granik] to New York like a psycho. Sometimes I’ll read things and I just…I have to have it. I don’t have a choice. And then the people don’t have a choice either. I just won’t stop until I get it.”
Based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone follows Ree Dolly, a teenager in the Ozarks who is doing everything she can to hold her family together. She’s taking care of her two younger siblings and her nearly catatonic mother. Ree’s father is missing; he’s out on bail after an arrest for his involvement in cooking meth. When the sheriff tells Ree that her father has put up their house and small plot of timber acreage as collateral for his bail, Ree sets out to find him, dead or alive, to keep the one thing her family has left. She has to go up against relatives and friends who are part of a tightly knit, insular community with its own code of justice. It’s a script that balances suspense with an intense focus on the details of a regional culture.
Lawrence, who turns 20 this year, grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, a long way from the abject poverty of Ree and the Ozarks of southern Missouri but close enough to persuade Granik, who also cowrote the screenplay, to cast her. “Many other people felt very unsure about the script and how they might speak it,” Granik recalls. “Jennifer spoke the script in a way that was hugely appealing to me. And for a classic East Coast outsider [Granik is from New York], it’s not that I was making an assumption like, ‘That’s the same as the Missouri accent.’ It’s just that she felt so fluid and I just believed her.”
Granik may not have been worried about the regional differences, but Lawrence recalls it a bit differently. “I freaked out. [Granik] interviewed people [from the Ozarks] and sent the recordings to me. I was listening to them and I thought, Oh my gosh, it’s so different; I’m just going to be horrible. My accent’s going to come out and everyone’s going to know.” Lawrence calmed down after spending some time in the Ozarks, listening to people and picking up the regional variations.
Lawrence’s work ethic and determination has served her well since she was discovered at 14 on a spring-break trip to New York. Her story is like the fairy-tale version; she was watching dancers on the street when someone approached her asking to take her picture. The next thing she knew, her mother was taking a call from someone wanting Lawrence to audition for a commercial. They only went to the audition, Lawrence suspects, because it was something fun to do in a strange city. “My mom let me try because she thought that I would get it out of my system and we then could go home,” Lawrence recalls. “She would have never let me do this if she had thought that I would be successful, and she’s still bitter about it to this day,” Lawrence says with a laugh.
Lawrence is joking, of course. She speaks with great affection for her parents, who moved with her to Los Angeles once it became clear she had a real career in acting ahead of her. It happened fast. She went from one commercial to another, and then there were small roles on Monk, Cold Case and Medium. And then in 2007 she landed a role on The Bill Engvall Show, which lasted three seasons on TBS.
The steady gig paid the rent and gave Lawrence the freedom to be selective about the work she took. “I didn’t have to do a movie that was crap,” as she bluntly puts it. Instead, she took roles in small, serious indies, like Lori Petty’s The Poker House and Guillermo Arriaga’s The Burning Plain. She got a lot of praise for those films, but things really took off for her this January, when Winter’s Bone won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Everyone was talking about the film, and about Lawrence’s performance in particular. “I couldn’t walk outside without people going, ‘This is Jennifer Lawrence from Winter’s Bone,’” Lawrence recalls with amazement. She’d better get used to the attention. Next up, she’s in Jodie Foster’s directorial effort The Beaver, which stars Mel Gibson as a man who maintains a friendship with a hand puppet.
We wonder if skipping high school and moving her parents to Los Angeles to follow her career has made it hard to have a normal, sane, rational life with her family. “You just have to change the definition of normal, sane and rational. For us, normal is me coming home for Christmas because I’ve been filming The Beaver with Jodie Foster and Mel Gibson. Or why doesn’t the family get together for my premiere in New York? To us, this is normal, because I’ve been doing it for five years and it’s just a job. I mean, nobody in my family is sane and rational really, but we keep it as normal as we can. You know, too normal’s boring.”