Adapting a hit novel into an equally praiseworthy film is no easy task. But as far as most critics are concerned, Gary Ross has achieved just that with The Hunger Games, and part of the film’s success is its brilliant casting. A star-laced cast of actors including Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland and Josh Hutcherson is headed up by Jennifer Lawrence, who’s already received Oscar attention for her exemplary performance in Winter’s Bone.
She brings an equal amount of dramatic heft and star quality to Katniss Everdeen, the film’s heroine and emotional backbone. Ahead of The Hunger Games’ UK release this Friday, it was a pleasure to catch up with Ms Lawrence at a London press conference, and hear what she had to say about taking on a potentially huge role, and how it fits into her already stellar career…
You were nominated for an Oscar last year; how have the last 12 months been for you? Have you noticed any changes since the nomination?
I’ve definitely been busier, but I’ve been working so much that nothing really changed for me, because I was on set, or at home. I wasn’t really out, like, at the clubs in Hollywood, all “Woooo, nominee!”
It was your mum who suggested you read The Hunger Games in the first place, right?
My mom’s just developed this brand new reputation of being a complete stage mom because the two books she’s ever recommended I read have been Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games, without any idea that they would ever be movies. She gave me her books.
So this isn’t something she normally does – you don’t normally discuss your roles with her?
No, never. I don’t think I’ve ever been like ‘mom, should I take this role?’ She’s just the average mom.
How did you feel about the inevitable spotlight and focus on you that comes with doing a movie of this size?
I mean, that was scary. I love the film, I love the script, I love the books, I love what they represent, I love the story, I love the director, I love working with directors I love… but the size of it was definitely something that will make you pause, because it’s life-changing.
Was there a moment when you thought, actually, you know what, I’m comfortable with this?
I just didn’t want to pass on it just because I’m scared. I always said, when I was doing indies, and everybody always asked me why I never did a studio, I was like, ‘well, because it doesn’t matter about the size of the film, it matters about the script, and that you’re telling a story you care about.’ And this was a story that I cared about and I wasn’t going to do it because of the size of it.
So, I think I’ve accepted the fact that my life is gonna change drastically, but it’s gonna be because of these films that I’m happy and proud to be part of.
How much pressure is there on you, being part of something like this?
It’s scary. They were these stories that were absolutely incredible, and roles that are incredible; I mean, Katniss is this futuristic Joan of Arc, she’s a symbol for hope and freedom and revolt, and she’s a hero that doesn’t want to be a hero, she’s also of these amazing things that you want in a character, but the second I said yes, I knew a year from then my life would just be completely different.
And that’s a scary thing to accept because there aren’t a lot of situations people are put in where they have to accept something where their life is gonna completely change and it will never, no matter what, go back to how it was before.Tell us about working with Lenny Kravitz.
He’s one of my favourite people in the world and an incredible actor – a really really good actor, so that was great.
He seems very chilled.
He is very chilled. He’s one of the only famous people who can actually make you relax hanging out with them.
But then there’s Woody Harrelson in there as well…
Same thing! The two of them are so weird because normally when you’re in famous people’s presence, the last thing you are is relaxed, but they both have this calming vibe about them.
Tell us about the physical training you did for the film.
Yeah, it was lots of running because Katniss never walks anywhere. And free-running, track, hand-to-hand combat, climbing, archery… and yoga.
Did they all come easily to you?
I like sport, I’m not necessarily athletic; I kind of move like an idiot, I’m very uncoordinated, but I love sports. So it was kind of confusing, I was like, there and passionate and ready to do it over and over again, but… not very well!
Was there any competition between you, Josh and Liam?
No, there’s no competition. I can shoot a bow and arrow. Josh is faster than me but I can hit a bullseye with a bow and arrow, so there’s no competition. Plus, I kicked him in the temple one time and gave him a concussion. By accident, but it’s still like, yeah, I did that. [laughs] I can do that.
Which was the more physical shoot, this or X-Men?
X-Men was more difficult, because it was more gym work. And I had no idea how to diet before that movie and then all of a sudden my body had to change and I was young and never really had to. So that was all kind of a strange transition. [X-Men] was more in-gym training; the Hunger Games training was a lot more running outdoors, and working out in ways that you don’t realise you’re working out, like playing on a gigantic jungle gym and swinging around, as opposed to doing 100 pull-ups.
Did you really injure your spleen while training?
[Laughs] No. This is one of those brilliant things where you say one thing and all of a sudden there’s a giant quote next to your face it’s like, uhhhh that’s not what I said! So let’s clear this up.
I was doing wall runs during free-running training, which is where you run at a wall as hard as you can and then you kick your feet up to try to get traction with your feet and then pull yourself up. So I had to do 10 before I left for the day, and I was at maybe three or four, nothing even remotely exhausting, and I ran at the wall as hard as I could and all of a sudden my feet were like ‘meh, no, not gonna do it, gonna stay down here.’ So I ran at the wall, jumped, and then hit the wall as hard as I possibly could have.
I obviously got winded, was rolling on the ground, and there were all these stunt guys around, so I’m trying to be like [thumbs up] and trying to act like I’m totally cool and not hurt at all. But obviously it was unbelievably sore, and I had this trainer who is the biggest hypochondriac ever. Like I would go into the other room to cough around him.
I was starting to do crunches and I was like ‘Oh, I can’t, I ran into a wall at 20mph…’ or, not 20mph, I can’t run at 20mph… so then he made me go to the hospital to get an MRI scan which, is, don’t ever do that, ever, no matter what. They have to put an IV in, it’s hot, and then you have to go into this thing, and it turns out: totally fine, no damaged spleen.
But what was written was ‘Jennifer Lawrence damages her spleen on Hunger Games shoot’. So who knows what’s gonna come out next. At least it didn’t damage the baby… I’m kidding! I just wanted to start a whole new rumour.
After your Oscar nomination, did you find that you got sent a certain type of role?
No, I just like good scripts, good stories, good directors… I’ve always wanted to play Bridget Jones, I want that movie to not exist so I can do that. I’ve always felt that way. But that wasn’t like, ‘I got nominated for an Oscar, I’m gonna replace Renee Zelweger’.
So you didn’t get a lot of Winter’s Bone clone scripts?
Yeah, I think I was definitely the go-to girl for wilderness at that time. Dark, depressing, wilderness, squirrels… I’m your girl.
An important part of the Hunger Games is Katniss’s Capitol makeover – did you get any input into any of those costumes?
The costume woman’s name is Judianna Makovsky, and she’s an absolute genius. The costumes are remarkable. The only thing I wanted a say in were the boots for the arena, because I was going to be doing a lot of action and running and those were going to be the boots that I was wearing for a month doing a lot of activity and I had to make sure I could run in them and climb in them and they fit, so there were a lot of boot fittings. But everything else… she’s brilliant, and I’m not, so I couldn’t really add anything to what she was doing.
You have two older brothers, so did that make you a bit of a tomboy and prepare you at all for this role?
I don’t know. I get asked that question, and I think, well, running through the woods being chased by somebody with a knife, and me running through my house because my brother has a slingshot, like, I mean, they’re different! Growing up with brothers has obviously shaped me, your family shapes you, but you don’t really have a reference of how you would be differently. So I think, this is the way I am, this is the way I did the role, but I probably would be different if I’d grown up with sisters. I don’t know.
Going back to costumes, people are excited about the “girl on fire” scene – what was that like? Is there real fire, or is it CG?
No, I’m really set on fire. [laughs] No, I’m not. I just want to start all sorts of rumours. It’s CG. There’s definitely lots of fabric that goes into it – I think that dress was most of our budget – that looks like fire and is the shape of fire, I think it has a tiny bit of CG help.
The book doesn’t shy away from constant violence; will the movie be very violent too?
It’s tricky because we obviously have a PG-13 rating but all of us were saying, we’re not gonna make a watered down version of what we love, we’re not gonna tiptoe around… If you take the violence out of the movie you take the entire heart out of it. You’re protecting the audience from something that these characters, these poor children that are put into the arena, are not protected from. You take the brutality out of the film and you might as well take the teeth and all the meaning out of it.
But I think having the boundaries of the PG-13 actually made the violence better because it’s more realistic. Violence in real life is over so fast. Fights last a matter of seconds. Somebody breaks your neck, you fall, you’re dead. You get shot with an arrow, you’re hit, you’re dead. We didn’t do very long, overdone [gurgling noises]… it was very realistic, it was just kind of: blood, splatter, dead. But no, we didn’t want to downplay the violence. If you downplay the violence, you’re downplaying the entire theme and heart of the film.
How did you feel when you first read the books? Did that mean that, going into the movie, you felt you had a responsibility to the readers?
When I read the books I loved them. I just felt like they were a very important thing for our generation to read because we live in a world that’s obsessed with reality television and is completely desensitised to the shock value. We’re using people’s tragedy for entertainment, and the more tragic, the more ratings.
We also live in a world where history repeats itself; we live in a world where there are governments who gain control over their people by separating them and keeping them hungry and weak so that they’re not strong enough to fight back. And I think it’s really important for a young person, or anybody, living in our world to read to see what happens when we become desensitised to the pain of humanity, when all of a sudden somebody’s pain starts to become entertainment. And in that sense I loved them and thought that they were powerful and important.
And then going into it, when I got the role, I was not unaware of the amount of people that have their opinion on the role and the movie and how it should be made and how the characters should be played and what she should look like and all those things. But when I got on set, we were making a movie. And you’re gonna make a bad movie if you just take what’s in the book and film it. We had to part ourselves from it and know that we were on set creating a film. And in that sense, I had to follow my director, I had to follow my own instincts, and not think about, ‘well, this is probably what people are gonna want to see.’
Having Suzanne Collins as one of the screenwriters gives it that seal of approval, doesn’t it?
Hopefully. And the movie was made by fans. Everybody at Lionsgate, Gary Ross, me, we were all genuine fans of Suzanne’s work and want to stay true to it and love what she’s trying to say and want to say it.
So the violence hasn’t been watered down, and neither has the politics?
None of it has been watered down. I was very happy. And I am a big fan.
As your profile’s grown over the last few years, do you still venture online to see what’s being said about you?
I’ve never been a big internet person in the first place. I get on the computer, check my email, and then after that I’m like ‘what else do other people do on here?’
Recently there have been photographers following me around and hiding, so there have been pictures showing up that I had no idea were being taken, so that got me Googling, because I was like, ‘oh my God, like that’s just such a weird horrifying thing,’ but that opens up an entire Pandora’s Box, so I’ve had to stop. I’m gonna move, and then I’m gonna stop.
Did you have a favourite character when you read the book? Was it Katniss, or was there another role you would’ve liked to play?
Effie is amazing but when I saw Elizabeth Banks, she was so incredible, more than I could have imagined. She was funny, she was kind of scary; she was perfect. I think President Snow is an amazing character, but he’s a boy, so I could never play him. So, Effie, but only if I’m supposed to not say Katniss. But I think anybody reading the book would rather be Katniss.
You’ve mentioned Bridget Jones, do you have any other ideal roles in mind?
I don’t know. I say that because that’s like, that’s that movie that you put on whenever you’re homesick – I know England’s not my home, but – like whenever you’re like “grrrr” and you put on that movie that you never get sick of watching, that’s Bridget Jones for me so it’s very natural for me to be like, I want to be Bridget Jones!
But I could never have seen any of my roles coming – I could have never predicted any of them, and it’s not something that I think about. I don’t daydream about myself playing this role or that role, which I think helps because then I’m open to a lot more scripts.
The Olympics are coming up, so: do you think the Olympics would be better if the athletes had to fight to the death, and if you had to enter, what would your event be?
No, I don’t think anybody should have to be killed!
I guess archery, because I’ve been trained by an Olympic athlete, so that probably would be my strongest suit. I couldn’t do running – for one, I’m not very fast and two, when I run I look like an absolute idiot, so running would not be good.
When you read the books, were you Team Peeta or Team Gale?
I get asked that all the time! I went back and forth, just like everybody else. I have to do press with both of them, so it’s lose-lose for me to answer that question.
Jennifer Lawrence, thank you very much.