Jennifer Lawrence didn’t just win the Oscar for Best Actress last month. She basically won the whole Oscars. (Apologies to Ben Affleck.) She charmed late-night hosts — and Academy voters — with a disarming blend of bawdy humor and compulsive oversharing in the weeks before the ceremony. She rocked the red carpets with a variety of gorgeous gowns. More importantly, she was the only nominee who arrived at the Dolby Theatre currently fronting a $400 million blockbuster franchise. Certainly, she was wonderful and deserving of the Academy Award for her performance as a dispirited young widow in The Silver Linings Playbook, but as she accepted the Oscar, there was also a palpable recognition that she is The Future: a young, beautiful indie-film queen who can also carry and sell an action franchise.
At only 22, with an Oscar and central roles in The Hunger Games and X-Men, Lawrence appears to be the right actress in the right movies at the right time. “Everyone wants to work with her, whether it’s another actor or actress or a director or a studio,” says David Glasser, COO of The Weinstein Company, which distributed Silver Linings. “I think everybody right now wants to find that great Jennifer Lawrence Project.”
After auditioning and losing the role of Twilight’s Bella to Kristen Stewart, the first great Jennifer Lawrence Project was Winter’s Bone, the gritty 2010 indie in which Lawrence played a tough Ozark teen looking after her poverty-stricken younger siblings, no thanks to her MIA dad and mentally ill mom. Appearing in virtually every scene, she dazzled critics and was nominated for her first Oscar. “There was something about her [audition] and the way she was able to convey having the burden of this family on her shoulders. It’s not even something that you can really act,” says Paul Schnee, who along with Kerry Barden, cast that Sundance film. “Knowing the demands of the role, I was [like], ‘This is the girl! This is the girl!’”
Most everyone who has ever worked with Lawrence seems to have a version of that “This is the girl!” moment. When Lionsgate announced plans to adapt Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, Lawrence was an immediate contender for its starring role, in part due to Katniss Everdeen’s similarities to her independent, backwoods character from Winter’s Bone. But Gary Ross (Seabiscuit), who landed the plum assignment to script and direct The Hunger Games, hadn’t yet seen her in that movie. His epiphany came when he spent three days writing voiceover for Jodie Foster’s movie The Beaver, in which Lawrence played Anton Yelchin’s girlfriend.
“Just looking at the film over and over again, I just kept saying, ‘Who’s this actress?’ I just couldn’t believe the talent,” says Ross, who’s called casting Lawrence as Katniss the easiest movie decision he ever made. “It wasn’t even like a casting quote choice. I honestly felt lucky that an actress this good existed at that moment for that film. That’s how I felt. I remember saying to Lionsgate when we were casting, ‘Look, this comes along once every 10 years.’ Someone walks in the door with that kind of massive talent, it knocks you back in your chair.”
Action movies have historically been a man’s world, and Hollywood’s most successful actresses, like Julia Roberts, settled for carving out their dominion in the most lucrative genre available to their gender: romantic comedies. Twenty years ago, even when Jodie Foster stood on a similar pedestal of arthouse and multiplex success right after Silence of the Lambs, you might have been tossed out of the studio suite for pitching a $100 million franchise built around a female protagonist (Sigourney Weaver in the Alien movies was among very few exceptions). But there’s been a shift in the culture and hardly anyone blinked in 2010 when Angelina Jolie — already Lara Croft and Mrs. Smith — successfully delivered Salt, an action thriller initially conceived for Tom Cruise.
Today’s action-movie heroines are no longer damsels in distress. They’re tough (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), brave (Brave), and as lethal with a weapon as their male counterparts (Snow White and the Huntsman). When Lawrence was cast as Katniss in 2011, she became the face not only of Collins’ dystopian-future Joan of Arc, but the new face of real girl-power at the box office. Hunger Games opened like a superhero, with a $152.5 million weekend, and went on to gross more than any movie of 2012 except The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises.
But Ross wasn’t the first one to leverage Lawrence’s talent for a huge popcorn spectacular. X-Men: First Class director Matthew Vaughn cast her to play a younger version of Mystique, the blue-skinned mutant played by Rebecca Romijn in the original films, for his 2011 preboot. Her supporting character took a backseat to mutant frenemies played by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, but the actress made an immediate impression on First Class producer Bryan Singer, who’s directing the sequel, Days of Future Past.
“There was a sequence they were doing with James and Mike, and I noticed that she had no trouble speaking her mind, in a fun way,” laughs Singer. “She and Matthew sort of had a back and forth about what was working and what wasn’t, and it just sort of struck me that of all the actors standing on the platform, she was among the youngest and yet she was able to be the most vocal.”
For anyone’s who’s chuckled through one of Lawrence’s freewheeling, b.s.-free interviews where she jokes about her breasts, pretends to fart, or playfully jousts with Jack Nicholson, such a tale is hardly difficult to imagine. “I don’t think Jennifer is intimidated by anything or anybody,” says Ross. “I’d be amazed if she ever had been. She’s one of the more confident people I’ve ever met in my life, but it’s earned. She has the talent to back it up.”