The lone man had been sitting in a chair in the corner of the room ever since I’d taken my place at the table, though I didn't really think much about it until Jennifer Lawrence, who stars as protagonist Katniss Everdeen in the soon-to-be-released adaptation of "The Hunger Games", entered the hotel suite. That’s when the man finally sprung into action, approaching the actress with a Katniss doll/action figure clutched in his hand.
"Oh my God," she said, taking the figurine from him and examining it. "Look how big my eyes are."
"I want to give it to you. It’s unique," he told her.
"Wait, I can keep it?" she said in astonishment. "Oh my God, my mom’s going to freak out. Thank you so much. Oh my God, my mom’s going to die."
She gave the doll back to the man to hold onto for the time being and sat down then. She fixed her narrow blue eyes on the small group of us gathered around the table, her porcelain skin emanating the kind of soft glow that seems unique to the young and famous.
A man two seats down from me broke the ice by asking her about her mother. What were her thoughts on all this?
"For somebody who really didn't want me to be an actress, she’s really enjoying this phase," answered Lawrence.
And her? How did she feel about having her own action figure?
She waffled; the man in the corner sat watching her.
"I mean, that's just weird. I don't even know. It’s cool," came her uncertain answer. "I mean, I would be lying if I was like, 'oh, I think it’s stupid.' It is bizarre that somebody's going to have a doll with my face on it, because you don't ever think that way. Like, when you're an actor, that's not - I don't know. It’s weird. ...Michael Burn, he’s from Lionsgate, texted me a picture of [another] action figure and the only thing I could think to reply was, 'I’m a choking hazard?'"
Aside from her physical appearance, in person Lawrence is engaging and excitable, and sometimes a ham. She very much feels like a 21-year-old. That was somehow surprising to me, if only because as an actress she’s capable of communicating such a potent sense of maturity and world-weariness.
It’s not that I minded. In an industry filled with artificially cultivated young actors, there was something refreshing about this sense of her still being a girl (“what does allegory mean?” she asked at one point with a total lack of hesitation or embarrassment). This essential naiveté was an important quality for the actress portraying Katniss to possess, I think, because even though the character is a girl living in a harsh, post-apocalyptic world with few options afforded her, she’s still managed to hang onto some semblance of her youth – a simmering idealism and taste for rebellion; a strong need to feel like an individual and not just part of a monolithic, hopelessly unyielding machine.
The process of how Lawrence managed to imbue Katniss with this essential innocence, to keep her from becoming merely a clichéd “ass-kicking female”, was the subject of the next question. Her answer was cut off abruptly about half a sentence in, however.
"Well, that was the beauty of the script..." she began, before suddenly moving her gaze to the glass patio doors behind me.
”Who’s that guy?” she asked as all of us turned to look. “Why are they taking...? Is that Ed Helms?"
It was, in fact, Ed Helms. Someone was taking photos of “The Hangover” star on the balcony.
"Oh my God, that's so crazy," she said, her excitement growing. "He’s outside our window! What a weird job…Okay, sorry...what was the question?"
"How important was it for you to try to get her to be a real person and not just an action hero type?" the male journalist repeated.
She opened her mouth to speak…and then, just as suddenly, her eyes moved back to the window.
"Hi!" she squealed loudly to someone waving at her from outside. "That's my publicist! Sorry. God, this is so weird. Oh my God, he’s looking at me, [Ed Helms] from 'The Office'! Hi! Okay, sorry…this is so embarrassing. I’m so happy there are no cameras here."
Nope; just about half a dozen audio recorders.
The question at hand eluded her once again, and everyone laughed. Her face brightened at the sound.
He repeated the question, again. This time, she got it.
“I mean, that's the beautiful thing about [Katniss] in the books and in the script,” Lawrence answered. “It was important to keep her vulnerable. I didn't want anybody at any point…in watching her in the arena think that she couldn't die. Because I don't think that there was one moment while she was in the arena that she thought she wasn't going to die...You know, she’s a young girl that’s in this position. She’s not a Laura Croft or a James Bond who’s done this a million times and knows he’s going to survive. She doesn't.”
The sense of vulnerability Katniss experiences in the film is not only related to her participation in the games themselves, but to the fact that each of the 24 “tributes” experiences a great degree of public visibility as they’re trotted out for the world to see in the days leading up to the contest - a coterie of stylists and P.R. advisors trailing in their wake. For Lawrence, of course, there are very obvious real-world parallels there.
“I mean, there were definitely parts in the [‘Hunger Games’] books where I was reading [them] going, ‘I know how that feels.’” said Lawrence, who became the second-youngest Best Actress nominee in history at the 2011 Oscars for her performance in “Winter’s Bone”. “You know, I know what it feels like to just feel like you're a doll and people are shoving dresses onto you that you would never wear, and all this makeup, and just not really feeling like yourself.”
These real-world parallels make “The Hunger Games” feel far deeper and more relevant, than, say, the “Twilight” books and films, which – while they do possess allegorical connotations of a more personal nature – were never intended to grasp on the more far-reaching implications of where we’re headed as a culture.
Sadly, Collins’ indictment of the celebrity-centric, looks-obsessed media environment we now find ourselves in will inevitably be diluted by…well, exactly the culture I’ve described. As with the less-ambitious “Twilight” franchise, the film’s thematic considerations will (understandably if unfortunately) take a back seat to the shallower fascinations of the book series’ sizable ‘tween audience. In that vein, Lawrence realizes any sense of anonymity she once enjoyed is more or less gone forever now.
“I was in England and I was walking around…And I was going into coffee shops and I was going in everywhere and then I just kept thinking like, a year from now I’ll be in here and people will be taking pictures of me with their phones, and that'll suck,” she said. “I’ve just spent like the last months just kind of enjoying every last thing of being semi-normal. I went to Times Square [in] New York. I’ve like left the house in sweatpants looking like crap, only it’s too late…[they’ve] already got pictures of that.”
To be sure, the window of relative “normalcy” in Lawrence’s life is closing quickly, if it hasn’t closed already. When you sign a contract to star in the adaptation of a book like “The Hunger Games”, you’re signing away a lot more than just a few months of your time. Lawrence knows that, and she’s made a certain kind of peace with it, at least for now.
“[Taking on the role] did give me pause, because it was scary,” she told us. “But there was nobody I could really talk to, because it was kind of like one of those things that…nobody really knows what you want other than you. So there was nothing anybody could really say. It was really just something I had to work out with myself…[During] the three days that I gave myself before I said yes [I] was just thinking through every single - combing through every doubt. So that, when I was here and when people were taking my picture and people were screaming and following me or whatever is going to happen, I [would know] that I thought it through and I said yes without a doubt in my mind. And I signed on, and I haven't doubted or second guessed myself since.”
It’s no secret, however, that many of the books’ mega-fans have themselves second-guessed the decision to cast Lawrence, often in the most spectacularly besides-the-point kinds of ways.
“So many people were upset because [I was] blonde, and I was like, really?” she said, referring to the negative reaction of some fans to the fact that her natural hair color is considerably lighter than that of the character. “There would be a million other things I would get upset about if I were a fan and [I] saw me get cast other than my hair. That can be dyed so easy. I thought it was funny, because I thought maybe they thought I would like go through the whole movie with blonde hair and just be like, ‘yeah, Katniss is blonde, she wears lipstick, she’s fighting in high heels!’”
The character hasn’t been re-imagined as a sexed-up blonde, of course. Staying true to the spirit of the novels was clearly quite important to the filmmakers and to Lawrence, the latter of whom initially worried that the restrictions of the PG-13 rating required to sell the film would necessitate the dilution of much of the disturbing youth-on-youth violence depicted in the books.
“I was concerned that they would water it down,” she said. “I was concerned because the violence and the brutality is the heart of the movie. It sparks a revolution. It sparks an uprising. If you water that down, then you water down not just this movie but all of them. …It is kids killing kids. It is innocent children that are forced into an arena and forced to either kill each other or die. And that is what makes these films so powerful, that's what makes the book so powerful. That's why an entire war begins [in later installments]. And I think we were all under agreement that we weren't going to make a watered down version of Suzanne’s books.”
Well…for the most part.
“We understood that it was PG-13, so there were going to have to be some changes there,” she continued. “[But] I think it really worked in our favor…because violence in real life is quick. It’s over very quickly. Fights last a matter of seconds. If you get shot with an arrow, you’re down. You're dead. You get your neck cracked, you fall. You’re dead. We [weren’t able to show] gratuitous blood gurgling out of people's necks and everything, which I think made it a lot more realistic.”
That last point is, of course, highly debatable (whether it was a talking point or whether Lawrence really believes that is a separate question), but then the real point of the “Hunger Games” books is that moral death – the cessation of all sympathy for other human beings – is perhaps an even worse fate than the death of one’s physical body. In this way, Katniss is a symbol of how important it is to retain your humanity, even when the world around you has lost its mind.
“This is the generation that's obsessed with reality television and watching people's lives fall apart while we eat popcorn,” said Lawrence near the end of the interview, answering a question as to why “The Hunger Games” has connected with so many. “This is the new generation that's kind of started this obsession, and I’m every bit a part of it. And also, I think people love following a character like this, who’s a hero [but] doesn't mean to be a hero, [who] kind of goes against all odds and fights back when something’s wrong, and doesn't stay quiet.”
As Lawrence got up to leave a few seconds later, the man with the Katniss figurine stood up abruptly and intercepted her, reminding the actress that the toy was hers to keep.
“Oh yeah, yay!” she exclaimed, taking it from his hands as she headed for the door. And then she was gone, a flurry of handlers ushering her to the next room.
"The Hunger Games" hits theaters on March 23.
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