Karen Valby
May 20, 2011 AT 04:00 AM EDT

It’s a shock to see Jennifer Lawrence with dark hair. Earlier this spring, when Lionsgate announced that the actress would anchor The Hunger Games, the first in a series of films based on Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular dystopian trilogy, there was a predictable outcry from some young fans They feared that Lawrence, the 20-year-old who earned an Oscar nomination for her performance in last year’s harshly beautiful indie Winter’s Bone, was too old, too blond, too tall, too pale, too pretty to play the part of a teenager fighting to the death in a brutal government- ordered competition. And yet here she is in early May at a Los Angeles archery range, with one intense week of training left before she’s due on the North Carolina set. And she looks every bit as fierce as fans would demand of their Katniss Everdeen. Lawrence’s dark tresses are scraped back into a ponytail, her skin tawny from long mornings in the sun. ”I think I just have to stay tan,” she tells me of adjusting to her new hair. ”Or I’ll look like the girl from The Ring.”

For over a month, Lawrence has been enduring a grueling training program consisting of archery, track work, stunt drills, and yoga. She says that her archery coach, a four-time Olympian from Eastern Europe, spent weeks bemoaning her lack of skills. Apparently, it was only after the woman declared her ”helpless!” that Lawrence gritted her teeth and hit the bull’s-eye. ”What happened?” her coach cried in surprise. Lawrence turned to her and growled, her Southern accent making a rare appearance, ”You pissed me off!”

Today, Lawrence holds a large bow aloft as her eyes narrow on the target. When her arrow thwacks into the bull’s-eye, she smiles and — as she would do when she scored a basket for her childhood basketball team in Louisville, Ky. — launches into cartwheels.

Lawrence needs to be in peak condition to embody Katniss, the 16-year-old girl plucked from her district to battle other unlucky children in a reality TV death match. Gary Ross, who’s directing The Hunger Games (in theaters March 23, 2012), stressed to her trainer that while he by no means wants her gaunt when shooting begins on the PG-13 film later this month, she does have to portray a girl desperate for food. (Meanwhile, costars Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth, who’ll play Katniss’ staunch District 12 allies Peeta and Gale, are busy bulking themselves up in a weight-training regimen. ”Apparently I’m the only one in the district who’s starving,” jokes Lawrence.)

When Lawrence officially signed on to play Katniss, some fans may have complained, but the revered author of the Hunger Games series (nearly 10 million copies and counting) was elated enough to call and offer her congratulations. ”I feel like when you said yes, the world got lifted off of my shoulders,” Collins told the actress. That weight has now been shifted onto Lawrence, who must personify the grit and private vulnerability of a most beloved heroine. ”Don’t worry about Jen,” says Ross with an admiring laugh. ”She’s a very, very powerful person.”

After archery, Lawrence is due across town at the Santa Monica College track for an hour of speed drills. Before getting into her white Volkswagen, she turns back with a girlish grin. ”Let’s race there!” she says.

She wins.

It was Lawrence’s mother who introduced her to the Hunger Games books last Christmas. ”She did the same thing with Winter’s Bone,” the actress recalls. Her role in that movie involved hunting, taking punches, caring for younger siblings, and even skinning and cooking a squirrel, making it a bona fide audition tape for the part of Katniss. Her performance certainly caught Gary Ross’ eye. ”I just thought she was phenomenally talented and riveting,” he says. It was during the height of her Oscar campaign that the two met for the first time. Ross asked the young actress how she was handling the marathon that is an awards season. ”And I just opened up and said, ‘I feel like a rag doll,”’ Lawrence recalls. ”’I have hair and makeup people coming to my house every day and putting me in new, uncomfortable, weird dresses and expensive shoes, and I just shut down and raise my arms up for them to get the dress on, and pout my lips when they need to put the lipstick on.’ And we both started laughing, because that’s exactly what it’s like for Katniss in the Capitol. She was a girl who’s all of a sudden being introduced to fame. I know what that feels like to have all this flurry around you and feel like, ‘Oh, no, I don’t belong here.”’

From there, the two dug into rich discussions about Collins’ young-adult trilogy and the tough and damaged Katniss. From the way Lawrence speaks about The Hunger Games, it’s as if she too is one of those suspicious fans who don’t want to see their favorite book cheapened in its transition to the screen: ”I told Gary, ‘I totally understand if you don’t hire me, but please remember that after Katniss shoots a bow and kills someone, her face cannot be badass. It has to be broken.’ It’s so tempting, especially with a cool, big-budget franchise movie, but we have to remember that she’s a 16-year-old girl.” Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) and producer and former Disney executive Nina Jacobson had similar concerns. ”I felt very protective of the book,” Jacobson says, ”and felt there was a version of the movie that could be made that would in fact be sort of guilty of all of the sins of the Capitol.” Moved by Lawrence’s passion, and a killer audition, Ross offered her the role.

And yet she hesitated. ”Professionally, the answer was obviously yes,” Lawrence remembers. But she spent the day in a state of paralysis. A few years ago, she had gone on a routine audition, for Bella in Twilight. The role went to Kristen Stewart, who ever since has had an almost feral look of discomfort about her, appearing trapped by the suffocating nature of fame. The Hunger Games is not Twilight, as any Hunger Games fan will be quick to point out. But Lawrence understands that the reach of the franchise is similar. ”I knew that as soon as I said yes, my life would change. And I walked around thinking, ‘It’s not too late, I could still go back and do indies. I haven’t said yes yet, it’s not too late.”’

Unsure of what to do, Lawrence called her dad back in Kentucky, who suggested she seek advice from Jodie Foster, her director on The Beaver. Foster was out of the country at the time, but she sent Lawrence an encouraging email. ”Yeah, she’s going to be completely famous,” Foster says now. ”And maybe it’s going to be like Twilight, and there’s going to be sequels, and girls and boys are going to be screaming, and ‘Is this what I really wanted?’ and all that. But look at Silence of the Lambs. Can you make a blockbuster that has real resonance and stands for something? I think that Hunger Games can, and if anyone is going to be able to get it there, it’s Jennifer.”

In the end, it was Lawrence’s mother who eased her youngest child’s anxiety. ”She told me I was being a hypocrite,” says Lawrence. ”All of the times that I was doing indies and passing on studio films, people would ask me why, and I always said, ‘I don’t care about the budget of the movie or the size of it. I care about the story.’ And my mom said, ‘This is a story that you love, and you’re thinking about saying no to it because of the size of it. Hypocrite!’ And she was right. I love this story, and if I had said no I would regret it every day.”

Lawrence’s parents — her dad owned a construction business; the two now run a summer day camp — were initially less than thrilled with their daughter’s decision to become an actress. When Lawrence was 14, she persuaded them to let her spend the summer in New York City going on auditions. As summer came to an end, her parents wanted her to come back home already. In the midst of their arguments, Lawrence happened to see a newspaper story about a boy from Kentucky starring in a new movie called Little Manhattan. ”I was like, ‘Look, see? He’s from Kentucky and he made it. I can do it too!’ And, weirdly, it helped them accept that this is what I wanted to do.” That boy was Josh Hutcherson (The Kids Are All Right). In a nifty twist of fate, he’ll play Peeta, Lawrence’s favorite character from the Hunger Games trilogy.

After finishing high school early, Lawrence talked her parents into letting her move to Los Angeles. She found work as a nanny for a 9-month-old girl until landing a supporting role on the sitcom The Bill Engvall Show in 2007. At first, she says, it was hard making friends in L.A. ”The only problem with Los Angeles is the quality and quantity of people. There’s too many of them, and most of them are weird.” One night she found herself at a ”fancy actor party” in Hollywood. A guest stood up to give an eloquent toast to the esteemed host, and Lawrence couldn’t resist chiming in. ”I raised my glass and said, ‘To Amelia Earhart, may she find her way!”’ The room went silent, people looking away in embarrassment for her, and Lawrence was left holding her glass in the air. ”So I just went, ‘Well!’ and took a swig.” Luckily, there was another girl at the party, a nanny like her, who found Lawrence’s discomfort hilarious, and the two became best friends.

Today, with an Oscar nod under her belt, and having nabbed the biggest role out there for a young actress, Lawrence is discovering that success can cut both ways. In February, amid the flurry of awards season, Rolling Stone ran an interview in which she was quoted making fun of her Kentucky upbringing. ”Little redneck things still come out…. I’m attracted to my brother. Stuff like that,” she told the reporter. The story went viral, to everybody’s horror. Her brother was outraged. ”I was actually cracking up about that,” she says. ”Though I was the only one. My mom was so mad. ‘Jen! This is not funny! You cannot laugh at this!’ And I was like, ‘Mom, this is my first scandal and it’s hilarious.”’

After track practice, Lawrence heads to a bench in the shade to catch her breath. When asked whether it stung when Hunger Games fans worried about her casting, she starts reciting what are clearly bullet points from a preapproved message. ”Well, that’s the great thing about the books, and presumably the movie, which is it has this great following. People feel like they have an individual relationship with the character. And that’s great. That’s what you want. You want people to feel like they have…” She pauses, distracted by a blond boy running on the field, and wonders aloud if she knows him.

”Anyhoo,” she continues, ”it’s nice to know that people are involved…” She sounds so checked out that I can’t help interrupting her and wondering if she’s just… ”Saying the right things?” she asks, breaking into a laugh. ”Yeah. Can you tell I’ve had media training?”

”Listen, I know from the bottom of my heart that I love Katniss. I love her,” she continues, serious this time, her face flushing. ”It’s kind of like when you have a huge crush on somebody, and it’s almost scary because you don’t want to mess it up and have it not be everything you hope it will be. That’s exactly what I feel about this. I’m terrified. Is it going to be good enough? Am I going to be good enough?”

Thrillingly, early signs point to yes.

Coming Sooner: Jennifer Lawrence in X-Men

She played a poor, struggling young woman in last year’s Winter’s Bone and a cheerleader mourning the death of her brother in this month’s The Beaver. Then Jennifer Lawrence went blue. In X-Men: First Class, out June 3, she’ll appear as shape-shifter Raven Darkholme a.k.a. Mystique — the mutant portrayed by Rebecca Romijn in the previous X-Men films. In this origin story, Darkholme is a romantic, insecure girl still growing into the full extent of her powers. Her costume? Just a generous dose of paint. The eight-hour application (involving seven makeup artists) was a tedious process, which Lawrence made bearable by rewatching favorite movies like Dumb and Dumber. ”It was like a really bizarre sleepover where I was just standing up naked being painted and scaled and glued,” she says. ”There were so many point where I’d think, ‘There is nobody else in the whole world who is doing this right now. Literally!”’

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