Jennifer Lawrence is dressed in black jeans and a cozy gray shirt, her dark hair still damp from a hasty shower after mucking around all day in a jungle outrunning various forces of destruction. It’s an early December evening in Waikiki, and Lawrence is shooting Catching Fire, the sequel to the blockbuster hit The Hunger Games, based on the second novel in Suzanne Collins’ dystopian series. Following a quick baton toss last April from director Gary Ross to Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend), the film went into production in September and is now 11 days from wrapping.
The fate of society continues to rest uncomfortably on our heroine’s shoulders. Katniss Everdeen, whom Jennifer Lawrence plays with fierce vulnerability, has survived the Games but will pay an ungodly price for the act of rebellion that saved her life and sparked a revolution. In Catching Fire (out Nov. 22, not yet rated), the Capitol demands that winners from previous Games be reaped yet again, this time to fight in a tropical arena ripe with treacherous surprises. Katniss must lean heavily once more on her staunch allies (Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch, Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta) while questioning the motives of new ones (Sam Claflin’s Finnick, Jena Malone’s Johanna).
Much has changed in Lawrence’s life in the past year. She has a bodyguard now, who keeps a low-key presence in the Trump hotel balcony lounge throughout our interview. And a personal assistant, who’s preparing Lawrence a scallop dinner upstairs in the actress’ suite. And awards buzz roaring around her blistering performance in Silver Linings Playbook. But at heart the 22-year-old remains a ferociously talented, determinedly raw girl from Kentucky who seems unimpressed by fame and unwilling to conform to its demands. ”She is the least ‘diva’ leading lady ever. Ever,” says producer Nina Jacobson. ”She’s not spoiled, she’s not precious, she’s not needy. She’s a goofball who is fun and funny. I love bringing stories home from the set because I get to tell my daughter, ‘Look, here’s someone actually worth looking up to.”’
And so, after ordering herself a Budweiser and sprawling across a banquette, Lawrence proceeds to do the one thing most stars never do: keep it real — wildly real.
How panicky were the conversations among the cast when you found out Gary Ross wasn’t coming back?
I really love Gary and the movie that he made. He put so many layers into my character that still carry on now — so I don’t have to memorize my lines before I show up to work. [Laughs] Kidding! I thought that foundation would be gone and we would be starting from scratch. And then there was the Summit and Lionsgate merger, and there were lots of changes, and we all went through a phase where we were like, ”Dude, we have no idea what’s going to happen.”
Tell me about your first conversation with Francis Lawrence.
Our first conversation was on the phone. I was in the bathtub, and I had to tell him that I was in the bathtub because I was afraid he would think I was, like, playing in the toilet when he heard water swishing around. [Laughs]
Naturally, that’s where his head would go…
I know, I can turn anything inappropriate. Anything. Okay, let’s start again. Our first conversation: I was in Prague, because I was filming [the movie Serena], and we met on the phone and I liked everything he had to say. He’s really smart, and he has a very gentle way about him. He’s really passionate about the book. It didn’t seem like he was just excited to make a huge movie. Then we had breakfast in Santa Monica, and I spit egg inside of his mouth when I was talking. Like, it went in. Into his mouth. [Laughs] In the process of finding directors, I was pretty involved. I usually never feel comfortable asserting my opinion; I’m very much a passive wimp.
I have a hard time believing that.
No, I really am. I have a very deep voice, so it makes me seem tough and opinionated, but actually I’m a big pushover. But when it comes to these movies, I’m passionate about them, so I actually care. Normally, I don’t care. [Laughs] Wait, let me start over.
”All my other movies, ehh…”
Yeah, all of the other movies I’ve ever done — pffft! I’m kidding! It’s almost like I subconsciously don’t want to work anymore, so I’m trying to ruin my career. [Leans into the tape recorder] I’m pregnant!
You literally cannot help yourself.
I know, I know. I did this to The New York Times. My publicist called me and was like, ”This is The New York Times, be serious.” And then I found myself talking about orgies in three seconds.
You obviously don’t want to turn into a sound-bite machine.
I’m so blessed, I’m so lucky. Thank you, Jesus. I’m trying to think of the politically correct way to say this, and there isn’t one. Okay, the politically correct answer… The interview officially starts now, right? [Laughs] I think it’s because I’m so afraid of being one of those, one of those…
Self-preserving famous people?
I just don’t get it. I don’t feel any cooler for what I do. When I meet somebody who actually does something to help other people, like a doctor or, I don’t know, even a financial adviser, that’s impressive to me. ”You can do math? That’s amazing.” I’m so aware of all the BS that surrounds Hollywood and how everyone gets on this high horse and thinks that they’re curing cancer, and it makes me so uncomfortable. So I go in the exact opposite direction and end up saying something like ”I’m pregnant!” when I’m in two franchises [The Hunger Games and X-Men].
Yeah, good luck with this one, publicist! [Laughs] Stop laughing, you’re just encouraging me.
What’s the most reassuring thing anyone said to you before the sequel started shooting?
This is going to be a weird thing to say, but it just popped into my head. Whenever Gary and I would talk about Katniss, it was ”[You’re from] District 12 and you’re a hunter.” I didn’t feel like an action star, I didn’t feel like a superhero. I felt like a hunter. That helped keep it grounded in this reality of, she’s good at this not because she’s a trained killer but because she’s a 16-year-old girl who happens to be great with her senses. And still, in this second movie, I’m a hunter.
Katniss is always starving in the first film, but she feasts a fair amount in Catching Fire. Gone is the presumption that you must look starving.
The first movie is called The Hunger Games, but there was never a point where I needed to lose weight. And with this movie I still train, but I really won’t ever diet. No matter what people say to me, like, ”Hey, you’re in this movie, lose 10 pounds.” I say, ”How about I lose three?” And it’s going to be a lot of hard work and I’ll gain it back in two weeks.
There’s been a glut of paparazzi photos of you since the shoot moved to Hawaii. How are you handling the attention?
Josh [Hutcherson] is a rock. He is always positive. He is always happy. And then there’s me, where I completely let it ruin my day. I wrap myself up to look like Lord Voldemort so that they can’t see anything because the thought of giving them a picture that will make them money absolutely infuriates me. When I first started acting I thought it would be annoying, and that’s how you imagine it when you see other people in paparazzi shots. But you don’t imagine that it’s actually terrifying. To have people lurking around your house? You’re just a girl driving in her car looking in her rearview mirror with all these men following you. It’s actually scary. [Leans into the tape recorder] I just want them to know that I hate them. That’s my mature stance on it.
Were there changes from the Catching Fire book to the script that hurt you as a fan?
That was actually just in my media points that I’m not supposed to answer that question. I just pulled them up when I went to go change my pants. My friend read them out loud to me, and that was one: ”Do not compare to the book.”
What are your other media points? Can you tell me?
Yeah, I guess. Can I? Like, basically don’t talk about salary.
Hey, you made 10 million dollars!
Which is my favorite thing to talk about. [Laughs] And “Don’t talk about any plotlines in the next movies.” I was flipping through channels the other day and saw the guy who media-trained me a year and a half ago. That’s my teacher! That guy with a beard, and he does that show Inside…
…The Actors Studio?
No! Do you know how much that guy would hate me? ”Tell me about your method”? There is no method!
Have you been invited to go on that show?
My people passed on it because they know me. I’m an animal. I’m not ready for Inside the Actors Studio. I haven’t built up a résumé.
Tell me about welcoming new cast members like Sam Claflin to the Hunger Games franchise.
We’ve all pretty much established that I’m the little brother of the cast, so I get picked on by everybody else — Woody, Lenny [Kravitz], Josh, everybody. I’m always the target. I had a party for everybody in Atlanta. When Sam, who was obviously the new one, walked in I was chasing Woody and we’d flipped over my couch and Woody had a sock all the way down my throat, so I’m sure…
We all had weapons. You could either have a Nerf gun or you could have one of Woody’s socks. He’s a vegan and he exercises, so just imagine. So Woody — who is my favorite person in this world; he’s like a hug — was the first one to arrive and he’s wearing a thermal so he’s like, ”Hey, do you have, like, a T-shirt or something I could borrow?” The only thing I had that could fit him is a cropped T-shirt with mesh in the back. Not one person mentioned the shirt all night. ”Oh, Woody’s in a belly shirt; he must have gone on a 10-day juice cleanse.”
How did poor Sam adapt?
When you first walk into a scene like that, it’s odd. But he’s actually really fun.
You, Sam, and Josh seem to have a genuinely nice rapport.
We do. We’re brothers. [Laughs]
Does it ever come up that you’re, in fact, a girl?
I grew up with brothers, so it seems totally natural and normal. As soon as somebody farts around me, I think it’s hilarious. [She lifts up her leg from the banquette and pretends to fart, then laughs.] This is something my brothers did that now the boys at work are obsessed with. You cup it and then you throw it in someone’s face and say, ”Take a bite out of that cheeseburger!”
On the subject of poise, you’re facing Oscar season again for your role in Silver Linings Playbook. I know it overwhelmed you the first time around. Are you feeling like, ”Somebody rescue me!”
Am I like, what? ”Oscar me!”?
No, ”rescue me!”
The top quote of this interview is going to be ”Oscar me already!” Um, no, obviously it would be the most amazing honor.
Do you think you’ll be able to enjoy it more this time?
Well, yeah, I’ll be able to drink. [Laughs] I couldn’t last time.
Do you pay attention to box office?
I couldn’t tell you how much money The Hunger Games made. I know it was good, because my life’s a living hell now. So I know that a lot of people saw it. [Laughs] No, because my life is so different now. It’s blessed. I’m blessed.
After a year like this, is it hard to keep yourself grounded?
It really isn’t. My best friend was just in town, and we were trying to register everything that’s changed. This was our first time going out with a security guard, going to VIP stuff. Who am I, the president’s daughter? No matter what happens, it just doesn’t register.
That’s for the best, right?
I think so. I personally feel like I’ve pulled the wool over all y’all’s eyes.
Let’s end on an upbeat note: What’s been your favorite day on Catching Fire?
We were shooting on this beautiful beach, and there were sea turtles everywhere. In between takes Josh and Sam and I were running and jumping and swimming in the water. I was like, ”I’m gettin’ paid to do this?! This is awesome.” Cliff-Hanger Moments: from the making of Catching Fire
1 Finding a new director
Just five months before Catching Fire was set to start shooting, Hunger Games writer-director Gary Ross excused himself from the franchise, balking at the quick turnaround. Two weeks later Francis Lawrence had beaten out such talents as Bennett Miller (Moneyball) for the helm. ”Production-wise I wasn’t intimidated,” says Lawrence, who made I Am Legend under a similar 12-week crunch. ”The only thing was the script. There wasn’t one.”
2 Writing a script, quickly
Originally Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) was hired to write the adaptation under Ross’ supervision. When Ross left, so did Beaufoy. ”But it wasn’t like we had nothing,” says producer Nina Jacobson. ”We had this great book.” Director Lawrence and author Suzanne Collins holed up for three days in her publisher’s office with take-out food and chocolate. Together they drafted the film’s outline.
3 Getting the old cast on board
Woody Harrelson took the transition to a new director the hardest. ”Woody is a very emotional guy; he’s very loyal, so he was connected to Gary and was just bummed at the circumstances,” says Francis Lawrence. ”Because of that, I actually went to New York a couple of times to hang out with Woody so he could gauge what it’s going to be like. Am I going to be a jerk? Am I going to pay attention? And it was great. I love the guy.”
4 Getting the new cast on board
Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays the new Head Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee, was the movie’s first big get. ”We went and saw him on Broadway, where he was doing Death of a Salesman,” says Jacobson. ”It took a lot of patience to get him to focus and read the book, because we didn’t have a script yet. But we really wanted him because we wanted everybody to know that yes, it’s a new director, but our standards are just as high and we’re still aiming for Oscar-caliber actors.”
5 Finishing the script, finally!
”The first third of the book is a lot of zigzagging,” says Jacobson. ”We go on tour, we’re at the Capitol, we’re back home, then Katniss spends a lot of time in her head thinking.” Jacobson hired screenwriter Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) to streamline the story and enliven its emotional core. ”Michael turned in a first draft, and suddenly you could see it all,” says Lawrence.
6 Creating a new vision
The director wanted to beef up the costume design and special effects: ”I thought that there were a lot of opportunities for the costumes, especially in the Capitol, to go crazy, to have fun, but in a very sophisticated way.” Enter The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo costume designer Trish Summerville. Lawrence also wanted to tinker with the cinematography (”It doesn’t always have to be desaturated and gray”) and brought in a new visual-effects supervisor, Janek Sirrs (The Avengers).
7 Staying Afloat
”We built a big portion of the Cornucopia in Atlanta” says Lawrence. ”It was really cold. Just dealing with water in the low 40s, and the rocks, and the narrow spokes that we built, and cold actors was depressing. Some days go slowly, and some days there are mounting logistical issues where you just have to figure out how to solve those problems with platforms and water and wave machines and volcanic rocks.”
Sam Claflin was sure he’d whiffed the audition. He was in Los Angeles on a promotional tour for Snow White and the Huntsman when his agent sent him in to read for Finnick Odair — Catching Fire‘s charismatic golden boy from District 4 whose motives remain unclear to Katniss as they head back into the Games. ”Finnick is this tanned, green-eyed sex god,” says the 26-year-old Brit. ”I’m thinking, ‘I’m brunet, I have loads of stubble,’ and at the time I was by no means in shape. This guy walked in just after my audition who looked like Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise. I thought, ‘Yeah, I’m not going to get this.”’
The filmmakers were after more than just studliness. ”Sometimes you get someone with the swagger but not the soulfulness, or the other way around,” says producer Nina Jacobson. ”Sam had both. He is such a sweet, sweet fellow.”
Claflin brings his natural dimples and green eyes to the role. But he’s had to spend months eating nothing but chicken and asparagus. ”It’s depressing,” he sighs. ”I just want a burger and beer.” He dyed his hair blond and endured the indignities of spray tanning. All this so that he wouldn’t let fans down during the infamous sugar-cube scene, where Finnick teases Katniss while wearing a strategically placed bit of net. ”That was the scariest moment of my life,” he says with a laugh. ”I’m on Twitter, and so many people have been like, ‘Don’t mess this up, or we will kill you.’ ”