She's the rebel hero every young actress wanted to play — Katniss Everdeen in the Hollywood adaptation of The Hunger Games, the first book in author Suzanne Collins' best-selling trilogy.
Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, Chloë Moretz, Saoirse Ronan, Emma Roberts and Shailene Woodley were all in the running before 21-year-old, Oscar-nominated Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone, X-Men: First Class) nailed the audition and walked away with the part. "It was the easiest casting decision I ever made in my life," director Gary Ross told Entertainment Weekly.
In the film, the totalitarian government of Panem (the former United States of America after a brutal civil war) keeps a dissenting population in line with its yearly staging of The Hunger Games. The government selects, at random, one teenage boy and girl from 12 different districts and puts them in an outdoor arena where their fight to the death is televised for all to see.
Outdoorsy, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her younger sister's place alongside Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), and proves that a young woman with a lot of heart, courage and lethal archery skills can inspire an oppressed nation. We spoke with Kentucky native Lawrence on the phone from Los Angeles about making the most anticipated film of her young career.
You had to get fit and trim to play Katniss. Was it difficult to play such a physical role while keeping your weight down?
"It's funny, I'm eating right now as I answer that [chewing noises]. Actually, there was so much activity in the movie that I had to eat more on this film than any other. Because you have to be consistent, and when I would run up and down a mountain all day and all of a sudden I lost three pounds, which shows, then you have to eat a cheeseburger to get it back so you look the same. So it was hard to actually keep the weight on."
Did you have a nutritionist and trainer on set?"We had a trainer, and I started out with a nutritionist, and when we got to the place where they went, 'Okay, that's it,' then I ate whatever I wanted, exercised and kept my body looking the same."
Is it true you fell in love with archery?"I did. I have a love/hate relationship with archery. It's a bitch when you mess it up and you hit the inside of your arm and it swells up and it hurts. But then you hit the target, you hit the bull's eye, it's the best feeling in the entire world. I really did start to love it."
And is it safe to say you are the best Oscar-nominated tree climber out there?
"Oh, that's quite a title, but I'll go for it."
What's the secret to being a good tree climber?
"A harness and a wire [laughs]. The secret is I was trained with a specific kind of choreography — this hand goes here, this hand goes there, using these knots to hold onto. And those knots were then transferred over to the tree where they were disguised to look like little knobs in the tree bark. And then it's just choreography."
Why do you think The Hunger Games has struck a nerve with so many people?
"Because it's a story that reminds us of the worst part of humanity. We're living in a world obsessed with reality television and our shock factor is constantly desensitized. It takes more and more to surprise us and interest us, and we feed off of other people's trauma."
And then there is Katniss, who represents female empowerment.
"Absolutely, she is a symbol for revolt and hope and freedom. She is this young girl who is forced to do things that are unimaginable. She wants more for the world. She's kind of a futuristic Joan of Arc."
There is so much pressure associated with the role — living up to the expectations of the fans, and carrying what may ultimately be three films on your shoulders. What's that like?
"You can't really think about that. I mean, I am aware of it and I appreciate it, understand its gravity, but you can't think about it too much or it'll freak ya out."
Do you think growing up with brothers in Kentucky helped prepare you to play Katniss?
"Yeah, I definitely don't think it hurt."
What was your relationship with your brothers like? Outdoorsy?
"My middle brother, who is closer to my age — obviously, since I am the youngest — we were always outdoors, playing war, having fights, battles, the whole thing. My older brother and I — he's 10 years older than me — he would drive me around in his car, we'd play music and he'd let me work the stick shift in the car. Sometimes he'd watch "SpongeBob SquarePants" with me. I had a different relationship with each of them."
You're only 21 but have been working non-stop since you were 16. What's the one thing you've gotten better at when it comes to making movies?
"I think it gets so much easier to let things roll off your back. It's such a business of hurry up and wait, and if you let it get to you it will drive you absolutely insane, like, 'Why was I called in at four in the morning and I haven't been used until one in the afternoon?' And, 'Why are we shooting this a million times when we have five other scenes to shoot?' But you get to a point where you just say, 'This is filmmaking. This is what you get paid for. Everybody is doing the best they can.' It's what you have to live with."
It's true, and you have limited energy, and you don't want to waste it stressing out.
"I’ve gotten really good at that. I work hard and I relax so hard."
What does "relax so hard" mean?
"You get out of bed to eat and go to the bathroom and that's it."
Ingrid Randoja is the deputy editor of Cineplex Magazine.