Jennifer Lawrence, playing to strength

When Jennifer Lawrence began shooting "X-Men: First Class" in England this year, following her breakout role in Debra Granik's "Winter's Bone," you could say that she went from playing one freakishly exceptional young woman to another, albeit in very different settings.

In the latest chapter of the superhero saga, a prequel to the first three films in the series, Lawrence is cast as Raven Darkholme/Mystique, a lethal shape-shifting mutant. In "Winter's Bone," she portrays Ree Dolly, an almost preternaturally strong, self-possessed teenager charged with resolving a dark and deadly family secret.

Lawrence said she was drawn to Ree the minute she encountered her in the screenplay adapted by Granik and Anne Rosellini from Daniel Woodrell's noir-ish 2006 novel. Like Raven — or any young person for that matter — Ree must rise above her own insecurities as she traipses the thorny path toward adulthood.

"I admired her," the 20-year-old actor said of Ree, while sipping green tea at the Chateau Marmont one recent afternoon. "She has a strength that I could never possess, and she doesn't take no for an answer. You just find yourself fascinated with the life that she has and the attitude that she has toward it."

Ree commands no actual superpowers, unless you count high intelligence, moxie and boundless reservoirs of fierce determination. As the movie unfolds, the stoic 16-year-old must find out what has happened to her shiftless missing father, who jumped bail on charges of cooking crystal meth. If Ree can't track him down, she and her invalid mother and two younger siblings will lose their home to a bondsman.

Blocking Ree's path to the truth are her clannish Ozark relatives, especially her shady uncle, Teardrop ( John Hawkes). As Ree presses forward like some Greek tragic heroine, she threatens to upset the emotional balance of her family and shatter the tribal bonds of her insular southern Missouri community.

Further drawing Lawrence to the role, she said, was Ree's "kind of blind pursuit of what she was finding, kind of this tunnel vision, that none of us have, of seeing what you need and what you want and what needs to happen, and not seeing anything else other than that."

"My mother actually read [the book] five years before and told me that if they ever made it into a movie, I'd be perfect," Lawrence said, laughing.

Lawrence agrees that her mom was on to something. Not unlike Ree, Lawrence is a strikingly focused young woman, particularly in the purposeful way she has gone about constructing her acting career from scratch, starting at an age (14) when some Hollywood kids already are jaded veterans.

"I've just always had this attitude of don't stop until you get it," she said. "I did just kind of have, and I still do, just kind of that dumb, naïve attitude of, 'Well, I want it!' And then when you get told no, just saying, 'Well, no, I'm going to get it, with or without you.'"

Lawrence was raised in the suburbs of Louisville, Ky., where her family had a farm and her father owned a construction firm, and her a-ha! moment came when she spent one spring break in New York City. "As soon as my feet hit the sidewalks" of Manhattan, she said, she knew she'd found her spiritual home. With her family's enthusiastic support, she spent the next few months auditioning in New York. By summer's end, she was being flown to Los Angeles for screen tests.

After a handful of minor TV roles in "Monk," "Cold Case" and other shows, Lawrence landed the principal part in "The Poker House" (2008), director and co-screenwriter Lori Petty's dramatization of her small-town Iowa teenhood. That led to roles in Guillermo Arriaga's crime drama "The Burning Plain," opposite Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger, and James Oakley's thriller "Devil You Know" with Lena Olin.

Granik has said that Lawrence's bred-in-the-bone familiarity with the culture of the rural south-central United States helped equip her to play Ree. Before shooting began, Lawrence moved from New York temporarily back to Kentucky in order to re-immerse herself in some of the regional folkways. She cleaned stables, learned to chop wood and handle firearms properly, and began reacquiring some of her old Bluegrass State inflections that, though by no means identical, are closer to those of southern Missouri than southern Manhattan. For the record, Lawrence also likes to paint and knit and is teaching herself to play guitar.

Lawrence possessed at least one other quality useful to taking on the very sanguine Ree: a lack of squeamishness in the presence of flesh wounds, squirrel stew or most anything else. She attributes that to her lifelong obsession with TV hospital dramas and to serving as assistant nurse at the children's summer day camp that her parents ran on the side.

"It's impossible to shock me or gross me out."

Even the most unflinching temperament, though, might be tested by the emotional demands of Ree's encounters with her un-funny Uncle Teardrop, whose cagey intensity matches that of his niece. The scenes depicting their taut mental (and sometimes physical) wrestling matches, tests of will that skirt the dangerous borders of in-bred familial eroticism, constitute the movie's most quietly explosive frames.

Hawkes lauds the talent and professional ease of his younger colleague.

"Jennifer's the kind that can probably be in the middle of a joke, hear 'Action!' and cry, laugh, be angry or whatever she's got to do, and hear 'Cut!' and then say the punchline of the joke," Hawkes said admiringly. "There's no falseness, no lying about her. Everything's authentic."

After the rewarding rigors of filming "Winter's Bone" (cold weather, lots of outdoor shoots), Lawrence is basking in a new love affair with England while making "X-Men." She lives in London's funky Notting Hill neighborhood, shops at the Portobello Market with her costar and friend Zöe Kravitz and spends as much time as possible wandering the lanes of Hyde Park.

"I didn't realize until I got to London how much L.A. messes with your head," she said. She loves going to dinner with new friends who barely have a clue what she does for a living and don't particularly care.

Sounds like an ideal place for gathering strength for the next round of leaping tall obstacles. One of those, she admits, would be trying to direct a film herself. What appeals to her about the challenge?

"It's so weird when you answer these questions, because there are so many wrong ways to answer it. There's really not a lot of right ways to answer it.

"Why don't you just wait until I direct my first movie?" she said, laughing. "And then we'll talk."

reed.johnson@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
54°