Sex, violence and a Russian accent: Jennifer Lawrence takes another big risk with ‘Red Sparrow’

Jennifer Lawrence stars in the new spy thriller "Red Sparrow."
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

As she slipped into a corner booth in a restaurant at a Beverly Hills hotel on a recent afternoon, Jennifer Lawrence was buzzing.

An obsessive fan of reality TV, she had just spotted someone across the room who had appeared on a certain reality series she watches, and she needed a moment to settle down and focus. “Sorry, I’m still excited about my celebrity sighting,” she said. “I’m all jacked up.”

It goes without saying, of course, that Lawrence is not just a celebrity herself but one of the biggest ones currently inhabiting the planet. To date, her movies, including blockbusters in the “Hunger Games” and “X-Men” franchises and smaller films like “Winter’s Bone” and “American Hustle,” have collectively grossed more than $5.6 billion worldwide. At age 27 — two years younger than Meryl Streep was when she received her first-ever Academy Award nomination — she has already scored four Oscar nods, winning the lead actress prize for 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook.”


To her legions of admirers, though, an essential part of Lawrence’s appeal is that, for all her success, she still comes across as just the sort of regular person who’d freak out at seeing someone she recognized from a reality TV show.

In her latest movie, the spy thriller “Red Sparrow,” opening March 2, Lawrence takes on a role unlike any she’s played, one that pushed her well outside of her comfort zone. She stars as Dominika Egorova, a Russian prima ballerina who is coerced by her spymaster uncle into becoming a covert intelligence agent. Trained in a top-secret school in the arts of seduction and sexual manipulation, Egorova is sent on a mission to pry secrets from an American CIA agent (Joel Edgerton).

Based on the 2013 novel by former CIA operative Jason Matthews, the R-rated “Red Sparrow” is sexually charged and often brutal, punctuated with scenes of assassination, torture and attempted rape. When director Francis Lawrence, who helmed three of the four “Hunger Games” films, first approached her about the project, Lawrence immediately fell in love with the character of Dominika. But, still shaken by the hacking in 2014 of her private intimate photos, she felt wary about diving into a film that would require her to act, at times naked or nearly so, in such explicit scenes.

“It was really sexual — if it weren’t for that it would have been an easy yes,” said Lawrence, who had also never done a character who spoke with a foreign accent. “But I knew that if there was anybody who could make this material that’s really salacious and daring tasteful, it’s Francis.” In the end, she says, the experience felt empowering. “It kind of belittled the whole thing in a weird way. It’s just a body. It’s my body. I love my body.”

“I think Jen is fearless,” said “Red Sparrow” producer Jenno Topping, president of film and television at Chernin Entertainment. “To be able to continue to take the risks that she’s taking is extraordinary. She’s just so committed to being an actor first as opposed to being a star first.”

When he first began adapting “Red Sparrow” for the screen three years ago, Francis Lawrence was initially concerned that a Cold War thriller about a spy who uses sex as a weapon might not feel relevant to today’s audiences. In a twist he couldn’t have foreseen, the film is now set to hit theaters as stories of Russian espionage are the stuff of screaming headlines and controversies over sexual misconduct continue to reverberate across Hollywood and beyond.


Against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, the filmmaker admits he’s not sure how audiences will receive the movie’s sometimes graphic depictions of sexual violence, including a scene in which a wealthy and powerful man tries to rape Lawrence’s character in a hotel room. “These are themes that have unfortunately been happening in our world for hundreds, if not thousands, of years,” he said. “It’s a coincidence that this movie now happens to coincide with the events that are in the news. It’s really tricky for me to say how audiences are going to react.”

Moved by her own experiences with sexual harassment and objectification and the stories shared by other women, Lawrence has been actively involved in Hollywood’s Time’s Up campaign. “We’re reshaping the way we want to be treated,” she said. “There was a norm that existed before that I had been a part of as well. I had, like, guys’ hands on my legs and I didn’t want to move them because I didn’t want to seem crazy or whatever. There was stuff that happened to me when I was younger that now is not going to be normal.”

Highlighting some of the trickier dynamics of the current conversation over women and power in Hollywood, days later, controversy erupted over photos of Lawrence taken during the “Red Sparrow” press tour. She was wearing a revealing dress outside on a chilly London day, surrounded by male co-stars fully covered in coats and scarves. Social media lit up with criticisms that the images represent how women are treated in Hollywood.

Lawrence responded in a Facebook post, calling the kerfuffle “utterly ridiculous”: “Overreacting about everything someone says or does, creating controversy over silly innocuous things such as what I choose to wear or not wear, is not moving us forward,” she wrote. “It’s creating silly distractions from real issues. Everything you see me wear is my choice. And if I want to be cold THATS MY CHOICE TOO!”

As for what gets depicted onscreen in a film like “Red Sparrow,” however, Lawrence argues that is an entirely separate matter. “At the end of the day, we’re the movie industry — we’re going to have sex, we’re going to have violence,” she said. “If you focus so hard on making something that’s politically correct, the art will suffer. Art is subjective. Some people are going to hate it, some people are going to love it.”

That lesson has been brought home to Lawrence over the past couple of years. Her most recent film, Darren Aronofsky’s allegorical horror film “mother!” sharply divided critics and received a rare F CinemaScore from audiences. The film before that, 2016’s sci-fi romance “Passengers,” co-starring Chris Pratt, looked at first glance like a project that couldn’t miss — “and then it did,” Lawrence said, grossing a less-than-spectacular $100 million domestically and earning generally poor reviews.


Indeed, as she’s gotten older, Lawrence has become increasingly aware that the line between success and failure in Hollywood can be thin.

“It’s a very fickle industry,” she said. “I probably felt bulletproof when I was doing ‘Hunger Games,’ but I was also young so I didn’t care. I was used to doing movies and then they go well — that was my reality. Then it’s scary because it’s just like any job. If you’re demanding a salary and you’re saying, ‘I am worth this,’ you have to prove you’re worth that or your worth goes down.”

She paused. “This is not an industry for the weak of heart.”

Jennifer Lawrence has already scored four Oscar nods, winning the lead actress prize for 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook.”
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times )

In conversation, Lawrence is a live wire, quick-witted and unscripted. One moment she is speaking seriously about how, following the election of Donald Trump as president, her “head kind of blew off” and she decided to throw herself into the cause of getting money out of politics. The next moment, chatting casually about a doctor’s appointment earlier that day, she pulls off a cotton ball that was bandaged onto her arm after she had blood drawn and muses, “What if I just put this in my mouth and was like, ‘Anyway, what were you saying?’ ”

With her usual candor, Lawrence admits that when she won the Oscar for “Silver Linings Playbook,” she felt like an impostor. A virtual unknown just a few years before, with no formal training, she was still figuring out her approach to acting and hadn’t thought her performance in the romantic dramedy was particularly strong.

“My best friend was like, ‘Bradley [Cooper] is amazing in it but I didn’t think you were that good,’ ” she said. “I was like, ‘I didn’t think I was that good either!’” She let out a raspy laugh. “When I think I’m bad in a movie and it’s confirmed by my best friends and then I win an Oscar — that will give you impostor syndrome right away.”


Lawrence can still be her own harshest critic. (Acknowledging the daunting process of working on a Russian accent for “Red Sparrow,” she joked, “watch me get annihilated for it.”) But over the years, she has gradually grown more secure in her abilities and her place in the Hollywood ecosystem.

“It’s important for anyone in their job, especially a woman, to know their worth and own it,” said the actress, who wrote an essay in 2015 about the gender pay gap in Hollywood after it was revealed in the Sony hack that she and Amy Adams were paid less than their male co-stars in 2013’s “American Hustle.” “It’s not making the same mistake of believing what someone tells you you’re worth. You know your worth.”

As she has come more fully into her own power, Lawrence — already precociously self-possessed from the moment she arrived in Hollywood — has learned to stand up even more firmly for herself. When the subject of her recent “worst actress” Golden Raspberry nomination for “mother!” comes up, for example, instead of laughing it off, she fiercely defends both the movie and her own work in it.

“If I ever got nominated for something and I was like, ‘Yeah, that blew,’ I would totally go [to the Razzies ceremony],” Lawrence said. “But I popped a rib out doing that movie. Don’t try to tell me that that was a bad ... performance.”

“I admire the way she’s learning to handle the ups and downs of public performance while remaining true to herself,” said David O. Russell, who directed Lawrence in “Silver Linings Playbook” and later in “American Hustle” and 2015’s “Joy,” each of which earned her Oscar nods, and who remains a close friend. “She keeps taking risks, keeps making movies and, most important of all, keeps her sincerity. Cynicism or talking things down is a dissipation at the end of the day.”

But even as her impostor syndrome has abated, Lawrence said wryly, “Many other syndromes have come to replace it. You pluck one out and six more show up at its funeral.”


She continued, “There are times when everybody is looking at you, listening to you, talking about you, and you feel incredibly vulnerable and it’s hard to sleep. It’s awful. But that only lasts for a few months and then it goes back to normal. If I could have told myself that when I was 21, I would have been a lot more sane.”

Having worked virtually nonstop for several years, Lawrence has pressed pause on acting for the moment. She has a handful of projects at varying stages of development, including a Steven Spielberg biopic about a female war photographer, a medical industry drama she is set to produce with Adam McKay directing and a comedy she is co-writing with her friend Amy Schumer.

For now, though, she is happy to be throwing her energy into other endeavors she cares strongly about, such as the grass-roots, nonpartisan anti-corruption group Represent.Us and the Time’s Up campaign.

As far as her career, looking ahead to the release of “Red Sparrow” — which has the potential to spawn a new franchise — and beyond, Lawrence isn’t sure what the future holds. And she’s learning to be OK with that.

“I no longer try to make predictions about movies,” she said. “It will drive you crazy. There are so many things that could stress you out. Keep your priorities straight. That’s my only advice to myself…. Don’t believe them when they love you, because then you’ll believe them when they hate you.”


Twitter: @joshrottenberg