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Brad Balfour

Brad Balfour

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Best Actress Nominee Jennifer Lawrence Heats Up Winter's Bone

Posted: 02/25/11 02:48 AM ET

Thanks to her 2011 Oscar nomination for Best Actress as Ree Dolly in Winter's Bone, relative newcomer Jennifer Lawrence has now become one of Hollywood's latest darlings. Of course, there are the perks of such attention: fancy gowns, cool parties, cute guys and lots of media attention -- including great interviewers who pop hopefully clever questions. But what a burden. There's that downside of such accolades -- the sophomore slump -- what's up with that?

Telling Ree's tale, the film details a dirt-poor, Ozarks-based, meth-plagued community in which 17-year-old Ree holds together her siblings -- no thanks to a drug-dealing absent father and mentally-ill mother. When she's told they risk losing their house since her missing dad had put it up for collateral to get bail after a drug bust, she searches for him amongst a dangerous crew of dealers including her addled uncle Teardrop (Oscar nominee John Hawkes) who thinks his brother has been killed.

Debra Granik's directorial turn has won kudos for all involved. And in the very male-centric world of mainstream movies, here's an indie developed by women structured around a strongly female perspective, featuring a woman who succeeds in a world where the men are domineering losers. In turn, the tall, willowy Louisville, Kentucky, native parlayed experience through a subtle performance in the under-appreciated The Burning Plain into her break-out performance in Winter's Bone.

Released in mid-2010, the film won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and earned Lawrence other awards or nominations for Best Actress at the Gotham Awards, Golden Globes and SAG.

The 20-year-old now has several other features set for release in 2011, including the Jodie Foster-directed film The Beaver, in which she co-stars with Foster, Mel Gibson and Anton Yelchin, as well as X-Men: First Class and House at the End of the Street.

Remarkably, Lawrence has appeared in two Sundance Grand Jury Prize winners in a row -- last year's Winter's Bone and this year's Like Crazy. She is also the second-youngest Oscar nominee for Best Actress in a Leading Role (after Keisha Castle-Hughes, who was younger when nominated for Whale Rider in 2002).

Q: How did you get involved with Winter's Bone? Did you audition or meet specifically with Debra about you being in that role?

JL: No, I had to fight for it. I auditioned for it three times.

Q: Who were you up against?

JL: I think everybody. I auditioned twice in LA and then they said I was too pretty. So I took the redeye -- which, just for the record, will take care of that -- and flew to New York like a psycho and showed up to the New York auditions with icicles in my hair and was like, "Hi! I'm back!"

I think that once they saw that I had the exact kind of stubbornness and competitiveness that Ree has, they were like, "Oh, well, nobody else is going to be this stubborn and this crazy to embark on such a journey."

Q: Did you find a link to the movie through your Kentucky roots?

JL: There were some things, there were some sayings that I was familiar with. I am familiar with the very close family and the hierarchy of the family. But my life is very different from that of the Ozarks that's portrayed in the movie.

Q: What was it like shooting there in Missouri and the Ozarks?

JL: There were no sets on the whole movie. Everything was real, and we spent a lot of time with the family whose property we were shooting on, the Laysons.

I went up a week before we started filming and spent a lot of time with them, and that's how Ashlee, who plays my little sister in the movie, was cast -- because she lives there, that's her house. We became so close that we thought, why would we cast this when it's right here? In the book I have two little brothers, but we changed it to Ashlee.

Q: What did she think about the experience of being in a movie?

JL: I don't think she liked it. She had fun because we thought of it as make believe, but she didn't like the camera, which I thought was awesome. I was like, you're going to be cool when you grow up. Because when I was a kid I was like, where's the camera? So I'm always fascinated with little kids who are shy. I always think they're going to be way cooler than I could ever be.

Q: So you were a real camera whore [laugh]?

JL: Oh my gosh! Like worrisome.

Q: Over the course of the film, different parts of Ree's character become clear to the viewer. Debra said that she had to be a larger-than-life hero and have overly heroic qualities. At the same time, when Ree has her first conversation with her friend Gail, she gets the car and is like, "You are exactly the person I thought you were." If she were in different circumstances she would have been a little emotional and manipulative.

JL: I think that they're sisters, and she just knew what she had to do -- and the comment I said to her before when she couldn't get the truck, "You never used to eat no shit." I think that when you know somebody inside and out, you know their buttons. And she knew Gail's buttons. So yeah, [Ree] probably did emotionally manipulate, which is something that we all do to get what we want or we feel like we need.

Q: What did you work out about Ree's relationship with her unavailable father?

JL: I was confused about that and kept asking [about it], because what I felt kept changing when he left. And it wasn't even that long ago. It's not until we're adults that we realize our parents are people and that they're not perfect. What's so sad is when we're younger, if you have a bad parent, that is normal to you and that's what you think of as healthy. So if he left when she was little, I think she would have still idolized him.

There's a scene in the truck when Blond Milton takes me to the blown-up trailer and I say, "He's known for knowing what he's doing," and I'm proud, almost.

I'm talking about him cooking meth and am bragging about him. It was very important to keep the naïveté in the character and not make her a perfect hero, not make her smarter than everybody else. And I think that she still has that 17-year-old naïveté. Her dad is still someone that she looks up to amidst all of this, and that's why she still has respect for her family.

Q: Did Debra work up a back story about how the crazy mother ended up like that?

JL: Everybody kind of said their own thing. In the book it says she just kind of went into a shell and everything happened too fast and too hard. I think maybe there are some women that kind of go catatonic after they have babies, and they realize they can't be a mother and they just kind of step back. It's like me with a math test -- as soon as I start looking at a math test I just freeze, I don't write anything. It's just too overwhelming, it's too much, and I know I'm not going to be good at it. That's how I've always viewed her.

But I didn't research and didn't ask around too much. I never want to know more than my character does because that's not helpful. Anytime Ree is talking about her mom she's never talking through knowledge about it. She's never talking from an authoritative point of view. She's always confused and always thinks, "Well she keeps taking the pill but they're not doing anything."

So I don't think we know, really. Everybody has theories, but Ree doesn't know. Debra could probably have the answer, but I didn't really want or need it at the time.

Q: You read the book?

JL: I did read the book.

Q: What insights did you get from reading the book? Sometimes actors don't like to read the book before they play the character.

JL: It was important to read the book because I imagined myself at a Q&A with people that loved the book. I love the Twilight books. I'm not even ashamed to say it, they are like methamphetamine to me. So when I heard Kristen Stewart say, "I only read the first one," I was like, "Oh man," because she wasn't a huge fan of the books. I was like, for the book lovers I should probably read the books.

I honestly don't know if the book helped. It could have helped to hear the inner dialogue of your character, but that would have been if I was doing an exact replica of the book. Sometimes if a script is based on a book, that's what you should do: represent the book. I don't know what I'm doing, so whatever you think happened, great.

I'm reading the script, I'm learning my lines, and then reading the book, so I read it kind of chapter to chapter. It could have helped me, but it might not have. I'm still in this early stage where I'm still learning about myself and my craft and what helps me, and what I've realized mostly is that I don't have that much of a craft.

Q: How did you develop your craft?

JL: I don't know. I'm hoping to come up with an answer before these press days are over.

Q: Do people ask you that question?

JL: Yeah, every time, and I honestly don't know. I never took lessons, I never went to classes, so I never learned the proper things to do. And then when I see other actors that come with journals filled with questions and things that they thought about, I'm like, "Should I be doing that? I should ask more questions, I should argue more," but I don't. I memorize my lines and I show up. I think it's just instinctual, and sometimes it's wrong and the director says, "No, do it this way."

And then I can change, because I didn't spend all night practicing it this one way. All I do to get ready for the day is the night before, I read my lines once or twice, memorize them, and then I show up.

Q: How is Debra as a director?

JL: Debra has a brain that's not like ours. She has a mind that is on a whole other playing field. It took me a while to get in sync with that, because for a while it was like reading instructions, like this is just too smart for me. If I could only understand what the instructions meant I could get this radio going, but I just don't get it.

Once you start understanding her, you start realizing she's a genius beyond genius -- her attention to detail, though of course so annoying at the time, because it's like, "Do I really have to do that scene again? Do I really have to do it this way?"

Then I watched it in the movie and thought, "What if Debra hadn't made me do that again?"

As I grew to understand her, I grew this immense respect for her that I will have for the rest of my life and I'd do anything for her. It wasn't like an instant kickoff, like with other people, because she's not like anyone else. She's smarter than anyone that I know, that I've ever come in contact with, and that's why she makes such incredible movies. So I think that our relationship was slow growing but very long lasting.

Q: Debra spoke about you on set and about your being convinced that you needed help. We heard about what she saw and about what your acting partner felt. What was your impression of that moment?

JL: Everything that we think comes across in our eyes. Our eyes really are the windows to our souls, and that's why at least I can tell when somebody doesn't mean what they're saying -- if you just look at them in the eye. So if you're thinking, "Please help me, please help me. I need you," pleading is going to come out of your eyes, I think.

I'm like an open book where I can't hide anything. I think that that was really all I was saying. I probably just got doe-eyed. I have a dad so I know how to do that. That was more about Dale, because I'm never going to show up on set with an impression or an idea about how I'm going to affect another actor.

I'm never going to act for the both of us. I'm going to do what I do and then you react off of me. I'm going to do my thing and if you react a certain way -- with pity or with anger -- that's up to you, not.

So I did my thing, which was think "I need your help," and look at her I supposed pleadingly, and she reacted very maternally.

Q: Do you find yourself to be more of an actor who wants to be led by a director or do you basically have your thought in mind of how you're going to portray your character?

JL: I view the director as my boss. I'm the pawn on the chess board. And though I'm not going to say anything stupid, there have been times that I've showed up and said, "I can't say that" -- but after it goes through nine levels in my head of, "Is this okay to say?"

I don't say something to the director easily, because they are my boss. I think that the biggest problem -- if I can speak openly with recorders around me, which is about to be a mistake -- I think the biggest reason that actors are complete a-holes as soon as they become famous is because they forget that this a job. They think that it's about them, and it's not.

We're making a film, and I never feel like I'm above anyone or I'm even in a different position than you. We are all doing the same thing, making a movie, except my face is going in front of the camera, and that's the only difference. You have to go behind the monitor and make sure I'm doing this right, let's come up with something to say, and then I'm going to say it in front of the camera, because that's my job, not because I'm awesome.

Yes, we're all equal because we're all doing the same thing, but the director is my boss. And if the director says, "I want you to do this," unless I feel incredibly strongly about it, which hasn't happened yet, I'm going to do it because I have respect for my elders mostly.

Q: There's a scene of cutting up the squirrel and taking the guts out. How was it shooting that scene?

JL: That was me cutting open a squirrel and touching the guts with my bare hands. That was disgusting. When they said "Cut," I started shrieking and jumping up and down. Debra probably thought she miscast. I don't know.

There was like this weird mental place where I went to become Ree, to chop wood. I honestly do think when you're working out and you're like, "I don't want to do it anymore," and then you're like, "I can do this, I'm a runner." Then you can go another mile.

I think I've gotten myself into that mentality of "I can chop this wood," and then I did. "I can cut open a squirrel and that's not going to gross me out until they call cut and then I'm going to shriek like a little girl."

Q: So you're not going to become a taxidermist?

JL: I don't think that's in my future, but I never want to say never.

Q: But you'd play one?

JL: Oh of course; I'd play anything. I'd fly to New York on a red-eye with icicles in my hair. This is what I do.

Q: At 19 or 20, there's this huge world out there that you may or may not think is out there. Do you have certain expectations of yourself? Besides just what you're doing next, do you have some ideas of goals? What is your view at 20?

JL: Yeah, I do have big ambitions, but I think we all do. I just want to keep working hard and being happy. When I think about myself in five years, sometimes I think about work and where I'll be in my career. But I normally just think about what kind of person I'll be. Will I be calmer or will I be more hyper? Will I learn how to listen or am I just always going to stay in this kind of 19-year-old zone where I could just keep talking forever? There are a lot of things that I know I'm going to learn about myself, because we all do. But yeah, I have big ambitions.

Q: And no specific thing?

JL: That's a bad idea. I learned that you can't have any expectations with life or with this business. The Burning Plain was a million dollar movie with huge movie stars, and everybody was convinced that [it] was going to be huge and that was my star-making role and that was my big outbreak. Every movie that has come out has been my breakthrough role.

Then Winter's Bone -- the one that was a hundred dollars to make, tiny and everybody thought it will be fun but nobody will ever see it -- has gotten huge. You never know what's going to happen.

Q: You have a vision, you're confident about it, and you take that approach to life. Is there room in there for a quest for knowledge that you don't have and what would that be?

JL: Absolutely. I am the biggest "but why?" question asker. Knowledge is honestly everything. It's not just books and staying behind a desk and having a diploma. There's also traveling and knowledge about people, and what I do and scripts and books. I'm very, very thirsty for knowledge. Just because I'm good at something and have found success doesn't mean I'm done. I'm not even close to being done. I don't know if I ever will be done learning.

For more by Brad Balfour go to: filmfestivaltraveler.com