Academy Awards: Louisville actress wins Hollywood's attention

But Oscar nominee keeps job in focus

rcopley@herald-leader.comFebruary 27, 2011 

  • 8:30 p.m. Sunday on ABC. Pre-shows begin at 2 (E!), 6 (E!, TV Guide Channel) and 7 p.m. (ABC).

By now, a lot of people have seen two Jennifer Lawrences.

First, there's Ree, the gritty Ozark Mountain girl in Winter's Bone who has to find her meth-cooking father to prevent her family from being kicked out of their home.

Second, and because of that acclaimed performance, probably even more people are seeing Jennifer Lawrence, the red carpet knockout who has made a point of attending ceremonies for every award for which she's been nominated, which is pretty much all of them.

We can say this for certain about Lawrence: Six years ago, she was a 14-year-old middle school student in Louisville who has since been on a meteoric rise to a career milestone Sunday night, when she will be a contender for Hollywood's biggest prize, the Academy Award for best actress.

Talking to her, you get the impression that maybe the real Jennifer Lawrence is closer to the 20-year-old trying to grab a bite to eat at her Los Angeles home before she goes to the gym — the one who's most at home on a film set and says her longtime friends don't treat her any differently than they did before she was a movie star.

She's a little amused by the assumptions some people have made about her, like playing a mountain girl wasn't too hard because she's from Kentucky.

"It's funny that people give me that out, 'She's from Kentucky,'" she said. "There is this group of people to whom the South is one big state that looks like Winter's Bone."

Yes, a lot of the issues of poverty and drug abuse portrayed in the independently produced movie set in the Missouri mountains are also realities in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky. But they were far from Lawrence's experience growing up in Louisville.

"I knew a little bit about that world," Lawrence said. "Most people are aware. But it was nothing I had personally experienced."

But when the part came up, she went after it.

'What I want to do'

As a student at Kammerer Middle School, she took a spring-break trip to New York to audition for modeling agencies. That's where she read her first script.

"That was one of those moments where you know 'this is what I want to do with the rest of my life,'" said Lawrence, who soon moved to New York and began auditioning for acting roles. Her parents, Gary and Karen Lawrence, alternated stays with her in the city.

She scored guest shots on TV series such as Cold Case and Medium before being cast as Lauren Pearson on the TBS sitcom The Bill Engvall Show. She also had roles in several movies, including 2009's The Burning Plain, in which she was billed with Oscar winners Kim Basinger and Charlize Theron, to whom she has drawn numerous comparisons.

But Ree was her breakout role, and she had to work to get it.

"I auditioned in Los Angeles, and they said I didn't have the right look for it," Lawrence recalled. "So I got on a red-eye flight to New York and showed up at the auditions there. I think they thought they'd better give the role to this crazy psychopath."

At one time, reported a story in Variety, Winter's Bone producers were advised they needed a marquee actress to play Ree to secure financing for the film. Instead, the movie has made Lawrence a marquee actress.

Rolling Stone's Peter Travers wrote, "Her performance is more than acting, it's a gathering storm. Lawrence's eyes are a road map to what's tearing Ree apart."

The movie was essentially a road map to the Oscars, as well as the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Awards, Critics' Choice Awards and a slew of other ceremonies early this year. So far, she has won seven awards for her role in Winter's Bone, the most high-profile of which was from the National Board of Review. Saturday night, she was up for best female lead at the Independent Spirit Awards.

Always acting

Lawrence has been almost as big a hit on the red carpet as she was in the movie, looking stunning for the camera in a wide variety of looks.

"I have had a lot of help from a great stylist who helps me pick things that are fun, but keeps me off Joan Rivers' hit list," Lawrence said. That said, walking the red carpet comes to her about as naturally as playing an impoverished mountain girl.

"I feel like I'm acting when I'm out there," she said, noting that her Oscar dress will probably be a last-minute decision. "I'd much rather be on the set, working."

After attending Sunday night's Oscars with "my whole fam-damn-ily," Lawrence will take a few weeks off in March before getting back to work filming and publicizing upcoming projects, including May's The Beaver, directed by two-time-Oscar winner Jodie Foster and starring Mel Gibson, and the X-Men prequel, X-Men: First Class, in which she plays the young blue-skinned villainess Mystique.

As for Sunday night, she jokes that she has been practicing her "losing face," acknowledging that she will probably once again cede the best-actress trophy to favorite Natalie Portman for her performance in Black Swan.

But now, thanks to Winter's Bone and an Oscar nomination, film fans and producers know who the Kentucky native is. In a sense, she's already won.

Reach Rich Copley at (859) 231-3217 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3217.

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