Jennifer Lawrence is remarkably calm and optimistic for a 19-year-old who’s just lost her day job. She’s fumbling around the kitchen of her parent’s Indian Hills home for an elusive teapot, teabag and mug, searching from cabinet to cabinet.
“I don’t know where anything is,” she said. “I’m never here.”
Nor will she be in the future. Sure, she found out in September that she’d lost her gig playing a typical suburban teen daughter on the TBS sitcom “The Bill Engvall Show,” which was canceled after three mostly anonymous seasons. She could not have been less fazed. Her career is exactly where she wants it to be.
“At 15, I signed a seven-year contract (with the show),” Lawrence said. “Then I realized that I had an absolute passion for deep, dark indie movies, which is the exact opposite. I love the show, and I love the people on it … but if I had to turn down a movie for the show, I would die. That was always my biggest fear.”
Lawrence was in her hometown for a screening of “The Burning Plain” — in which she co-stars with Oscar winners Kim Basinger and Charlize Theron — at the Louisville International Festival of Films. She arrived in Louisville in the morning and was immediately taken to a local boutique to find a dress for the festival red carpet, after which she’d participate in a Q&A session with “Burning Plain” director/writer Guillermo Arriaga (“21 Grams,” “Babel”). She had a radio interview scheduled for the evening, but at this moment Lawrence was relaxing in her childhood home for the first time in ages, dressed in sweats and curled in a chair with a steaming cup of tea at her side. She was content, in many ways.
Her “Burning Plain” character is far from that. Mariana is a damaged young woman jolted by tragedies and treacheries that have never touched Lawrence, whose father, Gary, once owned a construction firm and whose mother, Karen, runs a day camp in Oldham County. Mariana is latest in a line of troubled characters for Lawrence. In 2008’s “The Poker House,” she played Agnes, a teenager trying to raise her sisters while living with their prostitute mother. In her next film, “Winter’s Bone,” she stars as a teenager trying to get her drug-dealing father to help her save the family home from foreclosure.
Lawrence’s mental state is just fine, thank you. She didn’t set out to land these tragic roles.
“I think it chose me more than anything,” Lawrence said. “When you first starting acting, you can’t pick and choose. Those were the roles I was booking. It was me, the girl from Kentucky with the wonderful family. Everyone was seeing this ability to go to this dark place that I didn’t know that I had. I auditioned for every comedy, everything under the sun. I’m not going to pretend that I’ve been so smart to pick these things. I’ve auditioned for all of those, but the comedies and the lovey-dovey movies didn’t pick me. The dark, dark dramas, the dirty indies picked me, and I couldn’t be happier.”
She would only be in Louisville for a couple of days — while she loves being at home with her family, she has work to do. Lawrence’s home is in Los Angeles, but she’s living in New York City during filming for “The Beaver,” in which she co-stars alongside Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster and Anton Yelchin. It’s tentatively scheduled for release in 2011.
Lawrence’s career got a serendipitous start in New York. She was 14, on spring break with her family and watching street dancers at Union Square.
“This guy was watching me, and he asked if he could take my picture,” she said. ‘‘We didn’t know that that was creepy, at the time. So we’re like, ‘Sure.’ So he took my mom’s phone number, and all of a sudden all these (modeling) agencies are calling. And that’s when it all started.”
Before that random moment, Lawrence was a student at Kammerer Middle School, an athlete who thought maybe she would become a doctor. She’d acted a bit in local theater, but nothing that would lead to co-starring alongside Academy Award winners.
Still 14, Lawrence and her mother moved to New York, where she began auditioning for acting roles. She scored brief roles on the TV dramas “Medium,” “Cold Case” and “Monk” before getting cast on “The Bill Engvall Show.”
“It was something that was inside of me, but I never considered it because it just didn’t seem like a possibility,” said Lawrence, who earned a GED while living in New York and L.A.
She says she’s still a Louisville girl who loves her hometown’s relaxed, friendly attitude and tolerable traffic; but her heart is where the action is. Lawrence still has a ways to go — indie films are just the beginning of what she hopes will be a long career. A string of films co-starring with prominent actors is a good start, but she’s a dutiful daughter to give credit to her parents for letting her pursue acting.
“Once I got the tiniest taste for this, I could never look back and I could never do anything else,” she said. “Thank God I have parents who could see that. They knew what was happening was real."