‘Hunger Games’ star continues to burn bright

by George Hadley-Garcia

Special To The Japan Times

Jennifer Lawrence says that first and foremost, she watches her latest film, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” as a fan. She was “stunned” when she saw the end result.

“To me it’s like a big historical epic mixed with action, special effects, sci-fi, fantasy … the whole mix,” she tells The Japan Times. “It’s beautiful to look at — but it’s also like a nightmare, only you can’t keep from watching it. It’s just incredible.”

Lawrence is fast becoming known as much for her enthusiastic personality as her abilities as an actress. The 23-year-old, born in Louisville, Kentucky, took home the Oscar for best actress at last year’s Academy Awards ceremony for “Silver Linings Playbook.” And her performances in the “Hunger Games” and “X-Men” franchises have earned her a spot on Hollywood’s A List. According to Forbes magazine, she’s the highest-paid actress under 30, earning $10 million for this “Hunger Games” sequel.

She doesn’t seem to censor herself, unlike many celebrities, which has made the public adore her even more. When the Forbes accolade comes up, I mention to Lawrence that her publicist told me not to mention money because the actress “doesn’t relate to it.”

Lawrence laughs raucously. “I don’t! I’m only recently deciding about buying a place of my own to live,” she says. “I’ve been so busy, film to film, I didn’t really have a home base and I wasn’t sure I needed one.”

The combination of Lawrence and the “Hunger Games” series has been surprisingly profitable. Since the original’s release in March 2012, it has grossed some $700 million and become the highest-earning action movie ever with a female lead.

Would the film, based on a hugely popular series of books, have been nearly as successful with another young actress? Lawrence’s costar Josh Hutcherson isn’t sure.

“She just brings so much to the table,” Hutcherson says. “Jennifer’s so incredibly multi-faceted. She’s really ordinary on one level, like the girl next door, but she has talent.”

He mentions “Winter’s Bone,” the 2010 indie film that earned her an Oscar nod at age 20.

“She can really deliver and she has a big following. Also, (she has) this great work ethic. She’s non-stop,” he adds. “Also, non-stop talking. She loves to talk (laughs).”

The awards and adoration have turned Lawrence into something of a role model. She is publicly outspoken on issues that concern women and isn’t afraid to criticize idealized notions of body image in the industry, which has endeared her to many fans. Asked if she’s comfortable being a role model, she laughs it off and declines the label.

“I’m not. (Her “Hunger Games” character) Katniss is,” she says. “Maybe I’m just a little bit role model only because I won the (Oscar) award and I’m fairly young. I do play heroines (that are) sometimes role models, but I also love playing flawed, real people.”

Lawrence admits that she feels a tremendous responsibility toward fans playing Katniss Everdeen.

“I just don’t want to let them down,” she says. “Playing Katniss is an awesome opportunity and even a burden, but I just go for it. I don’t think about it too much (or) intellectualize it.”

The book and series are set in the fictional nation of Panem, a dystopian future version of North America. The titular games of the film are held yearly to dissuade the poor from rebelling against their rulers. After she emerged victorious in the previous “Hunger Games” film, “Catching Fire” sees Katniss struggling to deal with life as one of the victors and as a burgeoning symbol of a revolution. Donald Sutherland puts in another great turn as autocratic President Coriolanus Snow, who needs to kill Katniss without turning her into a martyr, and Philip Seymour Hoffman joins the cast as Plutarch Heavensbee, the man in charge of creating the world where the “Catching Fire” games will take place.

Since a lot of great science fiction tends to be based on elements of real life, does Lawrence find any relevance to our world in Panem?

“Everyone says the rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” she says, “but of course Suzanne (Collins, the author of the books) has exaggerated it. That’s what fiction is about.

“Mostly, I think Panem is its own world. It’s Suzanne’s own creation and maybe it’s so bad that when you look back into this world, this one isn’t so bad” by comparison.

Panem’s other residents include actors Stanley Tucci as TV personality Caesar Flickerman, Elizabeth Banks as Katniss’ flamboyant escort, Effie Trinket, and rocker Lenny Kravitz as her stylist, Cinna.

Playing Katniss’ competitors in the games are actors Sam Claffin as Finnick Odair, Jena Malone as Johanna Mason and Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark — who is also a romantic interest competing with Katniss’s boyfriend, Gale Hawthorne (played by Liam Hemsworth), for her attention.

Lawrence seems to enjoy the fact that Katniss is torn between two lovers.

“You know, in lots of stories there’s a guy who can’t decide between two women,” she says. “But here Katniss is the hero and protagonist and all, and she’s not that certain about her feelings for either of two guys or where she wants her feelings to take her, or if she wants them to take her at all.

“In these stories, the main thing is just survival. So it’s not some moony-spoony old thing where she’s head over heels.”

The movie’s American rating is PG-13, due to some of the violence and language, but also because of “a suggestive situation.”

“I know what that is, specifically, and I won’t spell it out — you have to see the movie,” Lawrence says. “But a little bird told me there’s still some resistance to a female who can inflict violence, even if she’s doing it for her life. And because she isn’t saying she’s going to devote herself to one guy in particular and just him and forever more.

“I mean, I thought we were past that sort of thing. But on the other hand, there’s all the success … the audiences show up. It’s not a ‘R’ rating, if it was I think they’d still show up.”

Hutcherson, 21, is also from Kentucky and has been acting in Hollywood since age 9. His breakthrough role was as the son of a lesbian couple, played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, in the 2010 film “The Kids Are All Right.”

In fact, the young actor is very involved with Straight But Not Narrow, an organization that educates young adults on how to be supportive of their LGBT family members and friends.

“I am from Kentucky but my family was progressive,” he says. “Our family motto is to treat others the way you’d like to be treated, which has lots more to do with ethics than organized religion.”

Lawrence is very close with her friend and costar, and their interactions in interviews are often very entertaining.

“Josh is so amazing for someone so young,” she says. “He’s got so much in his head and his heart, and the fans love him. I’d work with him again anytime. Maybe someday soon he’ll direct me.”

That scenario could be a possibility in the future. Hutcherson says that his goal is to become a director and producer. He served as the executive producer on a 2011 indie film called “Detention.” He says that he likes “being really hands on and having an influence” as a result.

Hutcherson also voiced the character of Markl in the English version of Hayao Miyazaki’s 2004 animated feature “Howl’s Moving Castle.” The actor thinks that “Catching Fire” will do well in Japan because of the series’ proven international appeal so far.

The plot might seem a little familiar to local audiences who have seen the 2000 film “Battle Royale,” directed by Kinji Fukasaku and based on a 1999 novel by Koushun Takami. Of course, that story also drew comparisons to the Stephen King novels “The Long Walk” (1979) and “The Running Man” (1982). While the element of people, particularly young people, competing in violent public spectacles could even be traced back to Roman gladiators, Hutcherson finds the televised broadcast of the story particularly interesting. In “The Hunger Games,” the kill-or-be-killed competition is a program with sky-high ratings.

“In a way, it’s an extreme take-off on reality TV and on what appalling things people will watch and what the head honchos will put on TV,” Hutcherson says. “Reality TV’s gotten weirder and more extreme. It’s pretty mindless; I’d prefer more information.”

There’s also “the teen focus and the focus on a female heroine,” he adds. “I think it kind of relates to ancient Greek mythology, which had all these beautiful young people who did great, heroic deeds and worked against powerful and corrupt forces. We need more of that in real life. Lots more of it.”

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is reviewed on this issue’s Film Page.