Jennifer Lawrence, nominated in the best actress category for her searing portrayal of an Ozarks teenager in “Winter’s Bone,” was indispensable to writer-director Debra Granik – and not just for her acting prowess.
The 47-year-old Granik – Jewish, upper-middle-class, and a New Yorker – said she felt “severe” pressure to move beyond “hillbilly” stereotypes to tell the story of Ree (Lawrence), a 17-year-old from a meth-cooking clan who embarks upon a dangerous quest to find her missing father. And 19-year-old Lawrence, who was raised in Kentucky, was an important component in helping the urban Jewish director bridge the culture gap.
I spoke with the 20-year-old actress last week – she had just come from a fitting for her upcoming role as the mutant Mystique in the upcoming “X Men: First Class” – about Granik, filming in the rural Ozarks, having real residents cast as her co-stars, and being the “breakout” star nominated for an Oscar opposite actresses such as Annette Bening and Natalie Portman.
NPM: Debra Granik told me that she visited the Ozarks six times and conducted many interviews there in order to get Ree’s world just right – and not to feel like such a stranger in a strange land. How did your own Southern background help with your understanding of the role?
JL: It helped immensely, because it wasn’t a world that was completely foreign to me, as it may be for a lot of people who have seen the movie. The location may be just hours away for some [viewers], but it’s looking at this world that people may have a hard time believing is real. And because I grew up in Kentucky I was familiar with it. I didn’t live in it by any means, but I did know it was there, and I think that my accent helped.
NPM: Your character is seen operating a wood chipper, and even shooting, skinning and cooking a squirrel for her two younger siblings.
JL: Again, being from Kentucky, I have an uncle who was able to teach me how to chop wood, and then my cousin cleaned out a .22 rifle for me, because he said anybody can spot a rookie right away, and I didn’t want that to be me. So I just carried around a cleaned-out gun, and got really comfortable with it. As for skinning a squirrel, a hunter taught me how to do that.
NPM: Debra told me that she doesn’t initially disclose that she is Jewish when on location lest that affect how people might view her – and that was especially true of filming in the rural Missouri Bible belt. She had some anxiety about that, even though it turned out that it was never an issue. Were you aware of her feelings during production?
JL: No, gosh, I didn’t know about that. It’s just one of those things that I would never in a million years think about. So sometimes you forget that other people might think about it.
NPM: I know a big concern of Debra’s was creating a world for Ree that was believable but not exploitative.
JL: To get past that, Debra was so careful not to have anything in the film that wasn’t authentic; asking people ‘Would you really say this, would you really do that, what would you think about this kind of situation, and how would you handle it?’ She asked a lot of questions of the real people who lived there and that helped tremendously. The [responses] weren’t coming from our minds, they was coming from their experiences and their opinions as to what they would actually do. Being in the local environment with plenty of local people around, helped tremendously for me as well.
NPM: What makes Debra unique as a director?
JL: She asks questions, which, unfortunately, is rare. And she has the ability to see beauty and places and things in locations and even dialogue that nobody else really can. I’ve never really met anybody like her.
NPM: When you initially auditioned for the film, you were told you were too attractive for the role – but your tenacity won everyone over.
JL: I auditioned twice in L.A. and then they said I didn’t have the right look, but I just didn’t want to lose the role – I thought that was so unfair to lose a role like that! And I just kind of chased them; they went back to New York to continue auditions and I followed them, flew out on a red eye, and then went into the audition the next day, like ‘Surprise!’
NPM: Is it true you walked blocks in the snow before the audition to make yourself look more disheveled?
JL: I walked blocks in the show just to get to the audition, not to make myself look more exhausted. You know, you can’t really change the way that you look, so I don’t think that I changed their opinion on the way that I look. I think I just kind of convinced them that it didn’t matter.
NPM: “Winter’s Bone” has been described as your “breakout role:” now you’re starring in a major studio picture and are nominated for an Academy Award. How much do you credit Debra Granik for helping you to advance to this place in your career?
JL: One hundred percent. Certain movies [financiers] think are going to be so obviously successful, and other movies aren’t perceived that way, and it takes one or two filmmakers committing years of their lives to making that movie possible. So many people [initially] didn’t see the potential of “Winter’s Bone,” but Debra did, and I really credit her for that.
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