By Jeff Labrecque
Updated March 22, 2013 at 01:54 PM EDT
Jennifer Lawrence
Credit: Jeff Vespa/WireImage

Jennifer Lawrence didn’t just win the Oscar for Best Actress last month. She basically won the whole Oscars. (Apologies to Ben Affleck.) She charmed late-night hosts — and Academy voters — with a disarming blend of bawdy humor and compulsive oversharing in the weeks before the ceremony. She rocked the red carpets with a variety of gorgeous gowns. More importantly, she was the only nominee who arrived at the Dolby Theatre currently fronting a $400 million blockbuster franchise. Certainly, she was wonderful and deserving of the Academy Award for her performance as a dispirited young widow in The Silver Linings Playbook, but as she accepted the Oscar, there was also a palpable recognition that she is The Future: a young, beautiful indie-film queen who can also carry and sell an action franchise.

At only 22, with an Oscar and central roles in The Hunger Games and X-Men, Lawrence appears to be the right actress in the right movies at the right time. “Everyone wants to work with her, whether it’s another actor or actress or a director or a studio,” says David Glasser, COO of The Weinstein Company, which distributed Silver Linings. “I think everybody right now wants to find that great Jennifer Lawrence Project.”

After auditioning and losing the role of Twilight’s Bella to Kristen Stewart, the first great Jennifer Lawrence Project was Winter’s Bone, the gritty 2010 indie in which Lawrence played a tough Ozark teen looking after her poverty-stricken younger siblings, no thanks to her MIA dad and mentally ill mom. Appearing in virtually every scene, she dazzled critics and was nominated for her first Oscar. “There was something about her [audition] and the way she was able to convey having the burden of this family on her shoulders. It’s not even something that you can really act,” says Paul Schnee, who along with Kerry Barden, cast that Sundance film. “Knowing the demands of the role, I was [like], ‘This is the girl! This is the girl!’”

Most everyone who has ever worked with Lawrence seems to have a version of that “This is the girl!” moment. When Lionsgate announced plans to adapt Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, Lawrence was an immediate contender for its starring role, in part due to Katniss Everdeen’s similarities to her independent, backwoods character from Winter’s Bone. But Gary Ross (Seabiscuit), who landed the plum assignment to script and direct The Hunger Games, hadn’t yet seen her in that movie. His epiphany came when he spent three days writing voiceover for Jodie Foster’s movie The Beaver, in which Lawrence played Anton Yelchin’s girlfriend.

“Just looking at the film over and over again, I just kept saying, ‘Who’s this actress?’ I just couldn’t believe the talent,” says Ross, who’s called casting Lawrence as Katniss the easiest movie decision he ever made. “It wasn’t even like a casting quote choice. I honestly felt lucky that an actress this good existed at that moment for that film. That’s how I felt. I remember saying to Lionsgate when we were casting, ‘Look, this comes along once every 10 years.’ Someone walks in the door with that kind of massive talent, it knocks you back in your chair.”

Action movies have historically been a man’s world, and Hollywood’s most successful actresses, like Julia Roberts, settled for carving out their dominion in the most lucrative genre available to their gender: romantic comedies. Twenty years ago, even when Jodie Foster stood on a similar pedestal of arthouse and multiplex success right after Silence of the Lambs, you might have been tossed out of the studio suite for pitching a $100 million franchise built around a female protagonist (Sigourney Weaver in the Alien movies was among very few exceptions). But there’s been a shift in the culture and hardly anyone blinked in 2010 when Angelina Jolie — already Lara Croft and Mrs. Smith — successfully delivered Salt, an action thriller initially conceived for Tom Cruise.

Today’s action-movie heroines are no longer damsels in distress. They’re tough (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), brave (Brave), and as lethal with a weapon as their male counterparts (Snow White and the Huntsman). When Lawrence was cast as Katniss in 2011, she became the face not only of Collins’ dystopian-future Joan of Arc, but the new face of real girl-power at the box office. Hunger Games opened like a superhero, with a $152.5 million weekend, and went on to gross more than any movie of 2012 except The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises.

But Ross wasn’t the first one to leverage Lawrence’s talent for a huge popcorn spectacular. X-Men: First Class director Matthew Vaughn cast her to play a younger version of Mystique, the blue-skinned mutant played by Rebecca Romijn in the original films, for his 2011 preboot. Her supporting character took a backseat to mutant frenemies played by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, but the actress made an immediate impression on First Class producer Bryan Singer, who’s directing the sequel, Days of Future Past.

“There was a sequence they were doing with James and Mike, and I noticed that she had no trouble speaking her mind, in a fun way,” laughs Singer. “She and Matthew sort of had a back and forth about what was working and what wasn’t, and it just sort of struck me that of all the actors standing on the platform, she was among the youngest and yet she was able to be the most vocal.”

For anyone’s who’s chuckled through one of Lawrence’s freewheeling, b.s.-free interviews where she jokes about her breasts, pretends to fart, or playfully jousts with Jack Nicholson, such a tale is hardly difficult to imagine. “I don’t think Jennifer is intimidated by anything or anybody,” says Ross. “I’d be amazed if she ever had been. She’s one of the more confident people I’ve ever met in my life, but it’s earned. She has the talent to back it up.”

Talent and Oscars are one thing, but in Hollywood, box office is king. First Class was a solid hit, and Hunger Games became the highest-grossing movie ever made built primarily around a female lead (second-highest if you call Titanic Kate Winslet’s movie). Lionsgate and Fox have Lawrence locked into their billion-dollar franchises, but even they have to acknowledge and adjust to her growing clout. Last April, Fox pushed back its start date for Days of Future Past, sidestepping a scheduling conflict with Catching Fire, which filmed last fall and just wrapped reshoots. Days of Future Past finally gets underway April 14 in Montreal, and Lawrence’s character is expected to play a larger role in the sequel, though Singer says that was always the plan and nothing has been changed plotwise to showcase her presence.

“You have to be careful not to suddenly lean the movie all towards her just for her rise in popularity,” Singer says. “It has to work for the character. She’d be the first person to argue that. It’s an ensemble movie. It’s definitely not suddenly her movie, but she factors in it significantly. She’s going to be more bad-ass in this movie, which will be nice. A lot more bad-ass than Hunger Games. Which will be fun to see, because she’s very feisty, as you may have noticed in Silver Linings.”

Lawrence isn’t a brand, per se, like Julia or Angelina. There isn’t yet such a thing as a “Jennifer Lawrence” Movie because she’s still doing so many things. She’s dabbled in horror with House at the End of the Street — which came on the heels of Hunger Games and flopped. She was perfectly lovely playing the Other Girl in the sweet Sundance romance, Like Crazy, opposite Yelchin and Felicity Jones. Neither were star-making roles in any sense, but that may not be a major focus for Lawrence. “I don’t know that she really cares about being famous,” says Ross. “I think she loves to inhabit a role, and she’s great at it. She loves doing her job, but I don’t think the trappings of fame or success are really what drive Jennifer at all.”

“In an industry where people are so worried about everything and put such importance on the process it takes to get ready for the Academy Awards — like what was your process to put on a dress and take a shower? — she understands the lack of importance of that,” says Singer, who got to know Lawrence better in England during the filming of Jack the Giant Slayer, which stars Lawrence’s now ex-boyfriend Nicholas Hoult. “She doesn’t care what people think about her, what she looks like, her weight, her attitude, her anything. She just doesn’t.”

Might that be her one fatal flaw? After all, Tom Cruise and Angelina Jolie are not accidental successes; they are self-motivated to extreme, uncompromising, worldwide artistic domination. A more realistic model for Lawrence might be her friend Jodie Foster, who’s mixed personal films with the occasional edgy thriller, like Panic Room and Flightplan. But Foster famously said goodbye to Clarice Starling after one classic movie; Lawrence is wed to Katniss for three more. (That’s a safe bet for at least $1.2 billion in Lionsgate’s coffers, just from the domestic box-office alone.) Could that juice alone propel her to the upper Hollywood stratosphere — whether she cares or not — just as Batman did for the enigmatic Christian Bale?

“The proof is in the choices and in the material and in her desire to be an action star,” says Singer. “Or will she want a diverse career? In a diverse career you don’t always get those big paychecks. That’s a choice. And the choice will be half hers and half the audience’s.”

Lawrence’s next movie is Serena, a Depression-era drama with Bradley Cooper due in September. After completing Days of Future Past, Lawrence plans to reunite with Cooper and director David O. Russell again for a still-untitled movie about a 1970s FBI sting operation. She’s also attached to Russell’s The Ends of the Earth and another film based on gossip columnist Jeanette Walls’ memoir, The Glass Castle, but both remain in development. She certainly has the safety net of the Hunger Games — with a reported $10 million salary for Catching Fire — to go the eclectic route, but as the gender landscape of Hollywood has changed, Lawrence is positioned to raise the ceiling on what is possible. Charlize Theron, who produced and co-starred with Lawrence in 2009’s The Burning Plain, told EW she was “crushed into silence” when she first encountered Lawrence’s audition tape. “When we first met in person it was so clear that this girl was going to take over the world,” she said.

Lawrence is the heir to many great acting legacies, and it’s fun to hear insiders rip off names of the iconic actresses they most see in her work: Julia, Jodie, and Charlize, of course, but also Shirley MacLaine and Meryl Streep. “I think she’s one of those actresses that you’re going to absolutely going to look back on,” says Glasser. “It’s like when you look 30 years back at Meryl Streep, you think of Sophie’s Choice and Kramer vs. Kramer. Thirty years from now, you’ll look back and you’ll say Silver Linings and Winter’s Bone. You’ll be having that same conversation about her 30 years from now.”

But could Lawrence be something new, something even “bigger” than the world’s undisputed greatest actress who has 17 Oscar nominations and three statues? “These kind of franchises didn’t exist in the [glory] days, the way the studio system used to work,” says Singer. “She’s totally unique, being in both these big franchises, and also the Academy Award, the age, the previous nomination, the whole damn thing. It’s almost weird. It’s almost like, ‘Do I know this person? I do! Wow! How cool! How cool for me!'”

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The Hunger Games

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • Gary Ross