Next week audiences will see Jennifer Lawrence in her first role since last fall’s infamous-for-all-sorts-of-reasons mother! Depending on each person’s individual appetite for the type of psychological horror she and Darren Aronofsky wrought — and whether they decided to subject themselves to it at all — those audiences will either recognize yet another step in the actress’ move toward more controversial roles or find themselves awash in a brand new J.Law. This is a J.Law who tortures people with her bare hands, a J.Law who gets tortured with other people’s bare hands, a J.Law who does a Russian accent, a J.Law who does nude scenes.
That’s because Lawrence, who — it should be noted simply for the sake of it, is widely agreed upon as one of Hollywood’s biggest talents — has stepped even further away from her Silver Linings Playbook past for the spy thriller Red Sparrow. Much like her highly-anticipated September indie, Red Sparrow (and Lawrence’s participation in it) is not for the faint of heart. She plays Dominika Egorova, a Russian ballerina and former star dancer in the Bolshoi who, after a series of unfortunate events including but not limited to beating up her arch-nemesis with a pair of crutches, is forced into joining the SVR (that’s Russian for Foreign Intelligence Service). She winds up as a sparrow (that’s Russian for sex spy) and thus how we collectively arrive at the aforementioned torturing.
But before Red Sparrow was a big screen blockbuster it was, like many of Hollywood’s most anticipated movies, a best-selling novel first.
And in fact it’s part of a trilogy — the third and final edition of the Dominika Egorova novels hit bookshelves last week just in time for the live-action adaptation. The books are written by Jason Matthews, who was a spy himself for 33 years, although his tenure took place within the Central Intelligence Agency, not the SVR. (And he definitely wasn’t a sparrow). Matthews spoke to EW about the long career that led to the much-loved novels, and eventually the film, and it turns out it was all a total (happy) accident.
“I got a master’s degree in journalism and I headed to Washington, D.C. to find what I hoped would be a writing job,” he explains to EW. “I had no idea what I was going to do but I ended up interviewing with the State Department, with Interior and then one very gray day I interviewed with a very gray man from the CIA.”
What followed was 18 months of exhaustive background checks and polygraph tests, but he was eventually offered a job in the clandestine services and sent off to The Farm (what members of The Biz call the CIA academy) for basic training. The gig took him all over the world — mostly to places he’s not at liberty to mention — and after retirement, he realized he had amassed so many anecdotes that they were just begging to be told.
“My career was so experiential and 24/7 that I started writing down everything I did, basically for therapy,” Matthews reveals. “The books are informed by my career, but they’re fictionalized — they’re a mosaic of the people I know and the things we used to do.”
The first novel, which was adapted into the movie version, follows Egorova as she is tasked with tracking down CIA agent Nate Nash, who she eventually falls in love with — and who eventually recruits her to be a double agent, passing Russian state secrets back to the Americans. The resulting action scenes, both on the page and on screen, are infused with all sorts of industry-favorite spy tactics like surveillance detection runs (what The Biz calls SDRs) to escape enemy tails, dead drops to pass documents back and forth, and of course all the aforementioned torture-by-hand.
“I had to fictionalize what I did during my spying to basically take the teeth out of it,” Matthews says of the writing process. “The agency helped, too, because I had to get every manuscript approved by a review board at Langley to make sure I didn’t inadvertently reveal sources and methods.”
The CIA-approved novel that hit bookshelves in 2013 was so popular that Hollywood quickly came calling — 20th Century Fox bought the rights to Red Sparrow, and Francis Lawrence, who was responsible for the last three Hunger Games installments, signed on to direct. The first thing Matthews did was brace himself.
“When we sold the rights my literary agent warned me,” the author laughs. “He said selling your rights to Hollywood is like dropping your kid off at college: Keep the motor running and don’t look back.”
But his initial caution would prove to be mostly unnecessary — the on screen version is, for all intents and purposes, very similar to the literary version (Revolutionary Road and Snitch screenwriter Justin Haythe penned the script). Due to time restrictions, (Francis) Lawrence chose to alter the book’s format of jumping back-and-forth between narrators (it tells the story from the point of view of both Dominika and Nate, as well as Dominika’s uncle, who recruited her into the SVR) and focus almost entirely on (Jennifer) Lawrence’s character — Matthews notes he was both taken with the pathos of Dominika’s story and with the idea of putting the blockbuster into the A-list actress’ hands.
Before shooting began the filmmaking team brought on Matthews as a technical advisor, in charge of reading through the script to make sure it held up to real-life spy situations (“I was not bashful in telling them that we wouldn’t do this or say that,” he admitted). Matthews also met with Joel Edgerton, who plays Nate Nash, the American spy who is also J.Law’s love interest, to help the actor get inside the character’s head. “He was very inquisitive,” says the author. “He wanted to understand what the challenges are and how a person lives that spy lifestyle.”
Matthews also visited the Budapest set to observe the filming process — he points out he was most struck by how slow-paced and detailed something as simple as a five-minute scene can be — and to offer clues about how to make the tradecraft more authentic and in line with the vibe of the Cold War. It’s in these moments that the movie feels most different from the novel: While the book doesn’t shy away from the realities (and the violence) that come with stealing Russian state secrets, seeing intimidation tactics and murder-by-cold-blooded-assassins on the big screenm — with all the sights and sounds and blood that comes along with it — can feel very jarring at times. (Again, we can’t mention the torture enough.)
EW’s Leah Greenblatt called it “brutal” and it seems that’s exactly what the team was going for: Matthews noted that the director wanted the shock value and set out to be fairly explicit during the fight scenes. While each viewer will have their own emotional journey during Red Sparrow — especially when it comes to a very specific cheese grater-weapon scenario — it’s worth pointing out that those who are squeamish will feel much more comfortable with the on-paper trilogy.
While the movie ends on what can be described as a twist-meets-cliffhanger, the ensuing novels pick up right where Jennifer Lawrence leaves off. Palace of Treason follows Dominika as she continues to work as a double agent and Nate as he continues to try to bring down the Russians. The Kremlin’s Candidate, which debuted last week, takes the narrative even further; this time around the SVR has its own double agent planted in the States, who is poised to take over the job of CIA Director.
While there’s no official word yet whether the team will be reprising their work for an on-screen franchise, Matthews, for his part, hasn’t ruled it out. (The final decision will, of course, hinge on both next weekend’s box office results and Lawrence’s willingness to jump back into the dark role…and another franchise.) If it does happen, here’s hoping they leave the cheese grater at home.