Jennifer Lawrence: “I Didn’t Have a Life. I Thought I Should Go Get One”

At first glance, it appears that Jennifer Lawrence has either been institutionalized or is on the set of a horror movie. She’s sitting in a rattan rocking chair, slowly creaking back and forth. The walls of the otherwise empty room are colorless and bare, except for the discomfiting shadow of a ladder over her right shoulder. Her hair is long and wet. Her computer sits atop a stack of boxes, angled for this September morning’s stint in Zoom prison so that her pregnant belly is out of sight. There’s a scratching at the door behind her. No fool, her cat Frank, otherwise known as Fredericks, doesn’t want any part of this and is trying to get out.

Told to blink twice if she needs rescuing, Lawrence laughs. She and her husband of two years, art gallery director Cooke Maroney, are in a rental while their Manhattan town house is under construction. The austerity of the room feels staged to discourage any unwanted probing. So urgent is Lawrence’s desire for privacy that she recently gave up her beloved dog, Pippi. The paparazzi had come to count on their daily walks in Central Park, so now the dog can chase squirrels unbothered on her parents’ farm in Kentucky, and Lawrence fantasizes about a life with 15 cats.

“I’m so nervous,” she says at the start of our conversation. “I haven’t spoken to the world in forever. And to come back now, when I have all of these new accessories added to my life that I obviously want to protect….” She crosses her arms over her baggy gray sweater. “I’m nervous for you. I’m nervous for me. I’m nervous for the readers!”

After a long break from public life, Lawrence returns to the screen in Adam McKay’s end-of-the-world comedy Don’t Look Up, in which she and Leonardo DiCaprio play scientists screaming at a polarized society to take seriously the comet hurtling toward the planet. It’s her first comedy, and the timing of stepping back into the spotlight while pregnant with her first child is almost comedic.

By early 2018, Lawrence was one of the highest paid actors in the world—an Oscar winner who stumbled up the steps on the way to collect the trophy, further cementing her public image as the movie star you’d most like to chug a beer with—but she’d had enough. Her last four movies (Passengers, Mother!, Red Sparrow, and the 12th X-Men film, Dark Phoenix) turned out to be critical or box office disappointments. “I was not pumping out the quality that I should have,” she says, a sad statement for someone so fiercely talented. “I just think everybody had gotten sick of me. I’d gotten sick of me. It had just gotten to a point where I couldn’t do anything right. If I walked a red carpet, it was, ‘Why didn’t she run?’… I think that I was people-pleasing for the majority of my life. Working made me feel like nobody could be mad at me: ‘Okay, I said yes, we’re doing it. Nobody’s mad.’ And then I felt like I reached a point where people were not pleased just by my existence. So that kind of shook me out of thinking that work or your career can bring any kind of peace to your soul.”

Lawrence’s producing partner and best friend of 13 years, Justine Polsky, says: “The protocol of stardom began to kill her creative spirit, to fuck with her compass. So, she vanished, which was probably the most responsible way to protect her gifts. And sanity.”

Ifirst met Lawrence when she was 20, freshly cast as Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games franchise. While sweating through an archery lesson in Santa Monica, she told me she hoped to work with Adam McKay one day because she was obsessed with his Will Ferrell comedies. So much so that at 19, just before her first Oscar nomination, she’d requested a meeting with McKay at his Funny or Die offices and showed up with a binder of notes on his movies. “I got this call that the wonderful actress from Winter’s Bone wanted to meet me,” says McKay. “And she came in and just for an hour we talked about Step Brothers. And I’m like, ‘I like her. We’re idiots too.’ ”

All those years ago, Lawrence also told me that she knew she wanted to be a mom. After she first moved to Los Angeles as a 15-year-old auditioning actor, she got a job nannying for a family with a nine-month-old baby. When she booked a sitcom, she was devastated that, after being there for the little girl’s first words, she would miss her first steps.

Opportunity comes at a price. You could already see a second skin of self-deprecation and self-consciousness taking hold of the young actor. “I don’t want to offend anyone,” Lawrence told me back then. “I don’t want to look stupid. I don’t want to be a douchebag. Part of me is like ‘Enh, fuck it.’ And then, every once in a while, I’m like, ‘God, I’m a loser.’ You think that’ll go away when I’m 30?”

“I was people-pleasing for the majority of my life. Working made me feel like nobody could be mad at me: ‘Okay, I said yes, we’re doing it. Nobody’s mad.’ And then I felt like I reached a point where people were not pleased just by my existence.”

Lawrence is now 31 and entering a season of full-circle abundance. She’s working with her heroes, and she’s going to be a mother, though her feelings around expecting, other than saying that she’s grateful and excited, are too sacred to share with the world: “If I was at a dinner party, and somebody was like, ‘Oh, my God, you’re expecting a baby,’ I wouldn’t be like, ‘God, I can’t talk about that. Get away from me, you psycho!’ But every instinct in my body wants to protect their privacy for the rest of their lives, as much as I can. I don’t want anyone to feel welcome into their existence. And I feel like that just starts with not including them in this part of my work.”

If anything was clarifying about Lawrence’s time away, it’s that she wants to be more thoughtful with her choices and words and less of a people pleaser, however excruciating she finds the practice of restraint.

She excuses herself to pee when I ask if she uses humor to mask feelings of vulnerability. “It’s just going to be one second, I promise I’m going to answer the question!” She shuffles around the corner to the bathroom. When she returns, she’s laughing and shaking her head. “I really wish I’d muted the recording. I was so self-conscious the whole time, thinking to myself, Can she hear this?”

This boundary business is going to be hard.

There was a moment, shortly before her break, when Lawrence was convinced she was going to die. It was the summer of 2017, and she’d boarded a private plane in her hometown, Louisville, Kentucky, bound for New York City. (“I know, flying private, I deserve to die.”) She had wrapped Mother!, her then boyfriend Darren Aronofsky’s horror movie of biblical proportions, in which Lawrence’s titular character is (spoiler alert—well, all kinds of alerts) burned alive after a teeming crowd eats her baby. All to say, her adrenals were a mess prior to takeoff.

Up in the air, there was a loud noise, and the air pressure in the cabin went kind of rubbery. The other passenger, the son of the Louisville doctor who delivered Lawrence and her two brothers, was called to the cockpit. He returned ashen-faced with news that one of the two engines had failed but stressed that they could still make a safe emergency landing with just the one. Then the plane went silent, and Lawrence knew that they were cooked. “My skeleton was all that was left in the seat,” she says. They’d lost the second engine.

Lawrence could hear the cockpit clanging in distress as the plane dipped wildly. “We were all just going to die,” says Lawrence. “I started leaving little mental voicemails to my family, you know, ‘I’ve had a great life, I’m sorry.’

I interrupt to wonder about the apology in there.

“I just felt guilty,” Lawrence says. “Everybody was going to be so bummed. And, oh, God, Pippi was on my lap, that was the worst part. Here’s this little thing who didn’t ask to be a part of any of this.” She saw a runway below, awash with fire trucks and ambulances. “I started praying. Not to the specific God I grew up with, because he was terrifying and a very judgmental guy. But I thought, Oh, my God, maybe we’ll survive this? I’ll be a burn victim, this will be painful, but maybe we’ll live.” She pauses to crack a joke. “ ‘Please, Lord Jesus, let me keep my hair. Wrap me in your hair-loving arms. Please don’t let me go bald.’ ”

The plane hit a Buffalo runway hard, bounced into the air, and then slammed into the ground again. Rescue crews broke the jet door open, and the passengers and crew, everyone crying and hugging, emerged physically unscathed. Immediately afterward, Lawrence, anesthetized thanks to a very large pill and several mini bottles of rum, had to board another plane.

Sometimes it’s bullshit when people say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. “It made me a lot weaker,” she says with a rueful smile. “Flying is horrific and I have to do it all the time.”

Not all stress cycles can be completed. In 2014, iCloud hackers disseminated Lawrence’s private nude photos across the internet, granting every toxic person with a keyboard a peek. It was dehumanizing and, because the internet is the devil’s playground, it remains an ongoing act of violation. “Anybody can go look at my naked body without my consent, any time of the day,” she says. “Somebody in France just published them. My trauma will exist forever.” She shakes it off with a wincing grin. “Have you ever wanted to be an actress?”

“By the time I came across Harvey, I was about to win an Academy Award. I was getting The Hunger Games. It’s not like I’ve gone my entire career with men being appropriate. But that’s a perfect example of where getting power quickly did save me.”

This is a grim and fraught industry for women, of course. At the height of the #MeToo movement, Harvey Weinstein weaponized Lawrence’s name twice. In a 2018 motion to dismiss racketeering charges brought against him by six women, his lawyers argued, quoting Lawrence out of context, that Weinstein “had only ever been nice to me.” Her mouth curls at his name: “So how could he possibly be a rapist, right?” In a separate lawsuit, an unnamed actor claimed that as Weinstein sexually assaulted her, he lied pathetically, “I slept with Jennifer Lawrence and look where she is; she has just won an Oscar.”

Lawrence holds her hands up in weary disgust at being used as a false notch in Weinstein’s grotesque belt. “Harvey’s victims were women that believed that he was going to help them. Fortunately, by the time I had even come across Harvey in my career, I was about to win an Academy Award. I was getting The Hunger Games. So I avoided that specific situation. Of course, I’m a woman in the professional world. So it’s not like I’ve gone my entire career with men being appropriate. But, yeah, that’s a perfect example of where getting power quickly did save me.”

Ididn’t have a life. I thought I should go get one.”

Before her break, Lawrence had come to view the hermetic confines of movie sets as safe compared to the unpredictable dangers of the real world. “The attention on me was so high and extreme that, in a bizarre way, the set had become a great escape. Everybody treats you normally. It’s not like you walk into hair and makeup and people are like, ‘Oh, my God!’ But you get burnt out. Eventually I had to ask myself, Am I saying yes because I want to go to work the next day? Or am I doing this because I want to make this movie?”

With work on hold, she experimented with sleeping in. She hung out with friends, the same tight circle she’s had since before she got famous. She became active on the board of the grassroots anti–political corruption campaign RepresentUs. “We had a couple of real wins in Koch brother choke lands,” she says proudly.

Lawrence’s life simplified in ways she hadn’t believed possible. “Since The Hunger Games,” she says, “I had a security guard or some kind of comfort thing in case I walked into a restaurant, and everyone went, ‘Oh, God!’ Just for my baseline anxiety.” I tell her she makes a bodyguard sound like a kind of baby’s lovey. “Oh, my God, yeah, that’s so tragic and hateable,” she says, laughing. “So, when I started dating my now husband, I was so embarrassed to bring my lovey when he asked me out. I mean, how mortifying would that have been? So I didn’t, and it made me really nervous the first few times, and it turned out totally fine. I realized you get more privacy if….” She pauses for a sip and reconsiders her words. “I don’t know if this is even safe to talk about,” she says, changing course. “I have security all the time. Twenty-four hours a day. And a gun!”

She also took back some agency over her career. In 2018, Lawrence and longtime friend Polsky formed their production company, Excellent Cadaver. The grisly moniker refers to an old-timey term for a Mafia hit on a prominent person. Lawrence explains she picked it because it left a little bit of a disturbing taste in the mouth. “It’s not like Drew Barrymore’s Flower Films,” she says, laughing. “So, Donkey Shit. Zombie Rape. Camel Fat….” When I ask her what type of stories Excellent Cadaver isn’t interested in telling, she says “Well, that’s hard to answer, because if I answer honestly, I’m out of a job. I mean, haven’t we had enough stories about white women?” Whatever truth there is to that aside, the shingle recently put together a deal for Lawrence to star in a biopic of superagent Sue Mengers, which the Italian director Paolo Sorrentino (The Young Pope) will direct.

But Excellent Cadaver’s ribbon cutter will be a still-untitled soldier project starring Lawrence and directed by Lila Neugebauer, whose roots are in the theater. Lawrence plays a U.S. soldier with a traumatic brain injury who returns home to an uncertain life. “A very small, relatively abstract character piece with a first-time filmmaker after a hiatus?” says Polsky. “It definitely swerved comeback expectations. There was no thorough discussion among Jen’s team. She believed deeply in the piece, she believed deeply in Lila, and we were melting in New Orleans three months later.”

Years ago, Jodie Foster shared some wisdom with Lawrence that stuck: “At some point when you’re older, you’ll look back and see a pattern. You’ll see why you were making movies at a certain time in your life.” Lawrence was engaged to be married when Neugebauer’s film first went into production. “The script spoke to me as somebody who was healing from unseen injuries and was entering a world that was healthier and better, but scarier. Staying is hard. It’s scary when you’re used to leaving.” Production went on hold because of a hard out for Lawrence’s wedding and wasn’t able to pick back up for two years because of COVID. She returned to finish the shoot as a happily married woman, or as she puts it, “I came back with a better perspective on staying.” (The movie is set for a 2022 release.)

Asked what she likes about her marriage, Lawrence pauses to consider what she’s willing to share. “I really enjoy going to the grocery store with him,” she says. “I don’t know why but it fills me with a lot of joy. I think maybe because it’s almost a metaphor for marriage. ‘Okay, we’ve got this list. These are the things we need. Let’s work together and get this done.’ And I always get one of the cooking magazines, like 15 Minute Healthy Meals, and he always gives me a look like, ‘You’re not going to use that. When are you going to make that?’ And I say, ‘Yes, I am. Tuesday!’ And he’s always right, and I never do.”

Lawrence sips from a white water bottle covered in stickers from her favorite movie, Hereditary, including one of a terrified Toni Collette, who plays the film’s main character. Lawrence wears three gifts from her husband around her neck: her wedding band on a chain; a pearl necklace; and a diamond necklace Maroney gave her for her 30th birthday. He’d slipped it into a hardbound edition of Hereditary’s screenplay, where it lay glinting atop the glossy image of a character’s decapitated head on the side of the road, swarming with ants. “It was so sweet,” she says, with a happy sigh. Truly, there is a lid for every pot.