The Science of Being Jennifer Lawrence

Update Wednesday, January 15, 2014:  With the 2014 Oscar nominations happening tomorrow morning, it’s a good time to revisit some thoughts about a sure-fire nominee … if not another winner.

About a year ago I started down my road of dystopian rant about the dysfunction of government. It was right before the mega-movie The Hunger Games was about to be released. Also about this time my daughter had switched jobs and joined a movie production company in Los Angeles. Even though I spent over twenty years in Southern California, I never really paid much attention to the movie industry even though many of my printing clients made their living from it. But with my offspring joining their ranks, I felt I had to get up to speed and learn something so I could have an intelligent conversation with her. Knowing I was going to The Hunger Games as soon as it hit theatres to acquire ammunition for my my rant, I thought I’d start with there.

Jennifer Lawrence Winter
Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone

The lead role in The Hunger Games was heroin Katniss Everdeen,  played by Jennifer Lawrence. I’d never heard of her before then. With some research I found out she received a Best Actress Nomination in 2010 for a small dark independent film called Winter’s Bone. I watched it. I was memorized. This eighteen year girl, with no training and limited experience completely carried the film to a Best Picture Nomination also. How could this be? So I watched her first movie, The Poker House. The Poker House is a low-budget, extremely dark true story of prostitution, drugs and gambling. Lawrence was sixteen when she filmed it. She was as good, if not better, in this one. Her performance was gripping.

Unless you’ve been under rock for the last year, you know how The Hunger Games turned out and how Lawrence carried yet another movie – this one to $700 million at the box office worldwide, with three sequels to come. Now with it being Oscar time, Lawrence is at it again. This time in the Academy nominated film, Silver Linings Playbook. And, yes she is also nominated, playing a mentally depressed widow, who on paper she is ten years too young for. It’s also a role she beat out Angelina Jolie, Anne Hathaway amongst others for, all supposedly more age appropriate.

This time however, she wasn’t just nominated … she won, and the second youngest ever!

Again how can someone with no training and still only twenty-two years old be so damn good. Many call her the best of her generation, if not the best period. Her record would certainly demonstrate that. If you’ve seen any interviews Lawrence does, she’s very down to earth. In fact she often acts like a knucklehead and can’t control what comes out of her mouth. Her interviews with Letterman and other talk show are as funny as it gets. She’s getting almost as many accolades for her off-screen personality as her abilities on-screen. She’s just a normal twenty-two year girl who happens to be maybe the best actress in the world. Or like Jay Cassidy, the editor of Silver Lining Playbook said, “she’s been touched by the angels.”

Lawrence does virtually no preparation. She doesn’t practice, other than reading her lines, and often only in the make-up trailer before the shoot. She’s cracks jokes and goofs around up until the last second before the camera roles. And then … Bang! It just happens. How can this be?

The normal course of action in the acting world, as with any profession, is to train for it. Virtually all accomplished actors have extensive training and schooling, often at elite institutions. And after that, it takes years to make it to the top echelon … if they ever do. And that top level has very few inhabitants. But this has not been the road that Jennifer Lawrence has taken. She started only with a role as a rebellious teenager in an average sit-com, “The Bill Engvall Show,” as her launching pad. Hardly the Yale School of Drama or Julliard.

Over the past few months I’ve read occasional articles and interviews on Lawrence – trying to figure out how she does it. The only explanations I’ve found is that she’s a natural. But what does that mean? First, I don’t believe anyone is a natural at anything. It has to come from somewhere. Somehow they’ve trained their brain to perform at a high level. The training need not be formal. But it still has to be trained to develop the synaptic connections to excel. There no such thing as cerebral alchemy. Jennifer Lawrence is no exception.

One interview I read got me thinking though. Jennifer recounted a time when a friend and herself were in the car when the paparazzi spotted her and chased them. Her friend, who was driving, abruptly stopped the car breaking down in tears and yelling, “we can’t live like this!” Lawrence first response was to ask her to do that again. Could she repeat what she just did, that emotive outburst. That was it … the secret behind Jennifer Lawrence! She’s a database of expressive memes.

Lawrence’s talent lies in her ability to observe, break expressions and reactions into bits or memes, and store them in her brain for later use. 

To her everything is source material that is converted into a synaptic database record. A simple reaction from a friend could very well end up in her next movie. Lawrence’s school is everywhere and she’s in class all the time, even sitting on the couch watching Honey Boo Boo (which she loves) or other trashy reality television.

Her skill is two-fold. First, she’s perfected the science of segmented expressional observation. And second, she’s developed a system of categorization and retrieval of her “bits” or memes. Subconsciously, she knows what type of expression or action to use for the appropriate situation. And she does it without thinking. It’s much like a professional athlete. After thousands and thousands of repetitions, their body just knows what to do in any given circumstance.

Now I have no actual proof to back my hypothesis, but I read something last night (after I started this piece), that makes complete sense. In an interview, Lawrence said she loves watching people and their expressions. This makes completely  sense. It’s her process. She doesn’t have a style, per se. Her style is limited only by the size of her internal database of expressive memes. And only being only twenty-two, her database is only going to get larger, and her retrieval ability more refined. Her limitation may be only the scripts put in front of her, and her discretion in choosing the ones that correspond to her current internal roster of memes.

All we can do is wait and see how her career develops and how she performs in roles unlike those she’s already conquered. For some reason I don’t think this will be the last time we see Jennifer Lawrence grace the Oscar platform and for roles that will surprise everyone.


You can find me on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+


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3 thoughts on “The Science of Being Jennifer Lawrence

  1. Thank you so much for posting this,Clay. I’m an actor and this post gives me something to work with. May god bless you!

    1. Thanks Amanda. As I mentioned, I’ve been following her for a while, and my analytical mind (for better or worse) could stop thinking about how she could be so accomplished. Well, this is what I came up with. Thanks for the endorsement.

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