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Jennifer Lawrence: I was meant to play Katniss in ‘Hunger Games’

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) grows up hunting animals ends up forced hunt humans futuristic “The Hunger Games” opening Friday.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) grows up hunting animals and ends up forced to hunt humans in the futuristic “The Hunger Games,” opening Friday.

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Updated: April 19, 2012 8:07AM

LOS ANGELES — Jennifer Lawrence is always skeptical of the games Hollywood plays.

This was especially true when it came to turning a beloved book called The Hunger Games into a movie.

The Kentucky native and Oscar nominee admits the project made her cringe. “My first thought was, ‘Great. Here’s another book that Hollywood will screw up,’ ” says the husky-voiced young actress.

So what if the establishment — the Hollywood suits — might not appreciate her blunt honesty? Just like her character Katniss Everdeen, Lawrence is nothing if not upfront and in your face.

Ask whether impending superstardom is happening too fast, and she just throws her hands in the air.

“When you get a promotion at your job, you never say, ‘That was too fast. Can I stay in the mailroom?’ You take it gratefully,” she counters. “I’m as ready as I can be.”

Then she laughs and gives her bluntly honest assessment. “Mostly, I’m clueless,” says Lawrence, who adds, “Every time, I pass a ‘Hunger Games’ poster, my entire body breaks out into goosebumps.”

The 21-year-old native of Kentucky looks tough enough to take it on.

“I couldn’t have been more wrong about Hollywood screwing this one up because we didn’t,” she says in a defiant voice. “Everyone involved in this film was a fan of the books. We vowed not to make a watered-down version of a great story.”

Lawrence might have had an Oscar nomination under her belt for an obscure film called “Winter’s Bone,” but that didn’t mean she was a lock for a role coveted by other accomplished actresses including Hailee Steinfeld (“True Grit”), Abigail Breslin (“Little Miss Sunshine”) and Saoirse Ronan (“Hanna”).

“Hell, yes, I was competitive about it,” Lawrence insists. “For me, it has nothing to do with being a better actor. I’m not better than those other girls.

“This role was just me. It was a little bit like Katniss and I were soulmates.”

Director Gary Ross says Lawrence is the kind of actress Hollywood sees once every 10 years. “She actually has subtlety,” he says. “I don’t even understand where she gets it. But in the end, I was directing this girl in awe of her at the same time. One day I actually said, ‘Where do you come from? Where do you get this?’ She said, ‘I don’t know, I had a very ordinary childhood.’ ”

Known for the long braid in her hair and the bow and arrow on her back, Katniss is one of 23 “tributes,” or teens fighting for their lives, in the film version of Suzanne Collins’ futuristic best-seller.

“I knew I could read the lines and say them without forcing anything. I could speak as this character,” she says. “There are a lot of scripts where I simply can’t find those words. There are no way those words can come out of my mouth and feel natural.

“Katniss is a girl I can understand.”

What does she understand the most about her? Lawrence brings you back to her first scene as Katniss, where she wakes up on the day of the Reckoning. A young woman and young man from her District 12 will be chosen in Collins’ dystopian world to go off and fight to the death.

Katniss volunteers when her young sister is the chosen female, knowing that the frail young girl doesn’t stand a chance. Katniss, who hunts for her family’s food, at least has the skill of archery on her side.

Lawrence says the role reflects the attitudes of many young women who don’t realize their own power.

“Katniss is stronger than she knows,” she says. “She starts out in the film thinking she’s a bit cold, but she’s actually a lot nicer and warmer than she thinks, too. She thinks of herself as a hunter and never focused on trying to get people to like her.”

Katniss has to deal with her torn emotions. There’s the quiet baker Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who always loved her, and also her hometown hunk Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), who is waiting for her to return in one piece.

“Her feelings for Peeta are confusing,” Lawrence admits. “She does love him and wants a person with her in the games. But I think she gets confused about what’s real and what’s for TV during this fight for survival. If you have a higher sense of surviving by being in love with someone, then you do it.”

One problem: feigning love for Hutcherson.

“In real life, we have that annoying brother-and-sister thing going,” Lawrence says. “We’ll fight about who is on the face of a $10 bill. That’s our crack-down fight.

“We play with each other like cats, clawing at each other,” she says, laughing. “That’s not the chemistry you hope to find between two lovers!”

Her toughness on screen is a throwback to Lawrence’s childhood in Kentucky. “I drew on it,” she admits. “Even the other day, I said to a friend here in Los Angeles, ‘You mean, you didn’t grow up with any woods? Where did you fall out of trees and build a fort?’ ”

At times the woodsy set was stormed by fans no one counted on. “There were bears there and lots of them, including mothers and baby bears,” she says. “There were also wild turkeys, who were funny. We had an assistant director who had to run around and scare the turkeys away. But after awhile, they weren’t scared of him anymore.”

A native of Louisville, Lawrence decided as a young teen to hightail it to the Big Apple to audition for acting roles and even try her luck at modeling. She spent a summer in New York shooting commercials for MTV and H&M.

“I loved it so much,” she says. “I was 14 and wearing my brand-new Forever 21 boots. There I was storming the sidewalks knowing where I was going. It just seemed like home.”

After moving to L.A., she graduated from high school two years early and then nabbed a role on the TBS sitcom “The Bill Engvall Show” (2007). Film roles followed in “The Poker House” (2008) and “The Burning Plain” (2009). Her role as Ree Dolly in “Winter’s Bone” earned her a best actress Oscar nomination.

Lawrence also appeared in “The Beaver” (2011) and “X-Men: First Class” (2011).

She just wrapped a film with David O. Russell, where she plays a former sex addict. “I was cracking up when I read the script; plus, it was hilarious to work with David. I have a strong reaction to everything he has ever done.”

She’s happy that her own filmography isn’t something she needs to gripe about in an interview. “I’ve wanted to do most of my movies. I’m lucky that I don’t have to say, ‘There is a lot of crap in there.’ ”

Ask her how “The Hunger Games” will change her life and profile, and she just sighs.

“I don’t want to think about me,” she insists. “I’d rather think about how this movie will affect young girls. Maybe it will make them feel more powerful, which is the goal.

“As for me, I haven’t thought about how this will affect my life except in the negative sense. Yes, I get to be this character. She’s an amazing, iconic character. But when I drive by the posters, I still get goosebumps and think, ‘Life as you know it is about to change.’

“Of course, I do hope to do movies where I’m not Katniss. I hope it’s not going to be, ‘Oh, look, Katniss is doing a period drama. Katniss looks so stupid in a hoop skirt.’ ”

Big Picture News Inc.

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