LOS ANGELES — Jennifer Lawrence truly sensed her career had changed once celebrity photographers and comic-book fans began stalking her to take pictures of her "in human form."
Lawrence, who has Academy Awards buzz for a star-making performance in Sundance Film Festival prize winner "Winter's Bone," now is shooting her first big studio film — an "X-Men" prequel in which she plays shape-shifting mutant Mystique.
The day after she was cast, Lawrence and a friend were leaving her hotel when the photographers turned up.
Her friend asked, "'Who are these people here for?' and I was like, 'I don't know,'" Lawrence, 20, said in an interview at Hollywood's Chateau Marmont hotel, shortly before a reception to mark Tuesday's DVD release of "Winter's Bone." ''And then they started taking my picture, and she goes, 'No way!' And I was like, 'No, definitely not. It can't be me.'
"Then we heard someone yell, 'Don't take pictures of Mystique when she's in human form!' We both looked at each other, and she goes, 'I am so happy I was here for that, because you are never going to live that down.'"
Last January, Lawrence had been a little-known actress, off to an impressive start with roles in small independent features such as Charlize Theron's "The Burning Plain" and Lori Petty's "The Poker House," along with TV credits that included a season on "The Bill Engvall Show."
Then "Winter's Bone" premiered at Sundance, where it won the top prize for U.S. dramas. The film earned great reviews for Lawrence as an Ozark Mountains teen on a terrifying quest through the region's criminal underbelly to discover the fate of her missing father and hold her family together.
Adapted from Daniel Woodrell's novel, "Winter's Bone" was shot on a tiny $2 million budget, spare change for a big Hollywood production, and has grossed $6.2 million, a respectable return for an indie film.
Director Debra Granik and her collaborators considered trying to raise the money to shoot "Winter's Bone" on a bigger scale, a move that likely would have left Lawrence out of the running, since financial backers would have demanded an established box-office draw in the lead.
"It was only when we went really independent that we could go back to casting somebody who's just right. She didn't have to be already branded as someone who was already a proven commodity," Granik said.
Lawrence now is on her way to proven status. "X-Men: First Class," due out next summer, came her way amid the flurry of attention Lawrence received after Sundance. Lawrence was so convincing as a teen in peril in "Winter's Bone," though, that she nearly lost out on another choice part.
Director Jodie Foster had reservations about casting her in the black comedy "The Beaver," starring Mel Gibson as a man who wears a beaver puppet on his hand. Foster thought she might be too dark and edgy for a lighter story, Lawrence said.
"So first I'm flying overnight to prove that I look right for the role, and then I'm flying in to prove that I can be funny. And then, I think when Jodie met me, she went, 'Oh, she's an idiot. We're fine,'" the self-deprecating Lawrence joked.
Unfortunately for Lawrence, her performance in "The Beaver" remains under wraps. The film's release is in limbo amid Gibson's custody battle with ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva, who claims he physically abused her.
Lawrence has a standard response to fend off questions about Gibson's situation.
"I just try to say, 'It's sad,' while glaring at them, so they'll understand I don't want to talk about it," Lawrence said. "That's worked pretty well. I just blink less."
The youngest of three children, Lawrence grew up on a farm in Kentucky with no thoughts of becoming an actor until her mid-teens, when a photographer discovered her in New York City and she decided to give it a try.
After "X-Men: First Class" wraps production in December, Lawrence is aiming for a mix of roles in studio and independent films and eventually wants to direct.
"I thought it would be fun, to be honest, to do a studio film and have a big trailer, stay in a nice hotel room, do something with a bigger budget, special effects, all that stuff that I've never done before and I'm obviously curious about. I'm having a blast on it," Lawrence said.
"There's also so much that I miss about indies. When you're doing an indie, nobody's there for the money. ... We're working insane hours for free and eating crappy food, but we're all doing it together because of the love of the film."
Lawrence is glad to be busy on "X-Men" so she can try to forget how much other people love "Winter's Bone," which could land her a best-actress nomination at the Oscars.
"It's too big to actually react to, you know?" Lawrence said. "I'm 20 years old. I know how to take my dog to the vet and I know how to go to the dentist. I don't know how to accept somebody telling me I could get an Oscar. That's something I haven't learned to do yet."
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