How Jennifer Lawrence’s ‘Red Sparrow’ director helped get her comfortable with the sexually explicit role

‘Red Sparrow.’ 20th Century Fox
  • “Red Sparrow” director Francis Lawrence gave us insight on what he did to make his movie’s star, Jennifer Lawrence, feel completely comfortable on a set that included a lot a nudity and sex scenes.
  • He had a three-hour talk with Jennifer in her backyard after she agreed to do the movie.
  • Though not done on purpose, shooting a nude scene the first day of shooting helped.

Director Francis Lawrence was wrapping up editing on “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” when he was handed the book, “Red Sparrow.” For someone who had just spent the last five years making three movies in the globally successful YA franchise, the novel by Jason Matthews was a welcome sight. And he had a feeling the franchise’s star, Jennifer Lawrence, would be into it as well.

“I know for a fact she was starving to do different stuff,” Lawrence told Business insider of Jennifer’s need to take on roles that were very different from Katniss Everdeen at the time they wrapped the “Hunger Games” movies.

He instantly called Lawrence and pitched her the idea of playing the character in the book that grabbed him the most, Dominika. A young Russian ballerina who after an injury – and scared she will lose the financial support of the Kremlin to take care of her ailing mother – agrees to become a “Sparrow,” part of a Russian intelligence service in which agents use their sexuality to accomplish missions.

Jennifer was intrigued and Francis got 20th Century Fox involved, which fast-tracked a script. But as the script for “Red Sparrow” was being written, Lawrence admits he was convinced something was going to go wrong.

“She wasn’t going to want to do the movie once she read it because of the content,” he thought.

In 2014, Jennifer Lawrence’s phone was hacked and nude photos of the actress leaked online. She said afterward that it was an experience that “was so unbelievably violating that you can’t even put into words.” After going through something like that, would she be comfortable doing a movie where her character endures violent sexual encounters and in one scene is completely nude?

Not being shy about addressing nudity

Around March of 2016, the actress read the script and contacted Lawrence to tell him she wanted to do the movie. Without hesitation he drove to her house to talk. But it wasn’t because the director wanted to dive in on discussions about the character. He wanted to be very open with his star about the sexually graphic nature of the role.

Red Sparrow Francis Lawrence Fox final
‘Red Sparrow’ director Francis Lawrence. 20th Century Fox

Lawrence said he sat and talked to the actress for three hours in her backyard about what the role entailed and gave her a step-by-step game plan of how he would shoot these sensitive scenes.

“I said, ‘Let’s just start being frank right away about the content of the movie,'” Lawrence said. “Because it’s easy to get shy about it and next thing you know you’re on the day of a tough scene and she’s nervous and we haven’t really talked about it. I didn’t want it to happen. I didn’t want to walk on egg shells or her to be walking on egg shells, and I wanted a partner that was going to think about the scenes with me. She felt ownership of it and she collaborated and made sure that those kind of scenes always were truly married to the fabric of the narrative and character and tone.”

He also made her a promise: She would see the finished movie before the studio or producers and could take out any scenes that made her uncomfortable.

“The studio and producers wouldn’t ever get the dailies until we saw them, there was a system in place,” Lawrence said. “We showed Jen, she did not nix anything, and then I showed the producers and studio.”

Feeling protected on set

After working on three movies with Jennifer Lawrence, Francis had come to realise that the Oscar winner was unlike many of the greats when it came to how she performed. Many in her calibre are most comfortable with lots of discussions with their director before (and during) shooting about the character and scenes. The director was shocked to learn she was nothing like that when he first directed her on “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.”

“I assumed, like most great actors, she would want to do a lot of discussion and go through the script,” Lawrence said. “I remember she went to me, ‘Well, I’ll do that if you want me to.’ And I said, ‘What?’ And she said, “Yeah, I mean, I don’t really like to rehearse, I feel kind of stupid rehearsing, but I will if you really want me to.’ She was just the opposite of any other actor I have ever worked with in that sense.”

Red Sparrow Fox final
Jennifer Lawrence in ‘Red Sparrow.’ 20th Century Fox

So for shooting “Red Sparrow,” Lawrence knew all he had to do was give his star some general direction and then let her shine when the cameras rolled. But her unique style is partly why Lawrence wanted to make sure she would be fully protected on set. He didn’t want her performance to feel constrained or timid.

Lawrence believes because the first scene they shot for the movie had nudity in it, which he said was not planned, Jennifer was able to instantly be comfortable with the movie’s tone because she saw firsthand how it was handled.

The scene (mild spoiler head) shows Dominika as she follows her old ballerina dance partner and his girlfriend into a steam room and attacks them (payback for the injury they caused to Dominika that ended her career) while they are nude and having sex.

“She saw how we approached it – even though we had talked about it – how we actually physically approached shooting a scene where there’s nudity,” Lawrence said. “The actors were basically entirely naked for the bulk of the day. She saw that everyone was really respectful, she saw that the crew in the room was down to the bare minimum, she saw that we put the video monitors in a tent so that people couldn’t gather around, she saw people standing just off camera with robes so they could get thrown on the actors right away. She saw how comfortable the actors were doing that scene, I think that was the biggest thing, seeing the comfort of the actors.”

As the movie progresses Jennifer has a nude scene along with doing numerous sexually graphic scenes, including one sequence when she fights off a rape attempt while taking a shower.

You’re either comfortable in your own skin or you’re not

Jennifer Lawrence has said while doing press for “Red Sparrow” that the movie’s sexual tone made her feel “empowered.”

“I feel like something that was taken from me I got back,” she told “60 Minutes.” And Francis believes this was the kind of project the star needed after going through the leaked nude photos experience. But the director wasn’t going to push, she had to be willing.

“That’s how I was when I gave her the script,” he said. “There was no convincing, she just had to make the decision all on her own. I feel as an actor, whether you’re a man or a woman, if there’s nudity in the role it’s a choice you make – I’m comfortable in my own skin, I’m in; or I’m uncomfortable and I’m out – but I think that Jen would probably say that she found this to be a more moving experience for her.”

“Red Sparrow” opens in theatres on Friday.