Francis Lawrence and Jennifer Lawrence are not related. While there’s certainly a strong familial ease between the two—which was on full display over the course of the Red Sparrow press tour—it comes from having collaborated on four films together. But Red Sparrow is their first project outside of the Hunger Games franchise, and it signals a major leap forward for both director and star.
In it, Lawrence plays Dominika, a former Russian ballerina who’s forced to join a grueling program where’s she’s trained to use the art of seduction in order to extract information for the Russian government. When she becomes involved with an ex-CIA operative who also happens to be her target (played by the always memorable Joel Edgerton), a compelling game of cat and mouse ensues.
The film, based on the 2013 spy novel by former CIA operative Jason Matthews, is a slick and suspenseful spy thriller punctuated by the kind of sudden bursts of violence and eroticism that might make Paul Verhoeven blush. It sees both Lawrences trying to smash their established personas: she, the goofy, cool girl next door; and he, the director of one of the biggest YA franchises of our lifetime.
Here’s Lawrence (the director) on how he subverted the spy movie, how he handled the film’s complicated sexual politics and what’s it’s been like watching firsthand the evolution of the world’s biggest movie star.
The film is obviously a work of fiction, but it comes from the mind of a real CIA operative. Do you imagine events like the ones depicted here are actually happening around the world as we speak?
I think tons of that stuff is happening all the time. At the beginning of this press tour, we went to the CIA, and we had an operative on the panel with us, and trust me, this stuff is going on all over the place. Once I read the book and started to research more and read memoirs and other accounts of events, I saw that there were things that have happened through many decades of spying that Jason plucked to insert into his story. These things have happened.
What are the major differences between CIA and the KGB, or are they a lot more similar than we think?
I really don’t know, and that’s part of the appeal of that world, right? They’re so shrouded in mystery, you just don’t know what’s going on. As a filmmaker, when you’re creating a villain, typically you’re not creating a villain that thinks they’re doing something evil. They think they’re doing the right thing. Matthias [Schoenaerts’] character doesn’t think he’s a bad guy. The only thing that’s really fucked about him is that he’s manipulated his niece. But he has motives.
The film has taken on a new relevance ever since Russia has become a fixture in the daily news cycle. Is that something you’ve embraced?
Well, we started shooting the January after Trump had been elected, and you could sense that it was starting to feel more topical. Though we never intended on making a political movie, I like making movies that reflect the times we live in. When we started the movie, I remember us having a conversation with the studio, and they were saying that the modern Cold War element of it feels irrelevant and passé, like “been there, done that.” They said they love the story for the character stuff, but then suddenly the political element got ratcheted up.
“Clearly, [Jen] wouldn’t have chosen this role when I met her at 20.”
We’ve seen recent female-led spy movies use violence as its hero’s defining attribute. But here, Dominika uses skills that are much more cerebral in nature. Was that attractive to you as a director?
One hundred percent. This is by far the most specific genre piece that I’ve ever done, and I think that in the spy genre, there’s been so many great films made, whether they’re Bond films or [John] le Carre films or things of those nature. So you have to find a new way in if you’re going to do something that’s a well-worn genre. I thought the new way was portraying it as a brutal world instead of a glamorous or sexy world. It was also about sucking a civilian in against her will into that world so that she could almost be the conduit for the audience. But it was the human aspect of it that really appealed to me and made me feel like it was a unique story to tell for the genre.
How did you approach the film’s complicated sexual politics?
That was always a tricky thing. In painting the idea of a girl being pulled into this world against her will and it being a brutal world of espionage, the content that was violent and sexual was going to be important, and it was going to be important to modulate it so that the intention was never to titillate. We were not making an erotic thriller. That would’ve been a completely different kind of thing.
So once Jen said yes, we had many, many conversations about how to be as vigilant as possible that every moment where there’s violence or sexuality or nudity, that it’s calibrated to the emotional value of the narrative, the characters, the tone and that it worked for the brutal world of espionage and that survival story. That was something we really did together. Because of that, you have scenes like her humiliating the cadet in Sparrow school, which is so powerful because of its bold rawness and because it’s just not sexy at all.
Did your relationship with Jennifer play a role in getting her to say yes to this movie?
That certainly had something to do with it, but I didn’t get her to say “yes.” I wouldn’t want anybody that had to be coaxed. I didn’t want her to know too much about the content until she read what I wanted to do. So I didn’t want her to read the book. I didn’t want to have general conversations about it or warn her about it. I just wanted her to read the script and then make up her mind. So she either wanted to make the movie like this or she didn’t. Neither one is right or wrong. It’s just what she’s game for and what she isn’t. She decided she was in, and then those conversations that I was talking about began. I was literally at her house an hour after she called and said she was going to do it, and we just sat in her backyard and started having conversations.
How has she evolved since the first time you worked with her on Catching Fire?
When you look at the roles she’s played, she’s evolved. But in terms of process, it’s kind of the same. She’s a very intuitive and instinctive actor. She doesn’t like to rehearse, she doesn’t practice a lot and she doesn’t read the script a lot. So process is the same. But clearly, she wouldn’t have chosen this role when I met her at 20. She decided to do it now because of life experience, and getting older and having been in different relationships, so she felt ready.
With everything that Jen’s been through, it seems like her spirit has remained in tact. Do you ever marvel at how she’s handled her enormous fame?
I do, and that’s the great thing. People ask me a lot about how she’s changed, and it’s hard to say because I’ve known her since she was 20. Now she’s 27, so clearly in that period of life, somebody changes. But also, what gets magnified is that she went from somebody who was pretty famous when I met her to someone who is extraordinarily famous now, which happened post Catching Fire into Mockingjay and winning the Oscar. There was this explosion, and I really saw her world change, and she had to fucking deal with it when she was young. That’s not easy.
What I’ve learned in seeing it happen to other people is that everybody’s fan base is different. They react differently to certain things, and it’s a very weird existence, and so I’ve seen her learn how to deal with it as best she can. But the thing that I’ve always been amazed at is that with all the success, to me she’s still basically the same woman. She’s still super smart, talented, clumsy, silly and really fucking funny—all those things that make her so endearing. She still has the same group of friends and is still close with her family. It’s that weird chemistry that she has.
What was it like to working with Joel, who’s directed his own movie in the past? Was the line between actor and director clearly defined, or did you ever bounce ideas off him, given that he has a director’s eye and mentality as well?
It’s interesting. Typically, I’d be very wary of working with somebody who’s a director and an actor, but there’s something about Joel. He’s a super smart guy and an unbelievable actor, but also there’s something about him that because he’s new to directing, he’s totally open to just learning. I’m not teaching him, but he’s always learning. He works with David Ayer on something, then works with me, and what we do is totally different, and I think he’s just soaking it all up. I never get the chance to be around other directors, so I would soak it up, too. I’m sure there was stuff that he judged that I did, but I also think I think differently about movies than he does, and he’s interested in that.
I think a large chunk of audiences know you primarily for you work on the Hunger Games franchise. Are you excited to move away from that and show us the full extent of your palette?
After making three of those movies in five years, I just didn’t stop, and so to be able to do something completely different was just so fun. It’s weird—I don’t feel like it’s a careful thing. You’re constantly searching for the great project, so when one sort of lands and feels like it’s right and comes together and gains momentum, it just becomes the one. There are other things I’m developing, but it takes a while to coalesce. I loved this one, and when Jen agreed to do it, it was just perfect.