How Jennifer Lawrence became a massive star overnight

Jennifer Lawrence is one of the most universally revered and well-liked celebrities in modern Hollywood, and hers is a name most people know (although some do still call her "J-Law"). The ultra-GIF-able actress has managed to become one of the rare stars who is just as popular as she is esteemed, and her pop culture dominance seemed to come out of nowhere as she landed one franchise after another while still putting out prestigious work that earned her all kinds of accolades.

Despite all of her fame and fortune, though, Lawrence is also quite humble and down to earth, which makes many fans even more intrigued by the actress. So, how did Jennifer Lawrence establish herself as the "It" girl of Hollywood so quickly? Let's take a look back at how she became such a massive star — and how her rise to the top wasn't quite as overnight as it might seem.

Learning on the job

As intelligent and articulate as she is, some fans might be surprised to learn that Jennifer Lawrence has very little in the way of formal education. The actress actually dropped out of middle school at age 14 to pursue her early passion for acting. She revealed in an interview with 60 Minutes that she never even earned a GED or high school diploma. "I'm self-educated," she explained. "I wanted to forge my own path. I found what I wanted to do, and I didn't want anything getting in the way of it. Even friends, for many years, were not as important to me as my career."

One of the reasons Lawrence made the decision to skip the rest of her schooling in favor of work was that she just felt like a fish out of water in the educational world, saying, "I struggled through school. I never felt very smart. When I'm reading a script, and I feel like I know exactly what it would look like if somebody felt that way — that was a whole part of my brain that I didn't even know existed, something that I could be confident in. And I didn't want to let it go." Luckily for her, her instinct — that she was meant to be an actress — proved to be correct.

An auspicious start

Lawrence earned bragging rights very early on in her budding career. She told W magazine that her very first audition — which was for a veterinary educational video — resulted in a callback, which gave her an extra pep in her step from the start. "I didn't work for a long time, but I walked around for so long going, 'Well, I got a call back for the first thing I auditioned for, so…" Eventually, she did land her first role in a 2005 promotional short for MTV's My Super Sweet 16, which led her to thank the network as she accepted her first Screen Actors Guild Award, since that role was what merited her receiving a SAG membership card to become part of the organization.

After her MTV promo, the TV gigs started coming in. She starred in several episodes of shows like Monk and Medium before landing a regular place in the cast of The Bill Engvall Show. That series lasted for three seasons and had Lawrence convinced she would be a sitcom star forevermore. She told The Hollywood Reporter, "I was totally satisfied when I was on a sitcom because I had a steady paycheck. And I was like, 'Maybe I can just find a way to be on sitcoms forever.' [...] I never dreamed that I could have this kind of career." 

The little indie that could

After nabbing roles in a series of independent films, Lawrence landed a role in Deborah Granik's Winter's Bone. Granik later revealed to The Daily Beast that she chose the then-up-and-comer for the role because she "has the ability to show different sides, colors, ways of reacting, and retorts." Although Lawrence is largely considered one of Hollywood's most beautiful actresses, Granik said that it was her average appearance in the audition process that intrigued her: "She looked like a realistic human being. She didn't have an entourage, or handlers. And it was very important for everyone to do the audition without makeup." Granik continued, "The second time I met her, she really communicated quite vividly what she wanted for the character, and it was hers."

Theirs was a match made in Hollywood heaven because Lawrence was a revelation in the picture and earned an Academy Award nomination for the role. She told Vanity Fair that she was more disoriented by that initial Oscar buzz than anything else. "It's very strange. I think it's actually so big that it can't fit in my head. So it's kind of just bouncing off," she explained. "It's a compliment. People really, really thought I did a good job to tell me these things. It's very nice and it means a lot; it's a tremendous honor. But I don't think something like that can sink in. At least to a 20-year-old."

Then came the franchises

Lawrence's small-budget film work would continue with Like Crazy and The Beaver, but she soon capitalized on her buzz by venturing into franchise-land as Raven/Mystique in X-Men: First Class. Director Matthew Vaughn told GQ that he chose her for the role not just because she was pretty enough to step into a former model's shoes (note: Rebecca Romijn had previously portrayed her), but because she was fierce. "To be blunt, a lot of these kids assume that just by having a good set of teeth and t*ts, smiling for the camera's gonna be enough. I needed someone who could act," he said, adding, "She's got a set of balls on her." Shortly thereafter, she would nab another career-defining franchise role.

Few book-to-screen adaptations courted as much anticipation and fan-casting as Gary Ross' take on Suzanne Collins' mega-successful YA trilogy The Hunger Games, so choosing the right person to become the series' imperfect heroine Katniss Everdeen was essential. Ross was intrigued by Lawrence's esteemed work in her first big breakthrough performance, telling Entertainment Weekly, "I saw Winter's Bone, and I just thought she was phenomenally talented and just kind of riveting and amazing and had so much power. And then we had a meeting and I found her to be just a completely compelling, intelligent person. But then she came in and read for me and it just knocked me out." Both films would be successful and spawn multiple sequels in which Lawrence would star.

Getting to the goofy stuff

Once Lawrence became Mystique and Katniss, she soon found herself all over the promotional tour circuit, and she had everyone in stitches on a regular basis. Whether it was interview-bombing her co-stars to joke about rashes or calling herself a "troll" when justifying why she doesn't like to watch her own movies, she wasn't afraid to cut loose and make people laugh, even when her roles were pretty serious business.

She later told Marie Claire (via MTV News) that she didn't want to "constantly be a GIF" as a result of her antics, but she couldn't help it for a while there, when she was constantly doing silly things like causing a car accident because she thought she saw Honey Boo-Boo, losing her mind over the Kardashians, and, of course, constantly falling on the red carpet. She also wasn't afraid to forego the Hollywood starvation diet and openly praise all kinds of junk food at events — not to mention happily flapping her arm fat for the cameras. All of this delightful candor made Jennifer Lawrence that rare kind of actress who feels truly relatable to fans, making it that much easier to root for her continued success.

Accolades ahoy

Some stars might struggle to balance the time spent on studio fare with their other passion projects, but Jennifer Lawrence seemed to have no trouble navigating from green screen sets with big action sequences back to more intimate productions where she'd have to do the heavy lifting with her dialogue and ability to emote. Soon after The Hunger Games' release, she appeared in the David O. Russell film Silver Linings Playbook and stunned critics with her game-changing performance as a grieving widow who turns to another troubled soul for reprieve. The part drastically different than anything fans had seen from her up to that point, and she swept through awards season, collecting a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for the film (and falling on the way up to collect her Oscar, of course).

The very next year she'd be right back in the thick of it for awards season again after she racked up multiple nominations — and another Golden Globe — for her turn as the tragic and terrible wife of a con man in Russell's American Hustle. She was again nominated two years later for her third collaboration with the director, Joy. Thanks to those last two nods, she twice made history as the youngest actress to ever receive so many nominations at 22 and 23 years old, respectively.

Using her voice

Lawrence might default to being a jokester, but she's also not afraid to speak out for those causes she cares about. While she's often joked about her weight, she took a more serious tone when she criticized Hollywood's impossible weight standards, revealing that she was once made to stand nude in a line-up and chastised by a producer for her size. She also refused to be embarrassed after private photos of herself posing naked were hacked and leaked online, insisting to Vanity Fair, "Just because I'm a public figure, just because I'm an actress, does not mean that I asked for this. It does not mean that it comes with the territory."

Following the Sony email leak of 2014 which revealed that she'd been paid less than her co-stars in American Hustle, Lawrence penned an op-ed for Lenny Letter in which she blasted the Hollywood gender pay gap. She has since spoken out about the political climate, become involved in hyperlocal initiatives, and gone public with her views on campaign financing issues. She's also a board member in the anti-corruption advocacy group Represent.Us and founded the Jennifer Lawrence Foundation to support youth. In other words, just as Lawrence's name and presence help to sell movie tickets, she's also come to capitalize on her influence as an important voice in the public domain.

A timely break

Even Jennifer Lawrence isn't infallible. After so many career wins, Lawrence experienced a few back-to-back slumps, when films like Passengers and Red Sparrow failed to garner the same kind of enthusiasm as some of her prior work. So, instead of churning out another big slate of blockbuster hopefuls, the actress decided to take a step back for a while and invest her time in other projects.

In early 2018, she announced that she'd be taking a year away from the screen scene to devote her time to her political interests. She told Entertainment Tonight, "I'm going to take the next year off," revealing, "I'm going to be working with this organization as a part of Represent.Us … trying to get young people engaged politically on a local level." She continued, "It doesn't have anything to do with partisan [politics]. … It's just anti-corruption and stuff trying to pass state by state laws that can help prevent corruption, fix our democracy." Though she continued to line up other projects — including her role as Mystique for Dark Phoenix — perhaps it was a wise decision on her part to avoid any long-term J-Law fatigue fans might've gotten from her being at the top of the A-list for so many years.