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Jennifer Lawrence on unequal pay and the ‘very sick’ gender dynamic in Hollywood

In "Red Sparrow," Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence plays a Russian ballerina-turned-agent forced into a brutal and sexually violent world. But aside from a timely Russian-focused storyline, the film touches on issues of gender and power imbalances that Lawrence has not hesitated to address in the past. Jeffrey Brown sits down with her and director Francis Lawrence.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally, with the Academy Awards coming this Sunday, Jeffrey Brown profiles one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Jennifer Lawrence.

    She has been making at least two films a year since the age of 20, and now, at 27, she’s the youngest actress ever nominated for four Oscars.

    In a year in which the industry’s problems with discrimination and harassment have gotten as much attention as the films, Lawrence has been outspoken, especially on the issue of pay equity.

    She talked to Jeff about that and her new movie opening today.

  • Jennifer Lawrence:

    I was told to take a man to a hotel. They said he was an enemy of the state.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It may be an old story, American and Russian spies, cloak and dagger, but the film “Red Sparrow,” set in the here and now, arrives with new resonance.

  • Jennifer Lawrence:

    Instead, they cut his throat.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Jennifer Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a Russian ballerina-turned-agent forced into a sexually violent and deadly world.

    She says the role took her places she’d never gone as an actor.

  • Jennifer Lawrence:

    There were a lot of things about this that kind of scared me. And she was being put in physical situations that I was uncomfortable with, just me, as a human.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You personally?

  • Jennifer Lawrence:

    Yes, me personally. And that was actually really good for me to kind of put myself in a place, not as my character, to go to someplace that I wasn’t going to go. And I felt stronger afterwards.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    “Red Sparrow” is loosely based on novels by Jason Matthews, a former real-life CIA operative. It features an all-star cast, including Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, and Joel Edgerton as an American agent.

  • Joel Edgerton:

    Your uncle is a very powerful man.

  • Jennifer Lawrence:

    In my country, if you don’t matter to the men in power, you do not matter.

  • Joel Edgerton:

    Hey, I would like to see you again.

  • Jennifer Lawrence:

    Why? Are we going to become friends?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Director Francis Lawrence, no relation to Jennifer, says he was surprised by how timely the Russian-focused plot turned out to be.

  • Francis Lawrence:

    When we were developing it, we actually had conversations with the studio where we felt like this modern Cold War idea, the Americans and Russians, felt outdated and a little passe.

    And — but the world changed as we were making the movie, and so the movie has just become more and more topical. I still don’t think it’s a political film. I was drawn in by the human characters and by the emotion of it. And that’s what’s always driven me.

  • Actress:

    Take off your clothes. Your body belongs to the state. Since your birth, the state nourished it. Now the state asks something in return.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The emotion and the scariness Jennifer Lawrence referred to deepen as her character is trained as a Red Sparrow, agents taught to use seduction to gain access to those deemed enemies of the Russian state.

    It’s a taut thriller, but one that includes scenes of brutality and torture. It also called for Lawrence to appear nude, four years after she was victim of a hacking and nude photos of her were posted online.

  • Jennifer Lawrence:

    Once I read the script, I knew that I had to do it. And then the only thing that was really holding me back was just the — I haven’t really been wanting to be seen in a sexual way. I have just always just been kind of uncomfortable with that.

  • Francis Lawrence:

    It’s very easy with a story like this to go too far, to become gratuitous, to exploit, which is not what I wanted to do. And so that’s something that I spend a lot of time thinking about.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, where do you draw that line? How do you…

  • Francis Lawrence:

    Well, that’s a complicated question with this.

    Well, what I wanted to do was make sure that every single moment that has any — an ounce of sexuality or nudity or violence was inherent in the narrative, that had very specific emotional values, that was pushing the story forward.

  • Jennifer Lawrence:

    Her entire story is people trying to use her and take advantage of her and try to train her to use her body to get ahead. And she — she gets ahead by using her mind. I find it empowering.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Of course, issues of power, gender and sex are also very much of the moment in Hollywood and beyond right now, in ways that Jennifer Lawrence has felt compelled to address.

    Beginning with 2010’s “Winter’s Bone,” the 27-year-old has built a reputation as a brilliant actress, as well as box office star. “The Hunger Games” series, three of them directed by Francis Lawrence, established her as an international celebrity and an icon of a strong female character.

    She won an Oscar for best actress for “Silver Linings Playbook” and was the highest paid actress in the world in 2015 and 2016. But a leaked memo revealed that on the film “American Hustle,” Lawrence and co-star Amy Adams earned much less than their male counterparts, Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale.

    She published an essay that helped jump-start a conversation about pay equity.

  • Jennifer Lawrence:

    My point of view on that essay was really just my own mentality on the whole thing. You know, why did I not feel like I deserved to be paid equally? I was more interested in that.

    And even though I have kind of a weird job that’s probably not relatable to most, I felt like my mentality on that, if I’m feeling this way in Hollywood, I can imagine how many women across the world must be feeling that. And why don’t we?

    You know, I had won an Oscar by the time I was doing “American Hustle.” I had led movies to be number one at the box office. I was just curious, why did I not feel like I deserved equal pay?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You asked yourself, and then you asked the world?

  • Jennifer Lawrence:

    And then I asked women.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes. What about in the MeToo moment? Did you feel — did you ask yourself similar types of questions and feel like you had to speak out?

  • Jennifer Lawrence:

    I felt like it was important to show support, because that’s how all of these people who have suffered abuse felt comfortable coming forward, was because of this outpouring of support.

    And then also we had to start creating a movement. We have to reshape the way that we’re treated. Things that were normalized before are no longer going to be normalized.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Did it surprise you?

  • Francis Lawrence:

    No, it didn’t surprise me. I think there’s a huge gap between the amount of men and women that are working in higher-level jobs and decision-making jobs. And it’s something that just has to change.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    One thing that all exposed for the world was this sort of power imbalance in Hollywood, right?

    How serious a problem is it when you’re a young actor?

  • Jennifer Lawrence:

    A young actor or a less experienced actor doesn’t have the same opportunity, the same power to say no. So, it creates…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    To say no, whether it’s pay or harassment.

  • Jennifer Lawrence:

    Whether it’s pay or harassment, yes. They want to work. And so they don’t have the same power to walk away from a job, so they don’t have the same negotiating power.

    And, again, I go back to, if we aren’t paid equally, then why would we — why would women be expected to be treated equally? I think the power struggle, it’s created a very sick dynamic in Hollywood that’s very easy to take advantage of.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Jennifer Lawrence is asserting her power these days on and off screen.

    “Red Sparrow” opens around the country today.

    For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jeffrey Brown in Washington.

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