LOS ANGELES — Last year, during an interview to promote "The Hunger Games," Jennifer Lawrence talked about how blessed she felt to ride the Batman roller coaster at Six Flags after the park had closed.
Though she had earned an Oscar nomination for "Winter's Bone," Lawrence was not yet a household name. That happened when "The Hunger Games" was released in March 2012.
Fast forward 18 months and Lawrence is one of the best known — and respected — actresses in Hollywood. She's done that by winning over the action movie, teen book-reading crowd through her portrayal of Katniss Everdeen in "The Hunger Games," and through an Oscar-winning acting performance in "Silver Linings Playbook."
On Thursday, "Catching Fire," the sequel to "The Hunger Games," opens.
As far as the 23-year-old Kentucky native is concerned, the only thing that's changed for her is the pixie haircut she now sports instead of long locks.
"I'm actually surprised at how surprised everyone is that nothing has changed or feels different," Lawrence says. "I think everyone believes that when you win an Oscar, it's like some sort of magical charm that changes everything in your life. It really hasn't. I have had the most amazing year — career-wise — and I am so grateful and so honored but it really hasn't changed anything for my personal life.
"I still put on my acting pants one leg at a time."
She has seen a lot more filmmakers interested in her. She's finished, or is working on, eight different projects that will keep her busy for the next few years.
As she's already shown, Lawrence likes to work on a range of projects. Current projects include the fact-based "American Hustle," a reprisal of her role as Mystique in the "X-Men" sequel, the final two chapters in "The Hunger Games" and a new version of John Steinbeck's "East of Eden." She even has a role in the flat-out comedy "Dumb and Dumber To."
The attention Lawrence is getting in the film industry has created what she calls "pinch me" moments.
"I am amazed at some of the people who even know about me now or that I hear want to work with me or want to send me over a script," Lawrence says. "These are people I have idolized and that has been very jaw-dropping and lovely."
The moments that have stayed with her the most have nothing to do with Hollywood's elite. Lawrence gets emotional when she talks about how young fans — especially young women — have told her how much they have been inspired by "The Hunger Games" books and her work in bringing them to life.
"I don't ever think that my job is very important. I just love doing it," Lawrence says. "I remember being on the first movie and there was a girl, who was an extra, covered in scars. She had been burned. I remember her coming up and saying to me that she was self-conscience to go to school when she was younger and then when she read 'Hunger Games' and 'Catching Fire' she was proud of her scars and her friends called her 'the girl on fire.'
"I remember crying and calling my mom and telling her I finally get it. Sometimes it can seem so pointless because you are so filled with hair and makeup and clothes, that you forget about the lives you can touch."
This down-to-earth attitude makes Lawrence one Oscar away from being the female Tom Hanks. Like him, Lawrence is a talented performer with the kind of open personality that makes everyone feel comfortable.
She also has a wicked sense of humor, apparent when she makes a joke about the bad decision of wearing tight leather pants for the day of interviews.
And when she laughs at herself after accidentally saying that she and fellow actress Jena Malone wore "morning sickness bracelets" during one of the more action-oriented scenes with a spinning cornucopia while filming "Catching Fire."
After correcting her statement to say it was for "motion sickness," Lawrence laughingly says that it's a misspeak her publicist will be dealing with for a while.
In "Catching Fire," Lawrence reprises her role as Katniss, who has changed.
"She's in a completely different head space and so I had to think a lot more about the character," Lawrence says. "I thought after you do a role once you just go back and do it again. It wasn't until I started reading the script and started thinking about all the ways she has changed that made me wonder if the fans were going to be OK with seeing this difference in her.
"That ended up being really exciting for me. I had this idea, when I signed on for this series, that I would have a blast with the first movie but then be bored for the rest of them. But it really created an exciting challenge to create a new version of the same character."
Part of the difference comes with the increasing complexities of the movie's love triangle. Before she started filming "The Hunger Games," Lawrence thought the idea of a love story in this action-packed film felt out of place because young people in a battle to the death wouldn't have much time for affairs of the heart.
Her views changed as she got deeper into the story. She realized that these stolen moments are not that different than what men and women in war-torn areas have faced through history.
The physical and emotional demands also took their toll.
"I remember the volunteer scene in 'Hunger Games' because it's real adrenaline. The situation is fake but the feelings are real. I remember being so energized by it that it was like a drug. I kept thinking I couldn't do any other job because 'THIS IS AMAZING'," Lawrence says, accenting her words for effect. "Now, it exhausts me. My makeup artists tells me that it's because I'm finally taking it seriously."
It's obvious the makeup artist was joking. Lawrence has wanted to be "the next Lucille Ball" since the days in front of a mirror imitating what she saw on the Disney Channel.
Now, she's grown to a place where the actress playing "the girl on fire" has a career that's on fire.
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.