‘Silver Linings’ David O. Russell on How Jennifer Lawrence Skyped Her Way to Oscar Front-Runner

At TheWrap's screening series, director David O. Russell explained the convoluted casting process that led to one of the year's most acclaimed movie ensembles

Jennifer Lawrence is at the forefront of best actress Oscar talk for her lead role in “Silver Linings Playbook.” But, as writer-director David O. Russell explained to the audience at TheWrap screening series Thursday night, he was so convinced she wasn’t right for the role that he only had her audition via Skype.

Getty Images“Quite frankly, it was like a formality,” Russell told the capacity crowd at the Landmark Theatre. “I didn’t think she was really a contender. We had three very serious contenders (already). We had a lot of major actresses in town interested in the role, from Angelina Jolie to some other big stars, because it’s a dimensional role for a young woman. Jennifer we frankly thought was too young” — until she pointed the tiny camera at herself at her parents’ home in Kentucky.

“She kind of has an ageless quality about her, which is remarkable,” said Russell. “Harvey (Weinstein) said, ‘Isn’t she too young?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, she could be 20, she could be 40. Look for yourself’— and I showed him the Skype (audition), and he said ‘Wow.’ So that was a blessing for us to find our Tiffany. She came onto the set saying to Bradley Cooper, ‘Wow, what’s it like for people to take pictures of you?’ By the end of the shoot [last November], I think she knew for herself. Now she can’t get rid of people taking pictures of her.”

Russell added that “we saw her become a woman before our eyes. She has a presence about her and an emotion that’s very available. She’s a little bit like her character. But she’s not neurotic; she’s direct, she speaks her mind. And she’s kind of confident and fearless—but so far, not in an obnoxious way. She has a lot of power coming her way she’s going to have to deal with.”

Russell’s five-year quest to make the film involved a lot of casting turnover and near-misses. “I originally wrote it for other people. But as Matt Damon very graciously said to me about the Christian Bale role in ‘The Fighter’ — which he was originally intended to play — ‘It just goes to show, the right people play the right role at the right time.’”

With “Silver Linings,” “I wrote it with Vince (Vaughn) and Zooey (Deschanel) in mind, because I love Vince’s cadences.” But these developments are “in the hands of the movie gods. And then Mark Wahlberg, who I love and made three movies with, there was a moment where he was going to do it. That didn’t work out with Harvey and him, and it was out of my hands.”

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Few of the movie’s champions (who seem, with the exception of New Yorker critic David Denby, nearly universal) would argue that the casting didn’t end up exactly as it should, however many disagreements there were between Russell and Weinstein about it along the way. (“There were instances where Harvey really wanted somebody and I did not. We had about a one or two year standoff about that at one point,” Russell admitted.) But moderator Steve Pond, TheWrap’s awards editor, confessed that, like many, he “didn’t know Bradley Cooper had it in him” until the proof was on the “Silver” screen.

“I did know,” said Russell, “the way I knew Amy Adams had it in her for ‘The Fighter.’ People said, ‘Amy Adams, the princess from “Enchanted”? I’m not gonna believe her as a barmaid bitch in Lowell, Mass.’ Or Christian Bale having a goofy warmth to him. So I welcome as a director the opportunity to surprise audiences with a performance that they don’t see coming, and to turn out an actor in new ways.”

It was seeing Cooper in “Wedding Crashers” that convinced Russell the actor could be a convincing bipolar rageaholic in his off-the-meds scenes. “From that role, I thought, this seems like an angry guy — I mean, the guy off the camera as well as the guy on the camera. I told him that when I met him, and his reaction was not at all defensive. He said that he had been an angry guy, at the time, and less happy, and that he had weighed 30 pounds more — and so far I’m [thinking] the character, the character, the character! He had substance issues, which is different. But he was so open and vulnerable and honest about it. And I saw that, combined with the scary/angry thing he had done. There’s nothing like the hunger in an actor when he really, really, really wants it bad. Because that matched up to the hunger of the character. The character wanted to get his life back really bad.”

Getty ImagesAnd, Russell (center with Pond, far right, and Jonathan Gordon, one of the film's producers) added, “it didn’t hurt” that Cooper had made “Limitless” with Robert DeNiro and the two had developed “a father-son-type thing.” As for “Mr. DeNiro,” as Russell always refers to him, “He has had family experiences such as I had, and it was very personal to him as well. When I met him at his home to discuss the script and my own life, he cried. I thought this meant he was really taking this project seriously and it was personal to him. And it did mean that. It shows up on the screen.”

The filmmaker was explicit about just what kind of “family experiences” he was referring to, and that there’s nothing glib or unknowing about the film’s treatment of mental illness, however many the laughs or however happy the denouements.

“I did it because my son has bipolar issues,” Russell said, “and I had long been looking for a project that would invite his world into the world and put it on the screen for him — which you want to do for your kids — so he didn’t feel so different, and so he could also feel like he was part of my work. Bradley Cooper and Mr. DeNiro are in a world that is about things he can relate to very directly. And he earned a role in the picture. He had to do very good at school and in his behavior. So he was the guy who rings the doorbell”—playing a pesky student who wants to interview the family for a school project on mental illness.

The source novel immediately connected with Russell when should-have-been producers Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella gave it to him “the year they both died.” “I think the sensibility of the book is a sensibility I understand: It’s emotional and it dares to be romantic but it’s also funny — and based in reality. I think those are the big lessons I’ve learned in what I call the second phase of my filmmaking life: do it from the heart, really make it life or death emotionally, and make it real. So if something’s funny, it has to be because it’s real. I think ‘Raging Bull’ is one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen, because of how real the people are.”