We sat down with Lori Petty and Jennifer Lawrence to talk about their new movie, “The Poker House.” Inspired by true events, this poignant, gritty film portrays lives that rise above dismal circumstances, and marks a powerful beginning for first time writer and director Lori Petty (“Tank Girl,” “A League of Their Own”). Hit the jump to read the full interview.
The film is a riveting portrait of poor, small town life in Iowa, circa 1976, reviving the spirit of Marvin Gaye, seedy bars, and the ever present allure of illicit activities and substances. Up-and-comer Jennifer Lawrence (“The Burning Plain”) stars as Agnes, the oldest of three sisters living with a drug addicted mother in the ‘Poker House’ – a brothel, drug mecca and gambling oasis for local squatters. Chloe Grace Moretz (“Bolt,” “The Amityville Horror,” “Dirty Sexy Money”) and Sophia Bairley (“Little Men”) star as Agnes’ younger sisters trying to cope with their dire circumstances. Selma Blair (“Hellboy,” “Hellboy II,” “Kath & Kim”) turns in an amazing performance as their strung-out mother.
“The Poker House” premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival to great reviews. The film is at once frank and heartbreaking, lithe and hopeful. Eschewing predictability and indie tropes, Petty’s film has at its heart the candid assertion that while the world can be cruel, good things can happen to people who need them. Jennifer Lawrence shined at the Festival winning the “Best Performance” award for her role as Agnes, a character based on Lori Petty’s teenage years.
Here’s what Lori Petty and Jennifer Lawrence had to tell us about their recent collaboration on “The Poker House”:
Can you talk about what attracted you to this script?
JENNIFER LAWRENCE: Well, I was young. I hadn’t done anything else and so everything that I read I wanted to do. But now that I’m older and actually have a point of view and I can see what an amazing, brilliant script it is and how it grabs you and it has teeth and it’s real and it’s ugly and all the things that aren’t usually appealing really appeal to me. When I was young, I thought it’d be fun. It was a movie. I auditioned for it. I got it and then I just started acting. Now I can really look back on it and appreciate it.
How did you react when you found out how true the script really was? Did you know from the get go or did you discover that in the process?
LAWRENCE: No. I discovered it after. Nobody told me that I was playing Lori. I’d heard that it said based on a true story in the script. I guess I didn’t read the first page. I started to kind of figure it out a little bit when we were filming, like little things would happen that I would kind of notice. Like she was really good at basketball and she would show me how to do certain things. Then the character in the movie has a huge book of e.e. Cummings poems and has them all memorized, knows all of them. The set director brought that book on set and Lori was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ She goes straight to a page and has every poem off the top of her head. I started to wonder, but I didn’t want to ask anybody. I read it in a review that it was off of her and then I learned.
You had some pivotal and powerful scenes with Selma Blair. How was that emotionally and what was it like working with Selma?
LAWRENCE: Very easy. Selma is, I guess, a great actress. You can see that just by watching her, but she’s such a giving actress, too. She’s always giving me her eyes and was always listening and reacting to everything you’re saying, even when she’s not on camera. The emotional scenes, that’s all a part of acting. So I didn’t get scared of any of it. She makes it a lot easier. When you work with an actress of that caliber, it just brings you up as well.
How was it working with Lori as a director?
LAWRENCE: It was fun. I learned a lot. I learned a lot of cuss words. No, I’m kidding. She was one of the first directors that I’d ever worked with –
LORI PETTY: And it went downhill from there.
LAWRENCE: It went downhill from there and that’s all it could do. The part that amazed me the most was that she could write it. I wish that you guys could read the script as well as watch it because it’s just Lori talking. It’s written exactly like that. She can take this from her mind and communicate that to everyone else so that you can do exactly what she sees and hears. She can just spot things on set that nobody else would notice. She just has such an eye. She would tell you things, she would give me direction, weird directions that wouldn’t really make sense at the time and then I’d realized how much it helped me. She just knows how to communicate with you. I guess that’s because she was an actress and so she knows how to really get to me.
PETTY: I know what she’s doing and I know what you’re not doing and I know what you need. You have everything but then it’s like when’s the last time you ate and when is the last time you slept, who’s in your ear, who’s bothering you, who’s in your eye line; there are so many things that directors don’t know that actors know.
How much of the story was from personal experience and then what did David Alan Grier bring to the script as a co-writer?
PETTY: Well, it was a hundred percent true except for the gun that was put in there. Movies have to have guns. So the gun was put in there. David brought, and he’ll tell you this, but David sat in my house for two and a half weeks and said, ‘Then what happened? Then what happened? Then what happened?’ When you’re a crazy, painter, writer, actor, just this crazy person you don’t have that. He went to Yale. His parents are doctors. Everyone sees this movie, and America is so racist that they’re like, ‘Yeah, David didn’t -’ no. David doesn’t even know what was said in the bar. I wrote it [laughs]. Do you know what I mean? David went to Yale. He’s brilliant, and like the basketball scene with the kids and with Jennifer and some of the walk and talks with the kid and the neighbor. I’d call him up and say, ‘I need some more lines.’ What you write on the page has nothing to do with when you’re on set. When you’re on set, it has nothing to do with when you’re in the editing room. And when you’re in the editing room, it has nothing to do with the final movie. You just have to let it go. Like, he wrote, ‘I need a blue bicycle and a yellow van pulls up.’ You’re like, ‘She’s driving a yellow van.’ You just go with it. You can’t fight it. It just is what it is. So I had a scene where David and I wrote two pages and it had to be five. It had to be five in five minutes and David was who knows [where] because he works all the time and I called and he answered. I told him and he goes, ‘Okay, what’s the scene?’ He goes, ‘Okay, you be the little girl and I’ll be the dad.’ He goes, ‘Okay, we’ll start the scene and we’ll just improv.’ I said okay and I said, ‘I wish you were my daddy.’ He goes, ‘I couldn’t be your daddy -’ and I say, ‘I know.’ He goes, ‘Do you know why?’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because I’d kill you.’ That’s what he said on the phone. He’s like, ‘Because I’d kill you.’ ‘You would not.’ ‘Yes, I would. I’d kill you with kisses.’ ‘You can’t kill nobody with kisses.’ We just did it on the phone. I’m on my cell phone and he’s like, I don’t know, Sacramento or somewhere, and we wrote the fucking thing on the phone. That’s what talent and love and genius and people who care, that’s what you do. So that’s what we did and that’s how we made the whole movie.
What moved you to tell this story?
PETTY: I haven’t seen it told in my lifetime and I think it’s important to empower females to tell their stories and that it’s not about men being superheroes and some guy’s dick is so big that he’s going to sell it. What’s that new TV show? ‘Hung’. Really? ‘My dick is so big, you pay for it.’ That’s what we need. It’s what’s it about. I just think it’s another voice. We’ve got four women here and I bet that the majority of us have been sexually abused since before we were twenty years old. That’s just part of life for females and I think that’s just true. I think it’s important that women get to share that, that inappropriate behavior happens and that guys can’t get away with it. No matter what, just because some icky man did something to you doesn’t make you a bad person. You’re a great person and some stupid, icky man did that. So you shouldn’t carry that around with you. And, after each screening of the movie, I have fifty to a hundred and fifty women line up to tell me, ‘Thank you, thank you, Lori. It happened to me. I was seven. I was ten. I was twelve. I was eleven.’ I’m standing there like I’m a clergyman all of a sudden. I’m like, ‘When the fuck did I get my collar?’ They just keep coming and I’m happy that they keep coming because they didn’t have their voice.
I know that at the Los Angeles Film Festival last year you were inundated after both screenings.
PETTY: Yeah. I couldn’t get out. I just stood there and listened to them and hugged them. That’s not why I made it. I just told a story about a little kid and three little kids who love each other and take care of each other and get through it.
Part of your gift is that you tell the truth and the truth is what touches people.
PETTY: Yeah, right. It’s true and it shows that it’s true.
How quickly in your life did you reconcile yourself with the little bits of tragedy that bled into your life?
PETTY: But it happened since I was born. I wasn’t molested since I was born, but I’m just saying that I saw the world for what it was when I was very young. My father was an Evangelical minister and I’m like, ‘Well, this is bullshit because what about the people who live in China who worship the sun?’ I didn’t know it was in China, but I was like, ‘How is Jesus the only way? I heard there’s a guy named Buddha and that most people are Muslims. So they’re all burning in hell except for me?’ My dad was like, ‘Shut up. Go to school.’ So you know that people are running game on you from an early time. I’ll never forget this. It’s so funny. I was four. I will never forget this. It was really hot and all the boys took their shirts off when we were playing football. I remember I took my shirt off and the neighbor called my mom. I was four. A neighbor called my mom and my mom was like, ‘Get in the house right now.’ She was like, ‘You can’t take your shirt off.’ I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘Because you’re a girl.’ I said, ‘So? It’s hot.’ She’s like, ‘But you have to wear a shirt?’ I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘Because you’re a girl.’ I said, ‘Well, that doesn’t make any sense.’ It just didn’t make any sense. Then I took it back off and I got in trouble and then she put me back in the house and then my dad whooped me and then I stood on the porch and took my shirt off and stood there like this because I was just mad. I was just four. I just knew things, or like booty when they were booty. I mean, I wouldn’t walk around topless right now because there would just be car accidents from the lovely beauty of it all.
Having worked with some good female directors yourself, did you pull from those experiences when you were directing your own film?
PETTY: No, because it’s genderless. Directing is genderless. The only thing…I love men. I’m not being mean to them but they can’t hear you. I don’t have a husband and so I’m not really attuned to it, but I didn’t know that they could not really hear you. Like, I’m talking and they just walk away. I’m like, ‘Come here. Come here.’ I get my First AD and I say, ‘Charles. Will you please get him to come here.’ He goes, ‘Yeah?’ ‘I’m not finished talking, honey.’ ‘Oh.’ Like, they can’t focus on you. It was just a weird thing and I understand why people kill people because I actually had a bottle of wine over someone’s head and I realized it. I just went, ‘Whoa! People kill people because they don’t listen.’ I said, ‘Don’t move the camera. How hard is that? Lock it off. I’m watching the monitor.’ I can’t cut because I don’t have enough film and I don’t have enough time and I’m going to murder someone. I said, ‘What are you doing? Why did you do that?’ He wouldn’t do that if it was a man. He said, ‘Well, she wasn’t talking.’ I said, ‘I wanted to watch her listen. It’s so much prettier to watch her listen to someone than to watch some stupid man talk. I’d rather watch her listen.’ You just get murderous, just insane. ‘Okay, sorry.’ I’m totally not male bashing. It sounds like it. I’m just telling you don’t give them basketballs. Don’t give them a fucking car and don’t give them a gun. We had a basketball game and all of them were like, ‘Let me show you how to do this.’ I was like, ‘I play ball. I had a scholarship to play basketball but I’m not a dude and I’m an artist and I’m not going to play ball.’ So I didn’t. ‘But I know how to play ball and it doesn’t matter, I’m the director. What if I didn’t know how to play ball? It doesn’t matter. You have to do what I say.’ It got to a point where they were so enamored with each other that I gave my producing partner, Peter [Quartaroli] a bullhorn. I just sat in the corner and fucking drank Guinness. I was like, ‘Knock yourself out -’ because they wouldn’t listen to a word I said because there was a crowd and people. Shoot it away. I’ll make something out of it. I knew what I needed and I knew how much time I had.
How was it for you directing Jennifer as you?
PETTY: I’m nuts. She played a character. I mean, I had to make her more of a jock and I had to make her poor. But it was a situation that she was in. She’s an actor. It’s like when someone plays the Queen of England, it’s like you play the Queen of England. Well, you play a kid who has no money who raises herself and who likes to make out with a pimp.
PETTY: Yeah. Who doesn’t? Who doesn’t? It’s the hotness.
Amidst all the drama and intensity, Jennifer, you seemed to have fun in the basketball scene -
PETTY: No. She did not have fun because she sucks ass at playing basketball.
LAWRENCE: Everybody else humors me. Everybody else is like, ‘Yeah, you’re an athlete. You’re really athletic, Jennifer.’ Lori is like, ‘You suck.’
PETTY: Who said that to you? Name one person that’s not a Jonas Brother and who wants to have sex with you?
LAWRENCE: An agent that wanted to sign me.
PETTY: Exactly [laughs].
What kind of movie magic went into Agnes lighting up the other team?
LAWRENCE: That was the movie magic. I’m going to own up to it since you outted me at the Q&A last year anyway. I told everyone that I couldn’t play basketball and Lori was like, ‘She sucks. She had a stunt double.’
PETTY: Because you suck.
LAWRENCE: I know! Sorry.
PETTY: But you’re an actress. You’re a fine actress. So I don’t care about the basketball.
LAWRENCE: Exactly. I just acted like I knew how to play basketball. But I had a stunt double who was one of the girls from a high school team and all I had to do was run up and down the court like I really knew what I was doing.
PETTY: And you took the hits.
LAWRENCE: So these people, these extras in the bleachers are watching me run up and down the court like [gasping] and shoot the ball from the outside and they were like, ‘She really thinks she’s good at basketball.’ I had to act like I knew what I was doing, and everyone was like, ‘I think she really thinks she’s good.’
PETTY: You took some good hits though. You’re good at the hits.
LAWRENCE: I’m going to let you forget this. I know this happened like three years ago, but she told me that if I made this one – whatever, I’m an actress, I don’t do math –
LAWRENCE: She goes, ‘If you can do this, I will give you the bike -’ the bike that’s in the movie. Then I made it and you never gave me the bike. We’ll talk about it later.
PETTY: I didn’t not give you the bike.
LAWRENCE: I know. Somebody put it on a truck and lost it or whatever.
PETTY: Okay, that’s what I’m saying. I would not do that. Madonna did that to me.
LAWRENCE: About a bike?
PETTY: No, about Michael Jackson. She was talking to Michael Jackson on the phone. I said that number twenty three was Michael Jordan’s number which was my number which was I picked number twenty three in ‘A League of Their Own’. She said, ‘Nuh uh.’ I said, ‘Uh huh.’ She said, ‘No it isn’t.’ I said, ‘Yes it is -’ because no matter what she’s saying she thinks she’s telling the truth which is just not true. I said, ‘This is Michael Jordan’s number. If this is Michael Jordan’s number, then I get to talk to Michael Jackson on the phone.’ She said fine. Then she found out that it was Michael Jordan’s number and I said, ‘Call Michael Jackson.’ And she said, ‘No.’
PETTY: Take that Madonna.
You have to own up to your bets.
PETTY: That’s what I’m saying. You have to own up to your bets. And you know what, that bike was wack. I’ll give you a better bike.
LAWRENCE: Yeah. I wasn’t good at riding that bike either.
PETTY: No, and it wasn’t your fault. That bike was really hard to ride. You did a great job.
LAWRENCE: I remember that my dad came to the set and I was riding it down the street, and of course my dad is a farmer and has no idea what is going on in a movie. We’re filming and I hear my dad go, ‘I taught you how to do that -’ as I’m riding the bike by. All I did was fall on that bike.
PETTY: My dad came to visit me on ‘A League of Their Own’ because he lived in Rockford and we were in Wrigley Field, in Wrigley Field. My dad walks through centerfield and I’m working. He’s like walking through centerfield, and mind you, my dad weighs three hundred pounds, and mind you, Tom Hanks said, ‘Who’s the square man coming towards us -’ during the scene. He walked all the way up to here and he goes, ‘Why are all these people sitting around?’ He was totally serious. I’m like, ‘The crew?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well, we’re acting right now so they have to be quiet.’ He’s like, ‘There’s like two hundred people.’ I said, ‘Yeah, there’s two hundred people.’ ‘They’re getting paid?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, dad.’ While we’re filming. So my dad and your dad could hangout.
LAWRENCE: Yeah. They should just go around destroying movie sets.
PETTY: They should! We should send them to like a Will Smith movie.
Has there been any reaction at all from the people in real life that were depicted in your film and have seen it?
PETTY: No. I mean, I’d tell you. Like I said, I’d tell you. My mom and my sisters are fabulous. I changed the names to protect the guilty but they’re probably dead. I can’t think of anybody except Bokeem’s [Woodbine] character that would be pretty angry, but no one would know who that was.
You make the pimps look good actually, collecting money, scoring these women -
PETTY: [laughs] I was going to say. He’s nice looking.
Jennifer, what do you think is the most valuable thing you’ve learned from Lori?
LAWRENCE: Oof. Well, okay, there are a few things. There is my favorite quote that I ever heard from her, and this is the whole moral of the story, I guess. ‘Things can happen to you but they don’t have to happen to your soul.’ She is never going to lose a minute of sleep at night because everyone knows how she feels about everything. She’s never going to lay in bed, going, ‘Oh, I wish I had told that person that their hair looked bad -’ or ‘I wish that I had told someone that Madonna didn’t give me this.’ Everyone knows everything and they’re always going to get an honest answer out of her. I’ve learned a lot from her.
PETTY: Always use a condom. Do you remember that?
LAWRENCE: I do remember that and I went, ‘What’s that?’ [laughs]
PETTY: Don’t talk to the grips. Remember that one?
LAWRENCE: I was going through puberty.
PETTY: I know you were. You were percolating all over the set. I was like estrogen patrol.
Did that percolation take its toll on your timing for shooting?
PETTY: No, no. She was extraordinarily professional, extraordinarily professional. It’s just that the boys couldn’t help themselves, really. At the beginning of the day I’d be like, ‘Okay, crew meeting. No crew touches any of my actors.’ ‘What?’
LAWRENCE: No one was touching me.
PETTY: Yes they were. ‘What do you mean?’ ‘No one touches my actors.’ ‘Well, duh. Jeez. Why are you wasting our time?’ Then they’d go off to work and so then we’re setting up a shot and then the DP is doing this – (touching the actor)
LAWRENCE: Oh, yeah. They do that.
PETTY: Yeah. They’re not supposed to.
LAWRENCE: I thought it was normal. I thought everyone was supposed to grope me.
LAWRENCE: Yeah, they do. They mess with you.
PETTY: Only the hair person touches your hair.
LAWRENCE: And you.
PETTY: And me, and the costumer touches your costume and I can do anything I want because I’m the director.
LAWRENCE: Yes, and we hear that. We hear that from the time we get there to the time we leave. ‘I’m the director. I can do whatever I want.’
PETTY: I never said that once.
LAWRENCE: I just remember that I used to call you the AFLAC duck. ‘Action!’
PETTY: Oh, that’s nice. I didn’t think I sounded like that.
If the basketball scene wasn’t that fun, what about the musical scene at the end that you did with the other two girls?
LAWRENCE: Oh, that wasn’t too good either because I’m the world’s worst singer, ever.
PETTY: She can’t play basketball -
LAWRENCE: I can’t sing. Thank God other people write the words for me and I just sing them out loud.
PETTY: But she’s talented and beautiful and really talented.
LAWRENCE: I thought it was great during the car scene because we just had the little thing in our ears.
PETTY: It sounded good.
LAWRENCE: So I was singing…let’s not lie. I would go to the ADR session after we’d already wrapped everything and I’d hear my voice and I was like, ‘Lori, you’re going to cut that out, right?’ It was pretty rough. It was bad, but it was fun during the filming.
PETTY: I liked when you said, ‘I love singing but I don’t sing very good.’ I was like, ‘If you love it then that’s great.’ You sounded good. It sounded like three kids singing to the radio. It sounded good.
Lori, you really seem to find the good in the bad. I know you had that run in with the police a while back. Have you been able to find the good in that?
PETTY: I have no comment on that. Thank you for like the last question sucking ass. One more question, please.
What would you like the audience to take from this film?
PETTY: I would like for the audience to feel the empathy and the compassion that everyone has for each other in this film and to forgive people that are really doing the best that they can and to remember that you don’t know what someone is going through and you don’t know where they’ve been and you don’t know what happens when they go home and to treat everyone the way that you’d like to be treated and to be thankful to be alive, just to be here. We’ve lost so many people in the last two months that we should just be thankful. Don’t be afraid and don’t let the past affect your present.
How does it feel to get a distribution deal like you wanted last year?
PETTY: Well, you know what, I always want more. I’m only in one theater.
I know. This film should be in much wider release.
PETTY: It should.
The next one.
PETTY: The next one absolutely.
Do you already have something in mind, another project?
PETTY: I do.
“The Poker House” opens in theaters on July 17, 2009.