Jennifer Lawrence talks Russian spies, feminism to preview latest film at Newseum

Media Credit: Photo courtesy of Griffin Lipson/

New York Times reporter Scott Shane moderates a panel with actor Jennifer Lawrence, director Francis Lawrence and retired CIA agent Jonna Hiestand Mendez.

Spies and actors have more in common than people think – at least according to Jennifer Lawrence.

Actress Jennifer Lawrence, director Francis Lawrence, retired CIA agent Jonna Hiestand Mendez and actor Joel Edgerton joined New York Times reporter Scott Shane to discuss their new movie, “Red Sparrow,” Thursday night. About 200 people packed into the Newseum to hear the stars talk about the film, which will be released March 2.

Hosted by the Times as part of their “TimesTalk” series, the panel discussed the Russian espionage and feminism portrayed in the film.

The film takes place in present-day Russia where a former ballerina, played by Jennifer Lawrence, is forced to become a Russian intelligence officer called a sparrow. Sparrows use intelligence gaining-techniques and sex to manipulate people into divulging inside information. She is tasked with getting information from an American CIA agent, played by Edgerton, throughout the plot.

Two clips from the movie were shown during the panel, and then the panelists sat for a question-and-answer segment.

Francis Lawrence said he was driven to the project because of the characters in the novel on which the movie is based. He said he especially liked Dominika, the main character, for her complexity and toughness.

To prepare for the role, Jennifer Lawrence said she did ballet for four months and practiced a Russian accent. The character Dominika was the reason she was interested in the project, she added.

“Where there is a strong woman, there is an interesting story there,” she said. “I had never seen a psychological thriller quite like this.”

She said she was hesitant at first to take the part because of the nudity in the film. Jennifer Lawrence candidly said she was nervous about the way people would perceive her if she acted in nude scenes because of the time her private photos were released to the public in 2014.

After filming the movie, she said she realized that acting nude in a film was her choice – unlike the release of her photos.

“It was an absolutely feminist movie for me, personally,” she said.

The director said scouting locations was also a big part of creating the film. He said he never considered filming in Russia, although that is where a large portion of the movie takes place. The crew filmed in Budapest instead.

Before filming, Francis Lawrence said the Cold War aspect of “Red Sparrow” didn’t seem relevant to current times, but when a conversation about Russian intervention in the 2016 presidential election began, he saw the significance of the movie.

“As we were shooting, we were prepping to begin to shoot, this all started to come up,” he said.
“The movie became more and more relevant as we progressed.”

Mendez, a retired CIA and Chief of Disguise, said she trained “Red Sparrow” author James Matthew in surveillance and applauded him for the accuracy of the book and film. During her time at the CIA, she said there were sparrow schools in Soviet Russia.

To her knowledge, the CIA doesn’t have any programs that use sexual advances for assets, although there have been cases of agents falling in love with their assets.

“I knew a woman who lost her job because she was falling in love with her asset,” Mendez said. “I know a couple of men who were in the same situation and didn’t lose their jobs.”

Mendez said she liked the film because it shows the power of women. Women in the CIA often had more to prove than their male counterparts, she said.

“Women have had a bad reputation in the CIA,” Mendez said. “Men don’t think women have the guts to pitch someone.”

Mendez added that Hollywood has always been fascinated with the CIA, usually exaggerating the lives of agents, which is why she consulted on the book that “Red Sparrow” is based on.

“When I was working, it never felt mysterious,” Mendez said. “They were never right.”

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