March 28, 2012 12:00 PM

APOLOGIES TO THE DOZENS of actresses who auditioned for the ultra-coveted role of Katniss Everdeen, but here’s the truth: You never stood a chance. During her audition scene-in which the determined heroine says goodbye to her beloved little sister to head off to the Games-Jennifer Lawrence “literally made me cry,” recalls casting director Debra Zane. “No one else made me sob!” The 21-year-old Louisville, Ky., native, who scored an Oscar nod for her breakout turn in 2010’s gritty indie Winter’s Bone, also made a believer out of Hunger Games director Gary Ross. “Jen has the power and the life force of Katniss,” he says. At first Lawrence was skeptical about taking on such an iconic role. “I thought about the size of the phenomenon and how it would change my life,” she says. But now she’s already raring to strap Katniss’s boots back on for the next installment. “I’m supposed to start training in July, and I’m so looking forward to it,” notes Lawrence, who talked about her role with PEOPLE senior writer Michelle Tauber.

What was your reaction to landing the role?
I was obsessed with the book and I wanted the role so bad. But then when it actually happened, it was scary. I had done indies for so long, and I remember thinking I’d be perfectly fine being an actress in small movies, and then becoming a mom and growing a family and just being normal. Then this came along and kind of shattered it all. I was in a coffee shop in London and I looked around and thought, “Next year, when I’m in here, people will be taking pictures of me on their phones.”

How did the training go?
I was nervous because I had just shot X-Men, where I had to do the training and the diet and all that stuff, and I was like, “It’s called The Hunger Games! I don’t know if I want to go through all that again.” But once it started, it was so fun. The archery and stunts and combat and climbing and running. It was the best shape I’ve ever been in. It was very hot during filming, so fortunately part of my training was doing a lot of hot yoga-I was kind of used to the heat.

Did you have any input on Katniss’s costumes?
I only cared about the boots. I had to wear them every day, do all my stunts in them. They were the most important part of everything, and they were perfection.

How was the chemistry between you, Josh and Liam?
It came so naturally. They just have such different personalities. Josh walks into a room and he’ll charm everyone within seconds; he’s nice and sweet and wise beyond hundreds of years. And Liam is just-he’s a hunk. He’s nice, he’s funny. Josh is all of those things too, of course. He and I kind of became brother and sister, which Gary Ross didn’t like very much because we’re supposed to be romantic. He was like, “You have to be attracted to each other!” The three of us are kind of this bizarre family.

So are you personally Team Peeta or Team Gale?
I can’t do that! These guys are gonna read this. I can’t pick.

Your costars have said you have a knack for cracking everyone up on-set, is that true?
That’s not because I’m funny. I’m just really immature, and I can’t be serious for long or it kills me. Especially if we’re doing an emotional scene-I just can’t be that serious.

What are some of your favorite off-duty cast-bonding memories?
I had more fried chicken and candy on that movie than I’ve ever eaten in my entire life. I was hanging out in Lenny Kravitz’s hotel room with his daughter Zoe, who’s also a friend of mine. We spent like $500 on room service for just gummy bears, without even realizing it.

So are you ready for the hysteria to begin?
I feel like I’ve addressed all my fears enough so I can start getting excited. It always makes you nervous-Are people going to like it? Am I ever going to act again?-but I’m excited. Two weeks ago I had two people yell out of a car, “Are you Katniss?” And my only thought was, “Not yet!”

JENNIFER HITS THE BULLSEYE

To achieve Katniss’s level of bow-and-arrow mastery, Jennifer Lawrence trained with Khatuna Lorig, an Olympic medalist in archery. “We practiced one hour a day for three weeks,” says Lorig. “She’d shoot 100 arrows a day from different distances. Sometimes she had to shoot on one knee, and we made her run and shoot at the same time.” So how did Lawrence do? “She was a natural,” says Lorig. “She’d have to practice more than one hour a day, but I told her if she wants to try out for the Olympics just like Geena Davis, she could come practice with me.”

ALL ABOUT JENNIFER LAWRENCE

Jodie Foster-who directed Lawrence in The Beaver-calls her “amazing,” and her Hunger Games costar Donald Sutherland gushes about her “particular kind of genius as an actor.” But before the 21-year-old became a Hollywood sensation, she’d done everything from church plays (as a kid growing up in Louisville) to the TBS sitcom The Bill Engvall Show. The “gorgeous country girl,” as Hunger Games‘ casting director Debra Zane puts it, finally made her mark by stunning critics with her performance as a poverty-stricken teen in 2010’s Winter’s Bone. The role led to an Oscar nomination for Best Actress-making her the second-youngest actress ever to receive one. A year later, she went blue to play the mutant villainess Mystique in X-Men: First Class, where she met boyfriend Nicholas Hoult, 22 (the British actor played Beast). As she prepares to make her debut as Katniss, Lawrence says, “I just know that I love this character and these books, and I’ll do whatever I can to make it worthy.”

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