Josh Hutcherson interview: The Hunger Games

With The Hunger Games out this week, we caught up with actor Josh Hutcherson to talk about violence, cooking, and Suzanne Collins’ novels…

Forget trying to choose between vampires and werewolves. Forget dark wizards and school bullies. Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy is making its way to the big screen, and soon we’re all going to be sorting ourselves into Districts and trying to figure out how long we could stay alive in an arena rigged with traps and full of people trying to kill us.

The Hunger Games, for anyone who’s missed it so far, is a series of  books set in a futuristic America which has been split into Districts, each of which focuses on a different industry to supply the wealthy Capitol with everything it could ever want. The story is told from the perspective of a 16-year-old called Katniss Everdeen, who volunteers to represent District 12 in the deadly games to protect her younger sister. Without going too far into spoiler territory: it’s pretty brutal.

And it’s also pretty awesome. I was initially sceptical – it’s a bit like Battle Royale, to begin with – but somehow, it won me over. I read the second and third books in the Hunger Games trilogy in less than 48 hours last week – they’re the kind of books you inhale, rather than lingering over. The dystopian world of Panem seems tailor-made for the cinema screen, and it’s cool to see a heroine in a young adult novel who doesn’t trip over her own feet all the time. And since they’ve cast Jennifer Lawrence (of Winter’s Bone) to play the lead, it looks like the movie will be pretty great.

In anticipation of the film, I went along to a roundtable interview with Josh Hutcherson, who plays Peeta Mellark, one of Katniss’s two potential love interests, in The Hunger Games. Hutcherson is only 19, but has been acting for 10 years, appearing in action-adventure films like Journey To The Centre Of The Earth as well as indie flicks such as The Kids Are All Right. As Peeta in The Hunger Games, he’s about to find himself a place in many, many teenage hearts…

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(Beware: this interview may contain some spoilers if you haven’t read the book!)

Do you think fans will be split into Team Peeta and Team Gale and if so, can you tell us why people should be on Team Peeta?

Oh, boy. I’ve seen a little bit of that already so I’m sure it’s going to happen. It’s funny, though, because they want to make out that it’s about rivalry between Peeta and Gale but it’s really not.

With Peeta, I think what I love about him so much is that he’s very true to himself all the time, and believes in maintaining who he is as a person no matter what kind of things he’s faced with. So I think that would be my big push for why people should be Team Peeta.

From what we’ve seen so far, it looks like the film’s going to be very brutal. Is it fair to say that there won’t be any sugar-coating, and it will be quite violent?

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It has to be. I mean, that’s part of the essence of the book, capturing how brutal it is. One of the main points of the story is that these kids – children! – are forced to be in these situations. It was tough to find the balance between staying true to the book with the essence of that brutality without alienating the audience with gory visuals.

Because when you read the book, in your mind, you can take it to wherever you want, but when you have to make [a film] for a huge audience, you can’t go over the top with blood and gore and whatnot. So I think one of the reasons why Gary Ross was hired was because he knew how to make it work.

If you were entered into the Hunger Games, how good do you think you would be at surviving in the arena?

Okay. I’m a modest person, I swear to God, but I think I’d be really good in the Hunger Games! I’m a very outdoorsy type of person – I love the wilderness; I grew up playing in the woods; I love camping and hiking; I’m fast; I play sports; I’d be good at fight training… I feel like I’d be alright. I feel like I might have a good chance at surviving.

Even if you had to kill your fellow Tributes?

That’s what my downfall would be. With the Careers – the Tributes that, you know, are made to kill – they have a disconnect when it comes to killing people. That would be my hugest problem so I would try to survive as long as possible without having that face-to-face conflict.

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If it came down to a fight between you and Jennifer Lawrence, who would win?

Here’s the thing: she’s gotten extremely good at bow and arrow, and I’m not, so therefore she could take me down before I could get anywhere near her. So I think that she would probably win on that factor alone.

What was the hardest thing you filmed – were there any particular stunts you got involved with?

The fight scene at the end of the movie, with [Peeta] and Cato and Katniss, was probably one of the tougher things to shoot, physically. It was long – we shot it at night, and it was like a three-night shoot. We had this fight choreographed, and it was so hot and humid, we were sweating so much… It was really physically challenging.

How was the atmosphere on set, between the actors who have to fight one another to the death onscreen?

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It was great – honestly, one of my favourite things about acting is working with interesting, cool people, and everyone they cast in this movie I love so much. The Tributes were incredible, and it was kind of funny to do a scene where you’d be terrified of them and fighting for your life and then be like ‘oh hey, what’s up? Let’s go get some lunch!’ It’s kind of a funny dynamic, but that happens on a lot of sets, you do a scene where you’re fighting with somebody and then you cut and you’re actually good friends.

Peeta’s a baker. If we came round to your house for dinner, what would you cook for us?   

I can bake! I can actually bake. My dessert would be an apple pie – I make a really good French apple pie with crumbles on top. But I’m a grill kind of guy when it comes to the main course. If it was gonna be a fancy dinner, it’d be like some steak or chicken, but if it was like a barbecue, it’d be burgers.

There are a lot of big name stars in the cast – Donald Sutherland and Woody Harrelson and so on – were you starstruck at all?

For sure. I mean these are people I’ve looked up to my whole life and now they’re working with me, and being in movies I’m in, and it’s incredible. White Men Can’t Jump was one of my favourite movies, so working with Woody Harrelson was an honour, and it’s crazy because now, like, we text and talk all the time, so he’s actually a friend of mine; he’s not just Woody Harrelson, he’s my friend, and how is that possible?!

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You’ve said that you wanted to do a film in every genre – what’s left to tick off your list?

The thing is, there are so many sub-genres… I mean, like, [The Hunger Games] can be thrown into a few different ones – you can throw it into romance, you can throw it into action, you can throw it into fantasy, so…  I think maybe I’m getting pretty good at covering all the genres. I’m almost done acting!

Did you read any of the Hunger Games books before you got the script? What kinds of books do you normally read?

With these books, I read them when I heard they were making the movies; I hadn’t really heard of them until that point, and then I found out they were wildly popular amongst all ages, so I was really excited to read them. And, honestly, I read the whole series in a week; I couldn’t put it down. I’m not a fast reader, I really take my time and digest reading, but as soon as you put down each book you need to pick up the next one or else you’re gonna go crazy, it’s like crack.

But I read so many scripts, that’s the main literature that I read, and when I’m not reading scripts I like to read books about psychology and sociology and more non-fiction.

How involved was Suzanne Collins in making the film?

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She was very involved. It was great, actually! She was in the first audition that I had, which was mildly traumatising! But she was great. She gave me a call as soon as I got the part, and was like, ‘if there’s anything you need, here’s my cell phone, my home phone number, my email, just let me know, I’ll be there for whatever kind of resource you need.’

She was so sweet, and she was on set a bunch, and it was great to have her there because it gave the fans a sense of calm, to know that the writer wasn’t just handing it off to Hollywood to make whatever version they want. She was very involved in the process.

Was it intimidating to have her there on set, while you’re trying to portray a version of her characters?

It is, but she was so great about making us not feel intimidated, because I think she was aware how intimidating that kind of thing could be! She was always like, ‘I love these characters so much, but I know you guys are actors and you’re gonna have your own interpretations and I cannot wait to see what you do with it.’

She was very much like ‘I’m excited for this to move into the next medium and see what it’s like’. So she was a big proponent of, obviously, staying true to the book, as was the entire cast and crew, but at the same time she was on board for making little adjustments to make it the best movie possible.

So it wasn’t a sacrosanct thing, but something more pliable?

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Very much so, which is so important, because in a book like The Hunger Games, Katniss’s entire internal monologue is kind of the driving force of the story, so unless you want to make a movie with a narrator, which we didn’t want to do, you have to find ways to communicate to the audience that same emotion and idea without this expositional dialogue.

And that’s where [Suzanne Collins] and Gary [Ross] teamed up and really tackled it and did a great job of making that transition smooth.

Did Suzanne Collins give you any particular pointers for playing Peeta?

It was kind of all in the books. She offered herself up for any kind of resources I needed but I felt it was kind of all there in the story and the script. I’ve never, in my life, read a character that was so much like who I am as a person, and stood for the same things that I stood for. When I was reading it, I was kinda like, ‘how did Suzanne write a book with this character that is who I am?’ Everything about Peeta, I believe in 100 per cent, so there wasn’t much help that I needed.

Have you ever been caught in a love triangle?

I definitely have. I feel like most relationships I’ve been in end up being some sort of love triangle one way or another, which are always interesting to figure out, especially when you’ve got close friends involved in the situation. It’s tough. But honestly it’s bound to happen, especially with friends, because you like your friends, so you probably like the same people they like, so it’s a problem.

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How do you cope with those situations?

Honestly? Honesty is the most important thing in most relationships, and communication, and being forthcoming. So in those kinds of situations, you go to your friends and just be like ‘so here’s what’s happening… what do we do?’ And then just kind of figure it out from there.

Now that you’re working on such big movies, how do you feel about seeing your face in magazines on newsstands? Do you get embarrassed? Do you point it out to people or do you pull a hoodie over your head and run?

I pull a hoodie over my head and run! The most embarrassing part is that my friends are like ‘look what I have!’ and it’s like, oh, God, please don’t do this to me!

I mean, it’s cool. It’s one of those things that’s very cool, to have that kind of recognition and be recognised by people for what you do, but at the same time it’s definitely embarrassing. And it’s kind of surreal, I don’t really believe it – when you see yourself in a magazine it’s like ‘oh, I remember doing that shoot, yeah’ but you don’t realise that it’s a national publication that millions of people read; you don’t really think about that.

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Are many of your friends involved in the industry?

One of my best friends is an actor, but my roommate isn’t in the industry, he owns like a marketing company that works with charities and whatnot, and he and I are best friends, I hang out with him a lot.

When you were filming The Hunger Games, did fans show up on location at all?

Lionsgate were so top-secret about all the locations. When we were walking from our trailers to the set, or from our trailers to the cars, they built barricades so people couldn’t see the costumes and stuff like that.But there was one time, when we were in North Carolina, I’d come down in the morning on a weekend to go out to the town or whatever, and there were two girls sitting in the [hotel] lobby who had driven from Florida for like nine hours or something, on the chance that I might be there that day, and they had a bunch of stuff for me to sign and everything. So – they have their ways, they can find the locations.

It’s good to know you’ve got that fan support, though – it must be a worry when you’re cast as such a beloved character?

I mean, it is and it isn’t. I kind of feel like all that pressure was washed away as soon as I got on set, because I just started acting and doing what I love and just kind of didn’t even think about it anymore.

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Speaking of fans, what’s the nicest thing a fan has done for you?

When I was in New York City, for the release of the world premiere of the trailer on Good Morning America, one of the fans had made me this hand-knitted really nice scarf and gave it to me. It’s one of the nicest things anyone’s ever given me as a fan. Like, out of nowhere, for free! I was like ‘oh my God, thank you! I feel like I should pay you for this.” It was pretty cool.

Before signing on, did you think about the Twilight thing, and how your life could become like theirs?

I didn’t! I did not think about that before I signed on. For me, the reason why I do movies is because I love acting and I love getting to play different roles. When I read this books, like I was saying, I connected with Peeta on so many levels, and what I believe in is what he believes in, and I would have died if I didn’t get to play this role, so that didn’t enter my mind until after the fact. It’s like… oh, wow, yeah, there’s that, too, isn’t there? But it’s exciting, too, to have that kind of support from fans.

Do you feel pressure that kids look up to you to be a role model?

My biggest belief, as a person, is being real and true to yourself and not putting on different masks for people and whatnot. So I think it’s good, in a way, for me to be able to share that with young people. For me it’s such an important thing, so if there’s anything I can pass on to somebody else it’s to be true to yourself. It’s kind of an honour to be in that position.

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Have you treated yourself to anything special out of these fantastic wage packets you’re getting?

Honestly, this sounds kind of cheesy, but once I started making money, my biggest goal was to take care of my family. So as soon as I was able to do that, that was my biggest goal – getting them a nice house and taking care of them – because they gave me everything I have today, like, my life, first of all, and on top of that, all the tools that I use as an actor come from my parents and my brother, who keeps me very humble! I would do anything for my family, they are the number one thing in my life, before my career, acting, money, anything else. They mean the world to me, so taking care of them is the best thing I could ever buy.

Jennifer Lawrence is singing Rue’s Lullaby in the film – how’s her singing voice?

I haven’t seen it! I haven’t seen the movie and I wasn’t there when they shot that. She likes to play down her singing skills, saying she’s a horrible singer and hated having to sing, but actually I’ve heard her sing a little bit and she’s not a bad singer at all. I think she did a great job.

Were you offered the chance to sing Safe And Sound?

No! I cannot sing at all. I’m quite happy that that never arose.

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What’s Gary Ross like as a director?

He’s brilliant. He’s a brilliant human being, an amazing director and an incredible writer. He’s so specific about what he wants, and I’m a very specific actor – I like to ask a million questions about every little detail, so to have a director that speaks in that same language was fantastic. I’m so thankful to have him direct this movie and the next few as well; words can’t even describe how much I love him.

Can you remember when you first realised you wanted to be an actor? Were you a dreadful little show-off as a kid?

I think I probably was! Honestly I dreaded doing school plays. I hated them so much. Not because I had stage fright, I hated them because I thought that the subjects were cheesy. There were never any real performances, and that always made me mad. One time, I was doing a Grandparents’ Day show at elementary school when I was probably eight years old or something. They wanted us to sing this horrible 50s song, and I was like ‘I’m not gonna sing, I’m not gonna do it’.

So the teacher said, ‘okay, fine. When you go up there, just mouth the word “watermelon” over and over and it’ll look like you’re singing.’ So I went up there, like “watermelon watermelon watermelon”, all angry and pissed off. Afterwards my grandma comes up to me and goes ‘Were you saying “watermelon” over and over again?’ My grandma, of course, was the only one watching her grandson the whole time, so she busted me on that.

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I loved entertaining people, I loved performing for my family, putting on shows, and playing characters, but I never wanted to do it in a school play.

What was the first performance you gave that you thought “yeah, I could do this”?

Probably my first movie. The first job I ever had was this movie I did called Miracle Dogs, for Animal Planet, which was about these magical dogs that could lick people and heal them – that is a great film, let me tell you! – and it was just like ‘I love this’. I didn’t really think ‘oh I’m good at this’. I just loved doing it, and thought, if they keep hiring me, I’m gonna keep on doing this. And they have, thankfully.

What was your favourite scene to film?

Probably the scenes between Katniss and Peeta in the cave. It’s the moment when – the whole time Katniss is questioning whether she can trust Peeta, and Peeta’s been, all of his life, not telling Katniss how he feels. And that moment when he’s in a fever delirium on his deathbed he finally admits to her how he feels, and she finally is able to trust him, and as an actor that’s the big turning point for the character, so that was really fun to play.

Even as a reader, that was my favourite part to read, it was like ‘Yes! He finally said it!’ So as an actor, it was kind of that same moment.

Josh Hutcherson, thank you very much.

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