It’s somewhat strange to think that at only 19 years of age actor Josh Hutcherson has become a bit of a screen veteran. In addition to a high profile role in this weekends’ The Hunger Games, he can also currently be seen on screen in Journey 2 and he’s had a diverse range of roles in films for both the art house set (The Kids Are Alright and American Splendor) to the family friendly set (Zathura and Bridge to Terabithia).
Hutcherson’s in Toronto promoting his role in the adaptation of author Suzanne Collins’ beloved young adult series of novels. In a dimly lit room, wearing a plain white T-shirt and leather jacket, the young man seems a lot like his on-screen persona Peeta Mellark – a young District 12 tribute sent to the futuristic Hunger Games ceremony alongside his hometown crush Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) to battle with other young men and women in a fight to the death. Hutcherson, much like Peeta, knows how to work the room with charm and by giving the people what they want, but he also displays a sensitivity and candour that’s refreshing for someone his age.
Dork Shelf got a chance to talk to Hutcherson about the pressures of adapting such a beloved story, his working relationship with Jennifer Lawrence, and how to just be yourself in an interview.
Given the fan base of the Hunger Games was there a lot more pressure on you going into this to prove to the fans that you were right for the role?
JH: Not really. I put an intense amount of pressure on myself any time I do a movie just because I want to be good and not suck. That’s my mentality going into any role. At the same time, when you take on a character that so many people have a pre-determined idea of what they want in the character it is a bit more pressure, but it was kind of like a calling to do an even better job.
You’re working in this movie with some pretty heavy hitting actors, was there any one that you were really excited to work with or anyone that you were intimidated by going in?
JH: Woody Harrelson, I was super excited to work with him. Every time White Men Can’t Jump comes on TV I watch the whole thing. (laughs) I’m a huge fan of his, I always have been. Working with him was amazing. He’s such a good guy and such an amazing actor. Just a nice, solid, good person. That guy should have multiple Academy Awards, in my opinion. He’s a fantastic actor.
I’m curious about the chemistry between you and the director. I heard that he worked pretty intensely with Jennifer on her role. But for developing your role, what was that like?
JH: It was great. Gary is incredible. He’s so smart and has such a clear vision for the project, but at the same time was more than willing to work with us actors to develop the characters and put our own stamp on them. For Gary and me, one of the important things was giving Peeta a little more backbone in transitioning him from the book to the movie. There are times in the book when he can be a little too sappy. Katniss, in my opinion, would be attracted to someone who is strong like her. So we wanted to give him more backbone and worked on that quite a bit.
Part of succeeding in the Hunger Games seems to be all about making a good impression and doing well in interview situations like this. Were you able to draw from things like this when you were doing your interviews with Caesar (Stanley Tucci)?
JH: For sure. 100%. I think Peeta is good at getting people and knowing when he has to turn it on and when he has to really play things up, and that’s something that I’ve been doing for quite a while. (laughs) So I could definitely pull from that and relate to that. But at the same time, what I also felt like I have in common with Peeta is the fact that when he is playing it up, when he is turning it on for Caesar, he’s not being fake. He’s still being himself. He’s just being a more animated version of that. And that’s how I feel when I’m doing interviews. I don’t feel like I’m putting a show, it’s actually me! Just a more talkative, more outgoing version of me. So I could definitely pull from that for Peeta.
Talk about working with Jennifer Lawrence and the fact that you’re both from Kentucky. Was there any kind of rapport that was instantaneous because of that?
JH: Of course, yeah. Any time that you meet somebody that’s from the same place as you, you’re like “Oh yeah, you’re from Kentucky!” I have a lot of Canadian friends and anytime they run into other Canadians they’re like “Oh, Canada! Pride!” (laughs) Her and I definitely had that. It’s kind of crazy because we’re both from Kentucky and District 12 in the film is pretty much where Kentucky is in the United States. So it was all very serendipitous and very coincidental how it all came together.
The first time I met with Jennifer we started talking about Kentucky and it was an instant connection. I’d met her a couple of times before that, I think at the SAG Awards or the Academy Awards before, and we hit it off those two times. It definitely helped being from the same place. Everyone knows how talented she is because they can see her movies, but she’s also such a great person and such a caring, loving, and down to earth person. And also has an insanely quick and witty sense of humour, which was a lot of fun to be around.
Peeta and Katniss have a very strong bond, sort of a brotherly/sisterly connection. Did Gary Ross ever have to tell you that you’re supposed to be attracted to each other?
JH: Oh, for sure. He would always say “Guys, you’re supposed to be in love, you can’t be like this!” (laughs) Her and I were very good at being able to maintain that balance. I like to become close with the people that I work with, and Jennifer and I became super close. It is something that you have to keep in mind when you’re in a scene with somebody that you’ve become such good friends with, is that “Oh yeah, there’s supposed to be a sexual chemistry between us as well!” But she’s an extremely talented actress and it was very easy to act with her because she’s so good.
Are you worried that playing such a popular and beloved character – in potentially three films – will pigeonhole you as an actor?
JH: Not really. I’ve been fortunate enough that this isn’t my first thing. I’ve been lucky and have been able to work quite a bit over the past few years and I think that helps a lot. Also, I have some time in between the projects so I’m able to go out and do different things and play characters that are very different than Peeta so that people can see me in a different light. I hope I don’t get pigeonholed because I think to have a long career as an actor it’s good to have versatility.
What do you like about the character?
JH: I like a lot about Peeta. My favourite thing about him that I connect with the most, is his belief in not becoming a piece in someone else’s game and his steadfastness of not changing who he is as a person because of the circumstances he’s in. Especially growing up as an actor, you have a lot of opportunities to become fake or something different than what you are and I never wanted to. So that’s probably my favourite thing about him.
What did you take away from working with Gary Ross on this film?
JH: He’s so specific in his direction and I’m a pretty specific actor, I like to have all the details. What was great about him is that he was able to adapt his directing style to the different actors. Jennifer likes to be directed with very specific physical beats – “Okay, when you say this line, look down, take a breath, look over here, and then go.” I like hearing subtext. I like hearing what my character is thinking when I’m in the scene or what I’m really saying when I’m saying a line. Gary was able to adapt and evolve with each of our styles, which was fantastic.
And Suzanne Collins had a little bit of input on the screenplay. Did you ever meet up with her? Was there anything you asked of her or anything she asked of you in return when you were getting ready for this?
JH: Yeah, she was great. She was actually at my first audition which was fantastic. She was there from the get go for the casting process, and I think that gave the fans confidence in the choices for the roles. As soon as I got the part she called me up and said that if there was anything I ever needed that I could call her, email her, text her, whatever I wanted to get more character info. I really felt that Gary had it locked down and that everything I really needed for the character was there in the books, but having her there as a safety net was really nice.
You’ve done a lot of big Hollywood movies, but there has obviously a lot of hype around this one, even before you started filming this one. How was Hunger Games different?
JH: I’ve never been a part of anything that has this much hype… even before we shot the first frame! It’s exciting though because as an actor you want as many people as possible to see your work – unless it’s bad – and this is something I’m really proud of and because it has such a big platform, I’m really excited for people to see it.
It sort of feels like there are two different sides to the story in the film. One when you’re home in the district and when you first get to the Capitol, there’s a lot more dramatic weight you have to put on things because your character is very scared. Then when you get to the Hunger Games it’s very physically demanding. Which one was more rewarding for you as an actor, and conversely which one was more difficult?
JH: More rewarding were the emotional things, because as an actor I always like to do that. It’s always a challenge to play off those emotional beats. That’s why they hire actors, because they could hire any stunt guys to pull off the physical things. Most challenging was probably the stunts – I love doing stunts. I play a lot of sports and so doing the stunts is basically my sport when I’m away shooting.
They both were challenging in their own way. I think on this one the physicality was more challenging just because I felt I was already so much like Peeta in a lot of ways emotionally. I was still acting obviously, but that was just easier to get to than the physicality.
Talking about stunts though, was there anything in particular that gave you any serious fear or got your adrenaline pumping?
JH: No real fear – Adrenaline for sure. There’s the big fight scene at the end between Cato, Peeta, and Katniss on top of the cornucopia, and that was an extremely arduous and choreographed fight scene. There was definitely adrenaline pumping for that. We shot it over the course of three days and it was extremely hot when were shooting it. It was also extremely physical. There was a lot of picking up and body slamming people day in and day out. Even though it’s fake, body slams are only so fake. Eventually there’s some wear and tear on the body.
Do you think there’s a lesson in the film about the perils of reality television?
JH: I think so to a certain extent. Obviously we’re not killing kids in reality TV yet – I mean, we are with shows like Toddlers & Tiaras – but it’s just talking about the disconnect that people have with reality TV and reality. You’re watching shows about people on Jersey Shore and you’re laughing at what they’re doing because it’s absurd and crazy, but you don’t realize that these are real human beings. If they were standing next to you doing this stuff, you’d be like “Oh my god, this is so embarrassing!” Because of the TV screen protecting you, you feel free to watch it and laugh at their misery. And this is kind of taking that to the extreme. I don’t think it’s so much a prediction of the future as it is just a fantastical, hyper-reality version of it, but at the same time it does speak to that message.
I think for me, more than reality TV, it’s more of a warning about the separation of rich and poor. You have the 1% and the 99% and in this movie it’s extremely evident that that is how Panem came to be – it’s the 1% completely controlling the 99%. That disconnect as well as the reality TV disconnect is a very interesting message.
Most dystopic science fiction has that subtext of talking about current events -some of the rioting scenes are reminiscent of the Arab Spring and the uprising in Syria – How interesting was it reading the Hunger Games script and finding that subtext?
JH: It’s extremely interesting and makes the film very relevant. I think that because times are tough right now – people are really struggling all over the world to survive and just put food on the table – this story speaks to them. The story is all about giving a voice to people who have none and about people banding together to fight something that’s so much bigger than them. Now more than ever with social networks like Twitter and Facebook – where people can come together on these networks and you see governments being overthrown by Twitter – it’s a very poignant time for a story like this to come along.