It’s an interesting thing to witness how a spotlight sits on a young actor. Weeks before Twilight stormed its way into theaters, for instance, a still largely unknown Robert Pattinson winced and demurred his way through a few questions on the crowded patio of a chic Los Angeles hotel. His posture was practically O-shaped as he spoke into the neckline of his shirt before wondering, rather endearingly, if we might go somewhere less populated. Today, at the bustling Early Girl restaurant in Asheville, N.C., an entirely different young man from an entirely different franchise, Josh Hutcherson, 18, sits beaming and gregarious over a rapidly vanishing plate of eggs and bacon. Hutcherson plays the beloved Peeta in the movie adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ gripping dystopian trilogy The Hunger Games, a franchise many believe will be as big as Twilight. Hutcherson, however, seems utterly unself-conscious. A good portion of Early Girl’s clientele, in fact, is now privy to the urgency with which he first devoured Collins’ best-selling books. ”I read the whole series in five days,” he says, his voice happy and booming. ”Bam! Bam! Yes, more! Gimme, gimme! Come on!”
Collins’ futuristic series is a hero’s tale with a horrifying backdrop: a government that pits children against one another in a televised battle to the death. The hero in question is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a brave and resilient 16-year-old who steps up to take her little sister’s place in the sadistic tournament, then fights to stay alive and return home to the fatherless family for whom she alone provides. Revolving around Katniss is an equally compelling band of boys and men. In director Gary Ross’ PG-13 adaptation (the first installment of which is due out March 23, 2012), Woody Harrelson will play Haymitch, Katniss’ coach in the Games, a drunken but decent sod of a man; Lenny Kravitz will play her gentle and loyal stylist, Cinna; Donald Sutherland, her terrifying antagonist President Snow; and Stanley Tucci, the oily Games interviewer, Caesar Flickerman. Then there are Katniss’ most devoted allies: her trusted childhood confidant Gale (Australian actor Liam Hemsworth), and Peeta (Hutcherson), who’s idolized by the series’ ardent fans for his kindness. Peeta has a bond with Katniss but must fight in the Games himself — and there can be only one survivor.
Today is day 37 of the Hunger Games shoot. While Lawrence is on the set — running for her character’s life across a meadow in a secluded North Carolina forest — Hutcherson is enjoying a rare day off. He’s been a working actor since he was 9, and is perhaps best known for his fine performance in last year’s celebrated indie The Kids Are All Right. When we meet outside the Early Girl for breakfast, Hutcherson says a warm hello and remembers the details from a throwaway 10-minute conversation we had at a film festival months ago. Inside, the hipster hostess greets him like a cherished regular. And when we sit down to eat, it becomes clear why director Ross fought hard for him to play Peeta Mellark, a baker’s son whose best weapon is his good-natured charisma. As Lawrence puts it: ”Josh is so charming, and when you read the books about Peeta being able to manipulate anybody…I mean, Josh could get — well, I don’t know a metaphor except for dirty ones.”
When Lionsgate announced Hutcherson’s casting, fans weren’t instantly charmed. They cocked an aggressive virtual eyebrow, as fans always seem to do. He wasn’t enough of a dreamboat. He was going to look like a shrimp next to the 5’9” Lawrence. For the love of Mockingjay, he wasn’t even blond! But Suzanne Collins was present for Hutcherson’s audition, when he performed scenes in which Katniss fights to keep a critically wounded Peeta alive in a cave — and Collins is a true believer. ”People may get thrown, say, by the color of an actor’s hair, or something physical,” says the author. ”But I tell you, if Josh had been bright purple and had six-foot wings and gave that audition, I’d have been like, ‘Cast him! We can work around the wings.’ He was that good.”
Before arriving on set, Hutcherson hit the gym for an intense round of training to better embody a boy who’s spent his childhood heaving sacks of flour. He put on about 15 pounds of muscle in three weeks. His hair has been dyed blond and — what a relief — it suits him. As for concerns about his height? ”Jennifer’s not two feet taller than me!” he says with an easy laugh. ”If anything, maybe she’s a half inch taller. People care about weird things sometimes, and I guess that’s one of them.” But no amount of online hand-wringing is going to harsh this kid’s buzz. ”I don’t want to be that actor who’s like, ‘Yeah, man, the role is so me. But it is!” Hutcherson says, grinning broadly. ”I am Peeta. His humility, his self-deprecating humor, his way that he can just talk to anybody in any room.”
In person, the energy Hutcherson gives off is that of a young man who’s gotten so lucky that it’s just about knocked the breath out of him. On the first day of shooting, he and Lawrence, 20, shot a pivotal flashback scene, in which his character risks offering a starving Katniss some burnt bread from his dad’s bakery in their beleaguered District 12. Just before the director called ”Action!” Hutcherson found himself saying, ”Josh, you’re at the Hunger Games. You’re. At. The. Hunger Games!”
Not only is he at the Hunger Games, but his buddy Liam Hemsworth (The Last Song) has snagged the role of Gale. The guys first met after Hutcherson worked with Hemsworth’s big brother, Chris, on an upcoming remake of Red Dawn. Says Hutcherson, ”I sent him a text: ‘Dude, we have The Hunger Games! I’m so stoked, man, this is awesome!”’
Hemsworth, who says he wanted the role of righteous Gale so badly that he warned his agents and manager that he’d burn his own house down if the part went to someone else, decided to have some fun with his new costar. ”I called him and I go, ‘Hey, buddy, congratulations,”’ he says. ”’That’s really cool, man, I’m happy for you. I actually didn’t get the part, but good luck with the shoot.”’ He then told Hutcherson he was kidding, and the two launched into some ”Dude!” and ”Bro!” back-and-forth.
While Hemsworth is probably best known for being Miley Cyrus’ on-again, off-again boyfriend, director Ross has no doubt that he’s the right actor to bring Gale to life: ”On first glance he’s such a hunk that it’s easy to ascribe a hunklike simplicity to him. But this is a phenomenally subtle actor, totally in control of what he was doing.”
On set Hemsworth, at 21 years old, experienced the disorienting sensation of being the elder statesman for once. (Much to his chagrin, he missed Tucci, Kravitz, Sutherland, and — most painfully — one of his favorite actors, Harrelson, who won’t arrive until the film moves to another location in August to start shooting the sequences set in the Capitol.) Hemsworth just laughs when asked how many of the younger actors — the ones playing the other ”tributes” plucked out of their districts for the Games — asked him to buy them beer. In any case, he and Hutcherson bonded hard during his weeks on set, so much so that Hutcherson brought him home to Kentucky one weekend to relax with his family and taste his grandmother’s famous fried chicken. Hemsworth has now wrapped his scenes and decamped to Michigan, where he’s shooting the Vietnam-era buddy picture AWOL. But there’s talk that the two young men who play rivals for Katniss’ heart might get an apartment together back in Los Angeles. ”I think it’s going to blow people’s minds when they see that Peeta and Gale are actually best friends in real life,” says Hutcherson.
Hutcherson and Lawrence developed an immediate rapport off camera as well. ”There is a brother-sister quality to them which I think is actually great for the dynamic in the relationship,” says Ross. ”For Katniss, Peeta is an acquired taste. He’s not the hot guy that she’s into at the beginning. But he’s loved her forever, and there’s a wonderful kind of close friendship between Jen and Josh that I think serves the Peeta/Katniss relationship so well. It dawns on her slowly that she loves him.”
So for now the two goof on each other like siblings. ”We have this fake dummy on set, this really gnarled-up scary-looking thing,” says Hutcherson. ”The other day I put it in her bathroom in her trailer, and she told me she actually peed her pants, she was so scared. I’m sure she’s going to pay me back. I’m just terrified because she’s someone I can see taking it to the next level, and somebody could get hurt.”
The cast should take their laughs where they can get them, because they’re spending the summer in a wretched world. Reading about children forced to rip one another limb from limb in front of a rapt TV audience is one thing, Hutcherson says. It’s a whole other gut punch to see it live. ”I thought I understood the brutality of kids killing kids,” he says. ”But when you walk onto set and you see all the weapons in the Cornucopia and you look over and you see this little kid who’s 10 years old… ”
Another devastating sequence in the film will be ”the reaping,” when children as young as 12 are yanked away from their homes and families to fight. Those scenes were shot over a sweltering three-day period in a former cotton mill, with more than 500 extras making up the panicked and miserable people of District 12. ”Gary had a big microphone that he was talking into the entire time,” says Hutcherson. ”At the end of the day he asked, ‘How many of you guys have read the book?’ Every single one of those 500 kids raised their hands. And Gary was like, ‘I want to say something. Thank you, first of all. You guys were so amazing. You are not extras. You are all actors. I appreciate your work so much.’ If I was a young guy, first time on a movie set, and I had been trying my best to do what they asked — to be told that would have been such a great feeling. I mean, I loved Gary already, but it made me fall further in love with him.”
Hutcherson has roughly six months of peace and anonymity left, assuming The Hunger Games is the kind of creative and commercial force it’s expected to be. He sounds unconcerned about the attention that awaits. Yes, he has encouraged his mom in Kentucky to stay off the Internet (”If she reads [anything mean], she gets all worked up and is like, ‘Oh, gosh, they’re saying some stuff, this is awful!”’). But he seems like the rare young guy whom the spotlight will not singe. ”I know it’s going to be a big change, but I think if you go about it in the right way, you can still have your privacy,” he says. ”You got to just keep on trucking and make sure you’re always being true to yourself.” He laughs and gives the table a happy bang of his fist. ”Which is so funny because — God bless America! — that’s exactly what Peeta would say.”