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Fans of Suzanne Collins’ ‘The Hunger Games’ are flocking to cinemas these days to root for Jennifer Lawrence’s heroine Katniss Everdeen. When her sister is chosen as Tribute, she volunteers to compete in the life-or-death show.
Once the Hunger Games get underway, Katniss must take the measure of her fellow Tributes, any one of whom could cause her demise. The casting of the two dozen Tributes was a major undertaking. “In the book, each Tribute has his or her own very specific social ranking and physical description, so we were very selective and cast them one at a time,” explains producer Jon Kilik.
“Our casting director, Debbie Zane, is just amazing at finding the most talented people from ages 12 to 18. She cast a wide net and was incredibly diligent. She and Gary worked patiently and very hard until we put the whole group together.”
The most fearsomely dangerous of the competitors are the so-called “Career Tributes,” who have been groomed and physically trained for the Games since the day they were born. Especially worrisome to Katniss are the four most favored Careers: Clove played by Isabelle Fuhrman, Cato played by Alexander Ludwig, Glimmer played by Leven Rambin and Marvel played by Jack Quaid. Each brings his or her own special skill.
“Clove has a lot more brains than a lot of the Tributes,” says Fuhrman, who recently came to the fore in the horror movie ‘Orphan’. “The interesting thing is that she looks very girly and frilly, but she also a very dark side to her.”
Adds Ludwig, best known for his role in ‘Race to Witch Mountain’: “Cato is someone who is very strong, physically and mentally, and is ruthless, but I think deep, deep down there was a good person inside him before he went into these Games.”
For Rambin, seen in roles on “One Tree Hill,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “CSI: Miami,” the key to Glimmer was going at everything 110%. “Glimmer considers the Games an honor,” she notes. “She enjoys the fame, and because of that she can be a great threat.”
Quaid, who makes his feature film debut in ‘The Hunger Games’, says of Marvel: “I wouldn’t say he’s the sharpest tool in the shed, but he is ecstatic to be there and he just goes for it.”
Among the more ordinary Tributes who are just as terrified and overwhelmed as Katniss, two immediately draw her respect: little Rue, who was reaped for the Games at the tender age of 12; and the quick and clever Foxface. A pair of rising newcomers takes on the roles: Amandla Stenberg as Rue and Jacqueline Emerson as Foxface.
Stenberg went all out for the part, rolling in dirt outside before auditioning for Ross at his home. “I had leaves in my hair and everything,” Stenberg recalls. “Gary has a really nice house, and I didn’t want to sit on anything and get it dirty, so I found a little stool to sit on. I was really nervous.”
Anxious as she was, it was clear she had a deep affinity for Rue, who becomes Katniss’ ally. “I’d read the book four times and I just loved Rue because she’s so smart and agile and yet sweet,” says Stenberg. “I think when Katniss sees Rue, she thinks of her sister and that’s why she loves her.”
On the set, Stenberg also developed a tight-knit, best-friends relationship with Lawrence that further added to their roles. “They bonded in a real big sister/little sister way, which was fantastic for the movie,” says Ross. “Sometimes they were laughing so much I had to tell them to knock it off but it truly mirrored the closeness that Katniss and Rue have.”
One of Suzanne Collins’ favorite scenes is Rue’s final sequence, which Collins witnessed on set. “The scene’s so key, not only because of its emotional impact on Katniss — Rue’s essentially become Prim’s surrogate in the arena — but because it has to be powerful enough to trigger the first rumblings of the rebellion,” notes the author.
“It’s very demanding for the actors. All three of the kids — Jen, Amandla and Jack — gave terrific performances. T Bone Burnett came up with this lovely, haunting melody for the lullaby. And Gary, who was masterminding the whole thing, filmed it beautifully. There’s this one shot of Katniss cradling Rue in the periwinkle with the lush background of the forest.
On the monitor it looked like an exquisite portrait, like something you’d frame and hang in a museum. I remember Amandla came and sat next to me between takes and asked me, ‘So, what did you imagine it would be like?’ And I said, ‘Like that.’ But really, it exceeded my expectations.”
Rue’s co-Tribute, Thresh, played by Nigerian newcomer Dayo Okeniyi, tries to watch out for her. “Thresh is your basic, hard-working guy from the farming district who loves his family and just wants to see them again. For him, Rue is like a baby sister,” says Okeniyi. “He wants to protect her, but he knows a time may come when he will have to make a decision between his life or her life. In his heart, there’s a constant tug-of-war.”
Emerson was equally taken with Foxface. “I love that she’s the smartest Tribute and that’s the way she makes her way through the Games,” she observes. “Her whole strategy is to evade capture. She’s always two steps ahead of the game, thinking of the one thing nobody else could.”
Yet within all the physical drama, Emerson says that Ross always kept the cast focused on the inner experience of their characters. “The great thing about Gary directing ‘The Hunger Games’ is that he set out to find the heart of this story,” summarizes Emerson. “It’s not just a flashy action movie. It’s about people and ideas you’ll walk out of the theatre thinking about for a long time.”