Hunger Games: Casting Jennifer Lawrence

Once word was out that a film version of “The Hunger Games” was in the works, speculation about casting snowballed into an internet phenomenon of its own. Amidst the hoopla, the filmmakers began coming to grips with just how intensely invested fans of the book were in seeing something they could believe in on screen.




“It became clear that everyone who read the book had their own clear idea of who Katniss or Gale or Peeta should be,” notes Gary Ross.  “It’s a testament to how connected people become to this story, and I found it incredibly exciting.”




Says producer Nina Jacobson: “People were very opinionated about who should play the roles and that was obviously a lot of pressure.  But I feel the same way when I love a book – I don’t want anyone to mess it up. So as we began the casting process, we talked a lot about looking for the essence of these characters in the actors. You can create a lot of different things on screen, but you can’t create that essence.  You have to go out and find it.”




Katniss and District 12: Jennifer Lawrence




It began with the most difficult character of all to cast – the girl who rises from the dust and grime of Panem’s mining district to become an iconic rebel heroine:  Katniss Everdeen. Her origins might be common, but Katniss is anything but a simple girl.  Driven by harsh circumstances, she can be cold and calculating at times but at her core she is selfless and loyal.  Only 16, she also is still very much in the process of forming her own ideals and notions of love and self-worth, in a world where such things are nearly impossible.




“Katniss is a fierce, independent survivor,” describes Gary Ross.  “She’s a hunter, an archer and an athlete, and as the story begins, she already has amazing skills she’s developed to protect and fend for her family. Most importantly, she’s someone who comes to know her own truth.  One thing Suzanne and I talked about is that she is a bit like Joan of Arc – someone who can’t abide tyrants, which ultimately gives her the courage to defy the Capitol.”




Executive producer Robin Bissell further observes, “In the middle of the Games, important questions arise for Katniss – not just can she survive but is she able to love, and who does she love?  She gains remarkable strength but also blossoms as a human being.”




Young actresses across the world coveted the role, but the search stopped when Ross and Lionsgate executives met with Jennifer Lawrence, who had garnered an Oscar® nomination for her devastating performance as a girl protecting her family in the low-budget indie thriller “Winter’s Bone.” Most importantly, Collins herself gave her blessing to Lawrence.




Collins admits that initially she had some trepidation over the idea that anyone could embody the Katniss she’d envisioned.  But Lawrence set those worries to rest.  In a letter Collins wrote:  “In her remarkable audition piece, I watched Jennifer embody every essential quality necessary to play Katniss. I saw a girl who has the potential rage to send an arrow into the Gamemakers and the protectiveness to make Rue her ally. Who has conquered both Peeta and Gale’s hearts even though she’s done her best to wall herself off emotionally from anything that would lead to romance. Most of all, I believed that this was a girl who could hold out that handful of berries and incite the beaten down districts of Panem to rebel. I think that was the essential question for me. Could she believably inspire a rebellion? Did she project the strength, defiance and intellect you would need to follow her into certain war? For me, she did.  Jennifer’s just an incredible actress. So powerful, vulnerable, beautiful, unforgiving and brave. I never thought we’d find somebody this amazing for the role. And I can’t wait for everyone to see her play it.”




“I felt I’d found the one person who could possibly play Katniss,” recalls Ross of meeting Lawrence.  “I’ve worked with many amazing actors but I think someone like Jen comes around once in a generation. She’s an unbelievable talent and she brings so many qualities that are raw and true to the character, from her natural athleticism to her emotional power.  I can always imagine different versions of films I direct, but I can’t imagine a version of this film without Jen.”




Adds Jacobson:  “In her audition, Jen stole the role.  There was instant power, intensity and certainty in her performance.  Some people can be fierce and others can be tender, but Jen is both.”




Lawrence says one thing instantly drew her into the depths of Katniss:  “Her strength.”  She continues:  “I’m always drawn to strong characters, because I want to be like that.  This is a girl who has the whole world placed on her shoulders and she becomes a kind of futuristic Joan of Arc.  I just knew that I had so much respect for the books and who she is that there was nothing I wouldn’t do to bring that out in the right way. I also loved that Gary understood that this movie is not about Katniss looking cool with a bow-and-arrow – it’s about her being heartbroken by all that she has to do.”




The actress was undeterred by what she knew would be intense scrutiny by Katniss’ millions of fans.  “There’s a lot of pressure when you’re playing a character so many people are crazy about, but I felt I could rest easy because I was committed to do the very best that I could,” Lawrence states.  “I knew we had a group of talented people focused on making the best possible movie and that’s what I believed in.”




Peter Mellark: Josh Hutcherson




With Lawrence cast, the next task was to find the boy with whom she is paired in the Games: her co-Tribute, Peeta Mellark, who has long had a secret crush on Katniss but cannot be sure if she is to be trusted.   Taking on Peeta is Josh Hutcherson, best known for his roles in “The Kids Are All Right” and “Bridge to Teribithia”–and once again Ross was instantly certain about the choice.  “It was unbelievably clear with Josh.  He came in and was able to articulate everything we felt about the character,” the director recalls.  “He said ‘Peeta is someone who can disarm the world with his charm, but he knows who he loves and he’s always loved Katniss.  He loves her so intensely, she is the one person he would give everything for.’  After that, I felt ‘now I have Peeta and I can do this film.’”




Suzanne Collins was equally taken with the casting.  She put it this way to Entertainment Weekly:  “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.”




Hutcherson remembers that the minute he began reading the book, he was swept up and felt a connection with Peeta.  “I’ve never seen a character so close to me as a person,” he says.  “His self-deprecating humor, his outlook on life, and the way he wants to stay true to who he is no matter what are all things I could really relate to from my own life.  I was very into Peeta from the get-go.”




As the Games get underway, Peeta becomes even clearer about his aim.  “His goal is to make sure Katniss survives,” Hutcherson explains.  “His greatest skill is his ability to talk with people, to negotiate and manipulate, and he uses that not in a conniving way, but to protect Katniss.“




That was easy for Hutcherson, given his rapport with Lawrence.  “I think Jen perfectly encapsulates a young woman who finds the power to take care of herself and others around her.  She has both a hardness and a vulnerability that’s beautiful and really genuine,” he says of his co-star.




Playing Katniss’ longtime best friend in District 12 is Australian actor Liam Hemsworth.  He, too, came to the set with a very strong sense of his character.  “Gale is a decent but strong-minded guy who hates nothing more than the Capitol,” says the actor.  “He hates everything they stand for.  He hates what they do to people.  And he thinks the Hunger Games are very, very wrong.  With Katniss, he’s always felt they were each other’s only escape from this horrible world they live in.  But once Katniss is picked for the Hunger Games, he is forced to watch this whole thing unfold with Peeta, wondering who she is really meant to end up with.”




Notes Jon Kilik:  “Casting “Hunger Games” was like fitting pieces of an epic puzzle together and Liam as Gale was one of those perfectly matching pieces.  He’s got such a strong physical presence, and a kind of natural heroic quality, that really embodies who Gale is in the book.”




District 12 is also home to the one person who fuels Katniss’ survival instincts like no other: Primrose, the little sister Katniss swore she would always protect and whose place she takes in the Games.  In auditions, Ross was immediately impressed with Willow Shields, an 11-year-old from Albuquerque, New Mexico.  “Willow was one of those amazing finds, and I was dumbstruck that a girl at her age could have so much talent,” says Ross.




Says Shields, “Prim is someone who has had a really rough life and yet she’s always really helpful and nice to her sister.”




Once Katniss is sent to the Capitol, Primrose is left in the care of her traumatized, widowed mother, who finally begins to awaken from her daze.  Mrs. Everdeen is played by Paula Malcomson, the Irish actress seen on “Deadwood,” “Lost” and “Sons of Anarchy.” For Malcomson, “Hunger Games” was a true ensemble experience.  “Gary put together a great cast.  He is someone for whom every detail is precious and that’s the stuff actors love:  all that connective tissue that allows you to explore the moments between the moments,” she says.  “I found it exciting to see this phenomenal book brought to life by people who cared so much about what they were doing.”