I can think of no place more fun than a movie set, particularly for a young actor. There’s just something amazing about going from what we know of everyday life and into a completely different universe. What helps guide the experience is a talented director, and on the set of The Hunger Games Amandla Stenberg, Alexander Ludwig and Isabelle Fuhrman were happy to have Gary Ross.
A few weeks ago I was given the chance to sit down with the three actors, who play the tributes known as Rue, Clove and Cato, with a few other journalists to talk about their time making the film. Check out the interview below in which they talk about on-set pranks, fooling around with Jennifer Lawrence, and the rigorous training process.
Had all of you read the book before the film?
Alexander Ludwig: There's a book?! [laughs] Definitely. Absolutely. We were all huge, huge fans of the book.
Did you have favorite characters?
Isabelle Fuhrman: Yes, definitely. My favorites were Katniss and Rue. They're just so relatable and lovable.
How then, was it, wanting to kill them?
Fuhrman: [laughs] Well, I always say that you have to love your characters. That meant re-reading the book and learning to love a character that's really a bad character. From there, it was discovering who she was and what made her so terrible and so mentally disturbed. From there, it was just doing a lot of character work.
Alexander, this is a very different role for you compared to Race to Witch Mountain. You're the bad guy instead of the good guy. What kind of training did you have to go through for the action side of things?
Ludwig: You're right, absolutely. When I got offered the role of Cato, I jumped on the opportunity. I've never really had a chance to play a bad guy and that's always been something that I've really, really wanted to do. It's about experiencing that dark side of a person. Cato is a really, really twisted individual. We worked really hard, just physically. I wanted Cato to have as big a presence physically as a mental one in the movie. There was a lot of fight training that I had to go through. I worked with a Navy SEAL to bulk up. Tons of hand-to-hand combat.
Fuhrmann: We worked a lot together as far as training goes. He was sword and I was knife, so when we were doing knife training and sword training, it was kind of the same except for the different sizes.
Ludwig: Then we'd practice on Amandla. [laughs]
Fuhrmann: I'm actually really, really good at it.
Ludwig: Wow! Don't be modest or anything. [laughs]
Fuhrmann: No, it was interesting because there were a lot more physics involved than I expected originally and I don't have a good arm. It was kind of throwing a tennis ball and gradually moving up to throwing an actual weighted knife at a target board. I felt I did good. I know how to still do it.
Ludwig: She really did do an exceptional job. She worked very, very hard.
Fuhrmann: And he did an amazing job with those swords. It was just crazy.
Amandla, you have some of the most beautiful and poignant emotional scenes in the movie.
Amandla Stenberg: Yeah, and it was kind of a solemn day on set that particular day. Jennifer [Lawrence] is extremely funny. Every time we'd finish a take she'd go, "That was cheery! I loved that!" Then everyone would start laughing. She kind of kept it light.
Were there pranks on set?
Stenberg: There were indeed pranks.
Ludwig: You have no idea.
Fuhrmann: [motions to Stenberg] This one? Watch out.
Ludwig: She is a prankster. I remember one day I was doing a fight scene on-set and was practicing with some of the guys. In North Carolina, during the time we were filming it was just so, so hot. It was disgusting. It was like you just walked out of a shower of sweat. It was gross. I had my shirt off when we were doing the fight training and had no clothes. I had to run back to my trailer to go get my clothes and, as I did, all my clothes were gone. I couldn't find them anywhere, but I do find this little note with a gang symbol for Amandla and Jacqy [Emerson], who plays Foxface. I was just like, "Oh my god!" I have no clothes and I'm in my boxers now just trying to find all my clothes. I find some of them in the fridge and some of them in the microwave. It's one of the many, many things that Amandla did to ruin my life on-set.
Fuhrmann: He had me text him directions. He wasn't working for a three-day weekend when they were just doing scenes with Jenn and Josh. He called me and said, "My phone's about to die! I need directions to get from Nashville to Scottsdale, Arizona. I'm like, "Okay," and I type them out. My thumbs are killing me and then he goes, "Alright, but I still need directions from Scottsdale, Arizona to Little Rock, Arkansas and then to Boulder, Colorado." I go, "You're not going to make it back in time!" and he's like, "We're gonna fly back." I think, alright, seems implausible, but whatever, I'll just send it to him.
Ludwig: [laughs] She just kept typing out the directions! It was really sick and funny.
Fuhrmann: It was not funny for me!
Ludwig: I got this huge essay of directions.
Fuhrmann: You and Mark were probably like, [mimicking his voice] "She seriously did it, dude! She seriously did! So sick!"
Amandla, you spend some time up in trees. Did you climb them yourself or did they put you up there or was it all fake ones down on the ground?
Stenberg: I spent some time in both real trees and in the trees in the soundstage. I had a custom-made harness so that I wouldn't fall over. It was really, really fun, actually. There was this one time that Jenn and I were in the tree doing a scene and it was kind of difficult to stay up because you kind of slide down gradually. I found a little space in the tree where I could sit and wouldn't slide down. It was just a little hole in the tree. I was sitting and then they're about to call action and I start sliding down. I yell out, really loudly so that everyone can hear, "Wait, I can't find my butthole!" [laughs] Then Jenn proceeded to make fun of me for the rest of the shoot.
Ludwig: We were very professional when it came down to shooting and doing the work. Off-set, though, when we had time off, we were just having the best time. It was probably the best summer I ever had.
Have you had much interaction with fans yet?
Fuhrmann: Mostly through Twitter and, of course, my friends. All my friends read the book and they're trying to get information out of me. I'm like, "I can't tell you!"
Ludwig: We had this one fan -- or a few of them -- that, for some reason, knew exactly where all of us were going to be at every single time of the day. I'd be going to the airport and he'd be there. It got to the point that we'd know each other on a first-name basis, "Oh hey! What's up man? You found me again! What's up? Should I call the police?" [laughs] Other than that, all the fans have just been so supportive. I remember when we were shooting a Vanity Fair photo spread and I look and see a little head pop up by a tree. There's three teenage girls who have snuck past security and made it into the forest. There's little things like that, but mostly it's just flattering to have so much support.
Fuhrmann: My mom's more scared about it than I am, probably. She's always very nervous about me going to walk with my friends by myself now. She's like, "Be careful! You never know!" and I'm like, "I'm fine. I'm fine." I can throw knives now.
A number of reporter this morning started the day by joking about how we would all fare in the Hunger Games. Did you ever do that with one another on-set?
Fuhrmann: We did! We all agreed that one of the stunt people, who played one of the stunt tributes from District 10 and who trained all of us, Jeremy [Marinas], would be the winner.
Ludwig: Speaking for myself here, it take a lot of effort to find that playing a villain note. That's a mindset that you really have to work on. It's not something that just comes easy. Playing good guys is something that just feels much more natural to me. I guess I'd like to think of myself as a bit of a good person.
Fuhrmann: You don't have a mean bone in your body.
Ludwig: It definitely takes a lot of work. Lots of research and really creating a backstory, especially if you're playing a villain, is very, very important so that you have something to go off of.
Fuhrmann: Going off that, I learned a lot about my craft. A lot of the psychology aspect of it, being a bad character, but one with completely different motivation than anyone that I'd ever played before. Just trying to figure out who she was and where she came from. What kind of circumstances that she overcame that caused her to be so disturbed.
Stenberg: I think I would say the same thing, just learning about acting. Also, Jenn became a really great mentor to me and was someone that I could lean on. If I had a different idea of the scene from Gary [Ross] or anyone else, she would kind of explain it to me until it was crystal clear. I also really learned about Rue and how, in her big scene, even though she's extremely scared, she's also trying to be brave for Katniss because she wants Katniss to go on and win the games. That became something that I really understood and I really got into the scene after that.
So you played the character assuming from the beginning that there was no way she would survive the game?
Stenberg: No, I'm saying that when she does expire and as she is expiring, she realizes that she has to be brave for Katniss because, otherwise, Katniss is going to lose hope.
It sounds like there was a lot of fun to be had on-set but, at the same time, a lot was accomplished. What did Gary Ross to do help out that atmosphere?
Fuhrmann: He made us all very comfortable on-set. He talked to us a lot about our characters. He had a really great discussion with me before we started rehearsing. He was always there whenever we had questions or had anything we wanted to add or ask. One of the things that was really interesting is that, when we were filming the cornucopia, he would talk to us as if he was our character to get facial expressions out of us. It was so interesting what expressions we came up with when he was like, "That's your knife. You want the knives. Go for the knives! Go for the knives!" He had a megaphone and there was a giant speaker in the middle of the cornucopia. He would just be projecting outward so that everyone could hear him.
Ludwig: At the end of the day, I think everyone was just so passionate about their craft that, when Gary says, "Action!", everyone is just in that mode. All that laughter and friendliness that we have off-set blends into our passion and we go all-out. I think that everyone knew, going in, that there's a reason that we all got chosen for this. We have to do the fans justice and this amazing book justice.
You mentioned building your own backstories. Is that something that they suggest you do?
Fuhrmann: I think that was something that I just did for the audition. When you read the book, it's written through Katniss' eyes and you really get to know Katniss. You understand certain other characters and parts of them. I was developing and figuring out Clove's psyche and where she game from. I wrote a one and a half page backstory. Then I talked to Gary and kind of revised it to make her a little more interesting. At the same time, I had to realize that the fans are going to be watching this and they have to be happy with it and with what I do and what everyone else does on-set. I'm really anxious to see how it's received.
Did you have a favorite detail from your created backstory?
Fuhrmann: I think I made it that Clove had a really terrible relationship with her parents that pressured her into being in these games. She wants to show them up and get home and say, "I did it and I didn't need any of your help." That was my main point for her wanting to win so badly.