Although he's still not yet 20 years old, actor Josh Hutcherson has been acting for more than half his life. After a succession of made-for-TV movie roles, Hutcherson was first seen on the big screen in the role of Robin in AMERICAN SPLENDOR. But most genre fans remember him Walter, brother of Lisa (Kristen Stewart) in John Favreau's very fun ZATHURA. After that came appearances in RV (opposite Robin Williams), BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA (with AnnaSophia Robb and Zooey Deschanel); JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (with Brendon Fraser; its sequel JOURNEY 2: THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (with Dwayne Johnson); and CIRQUE DU FREAK: THE VAMPIRE'S ASSISTANT (opposite John C. Reilly).
But it was his 2010 appearance in Lisa Cholodenko's THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT that took him fully out of the genre movie realm and garnered him some strong notices purely for his acting. We have yet to see a couple of movies he shot a while ago, including the horror-comedy DETENTION, the art forgery tale CARMEL, and the long-delayed remake of RED DAWN, currently slated for release in November (my only regret about this interview is that we ran out of time before I could ask any RED DAWN questions).
But the reason Hutcherson and I sat down together recently in Chicago is the film that is going to make him a very big star, Suzanne Collins' THE HUNGER GAMES, in which he plays Peeta Mellark, a baker's son and the male tribute from District 12 (with lead character Katniss Everdeen being the female tribute). Playing Peeta allows Hutcherson to combine his skills as an action-oriented genre star to mesh with his abilities to find the emotion core of a character. And it doesn't hurt that Hutcherson is a wonderfully nice guy and made this interview a breeze to get through. He was in Chicago as part of a tour of large markets where he and other cast members met with and answered questions from HUNGER GAMES fans. But before meeting the masses, he had to get through me. Please enjoy my talk with Josh Hutcherson…
Josh Hutcherson: What’s going on? How are you?
Capone: Great. It’s good to meet you.
JH: It’s good to meet you.
Capone: So you’re in the middle of the whirlwind? Or more like the beginning of the whirlwind.
JH: Beginning. I feel like it’s the calm before the storm right now.
Capone: How many malls have you been to so far? (Laughs)
JH: Only one, actually. This is it. I just did an L.A. event. This is the first road mall event.
Capone: And that was everybody, too, right?
JH: That was me, Liam [Hemsworth], and Jen [Lawrence]. That was pretty exciting.
Capone: Okay. You and Jennifer are both from Kentucky. Was that sort of important to the bonding that you guys had to do?
JH: It was. Yeah, I mean any time you meet somebody that’s from where you’re from it’s like an instant, “Oh, hey. We know each other somehow.” So yeah, there’s definitely a bonding. It’s kind of crazy actually, because in District 12 it’s based on a coal mining based town, which is like the hills in Kentucky where Jen and I are both from, so it’s a very serendipitous sort of situation.
Capone: That was going to be my next question, how that actually also informs the characters and gives you guys have something in common.
Capone: Of the younger cast members, I think it’s safe to say you’re the most seasoned of the bunch. Did a lot of the other younger people come to you and seek some sort of guidance, since you’ve done a few of these genre pieces?
JH: I don’t think so. I mean everybody that was cast I think is very professional, and they have all definitely done their fair of movies, especially between Jen and Liam. But no, I didn’t really feel that at all. Maybe they did, but I don’t remember it all that much. [laughs]
Capone: I thought maybe you’d be torn between the newbies and some of the older guys.
JH: No, n. It’s cool, we actually all got very close. Woody [Harrelson] was incredible and I still talk with him all the time. Stanley Tucci was amazing, obviously; he’s an incredible actor.
Capone: Of the older actors, you have some scenes with both of them. I’m wondering, what do you learn from guys like those two, because they can do anything? They're chameleons.
JH: Yeah, 100 percent.
Capone: Do you aspire to have a career where you can disappear into every part like that?
JH: Totally, and I think seeing them do that, just disappear into their roles, is something that I admire and something that I want to be able to do at some point in my career. Stanley Tucci is a guy that every role he takes on he transforms himself physically, which is incredible, and Woody is a guy that can play any part. I think that’s something that I definitely aspire to be like. I think as an actor, versatility is one of the most important things, and Woody Harrelson is as versatile as they come.
Capone: First step: shave your head. That’s what you’ve got to do.
JH: [laughs] Exactly. Yeah, it’s true.
Capone: Both of them can wear a lot of different wigs. (Laughs)
JH: Yeah, that’s true.
Capone: When you got the script and read the books, was there something about Peeta that you latched on to and said, “I can work with this. I can build on this.” What was that thing exactly?
JH: Yeah, for sure. When I was reading the books, I really connected with Peeta. He has this belief that no matter what circumstances you are faced with or what adversity you are faced with, you have to maintain who you are as a person and not waver off of that. That’s something that I’ve always believed in and that’s the foundation of Peeta’s moral beliefs, as it is mine as well. So I though that him and I were a lot alike in a lot of ways.
Capone: But the way he’s portrayed, at least in the books, and I’ve heard there might be some variation on this is in the movie, is that he’s a little soft. He’s a little unaware of how harsh the world can really be. Did they kind of toughen him up? Or did you want to sort of toughen him up a little?
JH: I did a little bit, yeah. I think that to make him more dynamic and more of a hero-ish type guy I feel like he had to be a little stronger and have a little more backbone in some situations, but he definitely has that innocence. Here’s my thing, it’s not as much of a sheltered innocence as it is an innocence coming from a place of “I’m accepting of this. This is my life. It’s not great, but I’m accepting of it.” So the innocence is not a lack of knowledge, if that makes sense.
Capone: It definitely does. Again, because you’ve done a lot of big films, genre stuff, going all the way back to ZATHURA and the JOURNEY movies that you’ve done, did you have to go through the same process as everyone else to get this role? Did you have to audition for this?
JH: Yes. There was an audition, yeah.
Capone: What do you remember about that?
JH: It was a pretty typical audition scenario, actually. I went in and auditioned twice. The first time was with Gary Ross, our director, and Suzanne Collins was there, the writer of the books, and also some other producers. That felt great. I hit it off with Gary and felt really good about right away. Then about a week and a half later, they called me in to do a chemistry read with Jennifer. Jennifer and I had met a couple of times at just random events, and we hit it off right away in the room and were having a lot of fun, and I think they could see that and it just felt great. Another week went by, and I finally got the phone call of “You got the part” and was literally speechless. Yeah, it was pretty cool.
Capone: How bad did you want it?
JH: So bad. I mean it was one of those things where I literally don’t know what I would have done if I wouldn’t have gotten the part. I don’t know what that means, but seriously I was at the point where I was just like… And Liam told me that he told his managers he was going to burn their houses down if he didn’t get the part. So I probably would have done something similar.
Capone: Do you like working in these bigger films that are sort of very genre specific? You did such a great job in THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT.
JH: Thank you.
Capone: I remember somebody said to me “But that’s not a genre film.” I’m like “Yeah, but his name is Laser, so that’s kind of genre.”
JH: Yeah, I get a little genre. [laughs] I like all types of movies. Honestly, I really do. These kinds of movies, fantastical movies or sci-fi genre films, I think a lot of times the concepts and the worlds that they create are very fantastical and over the top, so to kind of bring a realism with the acting I think is important, which is why I’m kind of drawn to that in a sense. But honestly, I loved doing THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT. I love doing indie dramas or indie comedies. I just love doing movies. If they are interesting stories and interesting characters, I’m into it.
Capone: Was there any hesitation about doing a movie about kids killing other kids?
JH: No, I never really did, because honestly when I was reading it it didn’t even faze me. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
Capone: What does that say about you, sir?
JH: Exactly. Seriously. No, I think the story, that’s an element of it, but it is so much not about that. To me, it’s more of a survival and struggle just to live. The thing about the book and the movie, the violence is not glorified. It’s not like “And the guts are pouring out and…” It doesn’t make it seem cool; it’s very brutal and very real seeming. To me, it was a catalyst to help along the characters. I don’t think that was a huge factor.
Capone: I remember when they were announcing the cast last year, they were very strategic about releasing a couple names one week, and then a couple more a few weeks later. When your name was announced--like everybody else that was announced--there was some degree of uproar. What was your favorite criticism of your getting cast?
JH: I haven’t read any of those things to this day.
Capone: You must have heard about it.
JH: Of course. I was going to say, the only time I ever heard about it was in interviews, and they brought it up. The biggest thing that I thought was hilarious was the fact that people were up in arms about the fact that I wasn’t blonde. Early on in the process, I was hearing, “But he’s not blonde. He can’t play Peeta!” I was like, “Do they really not know that we can change that?” That was always funny, I thought.
Capone: This is the first time you’ve had to change yourhair color for a film, right?
JH: Yeah, it is. It was interesting. It was a crazy process. It turned yellow, then orange, then red, and finally it got blonde. So it was quite a process to get there.
Capone: When you're meeting with Gary before you start shooting and you’re talking about Peeta, what sort of things did you come up with with Gary in terms of developing the character and changing him a little bit? Maybe you even talked to Suzanne about it.
JH: Yeah, Suzanne was definitely a part of those conversations as well. I think that for all of us, we wanted to make a very true to the book rendition, not only because we love the book, because so many people do and we want to give them what they want. So in that sense, there wasn’t a ton of room to move off of the character. What I was saying earlier, the biggest thing that we changed and we talked ago was just finding out how to have Peeta come across in a way that was still showed this sensitive side of Peeta that people love in the books, but give him more backbone. Other than that there wasn’t really much that we changed from the book.
Capone: I assume you’re signed on for the duration of the books, whether that's three or four movies apparently is up for discussion. Are there any particular things that Peeta does down the line that you are really looking forward to shooting?
JH: Definitely. I think in each book there’s a lot of interesting things with Peeta. When I read the series, I wasn’t only attracted to Peeta, because of my connection with him, but also because of what I would get to do as an actor. There’s the third book, where he gets kind of brainwashed and turns on Katniss. I think that’s super interesting and that’s going to be really fun to take it to that darker place and switch it around. But yeah, he’s got so many different places for him to go. I can’t wait.
Capone: Are there things that just flat out aren’t in the book that you wanted to put in there or that somebody wanted to add to him?
JH: Yeah. People ask me about the differences to know what kind of things we cut; we actually added a lot. There was more exploration allowed for other characters. In the book, you’re kind if tied to Katniss’ narrative, but in this you’re able to step outside of that and see more about people in the Capitol and see more about people in the districts. So in that sense we got to explore a little bit more in other characters.
Capone: I know some actors, when they're taking on a character, come up with a secret or invent a backstory beyond what you are given. Did you do anything like that?
JH: Not on this. Honestly, I really feel like so much of it was in the books, and having Suzanne there to help keep it true to that meant a lot to me, and I think it'll mean a lot to the readers as well. But no, there wasn’t a whole lot of work that went into that. Literally, I felt like I was so much like Peeta that I really didn’t need to do that. I felt like it was all already kind of there. It was kind of scary.
Capone: Talk about some of the training you had to do before the shooting started. I imagine there was a pretty physically grueling regimen.
JH: It was, for sure. I had to put on weight for the role. I had to put on about 15 pounds of muscle, so that was quite a task. I did that in four weeks, so that was quite a bit. But yeah, just a lot of eating. The eating was the hardest part honestly, because I had to eat like six times a day, and it was always very high-protein, very low-carb situations, which is not fun. So at the end of the day you’re like “I can’t finish chewing.” [laughs]
Capone: What kind of food are you forced to eat?
JH: It’s like chicken and eggs and broccoli… And then chicken and eggs and broccoli and then maybe salmon. That was pretty much all I ate, but it was good. It was definitely a big physical challenge.
Capone: Tell me about stepping into that arena for the first time. What do you remember about that day?
JH: My very first day of shooting was probably the most memorable one for me, because it was actually the scene where Peeta tosses the bread to Katniss, and that was the very first scene we shot. That to me was the moment where it finally hit me, and I’m like “Oh shit, I’m playing Peeta.” I looked down and I’m holding a loaf of bread. I had an apron on. It was crazy. Then stepping into the arena for the first time was weird. It was weird, because I had become such good friends with all of the tributes and Jennifer, and then all of a sudden be standing on those pedestals and ready to go and having to look at each other and be like, “Oh shit, I’m going to get killed or kill.” That was kind of a crazy feeling, for sure.
Capone: Tell me about what you’re in the midst of now, with meeting the fans and taking questions from them. Have you done much of that over the years?
JH: I’ve done a little bit, but not to this extent, not with fans that are this crazy. It’s been an amazing experience. I mean these people are so passionate about the story, about the characters, the books, everything. So to go out there and see that first hand and see their passion is really empowering.
Capone: And you start shooting the next film pretty soon, right?
JH: Not until the end of summer or fall, so yeah this year. They're gearing up right now. They’ve been working on the script. I can’t wait. After I saw the movie, I was like “All right, let’s go shoot the next one like right now.” I was very much ready.
Capone: How much did fan expectations play into what everyone was doing while they were making the film?
JH: To me it was a lot during the build up, before we started shooting. I feel like once we get on set everybody kind of buckled down and did their thing, but we were conscious of it for sure. Making the fans happy and doing a true-to-the-book adaptation was something that we wanted to do from the get go. I know sometimes people get up in arms sometimes when Hollywood takes over and does a beloved book. What people have to keep in mind is that we love the book, all of us. It’s not like we're some other entity; we are just like them. Everybody from the head of Lionsgate to the camera operators love the book. So we want to see it done right also; that’s something that people need to keep in mind I think.
Capone: All right, well cool. Have fun tonight.
JH: Fantastic. Thank you very much. I’m looking forward to it.