An Interview with Hunger Games’ Willow Shields and Amandla Stenberg

photos by Alex A. Kecskes

Unless you’ve been abducted by aliens or stranded on a remote island, you’ve heard of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, The Hunger Games. If you’re a fan, you’ve read her books at least three times and seen the first film as many times.

In Collins’ futuristic tale, North America (now called Panem) is divided into 12 Districts. In this cruel, dictatorial society, two teens (tributes) from each district are forced to fight to the death in annual televised Hunger Games. The film features Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen and Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark, two tributes who pit their skills against other teens to survive.

Once selected by weighted lottery, each of the 24 tributes are trained for combat and groomed for live TV. In the first film, Katniss’ 12-year-old sister, Primrose (Willow Shields) is initially drawn to compete, but Katniss comes to her rescue to take her place. Once the games begin, Katniss forms an alliance with Rue (Amandla Stenberg), a 12-year old girl from district 10 with uncanny abilities in climbing, plant harvesting and whistling to mockingjays (genetically altered birds that can hear a conversation or song and replay it perfectly). While Prim lives on (to possibly compete in another Hunger Game), little Rue is killed in what many regard as one of the most poignant death scenes in the film.

I recently sat down with Willow and Amandla at a press round table in San Diego’s Hard Rock Hotel. I was joined by a handful of fellow journalists and we were quickly impressed by the maturity and demeanor of both girls. The questioning began, as it most often does in San Diego, with Comic-con.

So how are you guys enjoying Comic-con?

Willow: We love it. Amandla: We love it. It’s pretty awesome. Seeing all the costumes is the best part.

Did you see a lot of Hunger Games costumes?

Willow: We saw a Katniss costume. Amandla: And Lara Croft. We also saw the alien from Prometheus.

Now that you’ve done Hunger Games, do you get recognized when you’re out?

Willow: Yeah. We can’t go anywhere without someone recognizing us. Amandla: Yeah. They’ll go, “Oh, you’re Rue” or “Oh, you’re Prim.” For me, if I’m wearing my hair up, I’m like whoever. But if I’m wearing it down, the reaction is, My God, it’s Rue!

Have you guys seen the (Hunger Games) DVDs yet?

Willow: No, we haven’t. Amandla: There was a camera on the set every day. Filming stuff behind the scenes, so we got a glimpse of what was being filmed.

Willow: It’s going to be really cool to see us goofing off and being ourselves. Amandla: People have to realize that we are not like our characters.

Willow: I’m not Prim, I’m Willow. Amandla: Everyone just calls me Rue now.

Have you guys seen your action figures?

Amandla: I just got it. I was playing with it. It’s pretty cool, yeah. Willow: I’m hoping to get mine.

Have both of you read Susanne Collins’ books?

Willow: Yes. We’re big fans. Amandla: Yes, I was a fan girl before I even auditioned. I was super nervous during my audition and super stoked when I got the part.

What was the audition like?

Amandla: I actually went on two auditions. There was one on the show with the casting director, Debra Zane, who gave me advice for the callback, which was to dress up like Rue. The next audition was at director Gary Ross’ house, where I completely dressed in torn clothes, with mud all over me, and leaves in my hair and everything. And he has a really nice house, of course. So I had to be really careful walking through the house to keep from leaving a trail of mud. And I couldn’t sit with everyone else. I had to sit on this stool instead of the nice suede furniture.

Did you meet Susanne Collins?

Willow: Yes.

Amandla: Yes. I met her at the premiere. And on location in North Carolina during filming. She came for my death scene and she gave me advice.

How hard was it to do the death scene?

Amandla: It was hard and kind of weird. I tried to get into the mindset of Rue and imagine what she might have been thinking as she was dying.

When you saw the film with an audience for the first time, what went through your head? Were you looking at the screen or the audience?

Amandla: It’s funny because, you’re looking up at the screen and you’re thinking, do they even know who’s sitting next to them? Actually, the first time I went to see it was with my friends and family. And, of course, my death scene had just appeared and my best friend was literally sobbing. She was a bit terrified. So I said, “it’s okay, I’m right here. I’m not dead, I’m alive.” And I’m trying to make her feel better. So she turned to me and she said, “Shhhh, you’re ruining the scene.”

Do you get a lot of reaction during the death scene?

Amandla: Yeah. They’ll say, “Oh, I cried when you died.” I get a lot of that when I’m signing autographs. Like what do you say to that–I’m sorry?

Willow, have you talked to Francis (Lawrence) yet?

Willow: I have not talked to him, but I’m really excited to work with him. Gary was an amazing director and I’m really sad to see him go. I’m really excited to see what transforms with Catching Fire.

In this the first film you got to work primarily with Jennifer? Who are you looking forward to working with now?

Willow: I’m excited to work with Josh Hutcherson and Woody Harrelson. They’re both amazing actors and I’m looking forward to doing scenes with them.

What’s been the reaction of your parents? Are they treating you differently now?

Willow: No. Not really. Amandla: No. They’re not treating me differently–so I won’t act differently, if that makes sense.

What scenes affected you most?

Amandla: The death scene affected me most, even just reading it in the book. I was ten years old and listening to the book on tape. I wondered why? How could this happen? People always ask me if I cried when I saw myself die. But I think you have to be really self involved to react that way. Like, oh, my God, what’s the world going to do without me? What actually made me cry was the cornucopia scene. It was so disturbing and shocking to see all my friends beating each other up and stabbing each other. That was so weird to see.

Is there anything in the movie that surprised you the way it turned out?

Amandla: When you’re shooting a movie, you don’t really know what it’s going to look like.

Willow: Everything was different when we saw it on film, compared to when you’re shooting.

What was it like living in what must have seemed like a ghost town where you were filming?

Amandla: Like with Katniss running with her bow and arrow, you see a background of beat up old houses. We actually shot in an abandoned little village. There was this old house with creaking stairs and old props and it was kind of scary.

Talking about the cornucopia scene, there are some really strong ideas Suzanne Collins was trying to convey in her trilogy. Was being inside this story changed the way you look at the world outside?

Amandla: Yeah. What’s so powerful about the book is that there’s no werewolves or vampires. It’s a very powerful message in that her world is not that far from our own. It’s like a warning or prediction. So I think that definitely had an effect on me. Willow: Yeah.

What’s next for both of you?

Willow: Catching Fire for me. And then a TV show called the “Haunting Hour.” Amandla: I have a couple of projects in the works that I can’t talk about yet.

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