Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson’s performances as Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark defined the original Hunger Games movies. But the prequel movie, set 64 years before Katniss and Peeta’s story, needed a new set of actors who could hold their own.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is an origin story for Panem’s dictator, President Coriolanus Snow. It takes fans back to a time when Coriolanus was just an ambitious young student who had not yet become the cutthroat politician we see in the main books and movies. His story is entwined with that of Lucy Gray Baird, the District 12 Tribute he’s assigned to mentor, whose natural flair for showmanship and captivating songs inspire him to turn the brutal Hunger Games into more of a flashy spectacle.
Director Francis Lawrence tells Polygon the filmmakers were looking for fresh faces when it came to the lead roles. A lot of actors auditioned for the role of Snow, specifically, but Lawrence says Billy the Kid star Tom Blyth immediately “blew everybody out of the water.”
“Part of it is physical,” he admits. “He has those great blue eyes — [you] could see in his face, Okay, I could buy that maybe 65 years later, he could turn into Donald Sutherland.”
But it wasn’t just about how feasibly Blyth could look like a younger Donald Sutherland. Whoever landed the role had to walk a line between being charming and conniving, someone you want to root for, yet aren’t surprised when they end up turning into a villain. Blyth brought his acting chops to the role, and Lawrence was continually impressed throughout filming.
“Telling a story about a young man’s descent into darkness, you have to have somebody that can earn the audience’s empathy, but then believably also descend into that darkness,” Lawrence says. “[Blyth] is really, really good. This sort of charisma continued to astound me. His sense of control in his performance and nuance also astounded me. That really caught me off guard and surprised me in a fantastic way.”
Blyth stood out in auditions, but when it came to casting District 12 songstress Lucy Gray, Lawrence had a first choice in mind from the get-go. Rachel Zegler’s acting and singing in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story made her Lawrence’s top contender for the role.
“So she and I met, I think, for four hours or something the first time, and had a great chat about the book and about the character and about the music,” Lawrence says. “I just knew she was the one right away.”
A big part of Lucy Gray’s character involves music. She’s a member of the Covey, a traveling band of musicians inspired by similar performing groups from turn-of-the-century America. Her passionate outburst of song at her Reaping immediately sparks something in Snow, who recognizes that her performing talent is key to getting her to survive the games. So Lucy Gray’s singing had to be life-savingly good and fit in a specific genre.
“I had high expectations, because I think she’s a great actor and a great singer, but the singing blew me away,” Lawrence gushes. “The fact that she could shift right from theatrical kind of singing — something you would do in West Side Story or on stage — into the exact genre of country bluegrass that we were doing in this movie that feels like it’s from the turn of the century to the 20s-30s Appalachia. To be able to hit that style and do it so effortlessly, and sing live every day, that was pretty mind-blowing.”
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is out in theaters now.