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Q&A: 'The Hunger Games' star Josh Hutcherson

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While waiting two weeks to hear if he got the part of Peeta Mallark in the wildly anticipated big-screen adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games,” Josh Hutcherson couldn’t even speak properly.

“It got to the point where literally anytime there was a word that began with “H,” I would say ‘hunger,’” Hutcherson (“The Kids Are All Right”) says. “I’d be like, ‘Are we hunger—having dinner?’ It would just come out of my mouth. It was all I thought about 100 percent of the time.”

Now, of course, the 19-year-old actor’s life will never be the same as he travels the world (“I woke up today in my hotel room, and I literally did not know where I was for a second,” he says) promoting a movie guaranteed to be one of the year’s biggest. Gary Ross (“Pleasantville,” “Seabiscuit”) directs the story of teenagers Peeta and Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), who represent their district in a futuristic, food-deprived society in which young adults annually fight to the death on national TV.

Before heading to a mall appearance in Aurora, Hutcherson sat down at the Peninsula Hotel to talk about his own survival skills, flinging berries at cars before filming and the boy-band reason for the previous, pre-Peeta time he dyed his hair blond.

These books are huge. What’s the most extreme story you’ve heard about fans taking something about “The Hunger Games” to heart?
Oh, man. At the fan event we had out in L.A. just before I came here, the mall thing, it was crazy. They had head-to-toe: The pants, the shirt, the necklaces, the bracelets. Everything was Mockingjay, Peeta, Tribute, this, that. I didn’t go, but Jen and Liam [Hemsworth, who plays Katniss’ friend Gale] went down to Mexico City and they held this event where fans—they actually separated them into different districts and they have challenges. So people really get into it. It’s crazy.

How many people were killed?
A lot of people were killed. A lot of people died. But it was for promotion for the movie, so it was worth it. [Laughs.]

Tell me about your foraging skills. How long would you last if dropped off in a forest?
I have pretty good foraging skills. I grew up in Kentucky in the woods, playing a lot, and I love hiking and camping and being outdoors. I watch a lot of “Man vs. Wild” with Bear Grylls. So I feel like I’d be prepared for any situation. I feel like I might do all right in the Hunger Games. My biggest problem would obviously be killing someone, but as far as surviving in the wilderness I think I’d do all right.

What’s the most extreme experience you had in the wilderness?
Actually maybe when we were filming. Liam and I were actually doing an interview and we hear this horn, and all of a sudden this bear comes running right at us. Literally running. It was a black bear; it was probably 400 pounds. It looks up and saw us and then took off in the other direction. That was pretty intense, all of a sudden seeing a bear running toward you and being like, “How do we handle this? What exactly is going to be our plan here when this bear attacks one of us?”

A lot of people ask you the same questions. Tell me a story you haven’t gotten to tell yet about Jennifer.
Before we started filming—here’s a good one actually I haven’t told anybody—when we were staying at our apartments in North Carolina, one night we had everybody over to Jennifer’s apartment and we decided we were going to get a slingshot and we were going to slingshot berries at people in cars as they drove by. So we’re sling-shotting like grapes and blueberries and eventually the people in the hotel like called up and they’re like, “Uh, are you guys shooting things off the balcony?” And we’re like, “Nope, don’t know what you’re talking about.” [Laughs.] So we stopped. So we got in a lot of trouble, but it was pretty fun.

What did the people in the cars do?
One lady, [laughs] it was kind of hilarious, she pulled up to the hotel lobby and was sitting there, and we were like I think 10 floors up, six or 10 floors up and so we started [throwing] cherries and grapes at her car. And she literally would not get out of her car. She was looking out, and eventually the hotel manager came out. I guess she called the hotel and been (impersonates old lady), “Somebody’s throwing things at my car!” It was harmless, it was berries, but at the same time it was pretty funny.

Jennifer has expressed being apprehensive about taking on the role and how it would change her life. Was there any of that from you? What advice, if any, did you receive from your “Zathura” co-star Kristen Stewart (“Twilight”) about dealing with that?
For me, it wasn’t even a decision. It was understood from the beginning that if I got the part offered I was doing it. I love the story so much, I love the character, that I wouldn’t want to not do a movie that has a great story, great character, just because of what it could do to me socially. And on top of that, as an actor, in the profession, if you become successful you become known and every actor wants to become successful, so in one way or another hopefully at some point you become well-known. At the same time it is a life-changer, and I hate being treated differently than other people, and that happens a lot in this business especially. So it is tough. As far as Kristen goes, it was cool because I worked with her before all the madness happened with “Twilight.” I haven’t really talked to her a lot since, but the times that I have, she’s still the same, and for me that kind of gives me reassurance that I don’t have to change. I can still be me.

@terrynd3 wanted to know: Between premieres, crazed fans and interviews, what do you do to keep yourself sane?
I play sports. I play basketball probably four to five days a week when I’m back home. I’m on two teams. So that’s my escape and I can really get into it and leave all the other stuff behind.

Reality shows are going to extremes. A huge election is coming up. How far are we as a society from turning into the “Hunger Games” world of Panem?
I’d like to think pretty far away. Reality TV’s getting crazy, but we’re talking about literally kids battling each other to the death. So I think we’re pretty far away from that society. Government-wise, I think that we’re closer than we are with reality TV. There’s a separation of the rich and the poor now and it’s growing exponentially and you see a disconnect between the 1 percent and the 99. That’s exactly what this movie is about in a sense is the disconnect between the people who have and the have-nots.

So what will be the impact of people being motivated to rise up?
I think it’s already happening. I think with the Occupy movements and things of that nature people now more than ever with governments are at a point where they’re like, “Enough’s enough,” and “I’m standing up for this,” and I think this movie just kinda speaks to that. And if anything maybe [it will] give them a little more confidence to [keep doing that].

Many people have made “Twilight” comparisons. Hopefully this is a new question at least: If Peeta had to choose between being a werewolf or a vampire, what would he choose?
Considering Peeta’s like me, and I would probably choose vampire, I would say vampire. I think that the transformation you have to go through from a person to a wolf, I feel like that’s very physically taxing. It would be very tiring. And vampires are just cool.

I thought you would say werewolf. Peeta’s kind and reserved but once you flip the switch he can turn on that other side of himself.
That’s true. That’s true. There is that element.

Care to reconsider?
I’m sticking with vampire. I’m standing behind my choice. [Laughs.]

Peeta initially shows his affection for Katniss by giving her bread. How much will “The Hunger Games” inspire guys to similarly express their love for a girl through bread?
[Laughs.] Well, food’s always the way to anybody’s heart, I think, guy or girl. I seriously do hope that this movie to a certain extent will show people that it’s OK to say your emotions. I’ve been the type of guy, I’ve always been very forthcoming with how I feel. And that it doesn’t make you less of a man to like go and be like, “This is how I feel about you. This is the truth.” Hopefully people will see Peeta as a character and be like, “Oh, cool, you can do that and still be a dude? Right on.”

This isn’t the first time you’ve dyed your hair. You say you and your frosted tips wanted to be in a boy band when you were 10. Which boy band?
‘N Sync. 100 percent. I love their songs, and their dance moves. Their style. I thought I was the next member in ‘N Sync.

How much time did you spend at home singing and dancing along?
I knew every single dance routine to every song that they had. Every music video I had memorized. I still know the lyrics to almost every ‘N Sync song.

Which member did you connect with the most?
Justin for sure. Because he beatboxed and danced and he was the ladies’ man. I was like, “That’s what I want to be.” I’m not, but that’s what I wanted to be. [Laughs.]

Plus:
On the most difficult part of being Peeta: “I think for me it was finding the balance between staying true to the book but then also making him work cinematically. Peeta in the books has a tendency to be a little bit softer. And in talking with Gary and Suzanne we wanted to give him a little bit more balls, for lack of a better word … [In] the cave scene with Katniss and Peeta where Peeta’s admitting his love to Katniss, in the book it can kinda came across a little sappy. And we wanted it to come across as being like, ‘I’m gonna die. I need to tell you how I feel.’ More strong, like, ‘I have to tell you this.’”
On putting on 15 pounds of muscle for the role: “Honestly the best part was in the end having the result of it actually working. The hard part was the eating, ‘cause I work out and play basketball normally. But I had to eat so much. All chicken and fish and vegetables, so it was never even exciting food. It was like five or six [meals per day]. It was like 4,000 calories a day, but it was also like all healthy calories. It was a lot of food. I mean, I can go to McDonald’s and eat 4,000 calories in one sitting. But when it’s all healthy stuff, it’s a lot of volume.”
On Chicago: “This is only my second time here. The first time I was here I was like 13. So it’s been a while. I love the city though. Every time I come here it’s been, ‘Oh, it’s a lot bigger than I thought.’ I feel like the skyline, I’m like, ‘Geez, that’s Manhattan style.’ I love Chicago. It’s a really cool feel. I love the weather honestly. I’m from Kentucky so we got the hot summers, cold winters, so it’s nice to come here and get the seasons.”
Guilty pleasure movie: “White Men Can’t Jump.” “Every time it’s on TV, I have to watch it.”
Can his “Hunger Games” co-star Woody Harrelson, in fact, jump? “He can! He can. He’s got a great jump shot. He’s a good basketball player.”
Guilty pleasure band: “I think ’N Sync’s gotta be it. I still listen to ’N Sync on occasion, and that’s definitely a guilty pleasure for sure.”
Favorite N’Sync song: “Tearin’ Up My Heart”
Current favorite song: Fun, “We Are Young”
Best mall food: Pepperoni pizza from Sbarro

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 7:30 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com. @mattpais

 

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