Zegler, Blyth enter new arena in ‘Hunger Games’ prequel




SaltWire Network



Rachel Zegler loved Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss in the original “Hunger Games” films. But when it came time for her to craft her own heroine in the new prequel film, “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes,” she was more interested in creating a fresh new character fans could root for. “They are both doing things to survive and wanting to help their family, so they definitely have more in common than not, but the things that make them different are big things,” Zegler, 22, says in a virtual interview from London. “Lucy Gray definitely has her apprehensions about violence,” the actress says. But, like Katniss, she’ll do whatever it takes to win over an audience thirsting for blood. “Songbirds and Snakes,” which is now playing in theatres, takes place 64 years before the events of “The Hunger Games” and follows a young Coriolanus Snow (“Billy the Kid’s” Tom Blyth), the tyrannical villain of the original series, as he mentors Lucy Gray Baird (Golden Globe winner Zegler) — a Tribute from the impoverished District 12 — in the 10th annual Hunger Games. Viewership for the Games — in which two youngsters from each district are plucked to kill each other in a bloody, televised battle royale — is waning. So Snow joins other mentors in trying to help the contestants be more watchable. But as he struggles to follow his most righteous instincts to help Lucy Gray, Snow, who will become the evil president of the fictional country of Panem, falls under the spell of the villainous head gamemaker Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis). The film also stars Josh Andrés Rivera (as Snow’s classmate Sejanus Plinth), “Euphoria” breakout Hunter Schafer (as the future dictator’s cousin Tigris) and Peter Dinklage (as schoolteacher Casca Highbottom). While much of the advance chatter around “Songbirds and Snakes” has been among fans trying to draw parallel’s between Zegler’s Lucy Gray and Lawrence’s Katniss, the biggest difference between author Suzanne Collins’ original YA book series and this new instalment is that the lead of this new story is big bad — Snow. Zegler, who became an overnight star thanks to her breakout role as Maria in Steven Spielberg’s revamp of “West Side Story,” says Lucy Gray is almost an antikatniss. “Katniss is notoriously — and she says this to Cinna (played by Lenny Kravitz in the original films) — against people liking her. She’s not good at making friends. Lucy is the antithesis of that,” Zegler, a self-proclaimed superfan of all the books and movies, says. “Lucy Gray would have tried to give Katniss advice on how to be likable to the general masses. But I feel like Lucy Gray has such a positive attitude towards life that she would have been able to convince Katniss that winning the crowd over is her best means of survival.” Blyth was in his early teens when Collins’ books were published in 2008. He admits the challenge of playing an early version of Donald Sutherland’s Snow, who in the later films and books is depicted as a coldblooded dictator who revels in watching children murder one another, was an irresistible challenge. This iteration of Snow is broke and power hungry, but a far cry from the murderous tyrant we know from “The Hunger Games.” “He was an awful character in those films, but we get to rewind the tape on him now and look at him before he became so awful,” the Britishborn actor says. “In this film, you begin to see an arc where he’s becoming more of a tyrant-to-be. But I think what’s so cool and interesting about being able to play him is I got to dig deeper into the question of why he becomes like that; whether he’s born like that or if he’s a product of his circumstances living in Panem.” “We’re not apologizing for Snow; we’re showing him before he’s become fully formed,” returning director Francis Lawrence says. Rivera, who co-starred with Zegler in “West Side Story,” and Schafer play two supporting characters who try to draw Snow away from the dark side. “What’s interesting about this movie is that even though you know what’s going to happen to Snow, you want to believe that he can be a good person,” Rivera says. Fans of the original saga will notice that Tigris Snow looks drastically different in this early introduction. But like Blyth’s version of Snow, Schafer felt “a sense of creativity with this version.” Tigris, who boasts a tigerlike appearance and surreptitiously supports Katniss’ rebellion in 2015’s “Mockingjay Part 2,” will clearly become a victim of her cousin’s cruelty in later stories. “I want to see some fan theories about what happened to Tigris,” Schafer says. For Blyth, the most interesting aspect in continuing a four-film blockbuster franchise that has made nearly US$3 billion at the global box office is the opportunity to add another dimension that charts the character’s descent into darkness. “At the beginning, I think he would say, ‘I could never be that.’ He still has love in his heart,” Blyth says. The ending doesn’t offer any easy answers. “I think if you asked him then, he’d say society needs to be controlled (through violent rule). That’s the crux of the film: does someone need to be evil to survive or can they be a ray of hope and get out alive? That’s a big esoteric question that we get to ask. I don’t know that we get the answer, but we get to ask that question.”