This afternoon Lionsgate announced that The Hunger Games had finally found its hero. Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) will play Katniss Everdeen, the embattled tribute from District 12 who goes on to lead a revolution in Suzanne Collins’ best-selling trilogy. Director Gary Ross spoke exclusively with EW about why 20-year-old Lawrence is the right actress, at the right age, to bring Katniss to life on the big screen. (Warning: Some spoilers follow.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you know Jennifer Lawrence was your Katniss?
GARY ROSS: First, I saw Winter’s Bone, and I just thought she was phenomenally talented and just kind of riveting and amazing and had so much power. And then we had a meeting and I found her to be just a completely compelling, intelligent person. But then she came in and read for me and it just knocked me out. I don’t want to go into too many details, but we did a scene from the movie and it was so amazingly powerful that it was sort of stunning. You glimpsed every aspect of the role and the potential of the whole movie.
There’s already quite a bit of hand-wringing that, no matter how good an actress Lawrence is, at 20 she’s simply too old for the role.
First of all, I talked to Suzanne extensively about this. Suzanne saw every single audition. And not only did Suzanne not have an issue with Jen’s age, she felt you need someone of a certain maturity and power to be Katniss. This is a girl who needs to incite a revolution. We can’t have an insubstantial person play her, and we can’t have someone who’s too young to play this. Suzanne was incredibly adamant about this. Far from being too old, she was very concerned that we would cast someone who was too young. In Suzanne’s mind, and in mine, Katniss is not a young girl. It’s important for her to be a young woman. She’s a maternal figure in her family. She’s had to take care of Prim, and in many ways her mother, since her father’s death. She’s had to grow up pretty quickly.
Was the opportunity to side step any child labor laws an added bonus?
That’s not the reason. I absolutely cast the right person for the role and in my view there wasn’t even a question who the best Katniss was. It was the easiest casting decision I ever made in my life.
In the books, Katniss is described as being olive-skinned, dark-haired, possibly biracial. Did you discuss with Suzanne the implications of casting a blond, caucasian girl?
Suzanne and I talked about that as well. There are certain things that are very clear in the book. Rue is African-American. Thresh is African-American. Suzanne had no issues with Jen playing the role. And she thought there was a tremendous amount of flexibility. It wasn’t doctrine to her. Jen will have dark hair in the role, but that’s something movies can easily achieve. [Laughs] I promise all the avid fans of The Hunger Games that we can easily deal with Jennifer’s hair color.
How will this inform the rest of your casting, in terms of age, look, everything?
Now that we have Katniss, we see who feels good with her both as Peeta and Gale and the rest of her family.
Have actors already started reading with her?
No, but we’ve read a lot of people for a lot of roles. Obviously, we have to make sure that the cast balances and makes sense. We’re very close. I have very, very good ideas about who I want in a lot of other roles. So I think there’ll be a lot of stuff coming pretty quickly.
Have you had conversations with her about the enormity of stepping not just into a franchise like this, but a character that is already so beloved by the world? How do you prepare a young person for that?
Oh god, have you ever met her? [Laughs] Don’t worry about Jen Lawrence. She’s a very powerful person. Jennifer is from Kentucky. I think she feels such a complete connection to who Katniss is, the way many people do, but this just seems like a very good fit to her. I think she’s very confident about the role, I think it feels very organic to her. She’s ready to dive in. She goes to archery class next week. Yeah, she’s going to start shooting arrows next week! I think by the end of the week she’s going to be learning to climb trees. She’s a very strong, confident young woman. She’s very confident in her own talent and who she is as a woman, and I think that all these things make her want to dive into the role.
Will you indulge in the blogs and message boards over the next few days to gauge fan reaction to the casting news?
I think one of the wonderful things about The Hunger Games is that everyone has such a personal relationship to the material that they feel they have a very specific idea about the character and who the character is. And that’s wonderful. And I think a lot of the debate that has gone on about who Katniss is is fantastic, because people feel very passionately that their take on the character is unique and correct. But the one that I’ve honestly listened to the most has been Suzanne, who conjured this girl out of her own imagination. To Suzanne, Jen is the perfect realization of the character who is in her head.