''Dear Readers. We have found Katniss.'' So began the triumphant statement given to Entertainment Weekly by The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins in the wake of Jennifer Lawrence's casting. The search for the perfect Katniss Everdeen the blisteringly tough 16-year-old heroine of Collins' best-selling dystopian trilogy about children forced to fight to the death was a fraught one, rife with strident fan factions. (Team Hailee Steinfeld to the left, Lawrence supporters to the right, with a loud middle crying out for lesser-known actresses like Lyndsy Fonseca and Kaya Scodelario.) When Lionsgate officially announced on March 17 that the 20-year-old Oscar nominee for 2010's Winter's Bone would don Katniss' Mockingjay pin in director Gary Ross' upcoming adaptation, many immediately took to the blogosphere for some heated hand-wringing. Had we really found Katniss? many worried en masse. Isn't Lawrence a little too old, too curvy, too white, too blond?
In an exclusive interview with EW, Ross praises all the vigorous debate. ''People feel very passionately that their take on the character is unique and correct,'' he says, before going on to assert that hiring Lawrence ''was the easiest casting decision I ever made in my life.'' (This from a man who previously oversaw Tobey Maguire in 1998's Pleasantville and 2003's Seabiscuit.)
Responding to anxiety over Lawrence's age, he insists that her relative maturity will be an asset. ''Jen has in her a kind of power and defiance which is absolutely necessary for the role. It's the thing that sustains Katniss through all three books, and we can't have an insubstantial person play her,'' he says. ''Far from being too old, Suzanne was very concerned that we would cast someone who was too young. In Suzanne's mind, and in mine, Katniss is already a young woman. She's grown up faster than a lot of people have.''
But what about Katniss' emaciated frame, her olive skin, and her black hair? ''I promise all the avid fans of The Hunger Games that we can easily deal with Jennifer's hair color,'' says Ross. Collins' open letter was equally reassuring, telling her massive fan base that she was actively involved in the casting process. ''I believed that this was a girl who could hold out that handful of berries and incite the beaten down districts of Panem to rebel,'' she wrote. ''I think that was the essential question for me. Could [Lawrence] believably inspire a rebellion? Did she project the strength, defiance and intellect you would need to follow her into certain war? For me, she did.''
Since the long-awaited casting announcement, Lawrence has stayed relatively mum, releasing a humble statement of her delight to the Hunger Games universe and emailing a few brief answers to some of EW's burning questions. When asked which heroines from movies past she thinks possess some of Katniss' fighting spirit, she points to Alien's Ripley. Indeed, if Lawrence is able to bring to the role some of Ripley's sweaty ferocity, mixed with the stoic grit of Winter's Bone's Ree, we could all be in for a treat.
As Lawrence heads into archery classes this week, Ross promises that a cascade of casting news will be coming soon. (Production is slated to begin toward the end of May in North Carolina.) ''Now that we have Katniss, we see who feels good with her in terms of Peeta and Gale and the rest of her family,'' he says. ''I have very, very good ideas about who I want in a lot of other roles.'' No doubt fans have some ''very, very good ideas'' of their own.
Casting the Hunger Hunks
With Katniss locked in, here are some options for the two male leads.
The Weeds star may be 23, but he looks young and is a definite fan favorite.
Pro: At 18, he's closer to the right age. Con: He doesn't sport Peeta's blond locks.
The Battle: Los Angeles actor will have already costarred with Lawrence in X-Men: First Class.
A.k.a. Prince Caspian, he resembles the older boy vying for Katniss' heart.
The French Hannibal Rising star could pull off Gale's Mediterranean looks.
He has previous experience with both brooding and killing on The Vampire Diaries.