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For the Love of Peeta

The Hunger Games star gets candid about on-set antics, cast secrets and long-distance love

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The Hunger Games franchise is responsible for more than $2 billion dollars in global ticket sales, with the final film in the series, Mockingjay: Part 2, yet to open. That doesn’t include cash from DVD sales, streaming rights or an extensive collection of merchandise like the Katniss Polar Fleece Blanket ($50) or the collectable Catching Fire Katniss Barbie doll ($33.78). With so much at stake—and fans so invested in this dystopian series—one might expect the actors to take themselves seriously. But when asked about shooting Mockingjay, Josh Hutcherson—who stars as Peeta Mellark, the baker’s son-turned-revolutionary—compares the set to a frat house.

“We were filming in Berlin, all staying in the same hotel. Most of us were on the same floor. It was an open-door policy. At any moment you were ready to cover yourself because there was some incoming nonsense from outside.” Like what? “Like Woody Harrelson half-naked with a towel trying to smack you.”

Hutcherson is seated in the garden of a nondescript cafe in Hollywood, with his worn-in Cincinnati Reds hat pulled low and a buffalo chicken wrap sandwich in front of him, and he’s talking excitedly about his upcoming birthday weekend—which includes an afternoon of paintball followed by a house party. If he seems like any other 23-year-old fresh out of school and looking for a job, that’s because he basically is. “The Hunger Games has been the equivalent of a college experience,” he says. “At 18, you go to college. Now I’m 23. I’m out of college.”  

There’s no way around it: Homeboy’s in transition. The kid has three million Twitter followers and was a presenter at last year’s Academy Awards. He’s also got a TMZ tour bus-size target on his back. While he knows how boring it can be for an actor to talk about his privacy, sometimes even he appears uneasy by the pitch of some fans’ devotion. “I was shooting in Cincinnati,” he says, “And I woke up one morning to go to work. I walked to my car. And literally sitting on the ground, sleeping in front of the car—huddled up in hoodies and blankets—were two 12 or 13-year-old girls and their mom. They popped up like a fucking Jack-in-the-Box. They said they’d been waiting there for hours and hours for me to come out. I was like, this is not right.”

Meanwhile, his friendship with Hunger Games co-star Jennifer Lawrence has become such a national obsession that the two have their own nickname: Joshifer. Of their slumber parties (with co-star Liam Hemsworth) Hutcherson says it’s not what you think. “It’s not the three of us cuddled up in a bed!” So what, it’s more about avoiding drunk driving? “Exactly,” he says. “We’re being responsible young adults!” 

With the franchise coming to a close, everyone seems to want to know the same thing: What was the last day on set like? Did he cry? Did Jen cry? With all due respect to fans, what do you think the last day was like? Hutcherson and Hemsworth shared a bottle of Scotch and everyone hugged and freaked out and then they all went home. A week later the three co-stars sat down to dinner together and laughed at how dramatic they’d been about the whole thing.

What’s more interesting is the morning after that. And the one after that. To move forward, Hutcherson may need to distance himself from the very thing that made him a star. (When Vulture posted the trailer for his 2014 romantic thriller, Escobar: Paradise Lost, the headline read: “It’s Peeta vs. Pablo Escobar.”) Though Hutcherson is handsome—with soulful brown eyes and a sly, Kentucky boy smile—he’s not an obvious action star. Nor is he a natural, bro-fessional comedian like another one-time child actor, Zac Efron. But there’s a knowing sweetness about him that can’t be faked, and it’s downright Hanks-ian. The challenge becomes: How to harness that?

Hutcherson insists he has no plan for life after Panem, and that he isn’t studying the post-Twilight pitfalls of his contemporaries for clues. It’s worth remembering, Taylor Lautner also once presented at the Oscars. “I like to be driven by projects and stories and characters as opposed to strategic career moves,” Hutcherson says, laughing as the words escape his mouth. “We’ll see how that turns out. But I’d rather go broke and never work again instead of doing movies that I didn’t want to make because of a career path.”      

For the record, that is how a fully realized grown-up talks, and it’s not lip service. Hutcherson has shot two films since The Hunger Games wrapped, and neither is an obvious commercial hit. Actually, they’re both 1940s period pieces directed by James Franco. The first, In Dubious Battlebased on the John Steinbeck novel—concerns the unionization of labor workers. “I’m the hard-ass who is like, Fuck these out-of-towners. They’re not the homegrown people,” Hutcherson says. “I end up causing trouble.” While he won’t admit to a post-Hunger Games strategy, he understands the need to show audiences a different side of himself, saying: “That’s why I wanted to do it.” 

He has more to do in The Long Home, a twisty thriller in which he stars as a carpenter-for-hire who starts to suspect his boss (Franco) might be The Devil risen to wreak havoc. The film was shot in 17 days; to give you an idea of how tight that schedule is, the first Hunger Games film took 70 days to complete. This production was culture shock in more ways than one. The Long Home was shot in Cincinnati, not far from where Hutcherson grew up, and so to make things easy, he slept in his childhood bedroom, moving back in with dad (an administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency) for a couple weeks. This is the house where, at age 9, Josh announced he wanted to be an actor, opened the phonebook to find himself an agent, and went to Hollywood where (against all odds) he found steady work in movies big (Journey to the Center of the Earth) and shiny (The Kids Are Alright). At 19, after being cast in The Hunger Games, he dropped $2.5 million to buy Heath Ledger’s old house in Laurel Canyon. The Britney Spears posters that once hung on his kiddie bedroom walls had long been junked. “But waking up next to baseball trophies, these two worlds colliding, that was pretty wild.”

And yet, he was in thrillingly in the weeds again, relishing the pace of a no-budget indie. “There’s something to be said for a set where you have to shoot eight pages today, buckle down, and do 60 setups. Here we go! You don’t sit down. You don’t rest.”           

The good thing is no one is doubting his talent. For the record, Peeta has the most heavy lifting to do in Mockingjay, moving from a timid kid in love with the girl next door to a drugged-out psychotic pawn in the plot to assassinate Katniss (just go with it). He also showed range hosting SNL, playing a flamboyant employee at a doctor’s office in one sketch, then a man who brings his girlfriend—who happens to be a turkey—home for Thanksgiving.           

While he’s looking for his next project, and reading scripts for the production company he started with his mom, he’s also enjoying being 23. The other night he went to see the Swedish singer Tove Lo perform in Koreatown (one of his friends is shooting the behind-the-scenes footage of her tour), and then invited everyone over for “a dance party.” He pulls out his phone to show off some photos from the night, where his guests are posing in masks. “I have a big box of costumes,” Hutcherson explains, scrolling and laughing. “We got the Burger King guy, Indian chief, pumpkin girl….”   

A box of costumes? Hutcherson isn’t particularly concerned with looking cool for a reporter, which is refreshing. When he talks about going to Bonnaroo with his kid brother earlier this year, he’s as excited to talk about Kendrick Lamar’s set as he is talking about how he and his brother rigged a makeshift A/C unit out of a fan and cooler full of ice,MacGyver-style. When Jennifer Lawrence performed Cher’s “Believe” in a bit on Conan, Hutcherson gamely sang back-up.           

But, talking to him for even an hour, one gets the sense he always knows what’s at stake, and how quickly this could all disappear. This is the kid who, at 19, told his mom he wanted to buy a house because renting “was like throwing money down the drain.” Yes, he rides a Harley Davidson 1200, but it’s outfitted with extra-loud exhaust pipes as safely measure, so other cars will hear him coming.

He has more to lose now. For two years he’s been dating the Spanish actress Claudia Traisac, his co-star in Escobar: Paradise Lost, where Hutcherson played a surfer who falls in love with Pablo Escobar’s niece. Traisac is currently filming a TV show in Spain, and few days after his paintball birthday party, Hutcherson will be on his way to Madrid to visit.           

“There’s a lot of traveling, a lot of Skype,” he says of his long-distance relationship. Skype can be a double-edged sword, I suggest and he doesn’t disagree outlining his struggles with being able to see his girlfriend but not, you know, touch her. “I feel like I’m with you because I’m seeing you and we’re talking,” he says, “but also you’re a fucking screen. It’s very frustrating.” But quickly his genial nature returns, and he focuses on the positive: “It’s kind of cool. We’re doing this international thing.” And it seems he’s thinking long-term, saying they might spend next summer together in New York. “We’re young, we make it work.” For the last time: May the odds be ever in your favor.

SPEED ROUND

DUJOUR:  Who eats the most on set?

“Liam eats a shit ton. We were in Paris filming and it was the greatest craft services in the world. They would bring around these little French sandwiches all day. And every time the gal would come around with a basket of them, Liam would grab like three and pound them down.” 

DUJOUR:  What will you miss most about filming the franchise?

“I’m gonna miss our little summer camp adventures. Every town we went to, our little group would go out to dinner. We’d go to bars together. It was a moving unit. I’m definitely gonna miss that a lot. There was just a good vibe on set.”

DUJOUR: What won’t you miss?

Dyeing his hair blonde. This is a kid who proudly washes his hair once a week. If you want to know what else he did the day the film ended, here you go: He went to the hair and make-up trailer and had as much of the blonde cut out as possible. “My hair was orange brown color for awhile. It was almost like frosted tips back in the 90s.”

DUJOUR:  What was your favorite scene to film in the final movie and what made it special?

“One of the scenes where we’re doing the real/not real kind of thing. It’s such a pivotal moment in the movie and Peeta is so far gone and you really see Katniss take care of Peeta in that moment. And it’s always been the other way around. You start to understand their relationship more. Also, the giant underground tunnel lizard chase sequence. We shot that thing for like 3 weeks. It was so hard. But really fun.”

DUJOUR: Who is the person on set who always shows up early?

“I would say our costumers. They’re always there early. They always are the ones first there and last to leave. 

DUJOUR: Who is the person who never forgets his or her lines?

Julianne Moore.”

DUJOUR:  Who is the person most likely to make people laugh during a scene?

“Woody. Without a doubt. He fucks with you off camera. He lives in his own world. It’s the greatest. Sometimes if he’s off camera he’ll make this face. You can’t make eye contact with him. I don’t even know what it is. There’s a twinkle in his eye, like, Were shooting a movie. It takes you out of it. It’s the funniest shit.”

DUJOUR: Who is the person with the weirdest hidden talent? And what is it?

“Woody’s got a lot of weird shit he can do. He’s really good at playing water basketball. We went to his house and played one time and he was fucking really good. And so much stronger than you think he is. No offense to vegans, I don’t think exactly someone is going to be kicking ass being a vegan. But he’s strong as shit.” 

DUJOUR: How have the relationships between the cast evolved form the first film to the last?

“They didn’t. And that’s the crazy thing. It was literally—instantly, all of us kind of clicked and acted this way on the first movie.” Though Liam seems to be talking more; he was a mute at one point. “Maybe that’s the one thing that changed. Liam is now just as much of an idiot as we all are. We all dumbed each other down a bunch.”

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