It’s an odd thing when everybody knows an actor and they’ve only done a handful of roles. But Liam Hemsworth has the benefit of being cast in what promises to be not just one of the biggest movies of 2012, but one of the most highly-anticipated film series in recent memory: The Hunger Games. Playing Gale Hawthorne, best friend and confidante to Katniss Everdeen, the series’ heroine, Hemsworth has earned an automatic affection from fans strictly on the basis of his hunky description in the books themselves, and the actor manages to bring him to life in ways that should both satisfy and surprise viewers who think they’re intimately familiar with every aspect of his character.
Movies sat down with Hemsworth at the recent Los Angeles press day for The Hunger Games, where the young actor offered specific details about challenges he faced in bringing this iconic character to life. In addition to talking about trying literally to taste the sort of hunger that his character suffers from in the film, he offered some kind words about his co-star, Jennifer Lawrence, and his director, Gary Ross, and revealed how he acclimated himself to an entirely different set of circumstances as the newcomer to another project leaden with fan expectation, The Expendables 2.
Movies.com: You have to provide a grounding influence in a world that’s often very fantastical. What if anything did you think about to include to create a juxtaposition between District 12 and the capital?
Liam Hemsworth: The world that District 12 is living in is very realistic – it’s not futuristic in any way. They’re living in depression and they’re living in basically 1900s technology. They’re hunting for food, a lot of them, and trying to get what little money they can from different jobs, but it’s a pretty grim place to live in. I remember when we shot the Reaping scenes, we had three or four hundred extras on set, and all of these young kids and young adults, and the thought I think was in every mind – if this was real, and we really all were standing here waiting for someone’s name to get called out that might be your brother or your sister or your best friend, as an actor it was already all there. It was so strong and powerful, the idea and the theme, that it was easy as an actor to convey that.
Movies.com: How tough is it to balance the expectations of the fans with just making a good movie, even if some of your performance isn’t faithful to maybe the description or their interpretation of the character?
Hemsworth: There was a big physical change; I had to dye my hair, and lose a lot of weight – I was eating a lot less, and for about a month before shooting, I was training a lot, five or six days a week, and trying to strip down as much as I can for the film. I really wanted to get a good sense of feeling hungry in the film, and this character is living in a depression and hunting for food every day and providing for a whole family. So I wanted to get a sense of what that hunger felt like.
Movies.com: Do you just obey the script, or how much do you think about what’s in the books versus that script?
Hemsworth: This script and the book were very, very similar. The script is very true to the book. You get to see a little more of what happens with other characters that you don’t see in the book. I didn’t switch between the two; I read the books and put down the books and kept to the script. But like I said, it didn’t matter – I was forgetting which is which. But I’d like to just keep one thing in my mind, though.
Movies.com: Given where your character goes in the second and third books, can you just be present in your scenes in The Hunger Games, or do you sort of have to telegraph where he goes?
Hemsworth: I read all of the books before shooting, and then I’d just stick one thing in my head – I’d just keep the script in my head, the first thing we were shooting at that point. And I don’t try to think too far ahead at that point; obviously, there are things that you may need to take into account, but for me, the first book and the first movie are very similar, so they kind of became the same thing anyway. But I’d just focus on the script and turn up on set every day and be as present and honest as I can be.
Movies.com: He’s been described as sort of an angry guy. Because he has to be appealing through three films or books, how careful do you have to be about digging into that without alienating audiences?
Hemsworth: He’s essentially a really good guy, and you see moments in the first one where you see the connection Gale and Katniss have; they’ve grown up together and they’re obviously very close and they’re allowing each other to survive every day. But yeah, you see moments when he’s talking about the games, he just doesn’t believe in it and he doesn’t want to be a part of it, and he’s trying to find a way around it and get out of it and away from it so you see those moments of kind of fire inside him, how passionate he is about not siding with that evil.
Movies.com: How did Gary Ross shepherd you through this experience? He hadn’t really dealt with this kind of fantasy world before; do you feel like it was as much a learning experience for him as for you?
Hemsworth: No, he’s such an amazingly talented guy, and he has such a clear vision of things. But he also makes sure he tries it a bunch of different ways, to find out what works best, and he’s always very open to our ideas so as an actor you feel very open to try new things. And he’s great – you’d turn up to set and he was always very energetic and alive and he kept you energetic and alive, and that’s what it needs to be; you can have the tendency to be working all day and lose some of that energy, but he keeps you very high-spirited. And he’s pulled it off in this film – he’s made such a powerful, real film; it’s not unbelievable, I think.
Movies.com: One of the strengths of the movie is that so much of it is very internal and unspoken. It that a typical acting challenge, or does that change what you have to do to bring the character to life?
Hemsworth: Yeah, I think I’m always a big fan of “less is more,” but the writing in this was so good that it was just there. Gary was always guiding us in the right direction, and as an actor, you obviously have your own vision in your head, and you have to come to a happy medium with the director and what their vision is. I mean, this was great, because I had a great director, and Jennifer was an amazing actress to work opposite who makes it so much easier for me, because all I do is just work off of her. She’s that good and that present that I don’t have to do much. And then also the writing is just that good – the story is so good – that it all came together. It just, it had it all there.
Movies.com: Does that chemistry allow you to create an instant familiarity with these other people in the world? Especially since you’re supposed to have grown up with, say, Jennifer’s character.
Hemsworth: As I said, she is such an amazing actress that it just makes it a lot easier for me. But also, she’s a great person and fun to be around, so I liked turning up to work and working with her; you learn a lot from an actor like that. But the world that this character is living in, I haven’t grown up in a place like this, so you really have to put yourself into that place. But the sets were that good that when you come on to the set, you feel like you’re there, and all you have to do is be present with that actor and everything surrounding you looks like how it should look.
Movies.com: Although this was obviously a great opportunity, did you have any trepidations about taking on a series of films that would eat up a big chunk of your life for several years?
Hemsworth: The questions was there, I think, as was do I want to be part of such a huge franchise that could possibly go on for a number of years. And at the end of the day, I really had to rely on my gut, and I always look at scripts that I’m interested in and I’m passionate about and that have good strong characters that an audience is going to care about. And this had all of that, so it was kind of a no-brainer, regardless of how big or small it was; I legitimately thought the scripts and ideas were good, and the characters were strong.
Movies.com: What sort of thought process are you going through to make decisions about what to do next? Are you being offered a lot of different sorts of projects?
Hemsworth: I’m not sticking to one particular genre or idea. I just read a lot of scripts and find out what my first gut feeling is about it, and then who are the characters in there – and do I care about these characters? Is there an interesting theme behind it? Who’s the director? There’s a lot of factors that come into choosing a film for me, but I’m looking to do things that are different and haven’t been done before. And I’m looking to work with directors that are trying to create something unique that hasn’t been done before, because so many films are coming out these days that aren’t performing well because audiences are getting bored with the same old thing. I want to work with directors that are trying to shoot it differently and just do something unique, and bring something new to the screen.
Movies.com: Okay then -- what’s bigger pressure, coming into something like this with huge fan expectations, or being added to a list of names in The Expendables 2 that’s full of action icons, and then, “and Liam Hemsworth?”
Hemsworth: It was pretty daunting coming on to a set with all of those guys for Expendables 2. I grew up watching all of those guys, and I remember my first day was extremely daunting just because I’d met Stallone a bunch of times, but I hadn’t really met anyone else. And I come onto set and I have this huge scene and it’s kind of all on my character, and it was very cool to just see how accommodating these guys were, and how professional they were. There was never any drama on set – they were just the coolest bunch of guys. And it became a pretty easy thing to turn up to work and hang out with all of them.