Actress Rachel Zegler didn’t see any pressure to stepping into the world of author Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” prequel, “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.” And she certainly could have, with actress Jennifer Lawrence crafting an iconic character in Katniss Everdeen over a series of four movies. But for Zegler, playing District 12’s Lucy Gray Baird, who is inducted into the first ever Hunger Games meant she didn’t have to fill big shoes, especially in contrast to co-star Tom Blyth, playing Panem President Coriolanus Snow.
“What I really love is Suzanne subverted expectations a bit with this woman from District 12,” Zegler told TheWrap. “So you expect her to be another Katniss because what other kind of female archetype[slash]character could keep Coriolanus haunted for 64, plus, years?” Those subverted expectations included, for Zegler, a character who is mercurial, enigmatic and who “floats above social norms.”
“My ticket in was her voice, her singing obviously, because it’s second nature for me, but also the fact that she was a little bit off,” Zegler said.
The actress went on to discuss the challenges of working with practical sets, her turn as Snow White in Disney’s upcoming live-action remake, and being starstruck by “Hunger Games” costar Viola Davis.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
TheWrap: Do you relate to Lucy Gray Baird?
Rachel Zegler: She’s fiery. I’m a fiery individual as well. I love to use music to share my feelings.
Do you consider this a musical?
There’s a little bit of an apprehension one holds when signing on to a movie where there’s music involved. It’s something I welcome, but it needs to happen organically, and it needs to be introduced in a way that works for all audiences, because musicals tend to turn some people off, it turns people away. As somebody who comes from the world of musical theater, I was really thankful to hear that [director] Francis [Lawrence] had a very organic plan to make sure that the music fit in as swimmingly as possible, and a lot of that came from Suzanne having a clearcut vision for what she wanted each song that she had written in the book to sound like.
We worked with an amazing producer, Dave Cobb, and some of my favorite movies are not necessarily musicals but movies with music in them, like “Inside Llewyn. Davis;” I just love that movie so much and I don’t necessarily consider it a musical. I considered that as the approach in this movie, especially since we’re also singing folk music throughout this film.
You mentioned singing folk music. What was the difference between this and the Broadway belting in “West Side Story?”
It was a part of my instrument that I’ve never gotten to use publicly before. You sing with a twang as a joke, or you’re trying to sound like Dolly Parton or something and you want to do that. But then she became this vocal influence for this movie. I worked with my vocal coach Joe Later and it was a lot of technical stuff for the placement of the larynx. Where does it go if you want to sound like a certain person [or] you want to make a certain sound, like an instrument. It was also my dialect coach and [me] trying to understand that tight-lipped smile and how to sing through it.
The hardest bit, believe it or not, was trying to remember all of the lyrics because folk music goes in a round. So it’s truly the same melody over and over but you’re trying to remember these lyrics that are so beautifully written by Suzanne [Collins] and making sure that you have the stanzas in the right order. A lot of that was really hard because we filmed a lot of the songs in one long take and then we cut and do it all again. “The Old There Before,” which is my victorious anthem at the end of the games, was really hard to memorize because it’s just keeps going around. That’s when you access the musical theater girl within and you say, “What is the intention?”
What was it like filming the actual Hunger Games?
Uli Hanisch really deserves all of the praise that he’s been getting for his production design. A lot of these sets are practical, which will surprise a lot of viewers. They’re all based in historical locations throughout Eastern Europe. So a lot of the beautiful meadows and what you see of the outdoors is in the south of Poland. Centennial Hall is a real arena where we shot the games and a lot of Berlin, Leipzig, serves as a home for the Academy.
I remember Josh [Andres Rivera] and I arriving at that location and [we saw] all these gigantic statues at this war memorial; it was overwhelming and amazing. It really helps add to your performance because you don’t feel like you actually have to act [out] what you’re seeing. Lucy Gray has never seen things like this before in her life. She’s used to the green, the meadows, the snakes, the lake, the water. She’s not used to seeing this structure and seeing the vastness of what could be, and it really was one of those moments where [there] was no acting required, because I really was in awe of it.
What was the biggest challenge for you with those scenes?
I didn’t get to be a part of the long rehearsal process for a lot of the stunt choreography because I was working elsewhere at the time, so it was a lot of patience on the other actors [who] were surrounding me. I’m so grateful to them, because my fellow tributes really are salt of the earth individuals and I love them so much. For me, it was the climbing up all of the rubble and the rocks from the explosion that’s leftover in the arena, in heels.
They’re made out of Styrofoam, like all of the things that you see that look like rubble, because obviously you don’t want people to get hurt. It’s hardened Styrofoam, so it doesn’t hurt if you hit your head on it, but it is a bit harder than just a regular piece of Styrofoam. But running up it you leave divots of your heels. I also don’t like having dirty hands. It’s my least favorite feeling in the world is dirt underneath the fingernails but every day, for continuity’s sake, Sherry Lorenz had to paint dirt on my hands and fingernails.
Is there a scene that you still look at and are haunted by because of its difficulty?
I call it the hairography sequence because I wear a wig for this movie. Nikki Gooley [is] the hair department head and designed all of the looks for my hair and everybody’s hair in this movie. She did such a good job tacking that [wig] down because I do so much work in it. It was sprayed with water and Vaseline to make it look sweaty, and gross and dirty.
During the bloodbath scene, which is the very beginning of the game, there’s a lot of whipping the hair and it looks so good on camera. I don’t remember it feeling that good on the day because there was a lot of insistence from Francis and Jo Willems, our cinematographer, and even Dave Thompson, our camera operator who’d be like “We can’t see your face. You need to make sure that your hair’s out of your face.” I’m doing a backwards tumble roll down an incline and I need my hair to be out of my face? But we figured it out and it looks amazing. There’s a shot they use in the trailer of me whipping my hair around to look and it just looks so badass.
How did working on this differ from your work on the upcoming “Snow White” film?
What I really love [that] they have in common is animals. I did jump from one to the other which was such a huge pivot but, spectacle wise, it is very similar. There’s not a lot I can say about the Snow White of it all but as I’m sure people can imagine there’s a lot of practical sets on both, and they’re built so beautifully by both amazing teams. It was just the actual juxtaposition of the type of thing you’re doing, where you go from Disney princess and everything is beautiful and then I have to kill children [on “Hunger Games”]. It’s such a dramatically ironic moment for me, looking into the metaphorical camera filming me in the office being like, “Well, that’s the job!”
Snow White and Lucy Gray also have such distinct voices. Was the accent a problem here?
There was one sound in particular that I still make to this day because I struggled so much with it in my training. There’s a line where Coriolanus is asking Lucy Gray what happened to Jessop’s neck? And she says that it’s a bat bite, like a bat bit him on on the neck. With the accent it’s “bat bot.” I struggled with the long “I” sound in “bit” and I still say it every now and then. I’ll just be talking to Josh and I’ll be saying something like “No, that’s miiine.” And he’s like “Oh is that miine?” He makes fun of me all the time.
You’ve done several huge movies so rapidly. Do you still have pinch me moments?
Absolutely! The second I stop having pinch me moments, I’ve lost the joy and the gratitude that I have for what I’m able to do. I have so many pinch me moments every day. Getting to have this conversation with you is one of them. It’s such a privilege to get to bring art to millions of people, and bringing art that means so much to millions of people like “The Hunger Games” franchise does. It’s not lost on me what an honor it is to get to do what I get to do for a living.
I’m always starstruck. I try not to show it because you want to be cool but Viola Davis was on this set. I didn’t go up to her until we met at an airport lounge, months later, because I was so in awe. But what you learn in those moments is that they’re human beings just like you and they’re also trying to get their flight to New York. I feel really blessed to have those moments, but they just remind me that I’m still in my body and that I’m grateful for every moment. I’m grateful to still be a fan first.
Are there directors you’d love to work with in future?
I would love to work with Guillermo del Toro. He’s so amazing. I would love to work with Wes Anderson. Darren Aronofsky. Emerald Fennel. I could go on, there’s so many.
“The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” is in theaters now.
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