How playing Chino in “West Side Story” helped Josh Andrés Rivera tap into Sejanus in “The Hunger Games”

How playing Chino in “West Side Story” helped Josh Andrés Rivera tap into Sejanus in “The Hunger Games”

The 'Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes' actor on similarities between the two, how a headache helped him film his meltdown scene, karaoke with the cast, and more.

Warning: This post contains light spoilers from the 10th annual Hunger Games.

Josh Andrés Rivera remembers the first time he stepped into the world of Panem.

He was 13, and, having struggled with his school grades, one day had to forgo break time for study hall in the library. There, the librarian would unwittingly manifest his role in The Hunger Games prequel Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. “He gave me The Hunger Games book and was like, ‘Read this. Reading is fun, I promise,’” Rivera, now 28, recalls to EW. “And I read it and it was the first book I ever couldn't put down.”

Best known for his portrayal of Chino in Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake of West Side Story, the actor steps into yet another tragic role in the form of Sejanus Plinth, a classmate of Tom Blyth’s teenage Coriolanus Snow. A former District 2 citizen whose family now resides in the Capitol due to his father’s donations to Panem’s post-war reconstruction efforts, Sejanus finds himself at odds with his peers as an opponent of the Hunger Games.

Sejanus, assigned to mentor his former schoolmate and District 2 male tribute Marcus (Jerome Lance), unravels from the depravity of it all.  “So much of his character has to do with the situations he's put in and how those are at odds with the things he believes in,” Rivera says. “He's got a very big heart. He's the moral compass of the movie, along with Tigris, in terms of pulling [Coriolanus] over to make good decisions.” 

<p>Lionsgate</p> Josh Andres Rivera and Tom Blyth in 'Hunger Games' prequel 'Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes'

Lionsgate

Josh Andres Rivera and Tom Blyth in 'Hunger Games' prequel 'Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes'

The wayward pupil reaches his breaking point after Marcus, who managed to escape from the arena after a bombing orchestrated by rebels, is caught by the Capitol — his beaten body strung up at the center of the arena as a threat to tributes. When Sejanus sees this display on screen, he loses it, hurling a chair across the mentors’ room and screaming that Capitol residents are monsters.

“I actually had a really bad headache [that day],” Rivera recalls of filming that intense sequence. “I was actually upset. I wasn't feeling well, which I think ended up being a good thing [for the performance]. It's not an acting exercise I recommend, but.”

Those internal struggles are not unlike the ones we see in Chino, who also reaches his own breaking point in West Side Story. “There's a similar kind of inner turmoil there,” Rivera says. Working with Spielberg helped lay the groundwork for working with franchise director Francis Lawrence. “It had a lot more to do with how to collaborate with directors,” Rivera says of what he learned on set of the musical remake. “The more comfortable you feel, the better you can do because you feel like you have more free reign to play.” 

<p>Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios</p> Josh Andres Rivera in 'West Side Story'

Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios

Josh Andres Rivera in 'West Side Story'

Plus, there was the added comfort of starring opposite his real-life partner Rachel Zegler (who plays District 12 tribute Lucy Gray Baird) while far from home on location in Germany and Poland. “It was nice to be able to run [lines] with each other to make sure we didn't sound crazy,” Rivera says.

The intensity of the shoots were offset by cast bonding around Berlin, namely with Blyth. “We did karaoke with some of the other cast,” Rivera says. “Everybody was really close. I had a lot of fun.” So what’s Rivera’s go-to karaoke song? As a parting interview gift, he bursts into the chorus of “The Middle” by Jimmy Eat World. “I always like to do something just a little ironic.”

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes arrives in theaters Nov. 17. You can buy Entertainment Weekly's The Ultimate Guide to The Hunger Games here, or on newsstands.

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