Rachel Zegler initially turned down Hunger Games lead role before her boyfriend was cast

Rachel Zegler originally declined the starring role in The Hunger Games prequel – that is, until her boyfriend was cast, according to director Francis Lawrence.

The 22-year-old West Side Story star leads the franchise’s forthcoming movie, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, as protagonist Lucy Gray.

Zegler initially turned down the part as the thought of “going from six months in London to go deeper into Europe – into Poland – for another six months of her life” did not appeal to her, Lawrence told Entertainment Weekly in a new interview.

At the time, the actor had been shooting the live-action adaptation of Snow White in London, where she was residing on her own due to the Covid quarantining protocols that were in place in 2022.

The idea of spending additional time away from family and friends “freaked her out”, the director recalled. “She went ghostly white.”

In an attempt to persuade her to accept the role, Lawrence said he promised to fly Zegler’s boyfriend, fellow actor Josh Andrés Rivera, out to visit her in Poland where The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes would be filming.

“We’ll bring your boyfriend out! We’ll bring your family out! We won’t quarantine you”, he recalled telling the actor who remained steadfast in her decision.

Later that summer, however, Lawrence set out to cast the role of Sejanus Plinth, the young classmate and friend of Coriolanus Snow (the Games’ oppressive president played by Donald Sutherland in the original trilogy).

Rachel Zegler and Tom Blyth in ‘The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’ (© 2022 Lionsgate)
Rachel Zegler and Tom Blyth in ‘The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’ (© 2022 Lionsgate)

He eventually cast Rivera without knowing that he was Zegler’s boyfriend. The couple began dating in February 2021 after starring opposite one another in Steven Spielberg’s musical West Side Story.

The filmmaker said he suspected that Zegler may change her mind about the role after learning that her boyfriend had been cast. “I bet she’s seen the light at the end of the tunnel,” he recalled thinking. “Her boyfriend’s going to be in Poland with us. I wonder if we’re going to get a call.”

Lawrence was proven right because Zegler soon called the director to accept the lead part she had originally declined.

Zegler previously spoke about the instant regret she felt after turning down the role.

“I had just gotten to London and I wanted to disappear because I was so far away from home for the first time ever. And I was away from everybody that I knew and loved, and I said no,’” she recalled on the Happy Sad Confused podcast in June. “I regretted it the minute I said it.”

Zegler, however, made no mention of Rivera when discussing reasons for her change of heart. She explained: “I had another project lined up that fell through that got pushed into 2023 and I just kind of put my name back into the mix and I got it.”

Set 60 years before the events of the original trilogy, which was led by actor Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, the prequel will focus on the backstory of Coriolanus Snow (played by Tom Blyth) and his mentorship of Lucy Gray (Zegler).

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes will be released in cinemas on 17 November.