Actress Rachel Zegler saw no pressure to immerse herself in the world of The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins’ prequel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. And she certainly would have, as actress Jennifer Lawrence created an iconic character in a series of four films, Katniss Everdeen. But for Zegler, playing District 12’s Lucy Gray Baird, who is set to join the very first Hunger Games, meant she didn’t have big shoes to fill, especially in contrast to co-star Tom Blyth, who plays Hunger Games President Coriolanus Snow .
“What I really love is that Suzanne subverted expectations a little bit with this woman from District 12,” Zegler told TheWrap. “So you expect her to be another Katniss, because what a different female archetype[slash]“This character could haunt Coriolanus for more than 64 years?” For Zegler, these subverted expectations included a character who is capricious, enigmatic, and “floating above social norms.”
“My ticket was her voice, of course her singing, because that’s a given for me, but also the fact that she was a little bit off,” Zegler said.
The actress then talked about the challenges of working with practical sets, her role as Snow White in Disney’s upcoming live-action remake and how she was impressed by Hunger Games co-star Viola Davis.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
TheWrap: Are you in a relationship with Lucy Gray Baird?
Rachel Zegler: She’s fiery. I am also a fiery person. I love using music to express my feelings.
Do you think this is a musical?
There’s a bit of apprehension when signing up for a film that’s about music. That’s something I welcome, but it has to happen organically and it has to be introduced in a way that works for all audiences because musicals tend to turn some people off, they turn people off. As someone who comes from the world of musical theater, I was really grateful to hear that [director] Francis [Lawrence] had a very organic plan to make sure the music fit as well as possible, and a lot of that came from Suzanne, who had a clear vision of what she wanted each song she wrote in the book to sound like.
We worked with a great producer, Dave Cobb, and some of my favorite films aren’t necessarily musicals, but films with music, like Inside Llewyn. Davis; “I just love this movie so much and don’t necessarily think of it as a musical. I saw that as an approach for this film, especially because we always sing folk music in this film.
You mentioned singing folk music. What was the difference between this and the Broadway flavor in West Side Story?
It was a part of my instrument that I had never been allowed to use publicly before. You sing with a twang for fun, or you try to sound like Dolly Parton or something, and that’s what you want. But then she became this vocal influence for this film. I worked with my voice teacher Joe Later and there was a lot of technical stuff involved with larynx placement. Where do you go if you want to sound like a specific person? [or] You want to produce a certain sound, like an instrument. It was also my dialect coach and [me] I’m trying to understand that tight-lipped smile and sing it.
The hardest part, believe it or not, was trying to remember all the lyrics, because folk music is a circle. So it’s really the same melody over and over again, but you’re trying to remember these lyrics that were so beautifully written by Suzanne [Collins] and make sure you have the verses in the correct order. A lot of it was really difficult because we filmed a lot of songs in one long take, then we cut it all and did it again. “The Old There Before,” my winning anthem at the end of the games, was really hard to remember because it just keeps going around. Then access the musical theater girl in you and say, “What’s the intent?”
What was it like filming the actual Hunger Games?
Uli Hanisch really deserves all the praise he received for his production design. Many of these sets are practical, which will surprise many viewers. They are all based in historic locations throughout Eastern Europe. Many of the beautiful meadows and what you see of nature are in the south of Poland. Centennial Hall is a real arena where we filmed the games, and a large part of Berlin, especially Leipzig, serves as the academy’s home.
I remember Josh [Andres Rivera] and I arrived at this place and [we saw] all those huge statues at that war memorial; it was overwhelming and amazing. It really boosts your performance because you don’t feel like you have to actually take action [out] what you see. Lucy Gray has never seen anything like this in her life. She is used to the greenery, the meadows, the snakes, the lake, the water. She’s not used to seeing that structure and the vastness of what could be, and it really was one of those moments where… [there] There was no acting required because I was really impressed by it.
What was the biggest challenge for you in these scenes?
Since I was working elsewhere at the time, I was unable to take part in the long rehearsal process for much of the stunt choreography, so I had to demand a lot of patience from the other actors [who] surrounded me. I am so grateful to them because my fellow tributes are truly genuine individuals and I love them so much. For me it was climbing in high heels all over the rubble and rocks left over from the explosion in the arena.
They’re made of Styrofoam, like all things you see that look like rubble, because of course you don’t want people to get hurt. It’s made of hardened Styrofoam, so it won’t hurt if you hit your head on it, but it’s a little harder than just a regular piece of Styrofoam. But if you walk up them, you leave notches on your heels. I don’t like having dirty hands either. My least favorite feeling is dirt under my fingernails, but for continuity, Sherry Lorenz had to paint dirt on my hands and fingernails every day.
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’m wearing a wig for this film. Nikki Gooley [is] I was the head of the hair department and designed all the looks for my hair and everyone else’s hair in this film. She handled it very well [wig] downstairs because I work in it so much. It was sprayed with water and Vaseline to make it look sweaty, gross and dirty.
There’s a lot of hair whipping during the bloodbath scene that’s at the very beginning of the game and it looks so good on camera. I don’t remember it feeling so good that day because Francis and Jo Willems, our cameraman, and even Dave Thompson, our cameraman, were very insistent on saying, “We can’t see your face.” You “You have to make sure your hair falls out of your face.” I’m doing a backward roll down an incline and I want my hair to fall out of my face? But we figured it out and it looks amazing. There’s a shot they use in the trailer where I’m flipping 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?
Which I really love [that] What they have in common is that they are animals. I did jump from one to the other, which was a huge pivot, but the spectacle is very similar. I can’t say much about Snow White, but I’m sure people can imagine that there are a lot of practical sets on both and they were built so beautifully by the two great teams. It was just the actual juxtaposition of the kind of things you do, where you go from being a Disney princess and everything is beautiful and then I have to kill children [on “Hunger Games”]. For me, it’s a dramatically ironic moment when I look into the metaphorical camera filming me in the office and say, “That’s the job!”
Snow White and Lucy Gray also have such different voices. Was the accent a problem here?
There was a particular sound that I still make to this day because I had so much trouble making it in my training. There’s a line where Coriolanus asks Lucy Gray what happened to Jessop’s neck. And she says it’s a bat bite, like a bat bit him in the neck. With the accent it says “Bat Bot”. I had trouble with the long “I” sound in “bit” and still say it every now and then. I just talk to Josh and say something like, “No, that’s mine.” And he goes, “Oh, is that mine?” He keeps making fun of me.
You’ve made several big films in such a short period of time. Do you still have pinching moments?
Absolutely! The moment I stop pinching myself, I lose the joy and gratitude I have for what I can do. I have so many pinch moments every day. Having this conversation with you is one of them. It is a privilege to be able to bring art to millions of people, and art that means as much to millions of people as The Hunger Games franchise does. It’s not lost on me what an honor it is to be able to do what I do for a living.
I’m always starstruck. I’m trying not to show it because you want to be cool, but Viola Davis was on that set. I didn’t go to see her until months later when we met in an airport lounge because I was so impressed. But what you learn in these moments is that they are people, just like you, and they are also trying to get their flight to New York. I feel truly blessed to have these moments, but they just remind me that I’m still in my body and grateful for every moment. I’m grateful that I’m still a fan, first of all.
Are there any directors you would like to work with in the future?
I would like to work with Guillermo del Toro. He is so amazing. I would love to work with Wes Anderson. Darren Aronofsky. Emerald fennel. I could go on, there are so many.
“The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” is in theaters now.