On August 18th the second highest grossing film of the year comes out on DVD and Blu-ray and it’s essentially about children murdering one another in a public arena. Yes, The Hunger Games transitioned from book shelves to the big screen in a stunning fashion last March making more than $400 million despite its rather bleak premise. Fans of Suzanne Collins futuristic, dystopian trilogy showed up in droves, but then so too did mainstream audiences who all fell deep for the plight of heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her fellow teen Tributes randomly selected to fight to the death for the pleasure of their totalitarian government, the Capitol.
Director Gary Ross’ very faithful adaptation of the first book retains the brutality of the world and its twisted arena focusing on the horror of having to kill innocents in pursuit of being the Capitol’s lone Victor. Of course, Katniss and her District 12 partner, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) figure out a way to manipulate the system, but that still leaves a wake of bodies left for them to mourn in the upcoming sequel, Catching Fire.
One of those lost souls is District 11’s Thresh played by newcomer Dayo Okeniyi. Thresh is an outwardly imposing teen who is the partner of tiny, charming Rue (Amandla Stenberg). Separately, the pair demonstrates to Katniss that humanity and compassion can exist in the arena even in the face of despair. For Dayo, The Hunger Games was not only his first major film role, but the ensuing wave of popularity has also thrust him into the limelight and already scored him to new roles in the Ben Affleck vehicle Runner, Runner and The Spectacular Now.
FEARnet talked exclusively to Dayo Okeniyi about what fans can expect in the more than three hours of special features on The Hunger Games DVD/Blu-rays and how the movie’s changed his life.
So we hear The Hunger Games was your first major audition and you landed the part?
Well the year before , I moved up to LA and I definitely got some audition experience because I was submitting myself before I had representation. Auditioning is a skill and technique and you have to learn how to audition. I think I went on about 50 billion auditions for little independent projects and non-union stuff and all those auditions led to me being able to audition for Debra Zane for The Hunger Games. When I actually signed with my current managers, that was the first real audition that I went on for something real.
Were you hyper prepared for the read?
It was super secretive. I couldn’t tell anybody about, not even my parents. I went in and read and it was just one page. I tell you, my roommate and I went to the same college together and is also an actor so he was the only person I told and we must have read that one page 50 to 100 times. It was like five lines but I practiced it in every possible way. So I felt very confident going into the audition. Also my managers sent me in because they know Debra Zane very well and they just wanted to see how I did in the room. But it led to me getting the role and I’m very aware that it doesn’t happen for people like that. I kind of have survivor’s guilt. [Laugh]
When did you meet Gary Ross and did he give you any specific notes on what he wanted to see from Thresh?
I read about four times in the room and honestly it was just, “Ok, great. We’ll get back to you.” It wasn’t like I gave a Sean Penn performance or anything but I felt strongly about it. I never got a call back but every time I talked to my manager about different projects The Hunger Games kept coming back. Finally they said Gary Ross liked my tape. Then we got word that they wanted me to come in and do a test screening at Gary Ross’ house. It got pushed and I got a call it had been cancelled and that Gary just went ahead and cast me. So I only read for the role once. It was so surreal.
The books are written from Katniss’ POV, so we don’t get much back story on any of the Tributes. Did Gary provide a back story or encourage you to create one so you could connect to your character?
Gary was surprisingly very freeing for a young actor like myself. He gave us space to do whatever we wanted to do, of course being adamant we follow canon, the story. He put creating a back story in our hands. There were a lot of great young actors in this movie, and a lot of first-time actors which was a great way for us to bond. He trusted us and let us create what we wanted to create. When we came on set, he tweaked us a little, but he trusted us.
How did you become Thresh?
I just wanted to feel like this bear of a person. Katniss describes him as being a physical wonder. But Gary was very clear that he didn’t want him to feel like a villain. [Thresh] is still a kid. He’s pretending to be tough and cold as ice, but he’s really freaking out on the inside. As an actor I like to work the outside in, so when you take care of the physical it will inform what’s going on inside. I was really about getting into the body of the character. I was roughly 162 pounds when I got the role so it was about getting my weight up. I wanted to feel like one of the biggest Tributes so I got up to about 185 in the gym. Plus I trained with the guys from 87Eleven Stunt Design and they’ve trained everyone in the business. They definitely got me where I needed to be physically. When you feel stronger than anyone in the scene, you carry yourself different.
The film doesn’t glamorize the violence which makes it more horrific to watch the death scenes. What was Gary’s mandate about the combat scenes?
In the scene between Thresh and Clove (Isabelle Fuhrman), it’s a very quick scene. It’s not very choreographed because Gary wanted it to look dirty. He didn’t want it to look like a Japanese movie where the fighting is like a dance. He wanted it to look rough and you feel like the characters in those scenes are reacting from passion rather than calculating assassins. We were tied in very well to these character’s heads and I think it translated well.
The cornucopia sequence that officially starts the arena games was one of the most intense sequences of the whole film as all 24 kids just rush each other in a bloodbath. How did that sequence come together?
We really tried to keep it light on set because you didn’t want a bunch of depressed kids walking around. There was a lot joking around and goofing around between takes. The cool thing is that all of the kids and stunt people they got to play these Tributes were amazing actors and were very good at “turning it on” right before a take. The truth is these kids were incredible and able to turn it on at the flip of a switch. Plus we are all fans of the books too and we all knew what these scenes had to feel like. Having that preparation and reading the books years ago and coming was almost like muscle memory; your heart and your mind knew what to feel in the moment. I loved the way Gary cut it together. It was a cacophony of violence but at the same time you’re really in the head of Katniss seeing it from the corner of her eyes. She’s not a spectator.
We do see that sequence from Katniss’ POV, but what was Thresh’s motivation and your direction for how to move when that clock counted down to zero?
The sequence was set up so that every character had an objective. The cornucopia was choreographed second-by-second. Thresh was one of the fastest Tributes so he got to the cornucopia before anybody else and his job was to go in and get food and a weapon item so he could go into the woods and try to stay away from it. Even though he is huge and a domineering character, Gary said he is the gentle giant and his goal is to get back home to his sister and not have anything to do with the games. Of course, his hand is forced when Rue is taken out of the games and that’s the thing that motivates him to seek some kind of revenge for his District. Otherwise, he didn’t want to be part of the Hunger Games at all. It’s also what real kids would do if they weren’t Career Tributes who talk strategy. At the core of it all, I asked myself what an 18-year old would do if that was the situation they were put in, and that was my interpretation of Thresh’s thinking.
Gary shot a pretty lean movie but did you have any scenes that didn’t make it into the final cut?
All the scenes I shot made it into the movie except we actually shot a Reaping scene for District 11 which was really cool. We had a guest director, Steven Soderbergh, who came in and oversaw that. It was cool to get a chance to work with him because he’s a director I’ve admired for years. It was a cool scene because it was all of District 11 and we had our mentor come out and reap us. It was a very sad scene. And the extras were incredible, the unsung heroes of movies because they create an environment for you. I’d look into the eyes of these people who were supposed to be your best friends, your neighbors, your co-workers and they would feed you that feeling of loss when you get reaped. Hopefully, if they do a 20th anniversary edition of The Hunger Games they can include that in the DVD someday.
When you watched the final film, what scene really got to you?
Honestly, with a character like [District 2 Career] Cato (Alexander Ludwig) it’s scary easy to make that character a cookie-cutter, bad guy archetype. The scene at the end where he says, “I’m already finished anyway,” to humanize that character to me was gold. A villain isn’t really a villain until you see some bit of humanity in him. You can look at a demon or something that is pure evil and watch them commit atrocities and you don’t feel anything because it’s not human. But to see a human being do things like that hits close to home. Seeing Cato humanized like that, it really makes you feel like if I grew up like that, would I be like that? When I saw that it made me think back on everything Cato had done leading up to that moment. Even though he’s got a twisted, psychotic purpose, it is a purpose and you somewhat empathize with him. That was amazing filmmaking to me and moments like that gave me chills.
There are a few special edition Blu-rays available with different extras like the Target version with a whole special disc on the Tributes. What are you excited for fans to finally see about the making of the film?
I can’t wait for fans to see the extras. I’m an actor just starting my career and to get to start out with a project like this is a godsend. There are so many young actors out there who are also The Hunger Games fans who write me asking about how I did it and the process. Features like this are great for them to see we are just regular people who feel like we won the lottery getting to do this amazing thing. The Tribute Diaries on the Target DVD really puts them in our shoes and lets them feel what we felt making it. It’s a very shared, candid experience and that’s why it’s one of my favorite things for fans to see.
The Hunger Games is available from different retailers on August 18, 2012.