News Column

'Catching Fire' actors are feeling the heat

November 19, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 19--Jena Malone and Sam Claflin -- two young stars of "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" -- had spent quite a bit of time together when they recently arrived in Houston on a promotional tour for the film.

They had shot the second movie in the series, as well as the third, "Mockingjay," which comes out next year. The tour had taken them to several cities to meet and greet fans of the popular series based on Suzanne Collins' best-selling novels.

"We're matching again," Malone said, pointing out they were both wearing black and white. "This keeps happening."

The actors -- who play Johanna Mason and Finnick Odair -- have had other parallel experiences making the movies, starting with their casting.

"My little sister, who is such a fan of the novels, said, 'You don't look anything at all like Johanna,' " Malone said. A veteran at 28, she made her first big impression with "Bastard Out of Carolina" 18 years ago. "I was like, 'Huh. I just told you I get to act in "The Hunger Games" and that's your response? If that represents even 2 percent of the fan base I'm (expletive).' "

The casting of Claflin -- a 27-year-old English actor who appeared in "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" and "Snow White & the Huntsman" -- prompted loud complaints that were far more public than those made by Malone's sister.

"I suppose there was a lot of anxiety during the initial process," he said. "You can't help but hear the fans' opinions. But the moment we started filming, I blocked it out of my mind. It spurred me to work harder and prove them wrong. I can only hope I did the character justice."

If it sounds like stakes are high in "The Hunger Games" sphere, it's because they are. The books have a fervent following drawn not just to the story's hero, Katniss Everdeen, but also to the richly developed cast of characters she struggles with and against in a particularly horrific dystopia where a totalitarian government pits children against one another in fights to the death for entertainment as well as to suppress uprisings.

"Catching Fire" picks up where "The Hunger Games" left off, Katniss having shared a victory in the competition with Peeta Mellark. Any sense of relief is short-lived as they're placed in a new Hunger Games in which they compete with winners from previous years.

There they come into contact with Johanna and Finnick. Johanna is cunning and volatile, with no family. She also wields an ax. Finnick is more magnetic, though he has a familial weakness. Their true intentions are well hidden.

"I like the stress on regional distinctions," Malone said. "It's about character building. There's this stamp, how you were raised and brought up. And while that's important, none of it actually defines who you become."

Added Claflin, "We're both very manipulative characters, but we go about it in different ways. Both are very strong, but their strengths lie in different areas. My approach is more in a charming, charismatic and sexual way. Whereas she's ... (laughs) sexual and violent."

The violence is key to "The Hunger Games" story, a bold, controversial decision on Collins' part. Dystopic futures have been envisioned by novelists time and again, but the idea of children being forced to kill one another could be considered an apex of derangement. The stories handle the matter unflinchingly.

Both Malone and Claflin cite George Orwell's "1984" as a favorite dystopian novel.

"I was born that year, so I was sorMalone said. "I put it off for a while, but eventually I found science fiction to be such an interesting genre. It's a myth predictor, like the technical religion of the future. We visualize how we want things to be and then science fiction basically computes the myth and gives us a story to become that. I didn't realize how powerful sci-fi was until I read that novel. It was terrifying. It was like (expletive) drama."

Both spoke reverently about Collins' source material, suggesting the story offered great room for character development.

"It's a marathon not a sprint," Claflin said. "I feel like I'm playing one character in one film and then he completely changes as a person, and that's an entirely separate journey."

Malone agreed. "It was amazing to have the entire course of a character mapped out for you in a way. To me, this first piece shows only a couple of colors. Given that there was so much more to work with, it was more interesting to be subtle with it. She's such an interesting writer. She fleshed out every character. Even the smallest ones, I had an image instantly in my head. That's what is so strong about this story. She really presented a world."

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(c)2013 the Houston Chronicle

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