Josh Hutcherson is in a darkened hotel room, curled up in the corner of a sofa, a diminutive creature hiding from the media pack outside, hungry for information about the stars in the cultural reality-show called Breakout Fame.
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There are many levels of subtext to The Hunger Games (opening Thursday at midnight), the first movie based on the bestselling teen books about a postapocalyptic world by Suzanne Collins – one being a comment on celebrity. Each year in the dystopia of Panem, two adolescents are selected from each of the country's 12 outlying districts by lottery to participate in a televised battle only one will survive. Once they arrive in The Capitol, a city of Hollywood-like self-absorption and disconnection from real life, they are groomed and dressed for a red-carpet parade and then interviewed by a prying host (a blue-haired Stanley Tucci with a blindingly white smile). Crucial to a winning strategy in the Hunger Games is to be liked by the watching audience, to garner the support of sponsors who can supply what the selected adolescents, called tributes, need to sustain themselves in the game.
As it turns out, the actors in The Hunger Games are all young, plucked from relative obscurity by the fickle finger of a director, in this case, Gary Ross who worked closely with Collins to bring her book to the screen. In Toronto, to run the gauntlet of media interviews, flashing cameras and crazed fans, three young specimens – Hutcherson (age 19), Liam Hemsworth (age 22) and Alexander Ludwig (age 19) – were offered up for public consumption.
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"It's kind of confusing to me sometimes about how people get caught up into [fame]" says Hutcherson, who plays the male lead Peeta, the boy chosen from District 12 along with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) to participate in the Hunger Games. His face takes on an open expression as he leans briefly into the light. "I am who I am. That's how I've been raised," says the native of Union, Ky.
Just like Peeta, he believes in his own values. "It's about being true to yourself and not becoming a piece in someone else's game."
Ask him if he wears a good-luck charm around his neck. A winsome smile pops up. "It's a compass and it has an anchor," he says, fingering the small medallion.
It's a talisman like the one Katniss wears in the games to keep her safe.
His face is quizzical now, bemused at the parallel. "Yes, like her mockingjay pin."
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Ensconced in another hotel room is Hemsworth, the hunky Australian actor who plays Gale, the friend of Katniss who stays behind in District 12. He is not playing the fame game too well at the moment. He is tired. "I try to keep it fresh," he says of his responses in the endless junkets that are part of stardom. A wad of gum is visible in his mouth as he talks. Alas, minty bromides are all he has to offer.
"I don't read the tabloids," he says of the repercussions of fame he already has as the boyfriend of pop singer Miley Cyrus.
And how does he feel about becoming the next big heartthrob? "Honestly I am so proud to be part of this project," he says, using the standard and tiresome deflection technique. "I'm very excited for fans to see it."
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Ludwig is like an oversized baby, the expression on his face all wonder and delight over his luck at being chosen as the villain, Cato, a star fighter from District 2.
"It was a challenge to have the part of someone so dark and twisted," he says gleefully. "[But]the main reason I took the role is for nothing more than one scene at the very end of the movie. You see a lot more humanity in Cato than you thought was really there," says the Vancouver native.
The ride though instant fame has been fun, he says. "The fan-demonium! It's awesome." He also wears a good-luck charm – a St. Christopher medallion, "my protector for travel," he beams.
Fame is not going to change him, either, he insists. On his Twitter feed (32,759 followers at last count), he writes typically adolescent updates. Don't his publicists warn him to curtail the diarrhea jokes?
"Oh, all the time," he guffaws, his face a big moon of joy under a spiky blond hairstyle. "[But]it's who I am. I'm not going to be any different."
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That's all for now, folks. The young actors are bound to show up again somewhere in the reality show of celebrity culture as they navigate the fame in the wake of The Hunger Games. And there's really only one thing to say to see them off: "May the odds ever be in your favour."