ABOVE: WILLOW SHIELDS
Much has been made in the last few weeks of Jennifer Lawrence's role as Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of The Hunger Games, a 16-year-old girl in a dystopian future society who's forced to compete with 23 other minors in a televised battle to the death. But really, it's Katniss' little sister, Primrose, who sets the story of The Hunger Games in motion—Prim is the one picked to compete from the Everdeens' district, and Katniss, in an unprecedented move, volunteers to replace her. Throughout, the sisters' bond is what keeps Katniss going—she fights for Prim.
The role of Prim, then, would have been a daunting one for any young actress to take on; but 11-year-old Willow Shields manages it with remarkable grace. Though Shields' screen time in this installment is limited, the emotional depth she brings to her scenes with Lawrence are more than enough to establish her as a young actress to watch—and to drum up anticipation for her character's development in the rest of the franchise. We caught up with Shields yesterday, with the Hunger Games mania growing by the minute.
ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: I saw the movie last night, and it's amazing. Have you been going to all of the premieres?
WILLOW SHIELDS: I just went to the LA premiere.
SYMONDS: How was that?
SHIELDS: That was really awesome—it was huge!
SYMONDS: I saw some pictures. It seemed like it was probably really overwhelming.
SHIELDS: Yeah, definitely.
SYMONDS: And this is your first time dealing with all of that stuff, right? Have you found it to be a pretty natural process, or is it like a total other world?
SHIELDS: It's just like a really crazy experience. Definitely otherworldly, because all of these fans of the movie come to the premiere—to see, you know, all of the cast members and the movie. It's just all been really crazy.
SYMONDS: Yeah, I'm sure. Had you read the books before you were cast?
SHIELDS: Yeah, I was almost done with the first book right before I got the audition for Prim.
SYMONDS: It's such a huge property at this point. Do you think that there was more pressure with this role than there would be with a regular role, to live up to what people had been thinking about?
SHIELDS: Definitely, especially because it's such a huge movie and it's a pretty important character, for me, in the book, so at first I was a little nervous not being able to become the character. Yeah, at first I was nervous.
SYMONDS: I don't want to give anything away, the times when you are onscreen in this film are all super emotional. You're kind of dialed up to 10, all the time, in each of your scenes. How did you prepare for that?
SHIELDS: I think reading the next book helped, because I knew how Prim became . . . In the first book, she is the emotional character. She's still young, she's still small; then towards the end of the last book, she almost becomes a Katniss, and she becomes really brave and a really strong character, and I think that reading those books really helped to know that Prim becomes a brave, strong character. In the first book, she's an emotional young girl who's gone through a lot of things in her life.
SYMONDS: There have been a lot of questions in interviews with your castmates about what they did to train and everything. Did you have to do any of that, too, or did you just watch them and eat Oreos and laugh?
SHIELDS: I just watched them. I actually went to one of their trainings one day and just watched them do somersaults and use all of the fake knives and fake swords, and it was really fun to watch them.
SYMONDS: What was the atmosphere like on set with all the kids? Did you guys all get along really well?
SHIELDS: We all got along great. We all just hung out anytime we could. We totally just all got along perfectly.
SYMONDS: And you're home-schooled, right? So you haven't had the traditional school experience. Has it been weird, then, to just spend a lot of time with a lot of kids all your age at once?
SHIELDS: It's been awesome. It's been really fun. I have a couple of friends here in New Mexico that I do school with every day. They just come over to my house, and I have a couple of friends that are my age. To be with all of those kids that are, of course, my age at once is really fun. It was a great experience.
SYMONDS: When did you decide that you wanted to be an actress?
SHIELDS: Ever since I was a about seven or eight; I think it was seven. My brother said "I want to start acting," and me and my sister just said, "Oh we'll try it, we'll see." It was just one of those things—we were just like, "Oh, we'll see what happens." So we ended up -- all my siblings and me -- we ended up just trying it, and I got that one role on In Plain Sight and then we just decided to keep going and see what happens. And then: Hunger Games.
SYMONDS: I'm sure that must have been huge for your whole family. Has your family been really supportive?
SHIELDS: Yeah, definitely. My brother was a huge fan of The Hunger Games for a couple of years before I got the role, so he was really excited when he heard that I got the role.
SYMONDS: Were your parents concerned about the content of the books? It really is heavy. Did you guys talk about it all?
SHIELDS: At first we were wondering about that because we were like, "Well, is it going to be as violent as the book?" The books were pretty violent, but I think we were just like, at least we know my character's not a violent character—she's not in any of those violent scenes, so that wasn't a huge problem for us. But yeah, I guess I thought about it. I think we thought that since I had already read the books, that we knew what to expect. It was really, really violent.
SYMONDS: Do you remember how you reacted when you found out that you got the role?
SHIELDS: I think I was really surprised. I was just sitting there just like, "Wow, this is really actually happening?" I hadn't totally taken it in yet.
SYMONDS: Did you guys go celebrate or anything?
SHIELDS: I was in LA at the time—I had flown in with my mom—so we just went out to dinner and I got a smoothie. That's kind of how we celebrated—on our own, in California.
SYMONDS: I think a smoothie is a great way to celebrate. Can you tell me about what it was like working with Gary Ross?
SHIELDS: He's a really awesome director. He envisioned everything in The Hunger Games perfectly, exactly how I imagined it, which is perfect to work on because it just makes everything fall into place when you're working. So I think he was just an amazing director and he was great to work with. He's so nice, and he's one of those directors which lets you do what you need to do to become your character—he lets you try to do everything on your own when you're acting. Then at some points he would say, "Let's try this," or "Let's try that." Most of the time he just kind of let me and Jennifer try to just become our characters on our own and it worked out really well.
SYMONDS: What about with Jennifer? Did you guys start to feel like you really were sisters?
SHIELDS: Definitely. Jennifer is awesome—she's so talented, she's an amazing actress, but she's so nice. I mean, we became sisters on set. It was really awesome working with her because she's such a nice person, and we definitely became sisters on set.
SYMONDS: You have siblings. If you were ever in Prim's situation, how do you think you would feel? What do you think you would do if one of your siblings volunteered to go to the Hunger Games in your place?
SHIELDS: I don't know. I think I would be in Prim's place in that feeling—say my sister volunteered for me to go to the Hunger Games; I would be feeling the same as Prim [does]. She doesn't want her sister to go, because she knows that she [might] never come home. Yeah, I think I would react a lot like Prim, because I'm really close with my sister.
SYMONDS: Yeah, I think one of the great things about the book and the movie is that it's a really human reaction. It's something you can definitely identify with.
SHIELDS: If that would actually happen in real life, if it ever happened, that's, I think, a reaction that would go on.
SYMONDS: When you watch the movie now, is it scary to you—or is it just like, since you've been through filming, it's just lost that element of being scary?
SHIELDS: I don't know. I've seen it once now, that was the night of the premiere. At first, I was a little scared to see it, just because of being nervous [about] how it ended up. But if you're talking about the content of the movie, at first, during a couple of scenes, I was a little scared—but that was just because I was surprised. I think they just put everything together perfectly, and I think a lot of kids my age will really love it.
SYMONDS: Can you give me a sense of what you're thinking about as you are getting prepared for the next movie? You've got a lot to do.
SHIELDS: I'd like to work on some stuff in between—but just to keep my mind off of the excitement, and filming the next one, I don't know. It's just excitement. After the premiere I was like, "I hope I'm still excited for something!" But I'm just super excited to shoot the next one.
THE HUNGER GAMES IS OUT TODAY.