1 of 5 | "The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes," starring Rachel Zegler and Tom Blyth, opens in theaters Friday. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate
NEW YORK, Nov. 15 (UPI) -- West Side Story and Shazam! Fury of the Gods actress Rachel Zegler says she wanted to star in The Hunger Games prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, because the franchise has always meant so much to her family.
"I did read all of the books, and I saw all the movies as they came out, and it was a really lovely kind of bonding experience for my mom, my older sister and I because we all read them together and watched them together," Zegler, 22, said during a recent virtual press conference to promote Songbirds, in which she plays singing warrior Lucy Gray.
"When it came to this book, I read it the second it came out in 2020," she added. "I just love that Suzanne was adding onto this story that I loved so much.
"And then, when I found out that there's this brown-haired girl who loved to sing from District 12, I just got so excited at the prospect of getting to do something like that, and was reading it, imagining the opportunity to perform as her."
Opening in theaters Friday, the adaptation of Suzanne Collins' best-selling young adult novel also stars Tom Blyth, Peter Dinklage, Hunter Schafer, Josh Andrés Rivera, Jason Schwartzman and Viola Davis.
The dystopian drama is set more than 60 years before the events of The Hunger Games book and film series.
It follows the ambitious young Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), who will some day serve as the tyrannical President of Panem, but for now is assigned to mentor Lucy, a tribute from the impoverished District 12, as she competes in televised death matches to secure food for her community.
Zegler adored Jennifer Lawrence's portrayal of the heroine Katniss in the earlier Hunger Games films, but was more interested in creating a fresh new warrior that was all her own than duplicating what Lawrence did.
"Watching Jennifer's performance in the original trilogy is watching a masterclass in performance," Zegler said, adding it would have put "unnecessary pressure" on her to closely compare the fierce young women she and Lawrence played.
"It's a different character and a different time of Panem," she said. "Lucy Gray is a war-torn teenager who's had everything she knows ripped from her, yet she's still making the best of it.
"It was very similar to Katniss in that perspective. But she's a very different dynamic in response to being places in an arena in front of a bunch of people and having to make the world root for her."
Lucy Gray is naturally good at this.
"She's very persuasive in her performance and very good at getting an audience on her side," Zegler said.
"So, it was very fun to play that, but I do think that there are elements of Katniss within her. And that makes it all the more fun to go back and watch the original trilogy and kind of see how Coriolanus remains haunted by Lucy Gray, even in his late life, because there are echoes of her within Katniss Everdeen."
Zegler suspects she would behave the same way Lucy Gray did if she ever found herself in similar circumstances in real life.
"I would have to win the affections of Panem and then hide and get a lot of sponsors, so that I don't die of hunger. But hide and wait everyone out [is what I'd do]," the actress added.
It was Zegler's choice to sing the musical numbers live on set instead of prerecording and lip-syncing to them.
"I had done it before on my first film, and I feel really confident in that sphere of performance," said the actress, who listened to folk singer Joan Baez's albums during her downtime to prepare for the musical scenes.
"[Singing] was what I kind of came out of the womb doing on stage. So, getting to do that for my peers and on set for my crew and the creative team was something really special that I felt like I could bring to the table."
When she first signed on to the project, Zegler was curious to see how designer Trish Summerville would imagine her character's rainbow dress from the novel for the screen.
"The only description it gets in the book is that there are pink, blue, and yellow ruffles, and that's it," Zegler laughed. "It was even better than I could've possibly imagined and I think it really speaks for itself."