Boy on Fire
Josh Hutcherson is a reluctant hero in this new film, but a real one off-screen who fights for gay equal rights, writes Will Lawrence
Like all good marriage proposers, The Hunger Games star Josh Hutcherson went down on one knee. However, unfortunately for the young man, things did not go quite as he had planned.
"I had never done the process of dropping down to my knee before, and the very first time I did it I split my pants right in the middle," he says. "That was probably a horrible omen for every proposal I ever make. Chances are they are going to be multiple!"
The bashful 21-year-old actor is recalling a moment from the second film in The Hunger Games franchise, Catching Fire, in which his character, Peeta, proposes to the film's leading lady, Katniss, played by ever-popular Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence. "It was a really funny moment," he says of his pants-splitting episode.
Funny moments are not prevalent in Catching Fire, a full-on teen action-drama set in a dystopian future where Peeta and Katniss are again thrust into the gladiatorial arena that they survived in the first film in the saga, and must fight to the death against other competitors.
"This one is about the slow tension building beneath the surface; the rebellion of the people against the government is starting to build up," Hutcherson says.
"In this movie we have to go back into the Hunger Games to fight for our lives one more time. Neither of them wants to be there, that's for sure. They are definitely reluctant heroes. They have to go about the Hunger Games differently this time, though.
"There's a lot more action this time, especially for my character, which was a challenge," he adds. "On this I got to learn some sword training and more fight training. It was awesome."
That adjective is an apt description of the fan reaction to 2011's The Hunger Games, which took almost $700m at the worldwide box office. Drawn from the best-selling novels by author Suzanne Collins, the series has taken over from the likes of Harry Potter and Twilight as the must-see teen movies of the moment.
Film-maker Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I Am Legend) takes the director's chair from Gary Ross for Catching Fire, and Lawrence will complete the series with the final two instalments, Mockingjay Part 1 and Part 2, which are due in cinemas next year and 2015 respectively. For Lawrence, trust is Catching Fire's overriding theme.
"The story in this one is really about learning to trust people," says Hutcherson. "Francis was very big on that. In the movie, we have to get allies in the Games and remember who the real enemy is. That is an important theme.
"Also, another theme echoes the first film in that it's about rising up against something that is bigger than you and standing up for what you believe in. You need to find the best way to do that, and it isn't always with brute force. Maybe it can be more of an intellectual game. It's about trying to find the best way of fighting for your cause. Trust, though, is the key theme."
As a rising star, trust is an issue with which Hutcherson has to deal with in his everyday life. "If you become too paranoid about who is your friend for whatever reason, then all of a sudden you are a paranoid crazy person who doesn't trust anybody," he says.
"That's not good, so it's about finding that balance. For me, I skew towards that side of trusting people too easily. I always tend to give people the benefit of the doubt."
Hutcherson's star began to rise in the wake of 2005 films Little Manhattan and Zathura; the 2006 comedy RV; the 2007 family adventure film Firehouse Dog; and the film adaptations of Bridge to Terabithia and Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant.
It was the 2010 movie The Kids Are All Right, however, that thrust him into the spotlight, the family drama proving a huge critical success, scooping four Oscar nominations. The movie focused on the life of a same-sex couple raising two children.
"I was just so happy to be a part of that movie," he says of The Kids Are All Right. "I wasn't conscious of it becoming a big critically acclaimed movie at the time. That was something that happened afterwards.
"I just loved the script so much, and it was right back to my roots about supporting the gay community and equal rights for people. It was just so nice to see a movie do that."
The actor is a huge supporter of gay rights, and has launched an initiative called Straight But Not Narrow, "which is a programme where we reach out to young people in high school and try and get them to become a 'straight ally'," he explains.
"We are straight people talking to straight people about how you should be comfortable with all people. A lot of my focus is on equality for gay, lesbian, transsexual, bisexual communities, because everyone is a human being.
"The fight for equal rights for gay or straight people is the same as the fight for women's rights to vote and the fight against racism."
Hutcherson is clearly a thoughtful chap. "I think a lot of it is how I was brought up," he says. Raised in Kentucky, he has been acting since he was four.
"I owe a lot to my family and parents and friends," he continues. "It is they who have made me into who I am. That is important, and I think some people lose sight of that. I think that it's a combination of having a really strong family and having good people around you."
The Hunger Games films have accelerated his career trajectory, and it is his family, he says, who have kept his feet on the ground. "Doing a film like The Hunger Games gives you an opportunity to see a lot more scripts," he says. "I get a lot more meetings with people I wouldn't have got without this. It allows me the freedom to become the type of actor I want to be."
The trade-off, of course, is the compromised anonymity. Hutcherson does not seek celebrity and deals with it as best he can. "People are really cool most of the time," he says. "They are really low-key and it does depend where you are.
"I just got back from Spain, and it was so nice, because if people did recognise me it was always very pleasant and calm and there are not crazy screaming people, like sometimes in the US.
"You have moments where you are like, 'Oh God, I wish you'd just leave me alone', but then you realise all the amazing things in your life and all the good things you can do with the money you make or the notoriety you have.
"You can raise awareness about issues you believe in. It's a double-edged sword, but for me the good definitely outweighs the bad and that's how I've always looked at it.
"I do love The Hunger Games films." Even when he splits his trousers in front of the entire cast and crew? "Yes," he says, "even then."