She’s turning 16 in June of this year, but Willow Shields has already had one stellar career. After getting her start with small roles on TV in USA’s “In Plain Sight” and the Hallmark Channel’s “Beyond the Blackboard,” Shields’ career took off when she landed a role in the first entry of the hugely successful “Hunger Games” franchise as Primrose Everdeen – the younger sister of the story’s main protagonist, Katniss Everdeen.
It was in 2012 when moviegoers first saw Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteer in place of Primrose, who was selected to compete in the annual Hunger Games event. As the series continued with“Catching Fire” and the two-part“Mockingjay,” viewers saw Primrose rise from being a young, scared girl to becoming a casualty nurse in the battle against the Capitol.
With the final installment, “Mockingjay – Part 2,” hitting Blu-ray on March 22, Shields took some time out of her schedule to talk to the Chico Movie Examiner about her experience on the “Hunger Games” franchise — from working with Lawrence and the rest of the cast members and crew to the emotions she felt when she filmed her final scene after having played the role of Primrose for five years. Check out the full interview below.
Note: there are some spoilers about “Mockingjay – Part 2.” Proceed with caution if you have not read the books or seen the movies.
David Wangberg: Looking back at the first time you were auditioning for the role of Prim and now being yourself today after the series has finished, what would you say to the 10-year-old Willow who’s auditioning? What would you say to her now that you’ve already finished the series?
Willow Shields: That’s a hard question. I think there’s a big difference between how I’ve grown as an actress from 10 until now. I think the biggest thing is, I started it at 10, and you’re not thinking about your career [at that age] and what you’re going to do for the rest of your life. It was almost more of an amazing opportunity for me to have fun and explore creativity. Now, as I’m 15, I realize it is what I want to have as a career, and I want to pursue it for the rest of my life. So, that is a very distinct change for me in these past few years. If I were to give myself any advice at 10, it would be, “Just have fun on set and not be nervous about anything, because there’s never anything to be nervous about when you’re working with other creative people who appreciate your work as well.” I think that’s the biggest piece of advice. If I were to give advice to any young actors, it would be in the same vein. Don’t be nervous. I think, as an actor, you have to be free and let yourself explore things and also to have as much sort of drive as possible is very important as well.
DW: With this being your big breakthrough, this entire franchise itself is pretty big as well, how did you adapt from being thrown into the spotlight the first time all the way through this last one? How did you adapt and grow and get used to it?
WS: I don’t know if I really ever did fully adapt in a sense. I’m from New Mexico, and I still live there part time. I kind of split my time between Los Angeles and New Mexico, which is great because I can go home to New Mexico where all my family lives and just live a normal life, and then come to L.A. and do my work and audition and things like that. So, it’s a great balance. I honestly don’t think I’ve really adapted yet to it, so to speak. It’s all new to me still. I’ve definitely gotten a lot better at handling big premieres and all that stuff, but it’s all still, in a sense, new. Because, every time I do a premiere, I feel the same excitement and gratitude toward the fans as the first premiere. It’s definitely a lot of fun.
DW: Do a lot of people stop you in public if they see you at a shopping center or some other place?
WS: Yeah, for sure. That’s a big change for me. And it’s not like something that was different for me, because I’d get used to it as a child, actually, walking through the mall or something or having people stop you and ask if they can take a picture with you – and it was a very rare thing. Now, it happens a lot, and it’s really cool, because you get to meet some really awesome, mostly, kids everywhere you go, and that’s really cool. You could be in New Zealand and walking down the beach, and some kid recognizes you and you have a great conversation with them, so it’s pretty fun.
DW: A lot of franchises today are led by a male protagonist – usually the Marvel films or other franchises. But, with “Hunger Games,” it’s led by a female protagonist, and she’s a strong female character as well. For you, how has being in this series transformed you into the person you are today?
WS: Hugely. I cannot thank Suzanne Collins enough for writing such a beautiful character like Katniss and Jen for portraying her so beautifully. I think it really opened up a lot of doors for young women actors in Hollywood, who want to have that lead role. Not just that lead role, but that strong lead role that really has impact on people. Katniss, in a way, is one of the greatest ones that I think we’ll ever see in film. It just gets me excited because I know that, because of Katniss and Jen playing Katniss, it means that in the future, I could play one of those strong, independent characters that really does have influence on young people and all that stuff. It’s really exciting for me to look forward to.
[Begin spoiler talk about “Mockingjay – Part 2”]
DW: I know that you had read the books before signing on to do the movies, so you were aware of where Prim’s story leads. So, what I want to know is, when you first got the role of Prim and you knew where her story was going, what were your thoughts then, and then what were your thoughts after you had finished her final scene?
WS: I think, reading the books, I was obviously very sad reading about Prim’s death. People ask me this question a lot, and they want to know what my thing is on it. I think Suzanne Collins wrote it into the books for a reason. She’s an incredibly smart writer. She does everything she does for a reason. I think it was to show the influence and the impact that the Capitol had on their world. Obviously, I was very torn apart when I read it. But, when I went in to the film the scene, I kind of just had to let go of Willow and fully invest myself into Prim, because, as an actor, you can’t predict your future. I basically had to say to myself, “I’m Prim; I have no idea what’s happening in the next 10 minutes.” Whereas, as Willow, I have a personal connection to the fact that I’m saddened about my character, but just fully investing into the scene was very important.
DW: Now, was that actually the last scene that you filmed, or were there a couple other scenes you filmed? When was the last time you heard, “Cut!”?
WS: It was the last scene I filmed, which was hard, actually. I filmed the scene, and there were lots of extras everywhere – hundreds of extras. There were stunt people everywhere, and there was so much set design going on. There are big boulders and bombs going off, and so the set design was crazy. It was a very surreal moment when they said, “That’s the final wrap on Willow.” And the extras were there, so it was this big, sort of, finale for me. And it was really amazing. I’ve worked with a lot of these people for five years, and I’ve really gotten to know them, so it was definitely an emotional moment, but it was actually a really fun day on set.
[End spoiler talk]
DW: When the first film came out, it was directed by Gary Ross, and then it went to Francis Lawrence for the last three. I want to know what differences they have to telling the story and filming the action sequences, and also the similarities they have in their directing styles?
WS: That’s a hard question. Because I was so young when I did the first film, it was hard for me to notice the technical differences and creative differences between Gary and Francis. They’re obviously there when you watch the movies, but, personally, I didn’t really notice that much because of my age. I will say that they were both wonderful to work with. Gary Ross was so kind to me on the first movie, and has really just encouraged me to continue acting and had a lot of encouraging words. As well as Francis; we all really connected with Francis toward the end, because he did do the last three movies, so we worked with him for quite a long time. He’s a fantastic director, and he did a lot of amazing things with the last three films. But, honestly, I think I would have to be a director to notice the huge differences on set. But they both did their own take on the films, and I think they’re both fantastic.
DW: I was looking online, and I know there’s a Team Katniss and Team Peta. And I see Team Prim is kind of small. Were you expecting there to be a Team Prim campaign as you were doing this?
WS: I don’t know if I ever really expected that. It’s cool, though, when you do hear about that. I’ve always been Team Katniss. Like we’ve talked about, she’s such an incredible character. To me, being in this series, it was so much more about who she was and her sort of story, rather than necessarily a love triangle, even though that’s a great aspect of the story. As a 10-year-old, I was kind of more invested in Katniss’ story itself. But I love Prim, too. I think that she grew a lot in the series, and toward the end, kind of followed in Katniss’ footsteps and became a very strong independent character. For me, it’s really cool that people did pick up on that, because that’s kind of what I tried to portray.
DW: This year, there are a lot of crossovers going on with “Batman vs. Superman,” and Iron Man versus Captain America. If “The Hunger Games” characters were to do a crossover with another franchise, where would you like to see them placed?
WS: [laughs] Oh, that’s interesting. I’ve always been a huge fan of “Harry Potter,” too, so… [laughs]
I don’t know. I mean, I love the idea of a “Harry Potter” crossover. It would definitely be very interesting and kind of hectic, probably. But I mean there’s a huge difference with them in the stories, but I think it would be an interesting crossover.
Thanks to Willow Shields for taking the time to talk about “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2.”