ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Willow Shields was still reading the first book of “The Hunger Games” trilogy when she submitted a video audition for the movie.
“All of my friends were fans of the series, and I was just getting into them,” she says.
Come Friday, those fans and more will watch the Albuquerque 11-year-old become Primrose Everdeen – a “cornerstone” character – in the “The Hunger Games” movie, expected to open with a $100 million-plus weekend debut.
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“The Hunger Games” opens nationwide on Friday
The sixth-grade homeschooler says she is just like most sixth-graders – she likes to hang out with friends and gossip about boys.
But for the past year, her life has undergone dramatic changes.
“It’s all been happening so fast for me,” she said during a recent interview. “I’ve been flying back and forth to Los Angeles to do press and be involved in the marketing of the film.”
“The Hunger Games” is a worldwide phenomenon. The novel has been on the New York Times best-seller list for more than 130 consecutive weeks.
The film chronicles Katniss Everdeen’s defiant struggle to survive in a future dystopia, where The Capitol requires its 12 subjugated districts to atone for their one-time insurrection through the annual “Hunger Games,” a fight-to-the-death “reaping” event held in a fantastical man-made arena.Â
The participants are teenagers chosen by lottery from the 12 districts.
Primrose “Prim” Everdeen is Katniss Everdeen’s younger sister. It is Prim’s, not Katniss’s, name that is pulled from the girls’ reaping bowl.
But Katniss, played by Jennifer Lawrence, is determined to take her sister’s place.
For Shields, snagging the role of Prim last April was a dream come true, but it came with some apprehension.
“As I finished the books, I found myself a fan,” she said. “I did get nervous going into the film, because Prim is loved by so many people. I wanted to make sure that I brought strength to Prim’s character.”
In one of the scenes, Prim tries to stop Katniss from taking her place, but Katniss’ best friend holds her back and takes her away.
“There’s was so much emotion in those scenes, and Jennifer (Lawrence) was really helpful,” Shields said. “She told me to be true to myself and bring what I thought was natural for the character. She’s an actress that I really look up to.”
Lawrence received major accolades and an Oscar nomination for her role as Ree Dolly in 2010’s “Winter’s Bone.” Growing up in New Mexico, Shields has lived in Albuquerque and Edgewood. Shields’ father, Rob, is an art teacher and her mother, Carrie, is a homeschooling mom who strives to give her kids a diverse education. Shields also has a twin sister and a brother, all of whom are actors.
Rob Shields said all of his children have also been involved in helping their community.
“They have consistently worked in homeless shelters, assisted veterans in need, spent every Sunday morning for years feeding and caring for rescued animals,” Rob said. “Through Willow’s success, she has had the fortune to be involved in a huge anti-bullying campaign and more recently is assisting in trying to raise money for communities throughout the world who do not have access to clean drinking water.”
Rob Shields says the family has a pretty routine life – you can find them eating at Frontier Restaurant or browsing a local bookstore.
But acting has become a big part.
“Reading scripts, practicing lines and auditioning is a pretty common thing in our household,” he said. “Our neighbors may have an interesting take on what goes on in our house. One day they may hear screaming from an audition and the next day see an elaborate photo shoot in the yard. The next day see a limo pick Willow up to take her to the airport, etc.
“OK, I take it back, our lives aren’t quite normal, but we are sure enjoying the ride.”
Willow began acting at the age of 7 and got bit parts in USA Network’s “In Plain Sight.” In 2010, she was cast in the Hallmark TV movie “Beyond the Blackboard,” where she played a homeless teen.
“I was lucky to have the film industry so close so I could see how I would do as an actress,” she said. “I took acting lessons when I was younger, but it was more for theater purposes than film. I hope in the future I can get back into theater.”
With only a handful of film credits to her name, Shields said her agent had her submit a video audition for the role of Prim. Her agent sent it to “Hunger Games” director Gary Ross in Los Angeles and later got a call back.
“My mom and I flew to L.A. and I met with Gary, the producer and the casting director,” she says. “And right after I auditioned, I got the part on the spot. Since then, my life has changed. I was so surprised that I couldn’t speak.”
Ross speaks highly of his choice for Prim.
“It’s so exciting to find an amazing young actress like the one we met,” he said. “Prim is an emotionally demanding role and, in many ways, she is the cornerstone of the story. Willow Shields will make an amazing Prim, and we’re very lucky to have her.”
As the sixth-grader’s profile rises in Hollywood ranks, Shields is looking forward to balancing acting and her schoolwork.
“I do want to go to college and either study acting or become a pediatrician,” she said. “I’m just looking forward to the other two movies (in the trilogy) and concentrating on making Prim the best that I can make her.”
As far as Shields’ friends are concerned, they think it’s really cool that she’s in the film.
“They don’t really treat me as an actor,” she said. “When I come home, they are the ones who help keep me grounded. They do make fun of me when they see the movie trailer, though.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal