Through the soaring windows of the Mandarin Oriental Miami, it's hard not to notice the blue skies and matching azure water. Most people find Miami's beachy, serene views relaxing. But for fans of The Hunger Games, the vacation vista could just as easily conjure images of blister-forming nerve gas, vicious attack mutts, and a deadly countdown clock.
Those are just a few of the obstacles waiting for "tributes" inside an arena where they are tasked with fighting to the death in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, opening this Friday. The film's setting does have certain creepy similarities to local Miami topography: a humid, jungle-like landscape anchored by a body of salt water. From their seats at the Mandarin, actors Jena Malone, who plays the bristly Johanna Mason, and Sam Claflin, as the womanizing Finnick Odair, agree. "From what I can see of Miami, I'd say yes, it's very similar," Claflin replies, gesturing toward the view.
Don't expect these stars to volunteer as tributes themselves, though. In a real-life Miami-set Hunger Games, Malone says, "[As Johanna] I would be good wherever you drop me... [but] me as Jena? Oh no, I would do horrible!" This town is too bright, too hot, and too humid, she explains — plus, she'd have to work on her bikini body.
Claflin's Finnick may come from a district that has a rich history of fishing and plenty of seawater and sunshine, he says, but "the sunshine would kill me... I'd fail miserably; I'd be one of the first to drown." Hailing from England, he's used to some chillier weather, so "give me some snow and maybe I'll be OK," he says with a laugh.
Antipathy for warm climates aside, Claflin didn't have much difficulty stepping into the role of Finnick. It doesn't hurt that he's easy on the eyes. In the novel, author Suzanne Collins describes him as "the handsome, bronze-haired guy from District 4." He's got that description covered.
"As an actor, stepping into the shoes of Finnick, by no means did I ever want to play the insecurities that he has," Claflin says, "because what actually makes him so popular and gives him the reputation he's got is the fact that he is just who everyone thinks he is, which is a confident exterior... I was just trying to portray him as best I could: the charm, the sexual nature of his being." Claflin interrupts himself with an oh-so-charming laugh: "I mean, I think I had [that part] already."
Malone's Johanna has more complexity. In the film, Malone says, "Johanna is playing for two sides of the team, but her heart is kind of always on one side." We'll notice a distinct arc in her character: "You think she is one of the enemies, but maybe she actually has different motivations."
Of course, those are just two of countless interpretations of the characters from Collins' wildly popular series. There are dozens of fan-driven websites dedicated to the lives of Johanna and Finnick. Fans have created "chapters and chapters and chapters about these characters," says Malone, and adding those to Collins' novel, "you can't help but already imagine who they are, who they were, [and] what they've been [through]." To craft her portrayal of Johanna, Malone says, she leaned on Collins and film director Francis Lawrence for guidance. But she wouldn't share any personal insights from the inside of her character's head. Malone stresses, "These characters are such icons, in the sense of just right within this generation. I wouldn't want to tell [fans] whether they're right or wrong, you know what I mean?"
There's one thing most fans can agree on, though: They want to see these characters get busy. Johanna and Finnick are highly sexual characters, especially for a young adult novel. When Johanna first meets Katniss, she takes off her tree costume (District 7 is known for its lumber) and is essentially nude. It's just one of several times Johanna strips down to her birthday suit throughout the novel, and according to Malone, "We're very true to the book." But Claflin interjects, "We don't see enough!" This is a PG-13 movie, after all.
Making a film for a highly engaged, highly demanding fan base is new to Malone and Claflin. Malone, for one, is enjoying the challenge. "I mean, it'd be weird if we walked into these characters and everyone was like, 'Nah, I don't really give a shit.'" The best part, she says, is the story continues in Mockingjay, the final installment in Collins' trilogy.
For Claflin, beginning work on Mockingjay will be like embarking on a journey with Finnick, one he couldn't be happier to start. "[Between] where we leave Finnick in Catching Fire to where you pick up in Mockingjay, there are some seriously messed-up things that have happened. And to have the opportunity to go on that journey and to work out the sort of transitional period that's not written about... is really exciting, and I'm really looking forward to portraying the darker side of Finnick."
This interview originally appeared in the Miami New Times.