Tom Blyth is tired, but he’s doing a good job of hiding it. When the star of “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” sits down with Variety via Zoom, SAG-AFTRA is still on strike, and it’s been six short days since the Lionsgate thriller received an in- terim agreement from the guild.
That means the press tour leading up to the long-anticipated release, typically spread across several months, has been condensed to just two weeks. But Blyth is animated as he talks about landing the role of Coriolanus Snow in the prequel tale, which explores how a poor young man with a revolutionary spirit eventually becomes the vicious dictator of Panem.
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“When I got the call, I was ec- static for a moment,” recalls Blyth, 28, who is best known as the titular character in the MGM+ series “Billy the Kid.” “And then I was like, ‘Oh, shit, I actually have to do this. I have to play this character, when there’s already such a big cinema folklore around him.” Donald Sutherland’s heartless President Snow in the original franchise is a far cry from Blyth’s obedient cadet, who is balancing his first love with crushing obligations to keep his family afloat.
“I don’t think I anticipated how emotionally taxing the role was going to be,” admits Blyth, hours after the film’s Berlin premiere. “I was like, ‘I’m part of a big block- buster franchise. This is gonna be fun!’”
Of course, sending children into an arena where they’ll fight to the death isn’t exactly the stuff of light comedy. When the story begins, 18-year-old Snow is chosen to mentor Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), the District 12 tribute for the 10th annual Hunger Games. But unlike the first film in the Jennifer Lawrence-led series, a significant portion of the plot takes place after the games are over, illustrating the grim reality of life in totalitarian Panem.
For young Snow, the drive to survive and succeed transforms him. “He ends in an entirely different place to where he begins,” Blyth says. “And everything that happens in between those two points is huge, life-changing stuff that most people in their lifetime don’t go through.” To help him capture the character’s complexities, Blyth turned to the film’s source material, Suzanne Collins’ novel of the same name.
“What Suzanne Collins is really good at is asking those questions: What makes a person bad? Were they born bad?” he says.
If Snow’s actions are morally questionable, there’s no doubting the unadulterated evil behind Viola Davis’ deliciously coldhearted Head Gamemaker, Dr. Volumnia Gaul. Davis shares several electric scenes with Blyth as Gaul plots new ways to torture the tributes.
“That tension you feel in the scenes is partially acting and partially me being petrified of working with one of my idols,” Blyth says, laughing. “She’s just the most professional, down-to-earth, lovely human being with a massive heart, who also just happens to be a fucking genius. You get in a scene with her, and she just makes choices that you couldn’t have even imagined making yourself.”
Blyth may have been petrified playing opposite Davis, but the Juilliard-trained actor was fearless about embodying Snow. He underwent a major physical transformation, dyeing his brunet locks icy blond and dropping weight to achieve Snow’s underfed frame.
“It was an intense process,” he says. “I was pretty much just eating apple slices and almond butter for six months.”
The actor believes “Hunger Games” fans will be surprised when they see his take on Snow. “People think they know the character. What I hope is that, if not to empathize with him, they understand him a little bit more and understand what makes him tick. And understand what a character like him would have to go through to make him become so evil.”
“For me, I kind of fell in love with him as a character,” he says. “I was heartbroken when I had to let him fall off the deep end.”
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