There was something I didn't tell Tom Blyth during our chat. I did, of course, mention how I had caught the film and could honestly say that it was pretty good, which was the utter truth. And I know I'm not the only one who thought so.
Over opening weekend, reviews of The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes have turned up generally positive. As proof, the latest movie taking the box office top reaping at USD243.9 million globally at the point of writing. No small deal for any film in these times of entertainment saturation, let alone a prequel in an era of prequel/sequel/spinoff overload.
What I didn't say was how I was never planning to watch it in the first place. Not that I wasn't a fan of the original franchise. I, along with Blyth, were among the many teens who were swept up in the wave of dystopian films of the early 2010s. (Just think—how many among the audience of the latest prequel are possibly pre-teens named Katniss!)
Perhaps it was splitting a highly anticipated finale into two segments released a year apart (a regret director Francis Lawrence has admitted to, but to his credit, a practice now fairly common). Or perhaps it was the idea that this new tale takes place 64 years before JLaw's iconic volunteering, without any of the former films' quintessential characters except Coriolanus Snow himself.
Fortunately, the deterrence to what I regarded as a plausible cash grab gave way to relief, and quickly, respect for the actor who filled those big shoes with ingenuity. It's not an easy feat. Names—that we shall not name—immediately spring to mind where movies fell flat because its leading man did. To convincingly embody a character that fans not only have to root for but carry certain expectations of from previous portrayals, sounds like an incredibly daunting task.
Interestingly, when the breakout star first auditioned for the role, he was not privy to what it was for. He thought it was a well-written script, but it was only when he got to subsequent rounds that he and his agent figured it could potentially be the new Hunger Games. The word "Gamemaker" was what gave it away.
"I was like, hang on a sec; I know that term from the original films! That started to give me clues but I had no idea there was a prequel floating around out there that Suzanne Collins had written," Blyth recounted.
The book soon became Bible to the 28-year-old actor as he never got to meet Donald Sutherland, who played the elder statesman in the preceding instalments. It was somewhat by design, from initial discussions with Lawrence, to acquaint with the character through fresh eyes and give this version of Snow an unbiased chance to share his narrative.
This process of mentally erasing existing impressions extended to his approach to the franchise. "I actually chose not to rewatch [the past films] because I knew this was going to be different tonally and visually," Blyth reveals. "It felt like a standalone film. And I think the actors' performances in those movies were such gold that the temptation is to try and recreate it."
The first time you see Blyth as Snow is also how the first chapter of the book begins, and that very opening sequence was what he found massively indicative of the 18-year-old's psyche. "His cousin and grandmother are pretty much starving, they're about to be evicted, and yet his biggest priority was how he was going to be perceived by his classmates.
"He wanted to avoid losing status at any cost. He buys into the spectacle of the Capitol and upholds it through the façade with the ornate shirt Tigris makes him. That was fascinating to me. For someone to do that when living in a war-torn, foodless society probably means they are capable of doing all sorts of mind tricks on themselves and others."
Blyth did, however, return to Sutherland's major scenes (specifically the one in the rose garden with Wes Bentley's Seneca Crane) to capture the dictator's mannerisms towards the end.
"Coryo comes back to the Capitol changed and I wanted to reflect that and leave viewers feeling like he was on the path now to becoming President Snow," he explains, "So I slowed down his speech, used his consonants a little more precisely, and made his cadence a bit more calculated."
It's hard to determine Coryo's turning point in the 157-minute runtime. Could it be in the forest when he seemingly cycles through all five stages of grief, where something breaks inside and he promises never to trust anyone again? Or even earlier while rescuing Sejanus in the arena, where he goes for that extra swing at an already motionless tribute?
The third blow was in fact, Blyth's own addition. Despite being a welcomed decision creatively, caution towards adhering to the PG-13 rating meant doing takes without it. Which is why he was surprised it eventually made the final cut.
"It resonates so much better story-wise," he muses, "I saw the movie with my family in London and all of them in the back row winced when that happened because it was not about self-defence any more. It was callous, violent and intentional."
This gradual descent into madness is joined by a great cast, most notably EGOT-winning Viola Davis. Though naturally intimidated, the young thespian now only has praises for the acting titan's brilliant choices for Dr Volumnia Gaul on-screen and lovely, grounded persona off-screen.
One that surprised him, though, was Lucky Flickerman's Jason Schwartzman. "Oh man, I mean I know he's funny but to be quite so comedically brilliant. Like, this man will spend all his spare time writing hundreds of extra pages of dialogue, workshopping with writer Michael Lesslie, just so he's got this treasure trove of zingers up his sleeve when he has to improvise.
"That's the definition of an actor working his [butt] off to be prepared but showing up and making it look seamless," said Blyth. "That was a real reminder of the work that needs to go in to make these things look smooth, easy and quick."
This is not the Birmingham-born, Brooklyn-based actor's first time as a "tribute" in the Hunger Games that is the acting industry. There may not be a physical death but ego death is certainly part of it.
"Before getting this and Billy the Kid, I must have auditioned hundreds of times since I was 14. Most of them, I didn't get. So yeah, it can be pretty brutal... and when you're not working, it can get hungry," he chuckles at the pun.
Growing up watching the career of his late father, journalist-turned-producer Gavin Blyth, led him to realise that entertainment was viable work. There is also his love for older movies (A Place in the Sun, Casablanca, Giant; for the curious). "They're not muddied by CGI or over-the-top wardrobe, or sometimes even colour. You can really focus on the performance more."
It would ultimately be the performances of Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) and Adam Driver (Girls) that spurred his resolve to enrol in their alma mater Juilliard—undeterred by the fact that he had never been across the pond before.
So Blyth's first big press tour (compressed from months on average to two weeks, thanks to the interim agreement secured amid the SAG-AFTRA strike) was evidently a full-circle-pinch-me moment.
"It's so strange when I zoom out and think of myself as part of this Hunger Games universe. I've seen the film a few times and almost disassociate when watching." It was most surreal when introducing the film during the world premiere, and then looking up to see his family in the crowd waving at him.
It is when things get big and flashy that truly important things are put into perspective. "I feel like I've shaken so many hands, smiled and waved at so many people—wonderful people, each have been amazing—"he said, "but I got home and just craved for that deeper connection with my nearest and dearest."
"But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't enjoying it as well." Blyth acknowledges the trap of getting wrapped up in the whirlwind and tries not to take it all too seriously, "First of all, there are bigger things in the world than my film, and also; what I get to do is both an honour and really fun. 'Cause if you lose that, then what's the point?"
For Tom Blyth, acting used to be a form of escape. "I love accents, costumes, anything that takes me further from myself because I used to just want to be anything but me," he smiled, fully aware of how it sounded. "It was a way for me to lose myself in pretending to be someone else. The most rewarding thing was when I could get away with it."
Thankfully, the mix of teen angst, self-hatred and mischief have been processed in therapy. Now that he has proficient knowledge, confidence and expertise, acting has become more about what he can experiment with, glean from and expand on.
For now, he's excited to do more in his own British accent. Voice is often the integral inception for a character and the vulnerability that comes with acting in his own voice is a frightening challenge he anticipates in upcoming projects. Alongside having to study and speak Italian for approximately half of the next film; another hush-hush American novel adaptation.
Fear may be a powerful tool that Dr Gaul or President Snow exploit to perpetuate control in the movies but in reality, it's a test that draws him. I" like the idea of doing something that scares me 'cause that's where you learn the most," he confessed.
Blyth has always dealt with fear the same way since childhood. His adolescent (and ironic) fear of snakes derived from Indiana Jones, and unknown terrors that lurk in deep waters were both conquered through exposure therapy.
"I just remember having this thought: If you don't hold the snake now, you'd be afraid of them forever, and that's no way to live," he described how he had forced himself to interact with the serpent during a visit to the petting zoo in his youth. "And you realise it's not as scary as you thought it was. I did the same with surfing six years ago; paddling without knowing what was under freaked me out but again, the same thought came."
Between living with a crippling fear for the rest of his life and confronting it head-on, Blyth will always pick the latter. He feels the same way about comedy, which likely stems from his love for When Harry Met Sally ("It has the perfect script"). He has attempted the genre onstage and its difficulty petrifies him. In Blyth Logic: all the more reason to try.
Still, he is at peace that he will probably never get to try or be good at every single thing out there in the world. Headbutting fear may be a bit of a running theme but it's not like he has a desire to throw himself out of a plane with a parachute.
Besides surfing and tinkering with his recently bought motorcycle, tricky acting schedules do not grant much leeway in picking up new skills. Since he used to sketch, learning to be adept with oil colours and mixing paint would be one feasible pastime to accommodate between gigs.
"I just think it's interesting to experience as much as possible in life. There's so much out there to explore," Blyth paused at this point to consider and with a slight glint, went, "I guess I should throw myself out of a plane. If it scares me, I should try it, right?"
Photography: Jeremy Choh
Fashion Direction: Asri Jasman
Art Direction: Joan Tai
Styling: Michael Fisher at THE WALL GROUP
Producer/Casting Director: Even Yu at APEX COMMUNICATIONS
Production Manager: Guoran Yu at APEX COMMUNICATIONS
Grooming: Melissa DeZarate at A-FRAME AGENCY
Photography Assistant: Sangwoo Suh
Digi Tech: Joe Holtrichter
Styling Assistant: Brodie Reardon