Image Credit: Lee Roth/RothStock/PR Photos 

The rumors are true. Director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) will direct the Lionsgate adaptation of The Hunger Games, the first installment of Suzanne Collins' brilliantly urgent dystopian trilogy. In his first conversation anywhere about the film, which Lionsgate told EW will likely go into production in the late spring of 2011, Ross was funny, passionate, and sounded as deeply impressed and moved by heroine Katniss Everdeen as the trilogy's ardent fans.

Ross revealed that he hadn't yet met with any actresses but would begin those conversations shortly. Admirers of Katniss, District 12's dark and resilient "Tribute," can rest assured that the director won't dumb the character down or cutesy her up for the movie. "I've talked to Suzanne extensively and I feel like I understand the character really, really well," he said. "I feel like I know who that girl needs to be."

Ross dispelled the notion that there are already leading contenders for the role. "I've read in the press that there are frontrunners but that's not the case." There has been much clamoring online to cast an unknown, a possibility Ross hasn't ruled out. "I honestly don't know," he said. "We'll cast the right person for the part. Lionsgate has been great in the respect that they don't feel that this needs a movie star in Katniss' role. The greatest thing about the franchise and the books being the star is that we can cast whoever we want. So we all feel like we're just going to cast the right person."

And just who Katniss should be, says Ross, has nothing to do with an actress' heat or whether she's a great beauty by Hollywood's exacting standards. "I don't think that's the main criterion for Katniss," Ross insisted. "What makes Katniss attractive is her strength and her assuredness and her defiance and ultimately her compassion. And I don't mean just physical strength. I mean a real strength as a human being. She knows her own truth. She feels deeply and fiercely. And this is something that the actress has to bring with her."

Was Ross ready to reveal whether, say, Robert Downey Jr. or Hugh Laurie would step into the vomit-stained shoes of our beloved Haymitch? "No," he said with a laugh. "But I'll tell you very soon. I promise. It would be wrong I think to announce it before we've actually cast them or spoken to them."

For much more of our conversation with Gary Ross about The Hunger Games, check out the Jan. 7 issue of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY. And check back online over the next two weeks for more scoop from the director.

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