Willow Shields
Credit: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Willow Shields, the 11-year-old actress who makes her big-screen debut as Katniss Everdeen’s sister Prim in The Hunger Games, hadn’t quite finished the first book when she got the audition for the role. Why? Her mother, who was already a huge Hunger Games fan, wouldn’t let Willow and her twin sister read the book until they turned 11. “We weren’t really allowed to read it before because it’s a little violent in some parts,” Willow tells EW. “But we just looked at it like the story’s more about Prim and Katniss and Katniss fighting for her sister and her mom.”

Willow taped an audition from New Mexico, where she still lives, and flew to L.A. a couple of weeks later to read the scene in which Prim says goodbye to Katniss as she leaves for the Games, for director Gary Ross. He pretty much told her she had the part on the spot. Once she got to set, which scene was Shields most nervous to film? And who is her dream costar after she wraps on Games? Click through to find out.

Shields says she was most nervous to shoot the Reaping, which took five or six days in total, because it was such an important scene. Ross encouraged her to trust her instincts. “I think he was trying to leave it up to me how I thought Prim would act in that situation,” she says. “Before the Reaping, she’s super nervous. I could never imagine thinking that you’re gonna go to the Reaping and if you get chosen, then you have to go fight to the death. For a 12-year-old girl, that’s crazy. The thought of her being chosen, and then her sister taking her place, [so she’s] thinking that her sister would never come home — it’s crazy to think that that would really happen.” (Like Prim, Willow isn’t made for the arena: Ask her what she would want parachuted to her, and the only answer she can come with is “no weapons.”)

While Shields bonded with Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss) between scenes on set — “We would always goof around and make jokes to try to lighten the mood” — she spent a lot of her downtime with the younger actors playing Tributes in the film, whether at set school or swimming to cool off after a day of shooting or training in 100-degree heat. She grew close to Amandla Stenberg, the actress who plays Rue. “We’ve both got these really emotional scenes,” she says. “That actually helped me and Amandla bond in our own way, doing those types of scenes and connecting with Jennifer and the character Katniss.”

Shields is looking forward to shooting the next Hunger Games film, and dreams of working with Meryl Streep. In the meantime, the “huge Harry Potter fan” who saw the last film in that franchise the day it hit theaters is ready to be a moviegoer again. “I’m gonna go to a midnight showing [of The Hunger Games] here in New Mexico with a couple of my friends and their parents, so that should be super fun,” she says. “I’m super excited about that: my first midnight showing ever! We’ll see how that goes,” she laughs. We think she’ll be able to stay awake through it. “Yeah, probably,” she giggles.

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The Hunger Games
  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • Gary Ross