If you’ve seen Orphan — the 2009 psychological thriller about a bad seed (Isabelle Furhman) who gets adopted by Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard and then makes their lives a true living hell — then you know Isabelle Furhman is really good at A) Playing a villain, and B) Coming off as way older than her years. Both these qualities were essential to playing Clove, one of the lethal career tributes in The Hunger Games, and the one who tussles the most with heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence).
What’s less obvious on-screen is that Furhman is A) Delightful in person, and B) Very much still a young teenage girl. And like many young teenage girls, Furhman is obsessed with The Hunger Games. In our interview below, she talks about how she convinced director Gary Ross to let her audition for the film, how scarily accurate she is at Clove’s talent for throwing knives, and what one of her best friends did to her when she refused to reveal anything about making the film.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you first get acquainted with the books?
ISABELLE FUHRMAN: Well my agent actually is the one who gave me the first book when Lionsgate had first optioned it, and I read it that night. And then the next day I bought the second one, and read it that night. And then I had to wait until August for the third one to come out, which sucked. But then I read the third one immediately. I’ve read the [full] series nine times now, and the first book 13 [times]. [Chuckling] So I’m a little bit of a fan of it.
Immediately, I was drawn to Katniss, of course. Everyone is. It’s written through her eyes. I wrote a letter to Gary Ross asking if I could audition for it. My agent ended up getting me an audition with [casting director] Debra Zane. I was told I was too young, because I’m 14. So I thought there was no way I was going to be in this movie, but they called asking if I wanted to audition for Clove, like a week later. And here I am.
Wait, you’re 14?
Well, I’m 15 now. Still getting used to that. Just turned 15.
When they finally offered you the role, did you want to do it right away?
I cried, I was so happy. I was so ecstatic, because, as I said, I was such a huge fan of the books. It was one of those moments where you don’t believe it actually happened. But it did.
What was your training like for Clove?
Originally, they wanted me to gain 10 pounds of muscle. And I only had two weeks to do that, which was impossible because I’m, well, very tiny. So they decided just to have me get leaner and more toned. So I ended up getting some muscle tone on me. Because the way Clove is described in the book is this big and burly character, and I’m so not. I really tried to compensate for that with my acting ability and become her physically as much as I can, do all my stunts, and learn how to actually throw knives and combat training and all that.
Learning how to throw knives — what was that like?
It was very interesting. I don’t have that strong of an arm, so it was starting with throwing a tennis ball at a target [with] the right form. And then move to a baseball. And then move to plastic knives. And then move to duct-tape-and-cardboard knives. And then move to the actual knives. A lot of it was physics, and knowing how much force to put on the knife. The knife goes three knife-lengths every rotation — a lot times I’d throw it, and it’d end up with the butt end in, and the blade would be sticking out. Which is not what you want to do.
So a lot of practice. I worked, as I said, for two weeks on really perfecting it because I wanted it to be as professional as possible. That’s what [Clove] has been training for her entire life.
By the end, how accurate were you?
I can throw right on. Bulls-eye, yeah. It’s very interesting, because now I have a lot better aim with throwing a tennis ball for my dogs. It’s definitely a skill I’m hoping to keep up with, even though it’s very odd.
The cornucopia scene — what was that filming day like?
We rehearsed it for a week, and then it took a week to film every single part of it. There’s running in, and each character’s finding a weapon, and fighting for certain things. We were very excited, because the cornucopia were the first scenes we filmed. That’s where we became very close — we call talked with each other and bonded. When we first met, funny enough, it was, “Hi, I’m Dayo [Okeniyi], I’m playing Thresh, I kill you in the movie.”
Were you sorry you didn’t get to play Katniss?
No. I’m really happy I get to play Clove. She’s so different from me, and [I enjoyed] really getting to develop her psyche and figure out who she is, and develop a backstory for her. You don’t really get that kind of freedom with parts. Usually the backstory’s written in [to the script] or the writer and the director have a clear vision. I talked to Gary about where I saw her. We agreed on some points and disagreed on some points. We talked about making her more dynamic by making her smarter than the other careers. So instead of getting involved in the cornucopia fight, she’s smarter and stakes out the person with the highest training score, because she knows she’s the biggest threat. And in the tracker jacker scene, she’s watching the tree. When everyone’s walking away to set up camp, she’s watching her, because she knows that even though this isn’t the right time, there’s going to be a good moment to strike. So I think Clove was always testing her opponents, observing them.
Since you’re obviously such a big fan of the entire series, what do you most want to see in Catching Fire and Mockingjay?
Mockingjay was my favorite book, so I’m looking forward to seeing the whole relationship with Peeta and Katniss, and also the Joan of Arc character that Katniss becomes. That’s another reason why people love the story so much, because she’s so empowering and not the damsel in distress character. She’s strong and is willing to do everything she can to survive, for her family’s safety as well.
SPOILER ALERT: And Catching Fire? What are you looking forward to with that one?
For Catching Fire, more Donald Sutherland, I think, [as Panem’s nefarious President Snow]. He was fantastic in this one, and I’m excited to see those scenes where he comes to District 12 and has a talk with Katniss. That was a scene that makes you cringe in the book, because it’s so creepy. (END SPOILER ALERT.)
You obviously know how important the books are to you, but when you signed onto the movie, did you realize how big it would become?
I knew that there was a large fanbase around it, because all of my friends were reading the books as the same time that I was. I think I guessed that this was a very popular book series. But I didn’t think it was this kind of caliber [of popularity]. I mean, my friend locked me in a bathroom for an hour-and-a-half to try to get me to tell her something about the movie. I’m like, “I can’t! I really can’t!”
That’s hilarious. When did this happen?
Right when I got home from filming. I had a week before I had to film another project. We had a sleepover, and we were talking, and she was like, “How’s the shooting.” And I was telling her it went well but I can’t tell her anything about the movie, about the sets or anything. So she really locked me in her bathroom, and it was like, “If you don’t tell me this, then I’m not going to let you out.” I escaped through the window. I was like, “I’m not sitting here anymore. I’m done tweeting and playing Tetris on my phone.”
What’s next for you?
Yeah, I’m leaving on the night of the premiere, right after the carpet, to go shoot a movie called After Earth that M. Night Shyamalan is directing and Will and Jaden Smith are in it. I play Jaden Smith’s friend on the planet of Nova Prime, which is the planet that everyone has moved to 1,000 years after Earth is no longer able to be lived on because of natural disasters and issues with the atmosphere. It’s another dystopian future!