By Sydney Bucksbaum and Sydney Bucksbaum
May 18, 2020 at 10:00 AM EDT
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The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

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You don’t know Coriolanus Snow. The ultimate villain of Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games book trilogy is getting an origin story with The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes prequel (out May 19), and Santino Fontana was astounded by the District 13-level security he endured while recording the audiobook narration for it. "I’ve never done anything this top secret in my life, and I was in Frozen!" the Tony award-winning Tootsie star and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend alum tells EW. "They installed a safe in my apartment and an iPad that had been manipulated so that there was no Wi-Fi. It had nothing else but the book on it. I had to keep the iPad in the safe and tell nobody."

Fontana laughs as he reveals that every email he received about recording the audiobook had no specifics about the plot of the story. "The only contact I had with the author was she had recorded all the character names, the pronunciations," he adds. "So I was able to get that from her virtually, but that was it. Otherwise, it was like, 'We'll see you in the studio!'"

Set 64 years before the events of the original trilogy, the "disturbing, funny, intense"(his words!) Ballad revisits the world of Panem from the perspective of its future tyrannical dictator, President Snow, as he’s assigned to mentor District 12’s female tribute at the 10th Hunger Games (sound familiar?). The book opens on the morning of the reaping, an event that Hunger Games fan know all too well. But this time, we see the heartbreaking holiday through the eyes of a very different protagonist.

"I wouldn’t say he’s a hero, nor would I say he’s a villain; it’s more complex than that," Fontana says of this younger version of Snow. "You’ll see the insanity that he goes through. He is a fully fleshed out human with good and bad, and you may agree or disagree with his decisions but either way it's pretty shocking. You think you know someone but there are a lot of surprises. You're going to understand a lot more of why he is the way he is."

Fontana is the first to admit that he still hasn’t read the original Hunger Games book trilogy, but he’s a big fan of the movies. So how did he get the esteemed role of narrating the audiobook for the prequel? After Collins’ longtime editor David Levithan saw him perform at the Roundabout Theatre Company in Stephen Karam's play Sons of the Prophet, he reached out to Fontana’s agents. And since Fontana had previously narrated Stephen King’s The Institute, he already had the necessary experience with recording audiobooks.

But the process of recording Ballad was very different, as he finished just as New York issued its COVID-19 stay-at-home order. "That was quite an experience, reading this book about survival and going through the beginnings of this pandemic," he says. "This was at the very beginning of this crisis, where we didn't really know what's really going to happen. There were multiple times where we had to stop, because it just sounded like this is our life right now – people not knowing what’s going to happen in the future, it’s a world in turmoil, some people would say it’s dystopian, scary, like what the hell is going on? That on the one hand was terrifying; I’d have to stop and laugh about it or make a joke just to get through it."

But Fontana also promises that’s what makes it the perfect book to read (or listen to the audiobook narration) right now. "I kind of wish I hadn’t read it already because I would love to read it now, when I have time to delve into another world," he adds.

You can hear the first 11 minutes of the audiobook now with EW's exclusive sneak peek here. So put in your earbuds and let the Games begin all over again.

A version of this story appears in the June 2020 issue of Entertainment Weekly, which you can buy here now. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

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