March 28, 2012 12:00 PM

THE TOUGHEST PART about casting the role of Gale Hawthorne-who is confined to District 12 as his best friend Katniss fights for her life in the Hunger Games-was to find someone who could make a powerful impression in a minimum amount of screen time. “You don’t see Gale that much,” says casting director Debra Zane, “but you have to remember him, and what he means to Katniss, throughout the movie.” Enter the 6’3″ rugged Aussie Liam Hemsworth. “Liam is a real manly man, and that’s a big piece of who Gale is,” says Zane. “He embodied the role in a way a lot of other actors didn’t. Maybe that’s his Australian roots.” The actor, 22, definitely felt a kinship with his character. “When I read the books, I related most to Gale,” Hemsworth told PEOPLE’s Blaine Zuckerman. “He’s a strong, stand-up-for-what-you-believe-in kind of guy. From the beginning, I honestly never related to Peeta as much as I did to Gale.”

Did you and Jennifer click immediately when you started filming?
Yes. She was super easy to be around, and we had great chemistry onscreen. It’s easy to have chemistry with someone when they’re a likable person. She’s very quick, open and quirky.

And how was your rapport with the guy who plays your Hunger Games romantic rival?
Josh and I hit it off the first time we met. He’s a great guy, he’s smart and he’s a good talker. I’ve said many times that I think he could probably get me to go to war for him because he’s that persuasive.

Did you have to train as hard as Jennifer and Josh did?
There wasn’t too much skill involved in my training. It was just losing weight. I wanted to look hungry. I’ve lost weight pretty rapidly before, but this wasn’t losing weight in a healthy way. It was more like I’d binge eat and then I wouldn’t eat for a while. I wanted to get the sense of how Gale and the people in District 12 ate, because no one has any money, so they probably only had one meal a day. I wanted to feel that, and it’s funny-you get really, really grumpy at times.

How about your hair color change, was that weird for you?
Mine got dyed almost black. I’d never dyed it before, and it does make me look quite a bit different. It really tripped me out. I’d wake up every morning and there was someone else staring in the mirror.

The film has a lot of cool celeb cameos-were you starstruck by anyone in particular?
I was really excited to meet Woody Harrelson. Haymitch was my favorite character in the books, and I’ve been a big fan of Woody’s work for a long, long time. He’s awesome.

Are you emotionally prepared to deal with the paparazzi attention and fan mania once the movie is released?
People keep asking me if I’m ready for it, but I’ve already been dealing with it for a few years. It comes with the job, and I think there are much worse things in life to deal with than that. As an actor, I always look for a good script and stuff that I can relate to and fresh new ideas, and this movie had all those things. I think it’s going to be great onscreen. Actors all just want their work to do well.


Thinking back on his years growing up as the youngest of three brothers outside Melbourne, Hemsworth describes himself as “a BMX bandit” and recalls being “obsessed with fish and chips. I was like, ‘I’m going to make my own store!'” At age 16-following the lead of his brothers Chris and Luke-Liam decided to become an actor and landed his first agent. That led to roles on Australian TV (on the hit soap opera Neighbours he played a paraplegic) and then a move to Hollywood in 2009. His heartthrob looks caught the attention of casting agents, and at 20-after being in L.A. for mere weeks-he snagged the leading man role in 2010’s teen romance flick The Last Song opposite Miley Cyrus, 19, who became his girlfriend. Now, with The Hunger Games, Hemsworth is getting the chance to prove he’s more than just a pretty face. “On first glance he’s such a hunk that it’s easy to ascribe a hunklike simplicity to him,” director Gary Ross told ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY. “But this is a phenomenally subtle actor.”

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