March 28, 2012 12:00 PM

TAKING ON THE ROLE OF RUE, the District 11 tribute known for her ability to leap across treetops, allowed Amandla Stenberg to flaunt a skill she’s been honing for years. “When I was younger, I’d be in a park with my mom, she’d look away and the next thing she knew I’d be up in a tree,” says Stenberg (whose mother, Karen Brailsford, is a former PEOPLE correspondent). “I cannot walk past a good climbing tree without climbing it.” The 13-year-old started out as a catalog model at age 4, moved on to appearing in TV commercials, and then got rave reviews for her work in last year’s action movie Colombiana. It was Stenberg’s schoolmates who clued her in to The Hunger Games books. “They were talking about how fabulous the characters were,” says Stenberg, who sat down with PEOPLE’s Mia McNiece at the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area in L.A. “I fell in love with them too-even the evil ones. They’re all so interesting and unique.”

Did you relate to Rue when you read the book?
At first, I didn’t picture myself as her. I just thought, “Wow, this character is so cute.” It wasn’t until I heard there was going to be a movie and read the book again that I thought, “Hey, this character is kind of like me. She’s small and quick and has the same personality traits.” So I called my agent and asked repeatedly for an audition.

How did you finally convince them to give you the part?
“The first time I auditioned, the casting director gave me great feedback. One of her tips was to dress up as Rue for my next audition with the director, Gary Ross. My mom took some of my clothes, a T-shirt and khakis, and she rolled them in the backyard and got them all dirty. We also put twigs and leaves in my hair, so I looked very Rue-like. Gary Ross was impressed.

What was it like walking onto the set for the first time?
I was one of the last people to get to North Carolina because I didn’t have to do as much physical training. So I walk in and see the cast throwing spears and knives and battling each other. It was incredible. I still couldn’t believe that I was part of The Hunger Games.

Were you nervous about meeting Jennifer?
I was very nervous. I’d seen her in X-Men. I’d seen her on the red carpet, and everyone was talking about how she’s the new It Girl. The first time I met her we were talking about how we had just flown into town, and I was so nervous I was spouting out random sentences. I said something like, “Planes go fast.”

Did you get to do any cool stunts?
I did some really cool training, where I got strapped into this custom-made harness and actually jumped into trees and across the room. It was superfun.”

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