For our first cover of 2024, we hung out with the actor in New York to talk The Hunger Games, getting into character, and his upcoming lead role in Ryan Murphy's new series.
There are a few things I learned about Josh Andrés Rivera right away. For one, he's extremely grounded. It's exciting to see someone as humble as him get the recognition he deserves, especially in the hands of such a successful franchise. Second, he is a great conversationalist; from the complex process of getting into character to how he takes his coffee in the morning, Josh is a natural storyteller. And lastly, he's funny as hell.
After a successful run on Broadway, a few pilots, and a supporting role in Steven Spielberg's West Side Story, Josh found himself in a lead role for one of the most anticipated films of the year (and my personal favorite), The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. In the prequel based on Suzanne Collins' best-selling novel, Josh plays Sejanus Plinth, a dystopian-era activist who was too good for the unjust and violent world of Panem. He stars alongside Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Viola Davis, and Peter Dinklage in what I consider to be the best Hunger Games film yet. While I know this is a controversial statement (yes, I did watch and love Catching Fire), this film delivers an intense narrative that unfolds in a society seemingly distant from ours. However, due to the powerful and beautiful portrayals by Josh and the rest of the cast, the story feels painfully grounded in today's world.
At the end of the Hunger Games press tour, I met up with Josh at Madison Square Park to talk about getting into character, the filming locations he loved, and his upcoming role as Aaron Hernandez in Ryan Murphy's American Sports Story.
Hector Gutierrez: The Hunger Games is a huge franchise, and when they announced the prequel, I knew there would be a lot of pressure because of the fan base. How was the journey from learning about the role to filming on set?
Josh Andrés Rivera: I actually read the book after I got the role. It turned out to be a great resource because everything was right there in the text. Suzanne did a lot of groundwork, which was really helpful for me. Sejanus is so vividly portrayed in the book, and I paid close attention to that. To me, he came across as a sweet and earnest character. I noticed some similarities with Chino from West Side Story, a role I played, although Sejanus is more outspoken and headstrong. Still, there's a similar sweetness in both characters, and I aimed to build on that. It was a valuable learning experience for me, especially since I'm relatively new to this. I started in theater, and West Side Story was my first film. This role, coming after a pilot and a few other projects, was a great character experiment that taught me a lot.
I don't know if you ever got the chance to talk to Francis Lawrence or Nina Jacobson or anybody from the team, but sometimes there can be a boundary between actors and the team. There's a hierarchy, and that's been my experience before, but they did a really good job at avoiding that. I felt like a part of the creative process and that my ideas mattered. That did a great deal on me feeling comfortable enough to make choices. So that made the process a lot smoother, too.
HG: I feel like if you read the book after getting hired, you also developed your own interpretation of Sejanus.
JAR: Yeah, of course. And then, I got a little bit of ego [laughs]. I want my characters to be cool. When I was reading the script and the book, I remember reading the scene when he dies. It’s such a beautiful yet tragic scene, but I have to admit I still wanted him to look cool in some way [laughs]. It's a good thing I’m not the writer because it wouldn't have been as good. It was nice to have Suzanne’s writing to rely on and be my North Star.
HG: Well, I'll say that scene, especially because I haven’t finished the book, was so unexpected. I was devastated, no kidding.
JAR: It’s cause you went in blind! That’s rough.
HG: I’m halfway through, so I didn't know that was going to happen. I hated that it came after the scene on the train where Sejanus meets Coriolanus. It felt so optimistic.
JAR: You know, there’s this line that Sejanus has where he's like “you're going to do great, Corio. We're both going to do great.” I remember watching that scene in the theater, and being like yeah that boy's dead [laughs]. I honestly love movie tropes. I think when I first saw it, I actually laughed out loud. It was kind of embarrassing, but I couldn't help myself because I was like, oh, you are so screwed.
HG: Oh man, I was the opposite. I fully believed things were going to be great for them.
JAR: You should have seen it coming, but I don’t blame you. I obviously had the context of the scene. But if you go back to watch the movie, you’ll definitely catch the irony in it.
Cristina Gutierrez (our photographer): Sorry to interrupt, but I feel like characters can be such an embodiment of humanity sometimes, especially when they represent young people. You want to believe they’re going to do well, and that they are worthy of a happy ending. I feel like Sejanus suffers from things that are so relatable to today’s generation, especially with everything he goes through during the movie.
JAR: That’s definitely his role in the broader plot because he's essentially just doing what anyone might instinctively do. When I initially read the book, I was genuinely moved by his earnestness. However, I also felt a bit like I was watching a horror movie, thinking, "Don't go in there, dude. That's not smart." He comes off as naive at times, lacking tact, given his privileged background. Unlike Coriolanus, who's a tactician and manipulative, Sajanus never had to navigate that. He possesses a clear sense of right and wrong and simply goes for it. I feel his role is for others to see a reflection of themselves in him. We all like to believe we'd be in The Capitol, questioning the wrongs, but then he actually attempts to do the right thing. There's a question in there about how, obviously, that doesn't work out for him. So, what's the correct way to do the right thing?
Do you have to be manipulative or duplicitous to navigate the world? Because, in my opinion, he did what is arguably the most straightforward way of being morally correct, and yet he was killed. So, how do you navigate that in such a corrupt world? He’s easy to relate to because, in the world we live in, it's challenging to figure out how to do the right thing, especially when it’s so easy to feel powerless.
HG: That scene crushed me. How did you prepare for emotional scenes like Sejanus’s death, or the one where his tribute dies and he starts screaming in the vieweing room?
JAR: I wish I had a more complex answer [laughs]. I don't have an overly complicated process when it comes to those scenes. I just put myself in the character’s shoes. What I find beautiful about Sejanus’s background is that he didn't have many friends, which made him an outsider. His primary interaction with his tribute, though it got cut from the movie, involved a small but impactful moment. He shared a story about jamming his finger in a windowsill, and Marcus got ice for him, grabbing a handful of snow to soothe his finger. They may not have been extremely close, but that moment defined Marcus, the tribute, in Sejanus’s mind. Considering that background, I contemplated what it would feel like to be completely alone, what these people would mean to me or who would that could be in my life. It pissed me off and then I threw a chair [laughs].
HG: I love that answer because I feel like there's a trend going on right now with actors who, if I had asked that question, they'd be like, oh, I just threw a chair for months before that scene. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I love your emotional approach based on pure empathy.
JAR: I’m not a method actor, but for some actors it works. I have a hard time being in that physical and emotional state for that long. If I was to live as somebody, I’d feel exhausted all the time. It’s easier for me to focus on the scene at hand, and then create that emotional bond.
HG: So you have background in theater, and this film appears to involve a lot of CGI, a lot of green screens, I would assume.
JAR: Actually, a lot of it was real.
HG: Oh shoot, really?
JAR: Most of it was practical. Some scenes like the explosions in the arena were obviously not real because that's pretty dangerous. Some of the backgrounds you see, like The Capitol with the city behind it, did require CGI. But not a lot did because we were fortunate enough to film around Germany and Poland, which both have beautiful landscapes and architecture. That’s the blessing of being and actor and getting to film in places like this. It was very cool—something I hadn’t been able to do before.
HG: The city shots are incredible. And even the sets, like the viewing room where students watched the games, had such great details.
JAR: It all feels very real. Some were props, like the TVs in that viewing room, but the aesthetic sold it. It's this old and futuristic vibe. It reminds me of the 1950s when they imagined what the future would be with like hover cars and such. I feel like that was the inspiration. That's my theory.
HG: It reminded me of “The Jetsons.” It's retro to us, but to them it's futuristic.
JAR: Yes, exactly! The Jetsons. I think that maybe the name for it actually. Retro futuristic.
HG: Well, obviously, as we mentioned, Sejanus dies towards the end. This is more of a creative answer, but if you could change his fate, would you?
JAR: The thing is, I don't know how to change anything without altering the character. I don’t think Sejanus knows how to not stir the pot. When he arrived in District 12, he found the rebels, wanted to help the people, and even conspired to break prisoners out of jail. In the eyes of The Capitol, he’s a criminal. I just feel like regardless he would have ended with the same fate no matter what.
HG: No matter what, he would be in the front of lines of the revolution.
JAR: Yeah. Since he’s so new to everything, he's been talking smack about The Capitol since day one, but he only started really making waves and doing his version of activism when he got to District 12. So I guess if he survived long enough to become a little more tactical about it, maybe he could have managed to learn how to navigate that world and make even more of a difference.
Cristina: It's interesting because I feel like your character, Rachel's character, and Tom's character represent privilege in different ways. For example, Lucy Gray doesn't have as much privilege as her because she was born in District 12, but then your character was born in the districts but now lives in The Capitol. And then Tom's character appears to be privileged in some ways, but he hides behind a curtain.
JAR: That's an interesting point because it comes up a lot in the movie where Coriolanus doesn’t think Sejanus will be ever get in trouble because he’s rich. For the most part, he has the luxury to be headstrong and go against the grain because he's used to getting bailed out by his dad. But in the end, that doesn't happen. It’s an interesting difference between him and Coriolanus because Coriolanus has this privilege of his lineage and the sense of “belonging” in The Capitol, but his family is out of money, so he projects an illusion of privilege. It’s an interesting duality.
HG: Alright, so for this last question I’m taking us out of Panem and into the real world. I bet there’s not much to say yet about your next project, but you’re going into production for “American Sports Story,” a new series by Ryan Murphy. How do you feel?
JAR: There's a lot I'm looking forward to. It's a real challenge because I’m playing Aaron Hernandez, who’s a real person. So there's a lot of sensitivity there that I have to approach with a lot of research. It’s about toeing the line between imitating and emulating because obviously, I'm not going to be him, but I need to deliver a faithful portrayal of the things that he went through to make the story powerful. So there's been a lot of emphasis around fitness so far. Personally, what I really want to do is approach it with sensitivity and empathy because there are so many different factors to the story. He left high school early to join the Florida Gators on scholarship. He was getting all of this attention so early, got a lot of money really early, got a lot of fame as well. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us at the time, he was battling a neurodegenerative disorder. It’s going to be a challenging role but it’s also an exciting one. There's a lot of things to pay attention to, and I'm learning a lot. I'm learning a lot about football, the NFL, the effects of fame, and also CTE. So, yeah I guess all I can say is that I’m looking forward to it.
HG: I’m really excited to see you in this. I feel like it’s going to be such a nice contrast.
JAR: For sure. It’s a big departure from what I've done before, so I feel fortunate that I get to do something new.
HG: I hope you also get to relax before filming starts, though. It’s been a crazy few weeks for you.
JAR: I know! I just finished with the movie’s press tour. Now I’m going to visit my dad for Thanksgiving, and as soon as I get back, filming is set to start. There’s a lot going on.
HG: Hoping you can sleep for days. I call it a Jesus nap. You sleep for three days, and then wake up.
JAR: A Jesus nap. That's really great [laughs]. But honestly though, in all this chaos lately, I enjoyed just sitting down and chatting about all this. It was lovely.
HG: Can’t wait for next time.
This interview was condensed for clarity.
Editor: Hector Gutierrez
Photography: Cristina Gutierrez
Grooming: Jenny Sauce
Styling: Enrique Melendez