Josh Andrés Rivera
In November of 2013, the first installment of The Hunger Games film trilogy launched the careers of several young actors, including Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth. Ten years later, the cast of The Hunger Games prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes walked the red carpet for the film’s premiere after receiving a whirlwind interim agreement from SAG-AFTRA nearly a year after filming. This time, a fresh batch of new but on-the-rise young actors would be launched into superstardom, including Rachel Zegler, Tom Blyth, Hunter Schafer– and Josh Andrés Rivera.
Although Rivera has only been in the industry for a few short years, he already has a lot to show for it. He was a part of the original company for the first national tour of Hamilton, starred opposite Rachel Zegler in Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story, and is currently in production for the upcoming limited series American Sports Story, where he is set to portray Aaron Hernandez. He was first introduced to The Hunger Games trilogy by a librarian at school after losing his free period due to declining grades – never in his dreams did he imagine that years later he’d land the role of Sejanus Plinth in the franchise-backed film The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.
Sejanus, the son of a high-ranking Capitol official, has a poignant story arc. Unlike many of his peers in the Capitol, he questions the morality of the Hunger Games and the Capitol’s treatment of the districts. Without revealing any spoilers– Sejanus is the “good guy” and his character becomes a symbol of resistance in the Capitol, which, to the credit of Rivera’s acting chops and the depth he brought to the character, had fans in theatres across the world rooting for him.
A few weeks after the film’s premiere, Josh Andrés Rivera sits down with 1883 to discuss how it feels to be a part of such a successful franchise, the music that helped bring his character to life, and where he hopes to take his career in the future.
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Congratulations on the release of The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes! Now that it’s been out for a couple of weeks, how does it feel?
It’s wonderful and I love that people really seem to love it and people really seem to respond to it, which is really the most that you can hope for when you make something. There was a lot of work, everybody worked really hard, cast and crew, it was a big time commitment. So it’s very rewarding. It’s cool. You know, it’s also one less thing to think about too because I think in the in-between after you film something, and before it comes out, it’s a very weird limbo to exist in, because you don’t know what it was going to look like, and you don’t know what it’s going to do.
This was one of the first big films to be allowed to do press since the strike began in July. I bet this press run was a whirlwind for you. How has it been travelling the world and seeing fans’ live reactions to the film as it came out?
You know what my favorite part about it was, was that I don’t think any of us expected to be able to get that lucky and get the interim agreement in time. Something cool about it was, we were all seeing each other for the first time since filming. I mean, I think I saw Tom a handful of times because he’s not super far from me. Obviously, I see Rachel a lot, but it was like everybody else — the directors and producers and some of the other people in the cast — being able to come together and be like, “wow, we really did this – oh my gosh” It has been far enough away where we all sort of were in our own lives just a little bit more than to be able to come back together and really kind of appreciate what we’ve done. That, and the carpets were amazing, everybody was super nice. It was really rewarding. I’m probably going to use the word rewarding a lot, but I think that’s the best way that I could put it.
Yeah, a big reunion. You got to celebrate all the work that you did, unexpectedly.
Yeah, we did! Exactly. It was a nice surprise.
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Like most fans of the franchise, I’ve been a fan of The Hunger Games for 10+ years. What was your earliest memory to the franchise / how were you originally introduced to the books or films?
I was introduced to the books by a librarian who worked at my school. I had to give up my free lunch period to study hall because my grades were bad. He gave me The Hunger Games book to try to get me into reading and to his credit, it was an amazing book. I was so invested and I’m not a super big reader. I have a pretty short attention span so it’s always difficult to get invested in that medium. But that book sucked me in so much and I remember there’s always something fun that happens, especially with a world that’s kind of extraordinary. You get to imagine what it’s like and you get to kind of build it in your head. Something really fun about seeing the movie after that was kind of cross-referencing what I had in my mind with a movie. It’s a really fun experience, I think probably a lot of people had [that experience]. But that was my first experience with the book. I think I was about 14.
Did the film match up with what you were seeing in your head as you were reading the book?
For the most part, actually, yeah. There were certain environmental things that I imagined differently, but nothing that I could point out specifically. But it’s interesting how, you know, in the book you’ll miss an adjective, like in a large room, you’ll just read ‘room’ to get to what actually is happening in the room. Then there is this expansive environment that you imagine completely differently because you missed a word or two. That’s something that happens to me a lot, I think.
Did you have a favourite character in the original trilogy?
Yeah, I loved Peeta. I was fully Team Peeta. I thought he was awesome. I loved how he was so charming for the media, but he was just a guy, you know, he made bread. I love that. So down to the earth. I also really liked, I think, the Flickerman character of the original trilogy, the host, I’m blanking on his name. That’s bad. But Stanley Tucci’s character I thought that was so, so powerful in terms of how it introduced that spectacle. It painted this juxtaposition of what is happening to these real people in their lives, and how tragic it is and scary it is, to his presentation of it to a massive audience that is just eating it up like it’s the most entertaining thing ever, like reality TV or something. I thought that was poignant.
It makes sense. I feel he was very similar to the host in the prequel, Caesar Flickerman.
Yeah, with Jason [Schwartzman]. He did a good job with that. What I liked about his character so much too, was that it wasn’t quite as established as what that role ends up being for the hosts of The Hunger Games. He was the first ever host and he’s a part-time weatherman and magician and all of this stuff. I love that element to it, that he’s just got other hustles going on because this is just a side gig. I thought that was pretty cool. It was an interesting choice.
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What was it that drew you to audition for Sejanus Plinth?
They asked me [laughs]. They didn’t go out of their way to ask me or anything. I think, at that time, I was still kind of obscure. But my agents were able to get me a request because they heard that they were having a really hard time finding Sejanus. At the time, I hadn’t read the prequel book and I knew that Rachel really liked it. But I just saw The Hunger Games, you know, the subject line is “Audition request: The Hunger Games,” and I thought, “Oh, whatever, maybe I’ll send this in, and some people will see it, and they’ll like me, and they’ll put me in something else that they’re doing,” and that’s just kind of the way it goes sometimes. So I just send it real quick and I kind of forget about it. I try to think about those things as little as possible so I don’t get let down ever, you know. But then, I did a callback a couple of days later, and that went really well and then I ended up getting it. I think the original question you asked was what drew me towards it?
I’m a huge fan of the franchise. When I did the callback, I was intimidated. When I did the audition, I was just like, “are they even going to see this?” But I just really like how hard on his sleeve Sejanus was and how just kind of open he was. He’s very direct with the kinds of things that he wants and the things that he thinks, and I really liked that. It was something that I think I could take a lesson from. Yeah, I wish I could be as headstrong. Yeah, that drew me towards him.
Yeah. I’ve seen so many people compare him to Peeta. So I thought it was interesting that Peeta was your favourite character in the trilogy.
Yeah. I would be inclined to disagree with that because Peeta has a lot of tact. He seems very, very good at maneuvering the social elements of at least everything around the game. So he was always kind of playing the public. Sejanus just didn’t know how to not speak his mind. So I think that’s a pretty massive difference between them. Somebody asked me to compare who would Sejanus be as far as an archetype in the original trilogy. I feel like he has little bits and pieces of a lot of different characters, you know. He has ideals from this person, and like the way that he goes about things from somebody else, and it’s just little bits and pieces that kind of form his character, I think.
That definitely makes sense – he’s a bit more headstrong than Peeta.
Definitely, I think so too.
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I always love hearing about the playlists actors make for their characters. Did you make one for Sejanus? If so, what songs/artists did you have on it?
Well, I don’t know. See, the thing is that, I’m learning now that that’s really helpful. But I think I didn’t do exactly that with Sejanus. But when I moved to Berlin, I just got a bunch of new music to kind of be, you know, it’s a new chapter, new music, I want to fill my life with just different things. It was a lot of alt-pop, actually. Weirdly, music just kind of helps me no matter what. If I like it, it’s going to help me get in the zone. If I need to cry, or something, or it’s an emotional day, I can’t listen to sad music to get into that. It’s counterintuitive to me for some reason, because it just makes me feel not as energized. So I just try to listen to things that energize me so that I can focus a little bit more on what’s happening in the scene or whatever. That just seems to help me a bit more. Unless the disposition is very specific, like if I was playing a crooner, I would probably try to listen to something that made me feel like a really smooth guy. But then I didn’t feel a super specific pull towards a genre with this character. It was just really helpful to feel energized.
Is there a specific artist or song that you listened to that kind of takes you back to that time that you were listening to?
Yeah, I have this playlist with just a bunch of random things that I would favourite every so often. Do you know “Wait A Minute” by Willow?
I know Willow! I don’t think I’ve heard that specific song, though.
I think it was a TikTok thing for a little bit. For some reason, that’s my Berlin anthem, for whatever reason. I just remember listening to that a lot in my trailer. Also, there’s this cover of “How Deep Is Your Love” by Yebba. It’s R&B. Nice cover that I would listen to a lot too. Yeah, I like R&B, I usually gravitate towards that genre, especially PJ Morton and Yebba.
That’s very different from the films’ soundtracks!
Yeah, absolutely. I feel like it was a lot of the older style folk sort of genre. All the environments that I was in, except for District 12, had really huge, old architecture that definitely didn’t remind me of folk music. It felt odd to listen to them while I was in those buildings if you know what I mean.
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I must ask – was it intimidating at all to be a part of a prequel to a franchise that already had such a rabid fanbase?
Oh, yeah, definitely. I think probably a lot of people would say that. I’m sure it was intimidating for the original cast. I mean, anytime there’s already sort of this established IP that you know people are really passionate about, it’s like you don’t take a job wanting to let anybody down. You want everybody to be happy with it, you want to do work that you’re proud of. When you know that a lot of people are going to be paying attention, it definitely brings some pressure to it. Me, in where I was at in my life at the time, I was at a real crossroads at the time that I got the job. I did West Side Story a few years before and then COVID hit and that affected a lot of what everybody was doing.
The industry shut down. I didn’t work for a very long time. Then, I was debating a career shift and I was getting ready to just study up on a different subject, maybe get into coding or something and then just go a different direction when this happened. So, when I got offered the role, I wondered, “Do I still have the chops?” There was a whole other level wondering if could I do that in a way that people would appreciate especially having not read the book yet. I went and crammed it and I thought, “I think I can.” That’s another thing about when you asked me, well, how does it feel a few weeks after the movie being out? Well, it’s… [sighs] because then during that limbo period is a lot not knowing what it’s going to look like. I mean, it’s out of my hands now, I’m not on the cutting floor, I’m not in the editing room, I don’t know what’s going on.
It definitely was a bit intimidating. But you know what? The whole team, Francis, Nina, Greg, you know, all the people that colour for us and all the people, Chris Sturgeon, they were so friendly because they had been with each other for years, they did a lot of the originals, and they were good at making everybody feel like there was equilibrium in the workplace. Everybody’s ideas were appreciated. We were all welcome. I think that makes the actual performing element a lot easier when it feels like people trust you and have faith in you. It certainly takes a lot of weight off one’s shoulders. That kind of help.
It must feel amazing to work in an environment where you have the creative freedom to bring something new to the character. Was there anything specific that you brought to Sejanus that wasn’t originally in the script or character description?
You know what’s interesting? They told me when I got the part that they were searching for a really long time to find the perfect person for the role, and I’m honestly not really sure what I did differently. They said, “Whatever you’re doing, that’s great.” I’m like, “…Okay.” So for a little while I would think to myself, “I hope I don’t accidentally not do whatever that thing is because I wasn’t exactly sure what it was.” But I guess I tried to make sure that I approached the convictions that Sejanus had with this element of strength because a lot of his scenes are him pretty much saying that he has problems with the environment that he’s in, and it’s getting different people’s reactions to him believing that, and then he gets in trouble, his dad bailed him out, and that keeps happening kind of until it doesn’t work anymore. But I think because of that, I wanted to make sure that I tried to cater that sentiment differently to each person or each room that I was in where I would do something like that. I tried to bring a soft power to it, I guess, because I didn’t want it to come off as whining, complaining or anything like that. I wanted to be sure that we were able to paint it as this kind of headstrong, ideal principle-oriented character. Ultimately, he does kind of implode, but I think it’s justified, personally.
Yeah, I would agree. He’s a likable guy. I’m sure you had a part in bringing that to life.
I hope so. I appreciate that.
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I read that shooting the film in Germany and Poland was also the first time you had ever travelled to Europe! How was that experience for you? Did you have any time to enjoy the countries while filming?
I did. I was lucky. Yeah, I remember there’s, you know, I threw the chair. That’s not a spoiler to anybody. It’s everywhere. But that was in the first five minutes of the scene, you know. So then after that, there was a ton that everybody else still had to film. I was like, “Well, I threw the chair so I’m going to go check out Germany. I think I’m done” [laughs]. It was nice. I went to a lot of museums and it’s a scooter-heavy environment. There are scooters everywhere. I had a blast with those. I took those everywhere. You would not catch me in an Uber. No matter the time of day, I was riding the scooter around. It was pretty cool. I really enjoyed it over there.
It also must have been so special to be able to share that experience with Rachel as well. Do you have any stand-out off-set memories you can share with her and/or the rest of the cast and crew?
Man, there’s this really funny bit that I still get flack for because when I first met Francis [Lawrence], he wanted to take us out to dinner and I was stoked to go because I hadn’t met him in person yet. You know, so we go out to dinner – it’s me, him, Tom, his assistant, and I order a glass of wine – I’m a whiskey drinker. But I thought, well, if I have whiskey, I might have more whiskey. I don’t want to embarrass myself. So I’m just going to keep it chill, and have a glass of wine. So I get my wine and he’s like, “oh, you’re a wine guy?” I was like, “yeah, I like wine.” He’s replies, “you really like wine?” Little did I know he’s like a Sommelier A level wine connoisseur. I didn’t know that.
So then he gets really into talking to me about wine. Mind you, this is a huge opportunity for me to be a part of this movie. I don’t want to let anybody down. So I proceeded to live a lie for about two months. I pretended to be nuts about wine, and the tannins and the aromas and stuff like that. And it wasn’t until he gifted me this really nice bottle of wine that I had left it out in the sun under the dash in my car. I forgot about it. He saw it in my car and that was kind of when the illusion was shattered. It’s kind of a funny thing that I still get teased for.
Oh wow (laughs). Well, hopefully, you now have a brand new appreciation for wine?
Yeah. My mindset is – because I’m always going to be a little bit frugal, where I’m like, well, if it’s over $20, it’s going to be good enough, right? I think $20 to $25 is a real sweet spot for wine. It’s not going to be bad. So I’m not used to throwing 250 bucks to try something. I don’t know. I’m not there.
Have you ever seen those videos where they do expensive versus cheap taste testing? Where the person will try one cheap glass of something, and then an expensive version, and have to guess which one is more? More times than not people think the cheaper glass tastes more expensive, which I find hilarious.
So the thing with me that I usually tell people when they want to get me something really nice is, don’t, it will be wasted on me. Because, no matter what, I’m going to drink it and if it’s not bad, I’ll enjoy it. Food too, I don’t know the difference between super, super, super high end and really good. You might as well just lie to me and say that it’s nice and I’ll believe you and it’ll be great. I’ll be none the wiser.
Yes, I completely agree! I also drink wine pretty regularly, and some of my favourite bottles are less than $12.
There’s this wine that I got as a joke a long time ago, and now always have it. It’s like Josh Cabernet because I thought it was pretty neat that there’s a wine that’s my name.
I’ve actually had that brand – I like it!
It’s not bad. Imagine if we shared a name and it was terrible. That would be so lame. But no, it’s great. That’s my little cheeky gifts that I always bring to dinner and it’s something to remember me by. It’s a wine with my name on it.
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I love it! I know you’re now off to portray Aaron Hernandez in American Sports Story, which must be a heavy role to play. How have you prepared for this role?
It’s definitely a gear shift. Obviously, I had to work out a ton and I’m still trying to beef up as much as I can and there’s a lot of research I had to do. I have to kind of go through everything that’s publicly available and all the media that’s publicly available. I have to read through what happened, and the timeline, I have to go over and over and over again, because I’m a very forgetful guy so I need that to stick in my brain. Because, when it comes to stuff like this, depicting things that really happened, there’s a very big responsibility that comes with it and it’s important to be sensitive and respectful. I’m going through this just trying my best to make as genuine a depiction as possible, as far as what I bring to the table. It’s a real challenge, but it’s been very fulfilling. The story is incredibly meaty, as far as my brain as an actor goes. It’s a real once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I think. There’s so many layers to it, and there’s so much nuance and tragedy and it’s a lot to dig my teeth into.
I would imagine portraying both Sejanus and Aaron Hernandez would have a bit of an emotional toll on an actor. Is there anything you do to wind down or a form of self-care you practice after a heavy day of shooting?
Nothing super complicated. So every Sunday, because you know, we work Monday through Friday and then Saturday, I usually just sleep. Then, on Sundays, my friends from high school, we’re still really close. We keep in touch and they’re kind of all over the country right now. We play Dungeons and Dragons together. That’s how we kind of catch up and just decompress about whatever’s going on. On a day-to-day basis, usually, I’ll just put on a show, play some video games, whatever. Not anything extravagant, just boring old stuff. I do like to do it. It’s nice.
Now that you’ve had a handful of very diverse roles in your career so far, is there something specific you’re hoping to tackle next? Like a specific type of character or film?
I really like dark comedies. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because the strike has ended, so I’m trying to think of what stuff I kind of want to get into, and I’m thinking about genres, and I do really love dark comedy or just sort of comedic realism or dry comedy. Or absurd stuff – I don’t know, something funny. I would love to do something funny. I would love to be the asshole guy in the funny movie. I don’t know how to condense it but I would love to do a bunch of stuff. Another thing I was talking with Hunter about because I’m doing all this fantasy and nerdy stuff now, I’m really on a kick for that. I would love to play some grimy little fantasy villain. That would be super cool too because I’m the dungeon leader. I take them through all the things. I basically run the game which means that all of the characters that they talked to, I have to make all their voices. It’s so much fun to be these crusty little goblins and I love it. I would love to do something like that, maybe a mocap thing for a video game, I don’t know.
So basically something very different from your last two roles – I love it!
Something very different. Hopefully, I just keep getting to do stuff I’ve never done before.
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The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is in theatres and available digitally now.
Interview Rachel Martin
Photography Devin Kasparian
Styling Laura Spriet
Grooming Jenny Sauce
Photography Assistant Julian Valgora
Styling Assistant Walter Prince
Styling Assistant Ryle Ferguson
Speak thanks to Venus & owner Jordan Gallant
Editor Kelsey Barnes