Hutcherson, Ludwig 'Hunger Games' rivals

Canadian actor Alexander Ludwig poses for a photo in a Toronto hotel room as he promotes the film 'The Hunger Games' on Monday March 19, 2012 . THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young.

TORONTO - The rivalry between "The Hunger Games" co-stars Josh Hutcherson and Alexander Ludwig started well before they took up roles as bitter adversaries on the post-apocalyptic feature.

The matinee idols say it began in the audition room, where the two 19-year-olds battled it out for the role of the principled hero Peeta, which Hutcherson eventually won.

"It was between me and Josh and I think one other kid for Peeta, originally," the Vancouver-bred Ludwig says during a recent stop in Toronto with co-stars Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth, who plays hunky love interest Gale.

"And then (director) Gary (Ross) came up to me and said, 'Hey, have you ever thought about playing a bad guy?'"

The towering, blond and blue-eyed teen was offered the part of Cato, a ruthless killer who stalks a sprawling outdoor arena where kids are forced to battle-to-the-death in front of TV cameras, lucrative sponsors and hard-hearted gamblers.

The savage annual showcase is organized by a fascist capital city to keep an oppressed populace in submission — it's billed as a cautionary reminder of a failed uprising that cemented a brutal rule of law in which the modest spoils of outlying districts support the outlandish opulence of The Capitol.

Jennifer Lawrence stars as the gifted hunter Katniss, a resilient 16-year-old who enters the Hunger Games to spare the obligation of her timid 12-year-old sister, and possibly win a year's worth of food that could offer her poverty-stricken family brief relief from unrelenting starvation.

Hutcherson says he wanted the role of the sweet-natured Peeta "more than any role I've ever wanted in my life."

Of course, he wasn't the only one — the former child star acknowledges that filmmakers "talked to literally every single actor about Peeta."

But while it's tempting to draw analogies between life in Hollywood and the cut-throat world of "The Hunger Games," Hutcherson says he's learned not to take show business personally after logging roughly a decade in front of the cameras.

"People always want to compare Hollywood to a 'Hunger Games'-type thing or a gladiator thing where it's like (we're) fighting for every single role," says Hutcherson, whose lengthy credits include "Bridge to Terabithia" and the fantasy-themed "Journey" franchise started by "Journey to the Center of the Earth."

"You definitely fight for every single role but it's not a competition, I don't think. If a director just doesn't see a certain actor in that role as that part... there's nothing I could have done to change that. Every time I go in there and give it my absolute all and that's all I can ever do."

It's that strong sense of self that Hutcherson says makes him pretty similar to Peeta, an insecure baker's son who nevertheless holds fast to moral convictions when faced with certain death.

"Peeta really believes in not becoming a piece in someone else's game and being true to yourself and maintaining what you believe in as a person no matter what kind of adversity you're faced with. And that's something that I've always believed in, since Day 1," says Hutcherson, who props one leg up on a couch while conducting media interviews in a dimly lit hotel room.

"I've been (acting) since I was like nine years old so I've had a lot of chances to possibly change and become something different but I've never wanted to. And I've had a good group of friends and a good family around me and stuff like that to help me stay on the right track."

That's not easy to do — throngs of devotees turned out to meet Hutcherson, Hemsworth and Ludwig at an advance screening in downtown Toronto earlier this week, mirroring scenes of fandemonium that unfolded at tour stops in Los Angeles, London and New York.

Many brandished copies of the young adult bestseller by Suzanne Collins that ignited the burgeoning franchise, their fervour evoking the frenzied media appearances involving previous book-to-screen sensations "Twilight" and the "Harry Potter" series.

Despite the heavy following that preceded the big screen "Hunger Games," Hutcherson says he was genuinely surprised by how enthusiastic fans have been.

"The whole other (fan) aspect of it didn't really ever come into my mind or ever come into play until after the fact, after I did the movie and once we started doing the tours. It was like, 'Oh, wow, I didn't even realize this was part of it,'" he says, adding he's taking the overwhelming mania "day by day."

Still, Ludwig says dedicated fans found a way to sneak onto their woodland set in North Carolina despite heavy security that kept locations secret — for the most part.

"They were kept a good mile out but some of them would make their way through the forest and you'd see their heads pop up behind the trees and you'd just be like 'Oh my God, hey!'" Ludwig chuckles.

"And then you'd see like a security guard kind of running and then you'd see (the fan) start running."

Meanwhile, each actor says the intense film shoot included injuries involving both of them.

Hutcherson says Lawrence accidentally kicked him in the head while goofing off between scenes. It was about a day before anyone realized he had suffered a concussion.

"I was trying to downplay it as much as possible because any time on a set when somebody gets an injury it's like the end of the world, they make it the biggest deal ever," explains Hutcherson.

But strange symptoms alerted him that something was wrong.

"I was like, confused," he says. "I had to write down some information at some point and I wrote down information from my house when I was like nine years old. I was all over the place. People would ask me a question, I'd be like, 'What? Huh?' I couldn't quite put my words and thoughts together, it was pretty crazy."

Ludwig says he got off relatively easy with just a couple of bruises but reports that co-star Amandla Stenberg, who plays the nimble 12-year-old Rue, got stung in the face by bees.

Ludwig admits to causing one of the worst injuries when he accidentally bashed the face of a stunt man with a rubber bat.

"I had misplaced my footing because I was supposed to do a bunch of running and it was very confusing ... and I just whacked him across the face and cut his nose up. He was bleeding everywhere and I felt horrible," says Ludwig, a second-year theatre student at the University of Southern California.

"But in the scene I was like, 'OK, I can't stop, I can't stop or he's going to kick my ass because then he would have just taken that hit for nothing.' So I kept going and it looked real because it was real."

Hutcherson says writing is underway on a sequel, noting that a release date for Part 2 has already been set for November 2013.

In the meantime, Hutcherson says he's looking forward to a possible third instalment in the "Journey" franchise, and is surveying a mix of scripts that offers him "more character-type work."

"Versatility as an actor is one of the most important things to having a long career so switching it up and playing different characters is really important for me," he says.

"The Hunger Games" opens Friday.