Why Rachel Zegler initially passed on 'The Hunger Games' — and how her boyfriend (and co-star) helped change her mind

The "West Side Story" breakout was top choice for director Francis Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobson.

Josh Andrés Rivera and Rachel Zegler; Zegler in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
Josh Andrés Rivera and Rachel Zegler; Zegler in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. (Getty Images, Everett Collection)

When it came to casting The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, the filmmakers quickly zeroed in on Rachel Zegler to play the lead role of Lucy Gray Baird, the musically talented District 12 tribute mentored by a young Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) in the new prequel based on Suzanne Collins’s blockbuster 2020 novel.

But the in-demand actress said no. Zegler, 22, who made her film debut in Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning West Side Story (2021) had recently wrapped Shazam! Fury of the Gods (2023) and was scheduled to shoot Disney’s live-action Snow White, whose production wouldn’t end until days before Hunger Games was set to begin. The timing just didn’t work out.

“She was our first choice,” producer Nina Jacobson confirmed in an interview with Yahoo Entertainment. “We just didn’t think we were going to get her because she didn’t think that she could go back to back after Snow White.”

As director and producer Francis Lawrence recalled to Entertainment Weekly, Zegler was “freaked out” and went “ghostly white” at the thought of transitioning from six months straight of shooting Snow White in London to six months straight of shooting Hunger Games in Poland.

So what changed?

“It wasn’t until we cast her boyfriend, who I didn’t even know was her boyfriend,” Jacobson says.

That would be Josh Andrés Rivera, who played Chino, the young man snubbed by Zegler’s Maria, in West Side Story — and who began dating the actress in 2021.

The cast of <em>West Side Story</em>. (Ramona Rosales / © 20th Century Studios / Courtesy Everett Collection)
The cast of West Side Story. (Ramona Rosales / © 20th Century Studios / Courtesy Everett Collection)

Jacobson breaks it down: “This kid Josh comes in, and gives an amazing [audition]” as Sejanus Plinth, Coriolanus’s mentor and friend who actively protests the games. “We’re like, ‘Ah, we finally found our Sejanus. Then it turns out he’s [Rachel’s] boyfriend, which I didn’t know. And then we got a call from [Rachel] saying, ‘Is it too late? Can I reconsider?’”

Hunger Games would became the second movie co-starring Zegler and Rivera in which she would be romantically involved with another character: this time Zegler’s Lucy would be involved with Blyth’s Coryo.

“It was interesting to see because it could be weird, right? To have your love interest not your actual boyfriend,” Jacobson says. “And yet she and Tom and Josh made friends in the very beginning and they had a ton of fun together, and so it was very easy and there was never the weird jealous moments where I thought, ‘Is it going to be weird having your boyfriend on set?’”

Tom Blythe and Rachel Zegler in <em>The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Snakes and Songbirds</em>. (Murray Close/Lionsgate/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Tom Blythe and Rachel Zegler in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Snakes and Songbirds. (Murray Close/Lionsgate/Courtesy Everett Collection)

And while Zegler initially opted out of Panem (or Poland), it wasn’t because of the material.

“I did read all of the books and I saw the movies as they came out, and it was a really lovely kind of bonding experience for my mom, my older sister and I, because we all read them together and watched them together and it was so wonderful,” Zegler said in an event moderated by Yahoo Entertainment. “And so when it came to this book, I read it the second it came out in 2020 just because it was very anticipated for me. I just loved that Suzanne was adding onto this story that I loved so much.

“And then when I found out that there is this brown-haired girl who loved to sing from District 12, I just got so excited at the prospect of getting to do something like that and was reading it, imagining the opportunity to perform as her. And when it came time to the casting and Francis called my agent and said that I was his top pick to play the part, I was so humbled and honored.”

Francis Lawrence, who directed Jennifer Lawrence and company in the last three Hunger Games films, explained why Zegler was his top choice.

“I saw her in West Side Story and I thought she was a fantastic actress,” he told us. “Obviously, Lucy Gray is a performer. We needed an amazing singer. She's an incredible singer, and I really just thought that she could play all the kind of facets of the mystery and the mercurial nature of Lucy Gray.”

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes opens Friday, Nov. 17.