Rachel Zegler played Lucy Gray Baird in the prequel The Hunger Games

West Side Story actress Rachel Zegler will star in The Hunger Games prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.

Zegler had sparked speculation about her casting after she tweeted Monday night: “Listen…can you grow quietly? are you becoming an individual who is resolutely resting?” As Eagle Eyes fans pointed out, the first letter of each word in her tweet spells the name of the main character, Lucy Gray Baird.

The film is based on Suzanne Collins’ 2020 book of the same name, set decades before Katniss Everdeen’s adventures in The Hunger Games. That means Jennifer Lawrence, who rose to superstardom as the Girl on Fire, doesn’t appear in the prequel story. Instead, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes revolves around Coriolanus Snow, an ambitious boy who eventually becomes the tyrannical leader of the dystopian land of Panem. As previously announced, Tom Blyth (“Billy the Kid” and “The Gilded Age”) will play young Snow.

In the upcoming film, 18-year-old Snow is chosen to mentor Lucy Gray, the female tribute from impoverished District 12, during the 10th Hunger Games. As featured in the Hunger Games trilogy – which has been developed into four feature films – the barbaric televised event randomly selects two teenagers from each county to fight to the death. In the novel, the humble Lucy Gray catches everyone’s attention by singing during the harvest ceremony. Snow believes that with her talent and charm, he can turn the odds of winning the Games in her favor.

Given Lucy Gray’s vocal prowess, it’s no surprise that Zegler, who has garnered thousands as Maria in Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed West Side Story remake, landed the lead in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Zegler will next appear in Shazam! Fury of the Gods” alongside Zachary Levi, Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu; and Disney’s live-action Snow White.

“When you read Suzanne’s book, Lucy Gray’s emotional intelligence, physical agility and fiercely powerful, determined singing voice shine through. Rachel embodies all of those skills – she’s the perfect choice for our Lucy Gray,” said Nathan Kahane, President of Lionsgate Motion Picture Group.

Hunger Games veteran Francis Lawrence has returned to direct the upcoming film, which will begin production later this year. Michael Arndt, who wrote the second part of the Catching Fire franchise, was set to write the script, but he passed the duties on to Michael Lesslie (“Macbeth” with Michael Fassbender).

“Like everyone else, I first saw Rachel Zegler in ‘West Side Story,’ and like everyone else, I knew I was seeing a star who would rule the screen for a generation,” said Francis Lawrence. “Lucy Gray is a perfect fit for her as an actress: the character is bold, independent and defiant, but also vulnerable, emotional and loving. Rachel will make this character unforgettable.”

Franchise producer Nina Jacobson and her producing partner Brad Simpson will be overseeing the latest installment of Hunger Games, along with Francis Lawrence. Collins, Tim Palen and Jim Miller will serve as executive producers.

“Lucy Gray is an incredibly complex character, a performer who must use every skill in her arsenal to survive,” said Jacobson. Our casting team, Deb Zane and Dylan Jury, conducted an exhaustive search, reading through hundreds of actors in search of our perfect Lucy Gray. That quest ended when Rachel Zegler blew the ceiling with her depth and breadth of talent as an actress, singer and performer. Rachel is absolutely convincing; Just like Lucy Gray, her voice and charisma dominate the stage while her inner strength and humanity transform those around her.”

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes hits theaters on November 17, 2023.

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