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THE HUNGER GAMES' LIAM HEMSWORTH HAS NO IDEA WHAT'S ABOUT TO HIT HIM
LIAM HEMSWORTH HAS BEEN PLUCKED FROM RELATIVE OBSCURITY TO STAR IN THE HUNGER GAMES, THE BIGGEST MOVIE OF THE YEAR. YOU'D THINK THE 22-YEAR-OLD AUSSIE WOULD BE COUNTING HIS BLESSINGS, OR MAYBE FRETTING ABOUT THE PRESSURE AND SCRUTINY THAT COME WITH CARRYING THE HOTTEST FRANCHISE SINCE THE TWILIGHT SAGA. BUT NO, HE'S TOO BUSY MARVELING AT SQUIRRELS AND DRIVING HIS GIRLFRIEND MILEY'S MERCEDES IN SEARCH OF THE PERFECT BREAKFAST HAMBURGER.
"Do you like Jack in the Box?"
It's around noon in the Rancho Park neighborhood of Los Angeles as Liam Hemsworth, the 22-year-old star of The Hunger Games, greets me in the parking lot of a public golf course for a round of par 3. He's filling me in on his morning, which included sleeping late, borrowing Miley Cyrus' black SL550 Mercedes (she's his girlfriend of two and a half years), and taking it to the drive-thru for a hamburger with mayo-onion dressing, this rising actor's breakfast of champions.
"I'm not even hungover, but I was super-super-super-hungry," Liam says, proudly pointing at the crumpled wrapper and bag on the floor of the Disney Queen of Tween's $100,000 convertible.
He is six feet three with Malibu-blond hair, azure-blue eyes, and the laid-back vibe of a 2012 Hollister-clad Jeff Spicoli. In short: the all-American surf look Hollywood now imports from Australia (see: Worthington, Sam; Kwanten, Ryan). Three years ago, Hemsworth was a high-school dropout living with his parents, and his idea of a big Friday night was renting idiot comedies like Drop Dead Fred. He worked for his brother's flooring company, earning $15 an hour, which he points out was more than most of his friends were making. Then, after taping a script reading, he got a call from Sylvester Stallone and headed for L.A., where he landed and then lost parts in a slew of big-budget action flicks. Six months later, he started dating Miley. Soon reps from Oakley were flying him to Sundance just to present him with the latest snowboarding swag ("We didn't see a single movie!" he brags). Next came the inevitable TMZ "gotcha" moment—caught on tape in a fracas outside a nightclub, sticking up for a friend and shouting in a bouncer's face, "I was backing you up! I was backing you up!" Then he scored a coveted part in The Hunger Games, setting off mass fanboy and -girl hysteria and a new rush of Hollywood offers.
Nevertheless, the grizzled, gray-haired clerk at the Rancho Park Golf Club is unimpressed. When I hand over my driver's license—collateral for the clubs we're renting—the old man asks for our names.
"Hemsworth," Liam says, in a lazy Aussie accent, leaning into the cage.
"Can you spell that?"
It's no shock that the clerk is clueless. He likely doesn't surf celeb-gossip blogs like Just Jared Jr. (MILEY CYRUS & LIAM HEMSWORTH RUN TO RALPH'S) or Perez Hilton (MILEY CYRUS AND LIAM HEMSWORTH DECORATE THEIR CHRISTMAS TREE!) or leaf through Us Weekly (LIAM HEMSWORTH, MILEY CYRUS: WHAT'S COOKIN', GOOD-LOOKIN'?). And it's a good bet he didn't see Liam's biggest film to date, Disney's The Last Song. But if the Hype Machine is to be believed, Liam is about to be side-of-a-lunchbox famous thanks to The Hunger Games. The megabudget adaptation of the Suzanne Collins series tells the story of a dystopian society where children fight to the death in a reality show. Some 16 million copies of the books have been sold in the U.S., and with the sun setting on Twilight and Voldemort vanquished, there's a gaping void in the Cineplex for the prepubescent set. The search for the trilogy's three stars was covered with the kind of breathless anticipation not seen since the hunt for Scarlett O'Hara.
Liam got the call from Gary Ross, the director of The Hunger Games, about a year ago. "I was half asleep," he says, using a seven-iron to stretch his back as we amble toward the first tee, "listening to the voice mail. He was like, 'You did a great read. Do you want to come and do the movie?' I was like, 'Oh shit. Shit shit shit.'"
He looks the part of a movie-star-in-waiting, dressed in a white polo that hugs his broad chest and skims the top of his skinny khakis. He stares out at the rolling fairways, his eyes squinting at a hole in the distance. I imagine he's contemplating what the impending release of The Hunger Games will mean for his career and his relationship with Miley. I am wrong.
"How comedic are squirrels?!" Liam says, a goofy smile spreading across his face as he spots a furry thing scampering across the horizon. "We don't have squirrels in Australia. The first time I saw a squirrel was at a meeting at Disney. I was like, 'What the fuck?!'"
"I just had an audition with Miley Cyrus! How funny is that?"
Liam is standing by the first tee recounting what he said to his brother Chris after he got his first break in Hollywood, The Last Song, a weeper about a piano prodigy with Daddy issues who cozies up to a beach-volleyball stud. The moment Liam left the audition room, in 2009, he rushed to meet up with Chris just to laugh about coming face-to-face with the Disney starlet they'd watched on TV—who'd go on to be his onscreen love interest and his offscreen girlfriend—and the absurdity of it all. "We grew up surfing and stuff," Liam says of his family as he reaches for a pitching wedge. "That's why we can laugh. This business is ridiculous."
The Hemsworth clan vacationed at a surf shack on Phillip Island, not far from their modest home on a dirt road in what Aussies call the Bush. It was a 15-minute drive for milk, farther for anything more substantial, and you couldn't see a single neighbor from the house. Liam's father is a social-services counselor, and his mother was an English teacher, which meant the Hemsworth boys—Luke, Chris, and Liam—mostly entertained themselves. Liam, the baby of the family (six years Chris' junior and nine years younger than Luke), was a constant target. His brothers would pile a couple of heavy sweaters on him and give him a head start. "Then we'd stalk him around our backyard with air rifles and shoot him," Chris says with a laugh. "I feel like the worst brother in the world. But he had a great time, okay?" Liam doesn't recall it so fondly. "I'd bend over to feed the guinea pigs and I'd get a pellet in the ass out of nowhere," he says. "It really hurt."
He pauses to line up his tee shot, then takes the club back and sends the ball sailing. "Yeah-heh!" he cries. "You're not even supposed to hit that far with the pitching wedge. It's crazy."
There's a competitive nature on display here that runs deep and fuels a sibling rivalry that involved chasing not the same girl but the same big break. Liam followed Chris to L.A. They shared a manager and a dingy West Hollywood apartment, and for a time, each was the presumptive star in Marvel's epic Thor. Chris auditioned first, then Liam read for it and became a finalist. He donned Thor's flowing golden tresses for screen tests: "It's a hard thing to pull off—a blond wig. I won't lie." He seemed to have the career-making role in hand (Yeah-heh!) until Marvel changed gears and gave the franchise to someone else: Chris. That sting came soon after Liam was offered a role in Stallone's The Expendables—only to learn at the last minute that he was the ultimate expendable, axed before shooting even began.
"My bags were packed," he says. "I've celebrated with my friends. Then we got told the script got rewritten and it's not happening. I was devastated. Like, what the fuck? I told everyone I'm leaving. I look like an idiot."
He went to L.A. anyway, deciding he'd crash with Chris until he booked a job or his tourist visa ran out. "There was a moment," he admits, "I was sitting at our manager's house with Chris. He booked Red Dawn and Thor in the same week. We were celebrating for him. But then it was like, 'Yeah, I'm probably going to have to go home in a week.' But I didn't want to! I love this town."
Then came the audition for The Last Song that he found so laughable. He got the job. And the girl. When Liam and Miley hooked up on the set, he was 19, she was 16—a fact he doesn't shy away from. "What happened happened, and we've been together two and a half years," he says. "She makes me really happy. When you start, you want to be professional, but when you're filming those scenes with someone and pretending to love them, you're not human if you don't feel something." When the film wrapped, he went home with her to Nashville, where he was introduced to the joys of Cracker Barrel and Miley's dad, Billy Ray. "He's very spiritual," Liam says of Mr. "Achy Breaky Heart." "He's just one of the nicest guys. Very accommodating. I've listened to his music since we got together. It's awesome." And so is Cracker Barrel. "I'd never heard of country-fried steak before. It's great! I love fried food." He's less keen on another iconic trash-treat, though. "In Australia, we used to always watch Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. I didn't know it was a real place. Epic." But he was disillusioned after a trip to a White Castle in Kentucky with his Hunger Games costar Josh Hutcherson. "The movie was better than the burgers," he says. "We might have thrown up after."
When Liam returned to L.A. with Miley, he was a paparazzi target by association. And suddenly a hot property. He quickly landed a string of big-budget films, including a 3-D adaptation of Arabian Nights with Anthony Hopkins and a political thriller directed by John Singleton. But just as quickly the projects got delayed or fell apart. Start dates were pushed. Funding dried up. Frustrated, he turned to his brother for advice. "Chris is like, 'This is when you do the hard work. When you get on set is the easy part. Work your ass off and put the time in for auditions and take it seriously.'" Telling this story today, Liam sounds like a baffled child who's just realized how much of life is out of his control. "It's not like I wasn't working!" he says. "I was booking all the jobs I was going in to audition for."
And yet Liam didn't step in front of a camera in 2010. Instead, he and Miley nested, eating sushi most nights ("Sushi is my favorite thing to do in L.A."). Between bento boxes, he worked out his frustrations at a no-frills boxing gym: "When I'm boxing, if my career isn't going well, at least I feel mentally and physically strong."
He grabs his putter, lines up his shoulders, and taps the ball with surprising finesse. "Look at that! That's going in. That's a par 3." As I step up to address the ball, still a good 50 feet from the hole, I ask if he has any advice. "Keep your head down. And whack that shit!"
We could have hit the ring today instead of the links, I say.
"Yeah. And I could have kicked the shit out of you."
"I've never met Pattinson," Liam says, remarking on the young Hollywood idol in whose footsteps he seems destined to follow. The path is fraught. Sure, there's the ability to cherry-pick roles and use your name to get a passion project off the ground. But there are also the endless intrusions and the risk of being labeled for life. As he tees up at the next hole, Liam doesn't want to talk about the Twilight effect—that The Hunger Games might similarly explode his life and career—or think that he could gain insight from those who've come before him. "What do you say to someone?" he says. "'Your life's gonna change.' Okay. Thanks. Cool."
In The Hunger Games, Liam stars as Gale, a brooding man-child suffering a serious case of heartache when his girl, Katniss, is shipped off to compete in the killer Olympics. It's Liam—not Jennifer Lawrence—who is this film's ingenue, a pretty young thing watching the hero do battle. "He's so vital to understanding where she comes from," says the film's director, Gary Ross. "We need to feel for her and her connection to him."
It's hard to say how much pressure comes with fronting a franchise, especially when it could transform the guy who's Thor's brother and who walks Miley's dog into Hollywood's hottest young star. While Liam downplays such expectations, he concedes that he and his Hunger Games character share a certain helplessness. "Gale is someone who wants to stand up to this thing but can't," Liam says. "He's pretty powerless."
It's a rare note of introspection—and then Liam is once again distracted by a squirrel climbing a tree. "Look! It's like a cartoon," he says, spotting another scampering rodent. "You're not real!" We've played only four holes, but after blowing a few putts, Liam throws his hands up: "This is horrible. Let's go to the next hole. If something doesn't work out, just give up."
"It went really well. I shot, like, way under what you should shoot. As Liam hands the clerk his clubs, he plays fast and loose with the facts—in actuality, we've bagged golfing entirely to go in search of Cajun burgers—showcasing a skill that may serve him well in the coming months: the ability to project a good face when circumstances fall short of expectations.
Our rented clubs returned, we head to Miley's car. Liam does have his own wheels—he drives a four-door BMW—but he prefers Miley's Merc because it's faster: "This one time, we pulled up to a light. This guy started revving his engine at me. I was like, 'Is he for real?' The light went green. And vroom—I killed him." There's another reason he likes his girlfriend's car: "It's all about how you look in this town."
It's a bit of forced bravado that manifests as an unintentionally awkward sound bite coming from a guy who has coasted on his looks. That may (or may not) change. Since wrapping The Hunger Games, he's filmed AWOL, an indie that's looking for distribution, and The Expendables 2(out this summer). The titles alone echo the disposability of the stars and the tenuousness of Liam's position should The Hunger Games and its sequels fail to deliver.
It's a high-class problem, having your face splashed on posters, billboards, and action figures before anyone can spell your name. Chris knows the feeling and thinks his brother's blissful ignorance is the best preparation for the onslaught of attention and colossal expectations. "He's at ease with it," he says. "I don't know why. He very much doesn't let things worry him too much. I think he's aware of what's real and what's not." Indeed, Liam has a guileless candor that's refreshing. He's not overcoached, and he's not wired to overthink. He doesn't drone on about his craft or how much he idolizes actors' actors like Depp or Brando. Rather, he admires Stallone, who had the guts to write Rocky and insist on starring in it—then milked the opportunity for all it was worth. When Liam tells you that he prepared for The Last Song by "learning the shit out of my lines," it's his way of saying that he may be some kid from the Australian Bush, but that doesn't mean he's going back to laying floors.
As we head down Pico Boulevard, Liam tells me about his desire to put down roots in L.A. Chris just got married, after all. "I'm sure I'll get married one day," he says. "But I'm only 22." He immediately worries that his comment might become a headline about Miley—they've all been about her. Liam was there at her 19th-birthday party, which exploded in the tabloids after she joked about her Bob Marley cake and how she "smokes way too much fucking weed" on video. For the first time, Liam is angry. "She's in a room full of her best friends," he says, almost breaking a sweat. "And you have one person who comes in there and videos it. The poor girl can't have one night where she can feel safe in her own world. It's ridiculous."
As we approach Bourbon Street Shrimp & Grill and look for parking, Liam seems concerned that the same fate could await him. As he transitions from arm candy to bankable star, the long reach of TMZ will only stretch further—into his every private moment. The shining center of theTwilight effect is the unrelenting glare of klieg lights, the scrutiny and dissection. "It is what it is," Liam says. "Whatever. If it happens, there's nothing you can do. But if—"
He cuts himself off with a bang on the steering wheel as a parking spot up ahead gets snatched by another driver. "Give me a park," he says, using the Aussie vernacular. "Give me a park." As we come to a stop at the light, he looks over at me and furrows his brow, as if to offer some revelation. "Um, what was I saying?"