It’s hard to pin down exactly what made The Hunger Games one of the most successful franchises of the 21st century. The series’ themes, including the consequences of war and political upheaval are timely and cross generational boundaries. And the fact that director Francis Lawrence — who was responsible for three of the four films in the franchise — has mostly stayed faithful to the wildly popular source material has helped keep the book series’ fans engaged.
But one thing The Hunger Games has going for it that few other young adult series can claim is an unusually stellar cast. Indeed, there is rarely a weak link. With seasoned stars like Michelle Forbes, Stanley Tucci, and Jeffrey Wright to up-and-coming film actors like Sam Claflin, Josh Hutcherson, and Jena Malone, The Hunger Games producers certainly stacked the deck when it came to its on-screen talent.
And that doesn’t even take into account the heavy-hitting performers — including Oscar winners and Hollywood legends — that elevated the franchise as soon as their casting was announced. Here are five performances from The Hunger Games‘ enormously talented cast.
1. Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone
Before she was one of the most recognizable actresses in the world — and before she won an Oscar for her performance in Silver Linings Playbook, Jennifer Lawrence broke onto the Hollywood scene with this gritty, gripping indie drama. In Winter’s Bone, she plays Ree Dolly, a rural teen in the Ozarks who will stop at nothing to learn whether or not her meth-dealing, absent father is dead. Yes, the Girl on Fire’s other Oscar-nominated performances have been flashier. But that’s precisely why her portrayal of Ree is so compelling. There’s no hint of the charismatic qualities that have made a star of Lawrence, who earned her first Oscar nomination for her performance in Winter’s Bone. Instead, what we see in Ree is a determined, downtrodden girl who’s about as far away from Hollywood glamour as you could imagine.
2. Woody Harrelson, Natural Born Killers
He’s forever endeared himself to Hunger Games fans with his portrayal of Haymitch Abernathy, the drunken mentor that helps Katniss (Lawrence) and Peeta (Hutcherson) navigate their newfound fame. But the THG series isn’t the first time Woody Harrelson has had a chance to show off his talent. Amidst Oscar-nominated performances and critically acclaimed films, perhaps his most memorable — and exciting — role to date is as mass murderer Mickey Knox in Oliver Stone’s controversial black comedy Natural Born Killers. Stone had a challenge in making audiences connect with a film about a pair of lovebirds that traverse the U.S., killing at will. We have to relate, in some small way, to the protagonists — as morally reprehensible as their actions are. Harrelson accomplishes this and more, playing Knox with a convincing charisma, and gives him an odd likability that makes the uproar within the film about his actions feel, at least in some small way, understandable.
3. Donald Sutherland, Ordinary People
As Coriolanus Snow, the calculating, power-hungry president of Panem, he’s been so convincing that he may have succeeded in convincing younger Hunger Games fans that he’s actually evil. But for those of us who can remember past the early ‘90s, we know that Donald Sutherland isn’t all bad — in fact, he’s tremendously talented. With a Hollywood resume that spans six decades, it’s difficult to call out a single role from his career. But without a doubt, one of Sutherland’s most memorable and stirring performances is as Calvin Jarrett in Robert Redford’s Ordinary People. As the mourning father still reeling from his oldest son’s suicide — and trying to keep his family together in the process — Sutherland is at times as emotionally vulnerable as a person can be on screen. And his final moments in the film — in which he confronts his wife Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) and reaches out to his son, Conrad (Timothy Hutton) — are equal parts devastating and uplifting. He won a Golden Globe for his performance in Ordinary People.
4. Julianne Moore, Still Alice
She straddles the line between good and evil as rebel leader Alma Coin in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay. But in some ways, that’s how Julianne Moore has built her career — playing characters that are rich, complex, and full of flaws. In Still Alice, she tackled another challenge as an actress — playing a character who is slowly losing her memory and identity to early onset Alzheimer’s. With a less gifted performer, Alice Howland’s transformation from a respected university professor to a fragile, faraway woman may have felt schmaltzy and insincere. But Moore’s riveting, nuanced, Oscar-winning performance made every step of the journey feel devastatingly real.
5. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote
Philip Seymour Hoffman brought considerable gravitas to the THG franchise when he was cast as gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee — a man who can make or break the annual Hunger Games competition. Sadly, it became one of the last roles he’d be cast in. Though film fans still mourn his untimely death, we also celebrate his accomplishments. He brought vulnerability, authentic awkwardness, and an idiosyncrasy to every role he played — but most especially as the titular character in the biographical drama Capote. Hoffman had big shoes to fill as the famed author of In Cold Blood. But in his Oscar-winning portrayal, he captured Truman Capote’s essence — from his distinctive speech patterns to even the most subtle of facial expressions — while still making him feel entirely human.