“Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” director on the sinister Viola Davis meme that inspired her casting

“Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” director on the sinister Viola Davis meme that inspired her casting

A sinister but silly meme of Academy Award winner Viola Davis helped Francis Lawrence realize that she would be the perfect actor to cast as Volumnia Gaul, the imposing gamemaker in Hunger Games prequel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.

The franchise director (Catching Fire, Mockingjay Part 1 and 2) shares the anecdote in EW's cover story for the prequel, centered on a teenage Coriolanus Snow (played by Tom Blyth, following franchise star Donald Sutherland) as a mentor during the 10th annual Hunger Games.

"It was a piece of fan art, and somebody had photoshopped, I think, an image of her standing by a window," Lawrence recalls. "It may be a still from The Help, but she had this sort of sinister little smile and they had made mocked up a fake horror poster as if she was the villain in this."

"I was like, 'Wow, you know what? She may be really good for this,'" he says of his reaction to the meme (above). "She has this gravitas, but she could be playful and quirky and get all of that. It'd be very different for her. I don't think we've seen her do this kind of thing a lot."

As head gamemaker of the 10th annual Hunger Games, Gaul — a former educator who also happened to teach Snow's late father during his schooling days — serves as an adversary of sorts to the young Snow. "We wanted to create a very different kind of character in terms of powerful women in these stories," Lawrence says. Whereas Julianne Moore's rebellion boss Alma Coin was a leader corrupted by power, Gaul is a "very strong believer in a specific philosophy and is grooming Snow in that direction," he says.

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Murray Close/Lionsgate Viola Davis as Volumnia Gaul in 'The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes'

Gaul very much has a "sinister underpinning," according to the director, but Lawrence has never been one to view his antagonists as villains. "Even going back to Donald playing Snow, a lot of people would say that he's villainous and evil, but Donald and I never really thought of him that way," he says. "I know objectively the character is, but these characters have to believe in their philosophies. And so she's a real believer in a specific philosophy. She truly believes that at our core, humans are savage, and that's why we need the games. That's why people need to be ruled with an iron fist."

"So if that's somebody that believes those things," Lawrence adds, "then they create the things they create. She's passionate and this is why she's trying to rejuvenate the games. The slightly twisted thing is that she finds joy and creativity in designing the games and making them more entertaining, so she's truly the first real gamemaker to think outside the box." That passion extends into, for example, the lab breeding of terrifying — but very colorful — snake mutations to throw into the arena. Surely, future gamemakers Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) would have been surprised by that. "She's a creative person with a very sinister underpinning," Lawrence says, so "there's a lot of color in her wardrobe and in her hair and also in her creation."

Ready to step back into the arena? The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes opens in theaters Nov. 17.

Make sure to check out EW's Fall Movie Preview cover story on The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes — as well as all of our 2023 Fall TV Preview content, releasing through Sept. 29.

Related content: