EXCLUSIVE: Josh Hutcherson Leaves 'The Hunger Games' Behind to Direct His Own Future

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The 24-year-old actor opens up to ET about his directorial debut and trading blockbusters for indie films.

"I've never been a goal-oriented person. I never have in my entire life set one goal, I don't think," admits Josh Hutcherson. We're meeting at his publicist's office in West Hollywood and I've just asked if, after spending half a decade playing, promoting and generally being Peeta from The Hunger Games, the 24-year-old wrapped up his time on the franchise with an idea of the next steps he wanted to take in his career. Hutcherson, his dark hair tousled and scruff dusting his square jawline, leans forward as he elaborates, "I think that the idea of a goal means that you're focused on getting there, instead of being in the moment."

While Jennifer Lawrence and Liam Hemswoth leveraged their franchise clout to land more blockbuster jobs, traversing the galaxy in action-adventure rom-coms or fighting off alien resurgences, Hutcherson took a step back. "It wasn't about, like, proving to people I could do something else, as much as it was about wanting to challenge myself and do something different," he says. "Because The Hunger Games was something that was so big and mainstream, I really did want to try to find characters and stories that were more independent, because that's where my heart had always laid. Which are hard to come by! I've been very selective over the last few years and, thankfully, because Hunger Games was successful, I was able to kind of recoil back and field everything and wait for that right thing to come along."

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One such project is Hutcherson's own directorial debut, a short psychological thriller called Ape. It exists as part of a series of five short films from "emerging young filmmakers" that make up The Big Script, a partnership between Turkeyfoot Productions, which Hutcherson runs with his mom, and Condé Nast Entertainment and Indigenous Media. "I am excited. I'm nervous as well. Excitement is winning the battle, currently, but it's like Voldemort and Harry Potter with their wands pushing the streams of energy back and forth," he tells me on the afternoon of his short's premiere. "The thing is, I do have a keen awareness of when people are bullsh**ting me. I'm really afraid to be bullsh**ted afterwards, you know what I mean? I know the things to say to people when you don't like something, because I've been in that position many times. I'm nervous to hear like, 'The lighting was really cool!'"

Having gotten into acting at the age of 10 and knowing that he wanted to direct even before that, Hutcherson had plenty of onset experience to fall back on when it came time to run his own. "I worked with Jon Favreau on Zathura. I was only 12 years old, but he really believed in me and took me in under his wing," Hutcherson says of his biggest influences, tipping his hat to original Hunger Games director Gary Ross as well. "He was a very strong director and he really led the army that is the film crew."

It wasn't just the directing learning curve Hutcherson had to overcome, but his own prejudices against streaming -- the new go-to mode of distribution for most indie films. A self-proclaimed anti-digital "purist," he reveals that when his first project went straight to VOD, he thought, "Wow, my career is over." Now, in addition to Ape currently streaming online -- you can watch the short via The Scene -- he stars in In Dubious Battle, the first of three collaborations with James Franco and the exact opposite of a big, studio tent-pole: It is based on the John Steinbeck novel about activism and an apple picking strike in the 1930s. It is also available on VOD.

"On an indie film, you're like, Go go go go go. I like that, because it keeps you on your toes. It keeps you fresh. Whereas [on] blockbusters, you can get a little lethargic and lazy in the performances," Hutcherson explains, a cluster of bracelets jingling with every gesticulation. "I think both are really important in the world of film, but indie films, for me, are the kind I enjoy watching more, the stories that I connect with more. They always feel more original and less formulaic. When you have hundreds of millions of dollars invested into something, you need to f**king follow an algorithm! Because that's a lot of money at risk! Whereas independent film, it's more of getting to the art of it."

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Hutcherson still calls The Hunger Games a dream job -- the franchise may be "a sellout, in a way," he allows, but one he can be proud of because it "actually has an effect in today's day and age especially, about people standing together against the political system." Two years removed from the release of the final film, Mockingjay - Part 2, the boy with the bread feels the lasting impact of that fandom even now.

"It is cumbersome at times, when you want to have, like, a normal moment," he says, resting his head in his hand as he relaxes into the couch. "I went with my girlfriend [actress Claudia Traisac] to these awards in Spain, and I wasn't even in the awards or whatever, but walking through the lobby, the way people all turn and you just feel these eyes on you -- it feels super surreal and odd. At the same time, it's like, I saw Frank Sinatra wrote a letter to, what's the guy's name from Wham! that just passed away from?" -- George Michael -- "Telling him, 'Don't you ever complain about fame.' It was this really beautifully written letter about how fortunate you are to be in a situation where you get to make music and people actually listen to it and love it, so you can't complain for a second. And I've had moments where I've been a little more negative and dark with the idea of fame and notoriety, and now I've just gotten to a place where I genuinely appreciate it. Because I recognize how seldom it is to come across that."