Josh Hutcherson, Straight Talker

10.9.2013

By Shana Naomi Krochmal

Josh Hutcherson on fame, his gay uncles' legacy, and how the best thing for his 'Hunger Games' character might be a threesome

Photography by Nino Muñoz | Styling by Neil Rodgers

We’ve barely started lunch, and I’m nowhere near my usual open-ended sexuality question, when Josh Hutcherson offers this: “I would probably list myself as mostly straight.”

That “mostly” is what makes Hutcherson winningly uninhibited, but also typical of his generation. New research published in The New York Times in 2010 shows that an increasing number of guys his age identify as “mostly straight,” and Hutcherson’s ease in embracing ambiguity over neat and secure boxes speaks to his self-assurance.

“Maybe I could say right now I’m 100% straight,” he says. “But who knows? In a fucking year, I could meet a guy and be like, Whoa, I’m attracted to this person.

Hutcherson grew up in Union, Ky., a small town close to the Ohio border, and his slouchy, chill California vibe is still tinged with a soft Southern accent. Everything he says sounds easygoing. “I’ve met guys all the time that I’m like, Damn, that’s a good-looking guy, you know?” he says. “I’ve never been, like, Oh, I want to kiss that guy. I really love women. But I think defining yourself as 100% anything is kind of near-sighted and close-minded.”

Hutcherson is not exactly an average 21-year-old. He’s one of the stars of the blockbuster Hunger Games films, he’s rich and famous, and he’s self-aware enough to grasp how good he’s got it. Yet his take on sexuality reflects a healthy skepticism of labels that’s helping shift American public opinion on LGBT equality.

According to Cornell University psychology professor Ritch Savin-Williams, whose work was the basis of that New York Times op-ed, many “mostly straight” young men see the fight for LGBT equality as the defining civil rights movement of their time, just as Hutcherson does. But they’re neither just allies nor passing through before coming out as gay or bi. “These are the Kinsey 1s,” Savin-Williams says, meaning they fall just to the queer side of totally heterosexual on the famous sliding scale of sexuality. “Their primary object of desire is women. They’re not giving that up—they’re just adding to it.”

Hutcherson seems delighted by the complicated nature of human sexuality, but he doesn’t take sex too seriously—“Sometimes the rhythm isn’t right or you’re trying to make a new position work and it really doesn’t, and you have to laugh”—and isn’t allergic to oversharing. Of nude photos it’s rumored he posted to a dating site, he shrugs off any comment except to say, “I find it so shocking still that nakedness is so shocking.”

He definitely doesn’t understand judgmental attitudes toward gay people, which is why he cofounded Straight But Not Narrow, a youth organization that focuses on arming allied kids with the confidence and tools they need to speak out against homophobia. “Sometimes it’s frustrating to comprehend how people are not OK with it. If you can try to tell me how it’s hurting you, you’re crazy. You’re absolutely crazy. Like, what do you mean it’s not natural? Even if—even if, which, I disagree, but even if—why the fuck do you care?”

SLIDESHOW: JOSH HUTCHERSON: THE HUNGER

Despite his matinee-idol jaw and ability to smolder on command in photographs—and the fact that he spent more than a decade in Hollywood before being allowed to legally drink—Hutcherson is almost disconcertingly nice and level-headed. At our low-key, out-of-the-way Los Angeles lunch spot, he runs into two separate groups of people he knows. When he goes over to talk to some guys from Twenty One Pilots, a band he loves and met at a concert in Ohio, he politely reintroduces himself.

It helps that he was clearly well-adjusted before getting into the business. The Hutcherson family Golden Rule was “Treat people the way you want to be treated,” a simple moral compass that kept him out of trouble when he left Kentucky and started acting at age 9. He worked steadily playing a series of sweet but-moody kids on TV and the big screen, studying with tutors on set. But unlike some child stars, he doesn’t have regrets about skipping out on school—except one: “I would have liked to start a GSA or help out kids that were feeling bullied or discriminated against.”

His breakout role was as Annette Bening and Julianne Moore’s son in The Kids Are All Right. There’s a memorable confrontation with his moms, who are convinced he’s keeping some big secret (they don’t know he and his sister have tracked down their biological dad, played by Mark Ruffalo). “You guys thought I was gay?” he asks, surprised and a little hurt that they thought he’d hide that.

In The Hunger Games, there’s no question that he’s the leader of Team Nice Guy, a.k.a. Peeta Mellark. When he’s chosen at random to fight to the death against two dozen other teenagers, even Peeta’s mom bets on heroine Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) to ultimately survive the kill-or-be-killed tournament.

Over the four-film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s best-selling books—the first movie made almost $700 million at the box office worldwide; its sequel, Catching Fire, comes out this month—Katniss is torn between her feelings for Peeta, who helps save their lives more than once, and for her best guy friend, the tall, dark, and handsome Gale (Liam Hemsworth). All three sides of the love triangle get stuck in the midst of a massive civil war. “They’re having a tough time,” Hutcherson says.

Maybe because the films are so intense, and because he spends so much time answering the same banal questions at press junkets, Hutcherson seems to relish the opportunity to lighten the mood. When I suggest a threesome might be a more expedient solution to at least some of Peeta’s problems, he immediately agrees: “I know Peeta would be into it, for sure. He’s very sensitive, in touch with his emotions. I think it really might solve a lot of their problems. You know what? I’m going to pitch that idea. Let’s make it a—what’s it called when three people are in a relationship together? A triad?” He rolls his eyes at his own enthusiasm. “That’ll go over well with Middle America.”

In Catching Fire, Peeta and Katniss are sent back to battle other former champions and forge a tentative alliance with the Golden God-like Finnick (Sam Claflin). Lawrence regularly deflects questions about Claflin’s hot body to Hutcherson, who confirms their bromantic bond. “You know there are just times when you meet people in your life and it clicks instantly?” he asks. “It was like that with Sam. I like people that just let me be myself, and I don’t feel like I have to try to be extra-fancy.”

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With such aw-shucks modesty, it’s easy to forget that Hutcherson is as young as he is. Like Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe, he’ll emerge on the flip side of the franchise with a massive amount of on-set experience and no small ambitions. His five-year goal, loosely defined, is to produce and direct, both of which he got a taste of with the indie Paradise Lost, set for release in 2014. He executive produced, collaborating closely with first-time director Andrea Di Stefano on everything from casting to blocking shots. “It wasn’t just a vanity credit,” he says. “I really got to influence [the film], which, fuck, made me so hungry to do more like that.” He also co-stars with Benicio Del Toro, playing a young man who learns his girlfriend’s dad is the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar.

Del Toro and Hutcherson had already worked together, in part of the anthology 7 Days in Havana, directed by Del Toro. In the film, Hutcherson played an American actor who is surprised—but not exactly deterred—when he learns the hot girl he picked up at a raucous Havana bar is actually male. “I think anybody would feel a little uncomfortable in that situation, the way the world is right now,” he says. “But what is she supposed to do?”

At a midsummer charity basketball game held just outside Los Angeles’s Staples Center, hundreds of fans scream every time Hutcherson has possession of the ball. He’s a dogged player despite his size—save for maybe on an IMAX screen, he’ll never be mistaken for tall—shouldering his way through a motley crew of other actors and athletes for a layup.

Inside Staples, One Direction plays the third of their sold-out, four-night run. The adjacent plaza at the heart of the sprawling L.A. Live sports and entertainment complex is overrun by tweens and teenagers and their agreeably put-upon parents. It’s the perfect captive audience for Hutcherson. Before the game and again at halftime, he steps up to center court with a microphone to talk about Straight But Not Narrow, which for the second year is the beneficiary of this fundraiser.

The group acknowledges both NBA player Jason Collins and a young transgender college student, Zachary Kerr, for their work to raise awareness. “Our main goal is to just show people that you can be yourself,” Hutcherson tells the crowd, “which is something that some of us take for granted, I think.”

He presents Kerr with a team jersey, and goads him—nicely—into attempting a free throw. They seem like old friends though they’ve only met the day before. Kerr, 19, travels to schools across Massachusetts, talking about his gender transition. He was already a fan of Hutcherson’s movies but is now most impressed by his activism. “I’ve never met anyone before who identified as a straight ally and had as much passion for this work as I did,” Kerr tells me.

“As soon as I got any ounce of notoriety to bring attention to any kind of issue, it was just an obvious choice,” Hutcherson says. “Look at any voting map, and even in a state that’s completely red, if you look where a college is—young, educated people—it’s blue, without fail. That’s got to show that the next generation, and people who get an education, are less ignorant.”

That pocket of blue in the middle of a sea of red is Hutcherson’s sweet spot, just a bigger version of growing up in a progressive family in Kentucky. “My grandma had four boys,” says his mother, Michelle. “Two of the four were gay.” Steve and Jamie were barely older than Michelle, and because her parents were only 16 when she was born, “We kind of all grew up together.”

She didn’t really notice that no one else in Kentucky had gay uncles and their partners at family gatherings. “It never was anything different for me,” she says. But in the early 1990s, both Steve and Jamie died of AIDS. “When my Uncle Steve passed away, a friend of his had everybody over after the service,” she says. “I remember thinking, What a great group of guys. Why does anybody have a problem with this?

Josh tells this story, too. “He died the day after my mom told him she was pregnant with me,” he says. “She was really sad that I never got to meet them. I am, too—they sound amazing.”

“It was an injustice that made zero sense,” Michelle says. After Steve’s death, she and Josh’s dad started volunteering with local AIDS organizations. They stayed close to his partner’s family—the kids all grew up as cousins—and told Josh and his younger brother, Connor, to love whoever they wanted and be happy about it. “I always thought that Steve and Josh would have been so close,” she says. “Steve was very, very driven, very charismatic, very handsome. He always had to be right.”

Hutcherson’s ready to pay it forward. “I have this dream that one day, my kid’s gonna come home from school and be like, ‘Dad, there’s this girl that I like, and there’s this guy that I like, and I don’t know which one I like more, and I don’t know what to do.’ And it’d just be a non-issue, like, ‘Which one is a good person? Which one makes you laugh more?’ ”

He still thinks of himself a kid—he points out, “My job is make-believe”—and his massive fan base, thanks to The Hunger Games, has given him a huge platform. “I’d love to have somebody who disagrees with me come talk to me,” he says, “because I’d like to change their mind. And I think I could.”

He says, sincerely, “I’m ready for a fight.” But this nice guy isn’t coming out swinging as much as he’s extending a friendly hand—to yank anyone who has yet to fully evolve across the finish line with him.

“Talking to kids in school and reaching out through social media we found to be really effective,” he says. “That’s where the bullying happens the most, where people are molded into who they become when they grow up. Kids are so mean to each other sometimes. You’re figuring out who you are, and you’re insecure about it. Especially if you don’t have a great family life or you’re being influenced by a religion too much, a way to feel better sometimes is to put somebody else down. Our goal is making kids more compassionate and more understanding that people are just people. It’s really about being yourself.”

SLIDESHOW: JOSH HUTCHERSON: THE HUNGER

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