As Peeta Mellark in The Hunger Games films, Josh Hutcherson has cemented his role not only in one of the most successful franchises in movie history, but also in one of its most divisive fictional love triangles (either you’re Team Peeta or Team Gale; there is no in between). But before the final installment of that series hits theaters on Nov. 20, Hutcherson is releasing a very different and decidedly lower-profile project.
“The Rusted,” a short movie which premiered in New York City Thursday night, is the product of Canon’s Project Imagination, a competition helmed by Ron Howard that invited aspiring storytellers to submit minute-long trailers, from which a winner would be selected as the basis for a film. Hutcherson and Howard chose a trailer by Mark Mukherjee, a college student in Florida, which Hellion director Kat Candler used as inspiration for the screenplay.
In the short film, which can be viewed on Project Imagination’s website, Hutcherson and Hunger Games co-star Jena Malone play a brother and sister forced to confront painful aspects of their family history while turning their childhood home into a music studio. Hours before the premiere, Hutcherson spoke to TIME about the thrill of grassroots filmmaking, why his mom is his favorite collaborator and how it feels to bid farewell to Peeta for good.
TIME: You’ve been acting in feature-length films for over a decade, and you’re a part of one of the biggest film franchises in history. Why did you decide, at this stage in your career, to take on a short film based on a crowdsourced idea?
Hutcherson: I had known about Project Imagination before. I thought it was really cool to have short films that are inspired not through filmmakers but everyday people. You really got to give someone that was interested in filmmaking, or had a story they wanted to tell, a platform to express that. Then obviously, Ron Howard. Being involved with him is a life goal, for any actor. When I signed on I had no idea what it was going to be—comedy, drama, sci-fi. I didn’t know what the character would be. I just kind of had blind faith.
When you were judging the trailers, what kinds of stories stood out to you?
We were looking for the trailer that evoked the most feeling, and that’s why we chose the “Tainted Water” trailer. It had a great aesthetic, it had a great tone, and our minds were flooded with possibilities for how the story could unfold. It was hard to choose, because we didn’t have a mission of genre or anything. There were some great ones about friendship and loss and a lot of family-oriented stuff, which was what we ended up with.
Compared to when you started acting, there are so many new avenues into the entertainment industry. Do you think that’s causing a shift in the industry?
I think now more than ever it really is. It’s really interesting now with Internet technology being the way it is, people around the world who normally would have no access to the movie industry or the music industry now have an outlet for that. There’s so many undiscovered things that now are becoming more discoverable through technology, and this project really highlights that.
I noticed in the credits that you co-produced the movie with your mom. Do you work together often?
Yeah, she’s been doing the acting thing with me since I was 9, traveling all over with me. She’s never been my manager, because she’s my mom and we wanted to keep those separate. But she’s always been really keen on stories and scripts and helped me select a lot of the things I’ve done. We started a production company together a few years ago. We have seven projects we’re developing together. We’re such a good team, because I’m the creative side and she’s very practical and super organized, which is not my forte at all. This is the first thing that we produced start-to-finish together. It’s not bad to have your first thing you do next to Ron Howard.
How do you approach a role that you’re going to play for 17 minutes, compared to a role like Peeta, which you’ve played over the course of four two-hour movies?
I don’t approach it differently. I think the biggest difference comes from the screenwriting. To be able to capture the essence of who these people are, what they’re going through and making them real, that’s hard to accomplish in 15 minutes. So I applaud Kat Candler, our writer-director, for doing that, because she really did it in a subtle way, but still communicated who these people were. The backstory we built out [for my character] was three pages long, and our script was only 15.
You’ve talked about wanting to direct in the future. Do you have concrete plans for that?
I have a short film that I wrote, and I’m still tweaking the script. That’s probably the first thing I’ll direct. A couple of projects that my production company’s developing, I’m thinking about directing. I’ve always been fascinated, since I was 9 years old, with all aspects of filmmaking. I was always, after wrap, hanging out with the camera guys. I’m definitely ready to do it, but I’m nervous. I’m not a perfectionist, but when I do something, I want to do it right. I put all of myself into every movie I make. A lot of people are like, “Just do it, you’ll learn.” But I really want it to be good, so I’ll take my time with it.
You’ve been working with James Franco, who made the same transition.
Yeah, we just shot two movies. And Ron, too. It’s crazy that I’m working with him because when I was a kid, if somebody was like, “Who’s an inspiration,” I always said Ron Howard. From a young age, I wanted to be a director, and he was a young actor who became a director, and one of the best in the world. And James, he does everything. He’s a madman. When we were shooting, we’d be driving out to location at five in the morning, and he’d be on his computer working on his novel, answering emails about a play he’s going to direct.
How does it feel to be getting ready to say goodbye to Peeta and your Hunger Games family?
It’s a mixed feeling. It’s a big part of me, and I’m going to miss shooting the movies, because it’s the most fun. We became so close throughout this last half a decade together. But I’m ready for the next thing. It’s been four and a half years, and every year you shoot a movie, you have three and a half weeks of obligated press, so it’s been a big commitment. It’s nice to have my freedom back. I say it’s 50-50, half excited to be moving onto the next thing, and half bummed to not be making more of these movies.
Is there any sense of relief or excitement about being able to establish yourself apart from this role that you’ve come to be so closely associated with?
Definitely, there is. And there’s also a fear, too, that people have you stuck in that role for the rest of your life. It’s hard to break away from it, but it’s exciting, especially after a franchise like this that’s been successful, to take that enthusiasm that people have about you and get to express yourself and do what you want to do. Right now I’m being really selective about which projects I want to do because I can be. It’s cool to get to redefine yourself.
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