With a following that can easily rival the likes of Twilight and Harry Potter, The Hunger Games premieres in theaters on Friday, March 23. The film, which was adapted from the young adult series of novels written by Suzanne Collins, takes place in a distant future where the government selects teens from its 12 districts annually to fight to the death on live television.

ESSENCE.com caught up with a young Black actor taking on the role of one of those teens: Hollywood rookie Dayo Okeniyi, who plays Thresh in the blockbuster. Here he discusses what filming was like, his background and his admiration for Denzel Washington.

ESSENCE: You’re new to Hollywood. Share your background for those who don’t know.

DAYO OKENIYI: I was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and I moved to Anderson, Indiana, in 2003 to go to school. I finished high school in America, then I went to college. I studied graphic design and advertising. But while I was there I did plays, so acting has always been my true love. And I did theater in Nigeria, too —  I did a ton of plays when I was home.

ESSENCE: The Hunger Games is your first major movie. How did you land the role of Thresh?
OKENIYI: I moved to LA a couple years ago and I was lucky to land an indie feature right away. At that time, I was tipped off that there was a casting director looking for young actors. So, I followed up and performed for him and he was really impressed. He was like, “Who’s your agent, I’d love to get in touch. I have roles I’m casting for right now and I think you’d be perfect!” I was like, “Sir, I don’t have any representation.” He then made a phone call and set me up with a manager. It was a victory just getting representation. The first audition my manger sent me on was The Hunger Games, and I got the role.

ESSENCE: For those who are unfamiliar with The Hunger Games, how would you describe your character? Also, did you have any challenges preparing for the part?
OKENIYI: The biggest challenge was the physical aspect of the role, training and getting in shape for the film. I would describe Thresh as this huge colossal figure. He’s definitely one of the favorites to win the Hunger Games. But he really has a soft heart. He doesn’t want to partake in the games, unlike those who actually train their whole lives and look forward to getting selected to go. Thresh doesn’t want anything to do with it. He tries to avoid conflicts at all times. But if he’s backed into a corner, he can do some damage. He’s not out for blood, he just wants to make it through the game and make it back to see his mom and his sister.

ESSENCE: Obviously this was a learning experience for you. What did you walk away with?
OKENIYI: If anything, it’s to keep a child-like awareness of the business. The biggest thing people tell me is that I’ll be jaded real soon and that the allure of filmmaking will lose its magic. Not necessarily the fame, but that special thing you create onscreen. Someone like Stanley Tucci was so excited to be on-set everyday. You’d think he was on the movie set for the first time because of how he excited he was. Also, I learned you can be professional and absolutely love what you’re doing. It doesn’t have to be a chore.

ESSENCE: You have a long career ahead of you. Who is someone you look up in the industry?
OKENIYI: Denzel Washington is someone I look up to. I loved him in Training Day! There have been days when I keep that movie on loop. Just his choices are so great. He’s so relaxed on screen, it’s incredible. At the end of the day, as actors, we try to embody a character and try to create somebody real. Also, I admire actors like Josh Brolin and Will Smith. These are actors who consistently put out great work. I like to look at not necessarily who’s hot right now, but the body of work and the way they’ve picked their projects, the way they’ve been able to stay relevant and do different things.

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