The Grrr... next door: Local actor Eugenie Bondurant is Tigris in The Hunger Games

The St. Pete thespian talks Tigris, The Hunger Games and the wild world of Hollywood blockbusterdom.

I wasn’t a cat person until I met Eugenie Bondurant.

Bondurant, a St. Petersburg actor, was born to play a feline. She’s feisty but cuddly, enigmatic but approachable, all sinewy limbs and perfect posture, angular cheekbones and fierce intensity. At a lean 6-foot-1, she’s an unearthly and beguiling creature, capable of projecting both vulnerability and fierceness. She’s a cross between Joni Mitchell and a Star Trek villainess, the kind of character actor filmmakers fawn over.

It’s no wonder, then, that Bondurant — a 54-year-old showbiz veteran with a weird and wacky highlight reel — was cast as Tigris in the final installment of the Hunger Games series.

But when I interviewed her for the first time two years ago for CL’s Ask the Locals magazine, her upcoming role in a Hollywood blockbuster was the one fact she couldn’t share.

It was a brisk January morning and Bondurant was sitting in her creaky Old Southeast living room wearing a plastic skullcap that looked like a Saran babushka. A woman, who operated much like a hairstylist, was bent over the actor’s head, kneading the plastic cap this way and that. Coffee was percolating in the kitchen and a neat array of toast and jam was laid out on the dining room table. Peering out from under her bald dome, Bondurant, a former runway model, greeted me as best as she could. Her husband, affable St. Petersburg troubadour Paul Wilborn, executive director of the Palladium Theater, whisked me off to the dining room.

“Can I get you some coffee and toast?” he asked.

“Is Eugenie coloring her hair?” I asked, confused.

Wilborn looked visibly verklempt.

“Funny you should ask,” he replied. “Eugenie landed a part in a really big movie that we can’t talk about yet. She’s in the middle of a wig fitting.”

And that was it. End of discussion. Bondurant, a longtime acting teacher at Tampa’s Patel Conservatory, had been cast in something so huge that she and Wilborn had been sworn to secrecy by a scary Hollywood studio contract. No amount of dogged prodding from a local picayune journalist could get them to crack.

“Is it a romance? A comedy? An action movie?” I asked.

“It’s big,” Wilborn said. “And that’s all we can say.”

Bondurant joined us at the table for breakfast, the wig fitter slipped out the front door, and we launched into a polite discussion about antiquing. The interview went well. The coffee went down easy and I went home with a book of notes espousing the joys of Cajun food, cabaret music, discount hardware stores and nothing on Bondurant’s big Hollywood project.

“We’ll let you know when we can talk about it,” Wilborn said.

“It’s so huge,” Bondurant squealed. “I’m like pinching myself.”

Four months later, Lionsgate released the news: Bondurant had been cast as Tigris in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 — the most anticipated franchise finale of 2015. The announcement spurred a flurry of attention and the kind of pomp and fandom Bondurant, a plucky New Orleans native, had never experienced in her 20-year-career.

“I hadn’t auditioned in years when this opportunity came up,” she says. “My work had wound down. When you hit a certain age, the auditions kind of fall off. I was covered in dust renovating my house when my agent called and said, ‘This is in your wheelhouse. It’s perfect for you. Get me a tape by noon tomorrow.’”

Bondurant made the tape, nailed the Los Angeles callback, charmed Mockingjay director Francis Lawrence, booked the part and filmed her scenes last November in Atlanta.

The role, albeit small, is vital to the story. The actor shares all her screen time with stars Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth. Cast as a former Hunger Games stylist obsessed with plastic surgery, Bondurant’s Tigris is shunned by the Capitol’s bigwigs and ousted from the games after she alters her appearance to resemble a tiger. Relegated to shopkeeper, Tigris aids the rebellion by hiding Katniss (Lawrence) and company in a secret cellar beneath her extravagant fur boutique.

“Of all the characters, if you’d have asked me which one I’d most want to play, I’d say Tigris,” Bondurant says. “It was a treasure box of a role.”

Once Bondurant’s teenage students at the Patel Conservatory learned that their teacher — a social media neophyte with a flip phone — was appearing in the final chapter of the dystopian blockbuster, they insisted she upgrade to a smartphone and sign up for Twitter and Instagram.

click to enlarge The Grrr... next door: Local actor Eugenie Bondurant is Tigris in The Hunger Games - heidi kurpiela
heidi kurpiela
The Grrr... next door: Local actor Eugenie Bondurant is Tigris in The Hunger Games

“You can’t just be an actor with good cheekbones these days,” Bondurant says. “My agent called me and asked, ‘How are your Twitter numbers and I said, ‘I’m at 15,’ and she said, ‘Fifteen thousand?’ and I said, ‘Fifteen hundred. Isn’t that a lot?’”

When the official Mockingjay, Part 2 trailer was released in July at Comic-Con, the actor’s Twittersphere lit up. Unbeknownst to Bondurant, Tigris had been edited into the trailer. Rabid fans of the series began tweeting Bondurant, eager to strike up a conversation with the unknown actor. Us Weekly called for an interview, desperate to dig up dirt on the film’s leads. Skype sessions were scheduled with overseas admirers. Radio interviews were taped and talking points, courtesy of Lionsgate, were distributed via email.

“At times it’s been a little stressful,” Bondurant says. “But isn’t that such a Champagne problem? Some of these fans are so excited to talk to me and I’m like, ‘Why? It’s just me! Do you realize how accessible I am?’ Listen, it could all be a jinx, ya know? I’m grateful and humble. If it leads to more work, I’m happy to take it.”

The pragmatic Bondurant has never fixated on landing leading-lady roles. That was never her calling. As Wilborn likes to say, “Eugenie doesn’t play normal.”

She puts it this way: “I don’t know what it’s like to be typecast as the nice mom who gives you cookies. I get the parts for the mom next door who puts cyanide in your cookies.”

Her previous credits include a biomechanical killing machine in Space Truckers, a social misfit obsessed with rats in Donald & Dot Clock Found Dead in Their Home and an alien mercenary in Star Trek. Aside from being billed as a Weeping Woman in Fight Club and a Patio Mom in a Christopher Reeve-directed TV movie, Bondurant’s IMDB page reads like a B movie marathon.

“The camera sees her as an exotic transgender alien dominatrix, which doesn’t bother her one bit,” Wilborn says. “She’s nothing like these characters. She’s my domestic goddess who reads handyman magazines, rips out stucco and bakes cakes. She’s grounded in who she is.”

That’s not to say Bondurant isn’t freaking out about next week’s Mockingjay premiere in Los Angeles. The quest to find the perfect red carpet dress has been “anxiety-provoking,” says the actress — her most vexing Champagne problem to date. Even more nerve-racking is the fact that she’ll be sitting in a theater with an A-list cast, watching herself slink across the screen for the first time, a brazen cat finally let out of its bag.

“I’ll probably scare myself,” Bondurant says. “It’s going to be a strange out-of-body feeling. Anytime I’ve seen myself in a movie, I’m kind of in disbelief. It’s always like, ‘Wait, that’s me? I did that?’ This time it’ll be even more surreal. I have no idea what I’ll do. It’ll take weeks to sink in.”

• Before Bondurant was cast as Tigris, rumors were swirling that Aussie actress Rebel Wilson had nabbed the part.
• It took a hair and makeup team six hours before each shoot to apply Bondurant’s extensive makeup and prosthetics.
• Bondurant got to experience real hunger pains on the set. The actress is usually a glutton for the craft services table, but couldn’t eat much while filming Mockingjay because her facial prosthetics would get in the way. “I drank my lunch through a straw,” she says. “They made me a lot of peanut butter shakes.”
• Bondurant’s cat’s-eye contact lenses kept shifting during filming. Tigris’s long fingernails made it impossible to fix the lenses, so an assistant had to adjust them every five minutes before each take.
• Regarding her famous female co-star, Bondurant says Jennifer Lawrence is as goofy and easygoing as you’d imagine. “She was one of the first actors to say hello to me. She walked up to me on day one and said, ‘Hey, you must be Tigris. I’m Jennifer,’” Bondurant says.
• Tigris is the only known character in the Capitol whose ostentatious appearance is declared “too altered to appear on TV” by Panem’s government officials.
• The cast and crew were never permitted to take photos on the set. “Everything was very hush-hush,” Bondurant says. “Once you stepped out of your trailer, you were draped in a cloak and driven in a van with blacked-out windows right into a warehouse.” 

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