ASHEVILLE — All last summer, locals would spy Woody Harrelson on the streets of Asheville, eating raw manicotti at The Laughing Seed, often shoeless, blending in with the rest of the citys hemp-wearing vegan vagabonds.
One of the stars of The Hunger Games, filmed entirely in North Carolina, Harrelson bunked at the Hotel Indigo on Haywood Street, enjoying views of the Blue Ridge Mountains through floor-to-ceiling windows or, if he preferred, from the vantage point of a claw-foot tub.
So one day, the makers of Buchi, a brand of the bubbly tea-based beverage called kombucha, sent Harrelson a gift basket, figuring odds were slim hed ever open it.
But the next day, the star found the staff at an Asheville arts festival, hopped shoeless off the bus and posed for pictures wearing a Navy blue Buchi T-shirt.
I was out there slingin Buchi, said Zane Adams, the drinks marketing guru, and he was just rockin the shirt.
The movie opens today, and analysts predict the story of children dueling to the death in post-apocalyptic North America could rake in more than $100 million in its first weekend. But to Western North Carolina, the excitement peaked last year, when the cast popped up on unlikely corners.
Celebrity-spotting became a phenomenon from May to September, all thanks to North Carolina having enough empty warehouses to convincingly stand in as District 12 the hardscrabble, coal-mining home to The Hunger Games heroes.
They told us beware of the paparazzi, said Susan Newton, director of sales for Hotel Indigo. I said, What paparazzi? This isnt LA. Were not into celebrity stalking here.
Gossip-chasers from TMZ.com camped out in Shelby, an hour west of Charlotte, hoping for a peek at Jennifer Lawrence and the other barely-20 stars now plastered on magazine covers. Entertainment Weekly staked out rooftops there, training eyes on rusty warehouses that used to process cotton.
They all bought Dale Earnhardt hats, but we still knew they werent from here, said Jackie Sibley, executive director of tourism for Cleveland County.
Other tidbits gleaned in Shelby:
Elizabeth Banks really likes hot pink shoes, said Sibley, who owns a pair the female cast members coveted. Also: Miley Cyrus paid us a visit.
In Charlotte, locals still tell the story of Lenny Kravitz asking a firefighter last summer to recommend a good restaurant. The firefighter sent the singer-guitarist, who plays Cinna in The Hunger Games, to Cabo Fish Taco in the NoDa arts district. But Kravitz also got invited to a fire hall dinner, which, the story goes, he accepted.
In the tiny town of Hildebran, just west of Hickory in Burke County, cars sometimes waited an hour while sheriffs deputies stopped traffic waiting for filming to wrap up in the abandoned Henry River Mill Village.
Even today, with the cameras and lights long packed up, people drive by to point at the Cakes and Pastries signs painted on the old company store, which will appear as Peeta Mellarks bakery on-screen.
Wade Shepherd, owner since the 1970s, drove up recently and gestured out the window of his car at the bakery site.
They had rolls in there, and youd have thought theyd have melted in your mouth, he marveled. But they were fake.
The North Carolina mountains have served as haunts for famous artsy types before: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, O. Henry, Nina Simone.
But their work springs from distant generations, less familiar to Hunger Games readers, before vegan manicotti, kombucha and socially acceptable bare footedness.