"Don't tell them you're a woman."
Strange advice from an agent to her auditioning client, but that's what Eugenie Bondurant heard years ago.
The acting gig was a one-off on the HBO series Arli$$ — as a transgender man.
"And that has been my career," said the St. Petersburg resident, a strikingly tall, angular presence on the Tampa Bay arts scene and soon far beyond.
Bondurant plays the small yet pivotal role of Tigris in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2, opening worldwide Nov. 20. Based on Suzanne Collins' wildly popular books, the movie is her first in eight years and the biggest by far, surpassing her billing as "Weeping Woman" in Fight Club.
"This tiny treasure of a role," Bondurant, 54, still marvels, "and I got chosen for that. … I'm part of this team, this illusion."
A nationwide search for someone to play Tigris led Bondurant's agent to send a video audition to Mockingjay's casting agent, who invited the actor to a callback interview with director Francis Lawrence. Weeks later, Bondurant got the part.
Chalk it up partially to Bondurant's andro-elegance, 6-foot-1 with diamond-cut cheeks and wispy limbs suggesting fragility until she speaks up, Southern as her surname. "Eugenie" she informs, is pronounced in her native New Orleans as "use-your-knee," with the syllables run together.
Surviving non-Hodgkins lymphoma 30 years ago toughened her spirit while treatment added a hint of gender mystery.
"When I first started out modeling, many, many years ago," she said, sipping tea al fresco at Banyan Cafe in St. Petersburg, "I'd just finished my last round of chemotherapy. I'd lost weight, (had) high cheekbones, no hair. I go to New York looking like death.
"My first agent called the friend who connected us and said, 'I hate to ask this but is she a man or a woman?' And that was the start."
Like many of Bondurant's characters, Tigris isn't traditionally feminine, or human, for that matter. Tigris is a rebel ally obsessed with cats and reconstructive surgery, leaving her with distinctly feline features. Bondurant's facial structure was a good start for Oscar-winning makeup designer Ve Neill.
The look involved prosthetics and contact lenses that muffled Bondurant's senses, taking up to six hours to apply and two to remove. Bondurant's clearest makeup trailer memory is her first, after arriving last November at the Mockingjay set near Atlanta.
"No one's there," she said, "they're all shooting at some location.
"On one side are all of the makeup chairs, and on the other side are the cabinets and on the cabinets you see the head shots of all the stars. Jennifer Lawrence, of course, is first, then Liam (Hemsworth), Josh (Hutcherson), Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, the whole list.
"I'm looking and there is my head shot alongside them. I just, I tell you, it just took my breath away."
Lawrence stars as freedom fighter Katniss Everdeen, leading the resistance against the Capitol in a dystopian future. Bondurant confirmed the Oscar-winner's fun-loving image.
"She's amazing, one of the most gracious women," Bondurant said. "She comes in the first day … turns to me and says, 'Hi, I'm Jennifer and you're playing Tigris, right?' She was lovely.
"Very playful on the set, as well as (director) Francis Lawrence. When the camera wasn't rolling they were always playing something crazy. One time I came on the set and Jennifer is hogtied on the floor, laughing and cracking up, constantly giggling. She really is very special."
After weeks of costume and makeup fittings and lighting tests, Bondurant finally stepped into Tigris' lair, a fur boutique with glam splashes suiting a former Hunger Games stylist. Here, she shelters Katniss and others regrouping against the Capitol.
"I started crying. It was beautiful," Bondurant said, eyes moistening again.
"Everything was pulled together and the set designer said, 'Do you know how long we've been waiting for this? For you to be here?' She said this is the only bright moment in the entire movie."
Bondurant is glad to finally be able to speak publicly about her Hunger Games experience after an extended studio gag order. Hired in September 2014, Bondurant couldn't tell anyone about playing Tigris except her husband, Palladium Theater executive director Paul Wilborn. Lionsgate officially announced her casting in May — six months after filming ended — but wouldn't allow interviews until recently.
The toughest to keep mum around were Bondurant's acting students at the David A. Straz Jr. Center's Patel Conservatory, teenagers at the core of the Hunger Games franchise audience. They only knew their instructor booked a gig she couldn't discuss, and missed some classes.
Then the Lionsgate announcement on Facebook, and Bondurant's next class was disrupted.
"They start jumping up and down, they're clawing me, they're all over me, crying, dropping down to the floor," she said. "One young man … started pounding the floor. Oh my gosh.
"Then for 30 minutes they told me — it was so moving, I'll never forget that day — what a contribution I gave to them with the class. It was one of the most incredible days, absolutely magical."
Bondurant's Mockingjay role is their inspiration, and hers after years of not actively seeking movie roles. She stayed busy teaching, working with [email protected]'s Radio Theatre Project, performing cabaret style with Wilborn, remodeling their home.
But now, who knows?
"This role has brought me back into the fold, back to my acting which I love doing … ," Bondurant said. "I'm enjoying the moment and what might come next. If there are wonderful surprises out there I'll graciously accept."
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.