As Nicholas Hoult turns 25 on 7 December, we revisit his March 2013 interview, where he talked about having Hugh Grant as a mentor, and dating Jennifer Lawrence.
Words by Kerry Potter
The moment I realised the interview was going well? Sitting in the middle of the frenetic dining room at London’s Shoreditch House, rubbing Nicholas Hoult’s newly shaved head. ‘It’s like Velcro, isn’t it?’ he says, grinning. ‘I felt naked at first but I like it now – you wake up in the morning and you’re ready to go.’ The buzz cut is for work: Hoult has recently returned from Namibia where he’s filming the long-awaited next installment of the 1979 Mad Max franchise, playing a young warrior opposite Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy. The cut may be brutal but the effect is beautiful: all eyes, lips and cheekbones. Which, judging by the glances in our direction, the other women in the room have also noticed.
I didn’t arrive expecting to be granted head-rubbing privileges. Previous interviews with Hoult are painful to read: awkward silences punctuated with the odd quote about how much he hates doing interviews. True, he is a 6ft 3in mumbling machine, a man of few words, and many of them are ‘um’ and ‘er’. He responds to difficult questions by taking big bites of cheeseburger that prevent him from speaking. But, somehow, he’s fantastic company, too. He willingly shares his chips. And he’s engaging, funny and self-deprecating. ‘How am I doing?’ he asks, 10 minutes in. ‘Is it gripping?’ He’s part boy, part man, ping-ponging between silly and sage. One minute he’s ruminating on the importance of being loved; the next he’s trying to convince me that his plastic Casio digital watch cost £2,000.
‘When you’re a kid and you’re an actor you grow up a lot quicker, because you’re hanging out with adults on film sets,’ he says. ‘People tell me, sometimes, for a 23-year-old I’m pretty mature. But I’m still stupid and immature, too. I make mistakes.’
His career to date, however, is faultless. He may be young but, in acting years, Hoult’s a veteran. His older brother and sister did theatre and dancing, and at first he just went along for the ride. But what began as a hobby became something more serious and, while still in primary school, he began landing TV and stage roles. Eleven years ago, aged just 12, he played awkward schoolboy Marcus in About a Boy, suffering the indignity of an appalling haircut but the benefit of a friendship with co-star Hugh Grant, who bought him golf lessons and a set of clubs. At 17, he played cocksure ladies man Tony in Channel 4’s peerless, controversial, sex ’n’ drugs teen drama Skins. Then, in 2009, Hollywood came calling and we saw him enchanting Colin Firth’s suicidal English professor as the Californian dreamboat student Kenny, in Tom Ford’s ethereal directorial debut A Single Man.
And since then? As he was once described as the ‘lovechild’ of his co-stars Hugh Grant and Colin Firth, you might expect Hoult to have grown up to specialise in the kind of posh, bumbling but loveable Englishman roles that Americans swoon over. You’d be wrong. Using A Single Man as his Hollywood springboard, he’s headed deep into American blockbuster territory, starring in Clash of the Titans and X-Men: First Class.
He’s also – quietly – been dating the hottest of Hollywood hotshots, Jennifer Lawrence, since they met on the set of X-Men in 2010. How have they managed to keep that to themselves for so long? ‘It’s good, isn’t it?’ he chuckles. ‘I don’t know. I try to be low-key about everything. We didn’t want to end up being those people who are always everywhere being photographed.’
Lawrence, however, hasn’t been able to keep a lid on it of late: she’s clearly so into him that she can’t not mention him, however hard she might try. ‘She’s got verbal diarrhoea,’ he groans. ‘Whenever she does an interview, I’m like, “What did you say this time?” Oh, man. It’s become a running joke. There are some stinkers of quotes.’ Now you come to mention it, I have one of Jennifer’s proclamations right here: ‘He has absolutely no idea how good looking he is.’ Hoult bursts out laughing: ‘Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? But it’s very sweet.’ He then concentrates on stuffing as much of that cheeseburger into his mouth as possible. He does concede, however, through mouthfuls of cow, that they’re very happy, they have to put in ‘a bit of hard work’ to make their long-distance relationship work (he’s still based at his parents’ house in Berkshire, she’s in LA, they’re both away on film sets for months at a time) and that she’s taught him to unwind a bit: ‘She’s much more relaxed about everything, whereas I’m British, I’m uptight.’
Like many actors whose working life is itinerant and unpredictable, he seems to crave security. ‘There’s a bit of a trap with actors – they become famous, they get a lot of attention from girls and get caught up in that. And they end up being a stud for 20 years and suddenly realise they can’t find a nice normal girl to settle down with, even though they’ve got models coming out of their ears. It’s kind of a sad situation,’ he pauses. ‘You want to put roots down, have something to grasp on to. It’s fun travelling around, living out of a suitcase, but it can be lonely.’ He counters this with evenings in LA spent on the sofa under a duvet watching movies with Lawrence. Back home he has nights in the pub with his friends, plays basketball and messes around on his motorbike. He’s all about the low-key, while his working environment screams ‘look at me’. No wonder he feels awkward at times.
Which might be why he seems to prefer roles where he wears lots of make-up and thus doesn’t get recognised. ‘At the moment, I’m the king of the eyeliner among the young actors. Look at this…’ He holds up a mobile phone photo of himself after two hours in make-up for Mad Max: deathly pale face, sinister black eyes and entirely incognito. In 2011’s X-Men: First Class he was unrecognisable as scientist-cum-blue furball Dr Hank McCoy. In the imminent Warm Bodies, a quirky zombie romance – wait, come back, it’s actually brilliant – he’s once again plastered in gunk. ‘I should start my own range of make-up,’ he says.
Eyeliner or not, there’s no doubt Hoult will be in the public gaze this year with three Hollywood movies imminent: the aforementioned Mad Max, Warm Bodies and Jack the Giant Slayer, an update of Jack and the Beanstalk from X-Men director Bryan Singer. The latter two movies mark Hoult’s emergence as a leading man. ‘Before, the pressure wasn’t on me – other people were in the leads and I could coast along under the radar,’ he says. ‘But when you step up to do the lead, it’s a new scale of panic. It’s resting on your shoulders. I read an interview with Daniel Craig and he says he still gets nervous playing Bond, knowing it’s such an expensive production. And that’s Daniel Craig – he’s already a movie star! It’s even more terrifying for me.’
The fame that’s come hand in hand with Hoult’s acting success is something he sometimes finds difficult. He recalls appearing on a Saturday-morning kids TV show to promote About a Boy, going shopping with his mother later that day and realising everyone was staring at him. ‘I remember thinking, “Oh God, this is horrible.”’ Skins, in particular, attracted a lot of attention – not all of it positive. The no-holds-barred depiction of teenage sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll was unsurprisingly controversial, although Hoult stands by it. ‘I remember reading the scene when [my character] Tony gets together with Maxxie [the gay tryst] and I thought, “Maybe this is taking it a bit far.” But then I spoke to the writers and they said, “The way they look at it is Tony could get with any girl and he’s bored with that so this is a power-trip thing. And I thought, “Yes, I get it.”’ He says it didn’t feel that controversial while they were filming it – although his first sex scene was filmed for the show days after his 18th birthday. ‘They waited until I was legal – you have to be 18 to film sex. I had a glass of champagne and a couple of vodka Cokes at 8am. It could’ve been a downward spiral from there!’
The attention that came his way could be uncomfortable: there was the time at the height of Skins mania when girls surrounded his car and banged on the windows. ‘I wanted to climb into a hole,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t escape.’ These days, he’s more sanguine about fame. ‘A lot of people go out of their minds. I just try to ignore it.’ And how does he feel about his heart-throb status? He blushes. ‘It’s never a bad thing to be a heart-throb, I guess. It’s very nice.’
Mentors have always featured heavily in Hoult’s career – a smart move for a young actor eager to learn on the job. ‘Hugh Grant was charming. He set a good example by being so professional. If I’d worked on my first big job with an actor who had a bad attitude, I would’ve picked up on it. And Colin Firth was a great mentor. The best advice he gave me was that family is the most important thing. Everyone will be your mate when you’re on your way up or at the top but on the way back down, when you’ve been kicked in the gut, no one wants to know who you are.’ Tom Ford has also been a big influence – once Hoult realised who he was, that is. ‘I had to jump on a plane to have dinner with him in LA after I’d auditioned for A Single Man.
I looked him up on IMDb and it said he played himself in Zoolander. I thought [puzzled], “Oh, OK.”’ At dinner, Hoult actually asked Ford how he got into directing. ‘I didn’t know he was a fashion designer. He very humbly started to explain. When I got home, I thought, let’s check this guy out properly online. And up pops the whole Gucci thing and this photo of him on the cover of Vanity Fair with Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightley. I was like, “Ah, OK.”’ Far from being offended, Ford proved quite the benefactor. As well as putting him in A Single Man, he cast Hoult in a sunglasses advert, which the actor approached with his trademark nonchalance. ‘He said, “Do you want to do the eyewear campaign tomorrow?” I said, “All right, I’ll give it a go.” So I turned up and this stunning model Carolyn Murphy strolls in. At one point she’s topless, on my lap, hugging me. I was sitting there, thinking, “Man, I’m so glad I said yes to this.” There are moments when you think, “This is a job?”’
He claims not to be a man with a plan, but you don’t get to Nicholas Hoult’s level of success without a certain amount of plotting – after all, how many young British TV actors disappear to LA never to be heard of again? ‘I am quite a competitive person,’ he concedes. ‘Not like cut-throat ambitious, but work-hard, keep-my-head-down ambitious. You have to aim in the right direction but then the wind takes you to somewhere else and your path will change. And you either try to correct it because it was a path you didn’t want to go down or you enjoy it and see how it goes.’