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Nicholas Hoult on the futility of war, Instagram impostors, and life in a celebrity couple

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 6 days ago By Craig McLean
© Provided by The Telegraph

Who is Nicholas Hoult? Or, more precisely, where is he?

On one level, the answer to the latter is easy: the actor is slumped on the floor in front of me in the departures hall at Sardinia’s Olbia airport. Last night on the island’s chi-chi east coast, open-air restaurant led to open-air bar led to wee-hours fun in a nightspot catering to the Med’s yacht-set.

Cue, this early morning, Hoult playing a role we might expect of a normal 27-year-old: hideously hungover clubber, headphones clamped round his ears, baseball cap pulled low over his face.

But even when, 18 hours earlier, he was sitting directly opposite me on the veranda of a clifftop hotel, sipping Diet Coke, it was hard to locate the man. The star of films as diverse as the X-Men: First Class reboots, Mad Max: Fury Road, music industry satire Kill Your Friends and Tom Ford’s A Single Man is polite to a fault and great company. But, with it, he’s scrupulously low-key. It makes for a fine conversation, but a less-than-illuminating interview.

As Hoult once recgonised, he can’t escape “this terrible fear of coming off wrongly or saying something that gets taken out of context. Because this could make up people's opinions of you.” This fear persisted a good decade after his breakthrough success, aged 12, in About A Boy. And it’s clearly still there now, even after a slew of blockbuster film roles.

But that, perhaps, is the secret of the success of the tall, handsome Farnborough College sixth former who was cast as Tony in E4’s groundbreaking Noughties youth drama Skins. If Hoult is hard to pin down, he also defies pigeonholing, which makes him nigh-impossible to typecast. Enter, stage right, quietly and unexpectedly, one of our most adaptable and in-demand character actors.

Consider his roles in the last two years alone: a boffin with a big, bushy – and blue – head. Another boffin, this one real, with a big, bushy moustache. The leader of the Tory party during the reign of Queen Anne. One of the most famous, and famously reclusive, authors of the 20th century. Half of a couple of modern-day Los Angeles hipsters, “millennials navigating a social media-driven hook-up culture”. A British getaway driver smashing up Germany. An American grunt invading Iraq. A clairvoyant rabbit.

“It’s quite a random bunch, isn’t it?” the perennially busy Berkshire-born actor says with easygoing understatement. “I like it that way. That’s certainly not the game-plan,” he insists, “but I don’t see the point in doing things that are similar in terms of genre or storyline or character.”

Even as he’s dead-balling questions back at me, the lanky-cum-gangly Hoult is an affable sort. Unusually for an actor of his profile, he’s travelled to Sardinia from his London home unaccompanied by personal PR or agent. Hence, perhaps, his letting rip last night.

He’s on the island to take part in some driving challenges with Jaguar. They have form in partnering with British actors of a certain stylish, go-faster stripe – Damien Lewis made a short film in Peru with the car firm, Benedict Cumberbach went ice-driving in Finland, Idris Elba did a 72-hour European road-trip.

© Eric Charbonneau/Invision/AP

But the connection with self-proclaimed petrolhead Hoult is more than merely promotional: Jaguar supplied the motors for his film Collide, a continental thriller where much of the action takes place on the German autobahn. Hoult is the protagonist, his antagonists a couple of theatrical knights: Sir Anthony Hopkins and Sir Ben Kingsley. If he was intimidated by the company, he’s not showing it. Maybe spending over half your young life on film and TV sets does that to a twentysomething.

“Normally people at the top of the game are the nicest and most chilled,” he offers with a shrug. This evening’s festivities some hours ahead of us, as yet the well-spoken-but-far-from-posh  Hoult is on nothing stronger than caffeine and nicotine. “Sir Anthony,” he begins, chuckling at the memory, “has a very dry sense of humour. He’ll take the piss all the time. We’d be doing scenes and he’d come up to me and go, ‘ah, yes, think you messed that one up – did it a bit big – but we’ll do another one, don’t worry.’

“And so I started saying to him: ‘Yeah, Anthony, you know that wasn’t the rehearsal, mate, we were shooting? So if you want to be in the movie, you should try a bit harder.’ Fun stuff like that,” he beams, sounding confident rather than brattish.

In terms of working with A-listers, Hoult hit the ground running as a pre-adolescent. When he made About A Boy, Hugh Grant – his co-star in the adaptation of the Nick Hornby bestseller – was one of the most bankable stars in Britain.

“I was aware auditioning, aged 10 or 11, that it was a big job to get,” recalls Hoult. The third of four children born to a piano teacher mother and British Airways pilot father, he was a child actor in dramas such as Casualty and The Bill. “But Hugh was very encouraging. I was obsessed with cars then, and at the time he was in the market for a new car. I’d bring all my Top Gear magazines to set. ‘How about that one, Hugh?’ ‘No, I can’t have that.’ I’m an 11-year-old boy with an 11-year-old boy’s tastes, trying to persuade him to buy something. ‘Are you sure you don’t want the souped-up Ford Fiesta? It’s a winner, right?’”

Unfortunately, Collide has proven less of a winner. To date it’s been released in the US and Japan but shows no sign of gaining a UK theatrical release. The appalling American reviews didn’t help, but when we catch up later on the phone, Hoult – typically – is blithely unphased. “It’s been lost amongst the wreckage,” he says evenly.

He can afford to be sanguine. This month Netflix launch one of those other projects. Sand Castle is set in Iraq during the invasion of 2003. Hoult plays a disillusioned, questioning American private and another Brit, Superman Henry Cavill, plays a buff-as-they-come Special Forces soldier. The gripping film, shot in the baking heat of Jordan, is based on the real-life experiences of the scriptwriter, a former US Army machine-gunner. It’s thoughtful, reflective and far from gung ho – qualities that suit its leading man.

“It doesn’t feel like a normal war movie,” agrees Hoult, “in terms of the pacing and the emotion and substance behind it. It’s very under the surface, that futility-of-war idea.”

Was it gruelling to make? “Ah, was it gruelling?” squirms Hoult, finding unexpected difficulties in the soft question. “Yeah, it was different to anything I’d done before, in a good way. We had military training with a guy who was ex-Delta Force. It was really fun, but I’ve heard stories from other actors about boot camps that were so intense they almost broke them.

“We were on Jordanian military bases, in their ‘kill houses’ or CQB houses: close-quarter battle. We’d be in there practising clearing procedures with ‘simunition’ – that’s a thing,” Hoult grins. “We put on these masks, get given these guns, are put inside this pitch-black house with torches, and try and hunt down these bad guys hiding inside. You’re in all the gear. It’s amazing how the adrenaline starts pumping,” he relates, adrenaline firmly unpumped.

“Nic is fundamentally a polite chap,” Owen Harris tells me on the phone from South Africa, where the director of Kill Your Friends is working on his own Netflix show, historical drama Troy (a BBC co-production). “But he has quite a wicked sense of humour. I remember that on Skins people said he could be a proper little monkey. He has got that side to him, but he keeps it within his little circle of friends. He’s not the classic, rock’n’roll, let-it-all-hang-out type.”

Talking about the youngster he cast in his film debut, Tom Ford backed up that insight: “He takes his job very, very seriously. I guess that's from being a child actor, where you have to be disciplined from such an early age.”

Equally, by way of explaining his success, Harris says: “While Nic still looks quite young and naïve, there’s a wolfishness to him. These qualities make him very interesting to directors – you want to mine and shape those attributes, which has helped him take on such a variety of roles. Sometimes that makes people wonder ‘who are you?’ But that’ll be good for him in the long-run – he’ll keep shape-shifting, and probably keep making those choices which are a bit different and riskier.”

© Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images

It seems fair and accurate comment. In the pipeline Hoult has Rebel In The Rye, a biopic of JD Salinger; low-budget indie The Newness, shot in 18 days and the one in which he plays half of a young LA couple; and a new adaptation of Watership Down, where he’s the voice of Fiver, “the rabbit who has visions. It’s very dark, isn’t it?” he says of Richard Adams’ cult Seventies novel, published 17 years before he was born.

Hoult recently wrapped The Current War, in which he had the role of a luxuriously moustachioed Nikola Tesla (“I never thought I’d get facial hair!” this still rather babyfaced man cheerfully admits). It’s a dramatisation of the feud between electrical pioneers Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. He then went straight to the set of English period drama The Favourite, the latest from Yorgos Lanthimos, arthouse director of The Lobster. Hoult is playing a “powdered, dandified” early 18th century politician alongside Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman. And immediately after that, he’s Canada-bound, for a fourth X-Men movie, reprising the role of Hank McCoy/The Beast.

It doesn’t sound like there’s much time for a private life. Is he currently in a relationship? “Ah, no, umm, ah...” he splutters. “I’m unqualified.”

Come again? “I don’t know what that means exactly! But… not discussing,” he says, reverting to the awkward, mumbling, suburban mien that dogged Hoult’s early interviews.

His most high-profile relationship was with Jennifer Lawrence, whom he met while filming 2011’s X-Men: First Class. When I interviewed him in 2013 he falteringly managed to confirm, just, that they’d split, around the time she won the Best Actress Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook.

I ask how he found the scrutiny, being part of a celebrity couple. Again, he plumps for the unflustered – you might say flat, or flattening – response.

“Couples make for better sales of magazines – that gossip is just what people write about. We weren’t always dogged by paparazzi, though. We did a fairly good job of avoiding all that, partly through life choices of not going to places where they hang out, or being seen around town a lot.”

He’s a heel-dragging celebrity still, only engaging with the wider world via social media reluctantly. His Twitter (491,000 followers) was set up by studios keen for him to promote their films. He abandoned his private Instagram (“I had 40 friends on it”) for a public one (130,000 followers) under duress, to see off someone who was impersonating him.

“He had 100,000 followers and was posting stuff that wasn’t true or just a bit lame – me on red carpets or saying things like, ‘hey, great day on set…’ I think that’s a big part of why a lot of people have it, to stop fake accounts, which can be more detrimental.”

© PA

He’s not wrong. I recently interviewed Charlie Hunnam, star of The Lost City of Z and Guy Ritchie’s upcoming King Arthur. His Twitter feed was sprinkled with crude pro-Donald Trump proclamations. When I challenged him on this, the actor was nonplussed. It transpired that the account was fake, albeit one convincing enough to have attracted several hundred thousand followers (it appears to have since been taken down).

Hoult, a young man wary of expressing his own opinions, far less having others express them for him, audibly winces when I tell him this. “Yeah, it’s better and safer to have an official one,” he acknowledges.

Meanwhile, there’s the small business of a fourth big-budget X-Men spectacular to film. He recently met with co-star and fellow north London-based motorbike enthusiast James McAvoy to talk about the production, which will begin in Montreal later this year. Another role to disappear into – always useful for a onetime pretty boy ever-keener to be cast for more than his looks.

“I always tried to steer clear of that. Not because I’m thinking, ‘oh, I’m really pretty!” he clarifies, laughing. “But those roles either weren’t interesting, or I thought they wouldn’t lead to an interesting career, or a long career – ’cause I’m gonna get ugly at some point!

“There are two tactics aren’t there?” he continues. “The get-rich-quick approach, burn as brightly as you can but then fade. Or, try and plod along and do good stuff under the radar.”

And the latter is the preferred route for the lesser-spotted Nicholas Hoult? “I think so. I’m plodding along nicely.”

Sand Castle debuts on Netflix on April 21

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