The first time most moviegoers laid eyes on Nicholas Hoult, he was a cherub-faced 12-year-old with a bowl cut and a shrieking falsetto. It was 2002’s Oscar-nominated About a Boy, starring Hugh Grant, that put a young Hoult on the map.
“I haven’t watched it back in a long time, but it’s like watching a different person,” says Hoult.
Today the child actor’s once round face and short stature have given way to high cheekbones and a towering six-foot-three frame. And Hollywood has taken notice. The 23-year-old Brit is the lead in the 3-D fantasy epic Jack the Giant Slayer, opening March 1, and the surprisingly touching zombie love story Warm Bodies, in theaters Friday.
In Warm Bodies, Hoult plays R—a zombie in post-apocalyptic America who feels a bit more human than his undead brethren. He listens to Guns N’ Roses on vinyl and collects artifacts from the Old World. One day he crosses paths with Julie (Teresa Palmer), a human freedom fighter whose father, played by John Malkovich, has erected a giant wall around the warmblooded populace and given instructions to kill all zombies on sight. R immediately falls for Julie, who breathes life into him and even inspires the grunting mute to talk ... and stop eating brains.
“The brains were like a bit of a cake ... quite sweet and wet and cold, and we had bits of grapefruit in there. It wasn’t that bad,” he says with a chuckle. “The core concept of the film is that when you eat someone’s brains, you get their memories, and my character gets to know Teresa’s by eating Dave Franco’s brains. Not the most conventional way of getting to know a girl, but it seemed to work!”
He adds, “From doing the first chemistry reads with Teresa, I knew we had that vibe, and she was someone I could imagine my character wanting to quit eating brains for.”
While many zombie films serve as social commentaries exploring everything from consumerism (Dawn of the Dead) to the general monotony of modern life, Hoult believes that Warm Bodies serves as a critique of sorts on how so much of our time is spent on trivial and transitory things, like technology.
“My character says in the voice-over that the zombie world he’s stuck in isn’t that much different from the world before the apocalypse hit,” he says. “Nowadays we have so many things that take our attention—phones, Internet—and perhaps we need to disconnect from those and focus on the immediate world around us and the people that are actually present.”
After being spotted sitting at a play with his mother, Hoult began acting at age 3 in the Brecht play The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The first role he actually recalls playing, however, was a young boy in his film debut, 1996’s Intimate Relations.
“I was 5 years old, and all I did was sit at a table and eat cake, which was a child’s dream role,” says Hoult.
Following his breakout turn as Marcus Brewer, a young outcast who is heckled mercilessly by his classmates, smothered by his anxious mother (Toni Collette), and ultimately taken in by a caddish man-child, played by Hugh Grant, in About a Boy, Hoult took a few years off from acting.
“It’s tricky around that age to find good roles, and fortunately I managed to stay in school and keep a balanced life,” he says. “I wasn’t too swept up in the film world, and it’s important to have real-life experiences to play the characters you want to and treat them with respect.”
He also found it difficult to book roles because he experienced a huge growth spurt and was still in the process of filling out.
“By the time I was 14, I was about six foot,” says Hoult. “I remember going into auditions, and they’d look at how tall I was and say, ‘Well, you’re taller than the lead actor, so there’s no way we can cast you.’”
After the hiatus, Hoult’s career started to gain traction again with the teen drama Skins, which came out in the U.K. in 2007. Hoult played Tony Stonem, a popular, scheming teen, and the series, which sought to approach controversial topics like drug use, mental illness, and death in a realistic fashion, became a cult hit in its native England.
“It was a very different role: a manipulative, cool guy who has a grasp on the people around them and is considered a bit of an alpha male,” he says. “It was quite different from who I was at the time, and I didn’t think I was suited to playing that character, so it was a great challenge.”
Skins has become a springboard for many actors. Filmmaker Danny Boyle’s daughter showed him episodes of the show, which led to the casting of Skins co-star Dev Patel in Slumdog Millionaire; Kaya Scodelario, who played Hoult’s younger sister on the show, starred as the lead opposite Jessica Biel in Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes, which just premiered at Sundance; and cast members Hannah Murray and Joe Dempsie star in the HBO series Game of Thrones. Director Bryan Singer also took a shine to the show and Hoult and openly campaigned for him to be cast as Beast in the superhero reboot X-Men: First Class.
It was on that film where he met Jennifer Lawrence. The two reportedly began dating in 2011 and split a few weeks ago. According to Hoult, it’s pretty difficult to make relationships work when you’re a young actor whose career is gaining momentum.
“It’s tricky, because you’re all over the place,” he says. “We were shooting Mad Max: Fury Road for seven months in Namibia, so you’re never really in one place, and when you are, they’re strange places that are difficult to get to. I wouldn’t change it, because you’re very fortunate to travel, meet new people, and embark on these new experiences, but it’s not great for that side of things.”
He adds, “But I don’t really worry about that stuff in the press. Storm in a teacup is how I describe it.”
The young actor has also gained marks for his dapper red-carpet style, which he credits to fashion designer Tom Ford. Hoult appeared in Ford’s critically acclaimed filmmaking debut, A Single Man, and had the luxury of being outfitted in Ford suits for the movie’s press tour. He later modeled for Ford’s Spring 2010 collection.
“It made me appreciate how fantastic clothes like Tom makes can make you feel,” he says. “You put on one of his suits and you feel sharp, like James Bond. But as far as my personal style goes, I’m still a bit of a mess!”
Hoult recently wrapped filming on Max Max: Fury Road, opposite Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy, and will start filming the sequel to First Class, X-Men: Days of Future Past, in the spring.
“I hope to do some smaller films after X-Men ... and some films where I don’t wear a whole lot of makeup,” he says with a laugh.