Nicholas Hoult knows exactly how to use his face. Gifted with a boyishly beautiful mug—bright blue eyes, high cheekbones, pouty lips, brows for days—the English actor has mastered the art of making you either want to hold it in your hands or punch it. And The Great, Hulu’s delightful comedy about Catherine the Great, might be Hoult’s magnum opus. For years, he’s honed the art of playing weirdos and assholes. And now, with hours to explore the role of Catherine’s deplorable yet oafish husband, Peter III, he has never been so punchable—or undeniably charming.
Hoult’s credentials playing outcasts and borderline megalomaniacs stem back to the early days of his career. In About a Boy, his star-making role, he played the pre-teen misfit Marcus, who just wants to learn how to be cool from Hugh Grant’s playboy character Will. In Skins, his layered two-season performance as Tony Stonem—a charismatic but deviously manipulative teenage boy who gets off on power and playing tricks on his friends and family—anchored the series and gave it emotional credibility, helping the early seasons transcend the feel of an ordinary, soapy teen drama.
During his adult career, though, Hoult has refined these talents even further. In the X-Men series, he turned up the boyish charm as Hank McCoy—a lanky scientist in a lab coat who also turns into the giant blue “Beast.” In a franchise that’s all about learning to confront and process one’s status as an outsider, Hoult’s vulnerability grounded a character who could have otherwise been too goofy to take seriously. (Just ask Oscar Isaac; not everyone can sell being a big, blue guy in an X-Men film.) And if that wasn’t enough, Hoult made Hank/Beast at times uncomfortably crush-worthy.
In the 2013 zombie rom-com (zom-com?) Warm Bodies, Hoult got to show off his oddball energy once more as R, an undead monster who falls in love with one of the last remaining human survivors on Earth. The movie itself was admittedly uneven, but Hoult’s performance was a highlight—committed, deliciously awkward, and, genuinely funny, even when the writing did him no favors. (“Why can’t I connect with people?” he wonders at the top of the film. “Oh, right, ’cause I’m dead.”) A fun fact: Hoult worked with a Cirque du Soleil choreographer to get his zombie movements just right—and, as with his X-Men character, delighted in wandering around public places with full make-up during his downtime.
Some of Hoult’s strongest performances exhibit an innocent streak. The lovable outcasts, the mutants, and even some of the assholes seem to have it. Consider Nux, Hoult’s War Boy character from Mad Max: Fury Road. Nux’s more crazed habits—screaming, “I live! I die! I live again!” and spraying his mouth silver—are the ones we all likely best remember. And indeed, Hoult’s comedic chops rode eternal, shiny, and chrome in the dusty desert. But beneath all that, Hoult also played up Nux’s more naive side—the fact that despite everything he’s doing, he’s been indoctrinated to believe this is the only way life can be lived.
But in 2018, Hoult outdid himself as Robert Harley, the Earl of Oxford, in The Favourite—a scheming aristocrat given to wearing an impossibly floofy powdered wig and lots of rouge and ruffles. (“A man must look pretty,” he says.) In each scene, it’s clear just how much fun Hoult was having during this production—especially as he spits the words the “you’re completely cuntstruck!” at Joe Alwyn. In a film that made one of its best gags out of framing the straight, white men of its world as inherently ridiculous, Hoult made his supporting role a seemingly effortless scene-stealing triumph.
And now, we have Hoult playing a chauvinistic drunkard in The Great. The Favourite writer Tony McNamara created the series—and delightfully, brings back the word “cuntstruck” for an encore performance. As The Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon notes in his review of the series, The Great boasts many of the same strengths that made The Favourite such an arch delight. Hoult’s presence helps a lot in that regard, even as he plays an entirely different kind of asshole.
In The Favourite, Harley’s duplicity is always aristocratic and politic; in The Great, he’s an idiot who fucks everything in a skirt. Hoult’s Peter III beats his advisers, breaks glasses while yelling “huzzah!” and delights most in a jape—none more than his own, which are lame. Elle Fanning’s Catherine enters her marriage filled with romantic fantasies, which her betrothed quickly quashes. Instead of making love to Catherine, Peter mounts her in front of an adviser while yammering about ducks. He eats dinner among the heads of his enemies. He insists on barking out military orders despite the obvious fact that he’s no Sun Tzu.
Through all of this, Hoult once again appears to be having the time of his life. And although boorish roles like Peter III can often wear their conceits thin, Hoult’s every move in The Great is transfixing. His ability to offer glimpses of sincerity beneath the barbarian surface—of a stunted, narcissistic boy who desperately wants to be seen as genuinely good at something, anything!—ensures that the joke doesn’t get old, but instead grows funnier and more complex as the series goes on. As loathsome as Hoult’s Gaston-like character is, he’s also undeniably, vexingly watchable. The Great is well worth checking out on its own—but thanks to this performance, it’s a must-see.