Rising Star Nicholas Hoult Flexes His Muscles in ‘X-Men: First Class’

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It’s still early on a spring afternoon when Nicholas Hoult orders his fifth cup of coffee. “One more and I’ll get the shakes,” says the 21-year-old English actor, who touched down in New York late the night before after catching the red eye from London. He’d drifted in and out of sleep while flipping between two in-flight offerings: The Big Lebowski and a documentary about William the Conqueror. When he finally arrived at his suite in the Mondrian Soho hotel, he tossed and turned until the sun came up.

The fatigue shows, although not on his face. From inside the Hudson Hotel’s Private Park—The Secret Garden as imagined by Philippe Starck—Hoult’s mind wanders. He fiddles with chess pieces and spontaneously breaks into song to stay awake. “I can see clearly now the rain is gone,” he intones, over and over again, in a Barry Gibb-like falsetto. “I heard it on the lift,” he explains, “and now it’s stuck in my head.” He points two fingers at his right temple and pretends to blow his brains out.

Today’s Hoult looks nothing like the sad-eyed cherub who stole our hearts—and Hugh Grant’s—in the nuanced 2002 comedy About a Boy. For starters, he’s rocketed to what he calls a “gangly” 6’3”. It’s no wonder he was chosen by Tom Ford, who directed Hoult in last year’s stylized drama A Single Man, to replace supermodel Jon Kortajarena as the face of his Spring 2010 eyewear campaign. As a child, his visage had all the soft curves of a Volkswagen Beetle, but in the past decade it’s evolved into a Ferrari: clean, angular, and beautiful, with two azure headlights that could stop a deer in its tracks.

Later today, Hoult will fly back to Surrey, where he’s currently filming the big-budget fable Jack the Giant Killer, a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk for the Xbox generation, which also stars Ewan McGregor and Stanley Tucci. Hoult plays the film’s title character, a farm boy who risks his life to save a princess from a two-headed giant. Of his first leading role, he admits to feeling the weight of a studio on his shoulders. “I was very nervous at the start—I’m still nervous—but I try not to let it get to me,” he says. “Thankfully, Bryan is fantastic.”

That would be Bryan Singer, the alpha filmmaker who, in addition to directing Jack, also helmed X-Men and X-Men 2, and is a producer on this summer’s X-Men: First Class, in which Hoult also appears. Hoult was in Australia preparing to shoot Mad Max: Fury Road, a reboot of Mel Gibson’s star-making franchise (it would eventually get delayed), when he was awakened in the middle of the night by a phone call from his agent. It was good news: he’d been invited to screen test for X-Men: First Class. He boarded the first flight to London to meet with director Matthew Vaughn. “I thought it went terribly,” he says of his audition. He thought wrong. A few days later, he was on yet another flight to Los Angeles to get fitted for prosthetics. image

In X-Men: First Class, a prequel to the billion-dollar Marvel franchise, Hoult plays Hank McCoy, a brilliant scientist with a scholarly accent who mutates into the fuzzy blue creature known as Beast. (For the audition, Hoult did his best impression of Stewie, the diabolical baby from Family Guy, but in preparation for the role he watched countless episodes of Frasier in order to learn from its lead actor, Kelsey Grammer, who embodied Beast in 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand.) “People were stroking my fur on set without even realizing it,” Hoult says.

Heavy petting aside, Hoult missed out, in many ways, on the usual hallmarks of adolescence. Like Real Housewives and megastar athletes, he’s never had to endure a conventional job. The closest he came to working a 9-5 was as an assistant to a friend who deejayed children’s birthday parties. “Sometimes we’d perform the dance to ‘Oops Upside Your Head,’ and if I was well-behaved, he’d let me fade across to a new song,” he says.

Since he first appeared in About a Boy, steady work has kept Hoult from enrolling in university. Still, he says, “I try to keep learning in other ways, like talking to my little sister about history, or reading her essays.” Hoult, who recently landed a plum role in Warm Bodies, Jonathan Levine’s zombie love story, continues to live with his parents (his mother is a piano teacher and his father is a commercial pilot) in his hometown of Wokingham in South East London. He’s in no rush to move out, especially since he’ll spend nine months in Australia next year on the set of Mad Max.

When asked about his movie career and encroaching fame, Hoult’s awkward modesty starts to resemble Jesse Eisenberg’s, the American poster boy for celebrity unease, and an actor with whom Hoult shared a BAFTA Orange Rising Star Award nomination in 2010. Like Eisenberg, Hoult, who detests watching himself on screen, squirms in his seat at premieres and shuts his eyes during certain scenes. He insists that walking the red carpet is terrifying because “There are so many people watching you.” Hoult revisits his fear of being watched several times during our interview, a bizarre, if not unfortunate sentiment for an actor. “I enjoy the acting part,” he says. “But then I forget that people are actually going to watch it.” Unlike Eisenberg, whose neuroses bleed into his characters in everything from Zombieland to The Social Network, Hoult’s nervous energy disappears on screen.

His knack for transformation is most glaring—computer-enhanced mutation notwithstanding—in the no-holds-barred British teen soap Skins. As the shameless schemer Tony Stonem, a role that elevated him to heartthrob status back home, Hoult flashed a mean streak that bordered on nihilism. Tony used his looks and confidence as weapons to dominate—and sleep with—his friends, essentially the opposite of flesh-and-blood Hoult, who comes off, if anything, as overly polite. When he filmed his first of many sex scenes for that show, he did so with the help of some liquid courage. “We grabbed a couple glasses of vodka and some champagne at 8 in the morning, and we just went on and did it,” he says. image

Hoult was relieved when his stint on Skins ended after its second season—“It was the right time to move on,” he says—but was wracked with nagging self-doubt about whether he’d ever work again. “I still worry that I’m never going to get another job. Whenever a new film comes out, I always worry that it’s going to be the one people look at and go, ‘Don’t ever hire him again.’”

Perhaps more than any other project he’s completed, it was A Single Man, and his role as Kenny, a chiseled, sexually ambiguous college student who takes a keen interest in Colin Firth’s suicidal professor, that ensured he’d never again want for parts. Hoult sent an audition tape to the film’s director, Tom Ford, who was then looking for actors to star in his big-screen adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s acclaimed novel. Hoult, who hadn’t previously understood Ford’s status in the fashion world, admits that he was worried he wouldn’t live up to the expectations of his esteemed colleagues. “I was doing my American accent, and Colin was doing his usual English accent, but I was letting mine slip. I remember thinking, Uh oh, I’m in trouble. But Colin is very relaxed and free, which made my job easy. There’s a fantastic subtlety to his acting, like you can read every thought and emotion that passes through his mind.”

Back at the Hudson Hotel, Hoult suggests we play a game of pool at the nearby Library Lounge. “Care to make a wager?” he asks with a shark-like grin. Timid before, he’s now showing teeth. We agree on 20 bucks, but Hoult keeps insisting he hasn’t got a shot. “I haven’t played in a while,” he says. “On the set of Skins, we occupied ourselves with pool and foosball all the time, had a leaderboard set up and everything, but I’m not very good. Maybe I’ll just lose on purpose, so I can smash this pool cue over my knee.” Grabbing the ends of the stick, he pretends to do just that.

Hoult uses his long, sinewy frame to his advantage, seemingly leaning from one end of the table to the other. While playing, he talks casually about anything that pops into his head: the royal wedding (sadly, he missed it); the ingredients of Jack the Giant Killer’s massive beanstalk (among other things, it’s made of celery and “bags of goo”); the American remake of Skins (he hasn’t seen it); and how excited he is to resume production on Mad Max this winter (extremely).

And then, it’s over. Hoult’s won by a mile. He leans back, satisfied, almost as if he’d intended to hustle me all along. I reach for my wallet, but he protests. “No way! I’m not actually going to take your money,” he says. “That was just to raise the stakes. I’m not much of a gambler.”

Photography by David Roemer. Styling by Christopher Campbell.