It’s impossible not to be charmed by Nicholas Hoult. With his crooked smile and devilishly good looks, the 23-year-old English actor is far cry from the pudgy-faced boy we first fell in love with in 2002’s About a Boy. But what’s remained from the performances of his youth is an actor whose natural talent and passion translates onto the screen in whatever role he takes on—whether he’s playing an all-American sun-kissed representation of youth in Tom Ford’s A Single Man, the Beast in X-Men, or his latest turn as an unusual zombie in Jonathan Levine’s third feature, Warm Bodies.
In the film, Hoult plays R, a member of the dead who cannot remember his name or his life prior and has forgotten how to talk, but falls in love with a girl named Julie after killing and eating her boyfriend’s brains. But how does eating brains translate to love? Well, in Levine’s take on a zombie genre—which is more like an indie romantic comedy wrapped in a post-apocalyptic future—brains are the tastiest morsels of the human body because as you indulge in the cranial delights, you absorb the memories of the person you’re eating. And from the moment R meets Julie, he makes it his mission to protect her and keep her from being eaten by the fellow lifeless creatures who poulate the abandoned airport he occupies. As R and Julie grow closer, his feelings become reminiscent to that of a human’s—their connection setting about a sequence of events that revolutionizes the lifeless world.
Levine’s film is about the rediscovery of feelings and plays to the desire to connect with those around you, making even the most unrealistic situations relatable with sincere moments and plenty of laughs. Hoult takes on the role of R with humor and creepy tenderness, leaving it difficult not to root for him even as he attacks a helpless Dave Franco. I got the chance to chat with Nick about the purity of acting without speech, a gentle, lazy kind of method acting, and earning your pipe and slippers.
So how did you meet Jonathan and become invovled with the film?
I had heard rumors about the script. I heard a couple of people read it and liked it, and it sent through one of my agents to have a read and I really liked it. I think just quirkiness of it, the fact that it was still very heartfelt and well-written and made me laugh. Plus, I really kind of understood that character and cared about him a lot and thought that I could maybe try and bring him to life. And then I met with Jonathan Levine for dinner and we got along very well. I was already a big fan of his previous work and thought that he did a great job tredding the fine line of making a funny film that didn’t become a parody or ridiculous, that was still felt slightly realistic even with not necessarily the most be relatable storyline in some respects. And then yeah, I did an audition for him and I guess he liked it enough for him cast me.
How is it auditioning for a film like this when your character has to be very specific but you aren’t really actually verbalizing anything?
Yeah, it was quite tricky. There were days where I sat down and would write notes and kept on reading the scenes and watched stuff. And then there’s also the thing where we were doing the audition at Jonathan’s house and I was suddenly standing here and he’s like, right okay let’s do this first scene and I said, hang on now, what am I going to do? So I loved working on the physical aspects of it and then the vocal thing because my character can’t remember how to talk very well, he just kind of groans. So it was working on that a lot and it sounds silly, but really believing it. The key thing about R is he wants to connect, he’s doing his best to communicate—it’s that feeling of being trapped and trying your hardest even though you can’t really explain what’s going on.
And as an actor is it a challenge or freeing and nice to be able to work without dialogue and have to reply on other aspects?
Yeah, it’s certainly a challenge but nice because it’s quite pure in may ways— to not be able to babble away and just have to listen and watch the other person you’re acting with and then just kind of react and work with that. Luckily they got a really great cast on this and I could enjoy what they were doing and not have to worry too much about what I was doing.
The challenge of a role like this is getting the audience to find this zombie endearing, which a lot of that is done through the voiceover, but how did you go about trying to make him someone that the audience wanted to connect with?
The voiceover helped a lot and shows a wittier side to him, with his self-depricating kind of humor. He does do some bad things that are against his choosing that he can’t actually control—his need to eat brains and stuff. But I think the thing that Julie—Teresa’s character—sees in him is that he’s trying and it’s the fact that, well it’s quIte simple: everything he does is trying to just keep her safe and protect her. So he’s trying his best in every other aspect and those are every redeeming qualities in any guy. But yeah, I suppose in many ways when a guy meets a girl he likes he can’t talk.
Yeah, that felt relatable like it could be anyone because that sort of natural inability to say what you actually want today and saying something else that doesn’t even make sense.
There’s certainly something there and I’ve certainly felt like before and will again many times I’m sure. So it was quite funny to play a character in that position that literally cannot communicate and has to play records and stuff to slightly explain what’s going on.
And this idea of eating brains as a way to gain other people’s memories and feel human for a moment was a really interesting concept and allowed you to see his desire to feel like a person again.
Yeah, I think that’s one of the very cool concepts they came up with in this film because almost everyone knows that zombies like brains but you never really discuss previously why brains are the best part and that’s nice added addition to this, whereby you get the victim’s memories. And obviously quite early on in the story, it’s a quite unconventional way of getting to know a girl that you might—eating her boyfriend’s brains. And it works well for my character actually, very rewarding.
How was working with Jonathan? He seems like someone who has so much energy and passion as a director.
That’s what’s brilliant about him, it is kind of a tricky role but to have someone who creates a really great atmosphere to work in, it feels very safe and there’s a lot of energy and support and encouragment. But also right from the start, his script that he adapted from the book, it was very clear and it didn’t change a lot. A lot of the time scripts change so much when you’re filming and you kind of get lost in what’s going on and what you’re trying to do, but with this, the script was great from the start. He’s just got a really soft touch and really great way of guiding me because I really have to become more human and alive throughout, so we went through and plotted the key points in the script of when things would effect R and improve his speech or movement or things like that. So he was just a fantastic director to work for. I really enjoyed it.
In preparation for the film did you watch anything specific or read anything?
I read the book, which is a really good read and goes more into R’s headspace and has some interesting things that aren’t in the film as well. And then we sat around and watched most zombie films: The Evil Dead, Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and then watched the more recent things, the things that pushed the genre more into the tone that this film in is set in, the more Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland. But we also watched like Edward Scissor Hands and things along that line as well because they’re quite relatable in many ways —that kind of outside character being swept up in a story but not fully being able to fit into the world around.
And did you create your own backstory for him?
The brilliant thing about this character, in some respects, is that I didn’t have a lot of dialogue to learn because there wasn’t a lot of talking. But also, he can’t remember his own name or anything about his previous life, so I don’t know, I decided not to make up a backstory for him, which was maybe a lazy decision on my part but I thought, hell, if that’s what he’s trying to remember and trying to figure out the whole time, it won’t actually help me knowing it. Kind of like a really lazy gentle method acting I was doing.
When you saw the film completed, how was it watching yourself?
Yeah, it was odd watching it. I actually prefer watching things when I have to wear a lot of makeup and talk in an accent.
Distancing yourself from yourself?
Yeah, certainly. When you talk in your own voice in a film or look similar to who you look in real life it becomes more difficult to watch. The more differentiated then the easier it is.
You have a really good ability to morph into these different characters whether it’s in X-Men or A Single Man or something like this; do you enjoy that sort of transformative nature of being an actor and being able to be so many different people that are far from yourself?
I really do. It’s always a slight version of yourself or how you feel or what it would be to be in that situation. But there is a thing when you can experience things from a different angle or understand things in a different light and learn from the characters you play, and I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve managed to work with very talented people but mix up the roles and styles of film a lotwhich is great, you kind of learn different things from each job and different sets of people.
This film is one of the first bigger budget films that you’re the center focus on; how does that feel?
It’s daunting. We actually shot Jack the Giant Slayer just before shooting this and so because I’ve done that previously and that had a bigger budget and was sort of a bigger extravaganza than this film, I was more nervous on that. On this film the budget was smaller and it felt more intimate so I wasn’t as nervous, oddly— even though its a more extreme character and probably a more risky thing to be doing. But when you’re the lead in the film, it’s also your job to set the tone on set and I’ve been fortunate working on other films that the lead actors have always been very nice and set a really nice atmosphere. But yeah, it’s daunting, certainly.
Do you enjoy taking on roles like this and Mad Max that are physically demanding?
Yeah, I really enjoy the physical side of it. I’ve flung myself around and beat myself up while I’m still young, whilst I can and when I’m older I’ll earn my pipe and slippers and do some quieter roles. But it’s good fun and I enjoy doing the smaller things as well like A Single Man where you can just sit there and do some dialogue scenes and be a lot stille. And then suddenly, next thing I’m running around pretending to kill a giant our driving around in these V8 hot rods in the desert—the sort of things the kid in me is very excited by.
As someone who began acting at such a young age, how has the transition into more mature roles been throughout the years?
It’s been quite organic in many ways, whereby I haven’t latched on and decided this is the type of actor I want to be known as or blah blah. So kind of more going with the flow and working with good people and doing different things. I’ve been fortunate because a lot of people that act as kids, it doesn’t work out an an adult and it still could all go terribly wrong but at the moment I’ve been pretty fortunate to keep working.
You’ve worked with such amazing people from the very beginning; is there something you take away from every experience?
It’s certainly a different experience with every film because each director’s style is so different and each film has such different difficulties to work around. So you do learn, and even outside of that just seeing how people conduct themselves off-set as well. It is a strength and yeah, working with Colin Firth, he gave me great advice about making sure you have really good family and friends support around so when the career’s not going as well they’ll still be there and still love you for who you are as opposed to what you’re doing.
What was the atmosphere like on set for this film
It was a really fun set to work on and I think that translates onto the screen. I’m a firm believer in when you’re enjoying yourself and having a good time on set that’s when you’re more relaxed and better ideas come up and you get better performances because you are enjoying it. There’s nothing worse than going onto a set nervous because then you freeze up. But on this set, some of the stuff we were doing was very funny—especially the stuff with Rob Corddry. They’ve probably got quite a few hours of footage of me breaking just because people would make me laugh all the time and it was difficult sometimes just to keep in zombie mode.
And soon you’ll be revisiting your role in X-Men. Is that excitng, to go back and be this character and reenter that world?
I’m a real fanboy on that and getting to play the Beast once was a real pleasure and a treat so to go back and do it again is something I’m really looking forward to.