Nicholas Hoult doesn’t have much time.
In a lofty downtown Manhattan studio on a grim, leaden Saturday, we’ve been photographing him for over six hours, and he’s got a flight to catch. Yet even as the clock runs out, he’s a consummate professional. Hoult cycles through a carousel of outfits with a natural ease, even when we come to a thick, tartan suit patterned with funky appliquéd squirrels—a suit that would send a lesser man running for the hills. After we’ve wrapped, he makes the rounds saying goodbye to the entire crew with a graciousness and gratitude uncharacteristic of actors with his star wattage. He’s shaking hands, he’s slapping backs, and although his time is tight, he’s hesitant to leave until he’s connected with everyone. When we settle into a pair of armchairs to chat, there’s a boarding pass burning a hole in Hoult’s pocket, yet still he has a miraculous way of making you feel as if you’re the only thing on his agenda.
At just 28 years old, British-born Hoult has built a fruitful career on defying expectations, pinballing from big-budget blockbusters to indie romances to pedigreed biopics and back again. His appetite for newness is voracious, but as he stares down the next decade of his life, both professionally and personally, Hoult is ruminating on the path he’s walked thus far, looking ahead to new frontiers and reflecting on his craft.
“I like the variety of the job,” Hoult says of what keeps him coming back to the screen. “Acting is exploring different things, times, periods. It’s learning new skills, understanding different people. With certain scripts, occasionally you’ll read and think, ‘I get it’. Not that you know exactly what you’re going to do, but you think, ‘I get this. I think I can bring it to life’.”
Hoult’s latest project is The Favourite, a singularly unusual period drama. Masterfully directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (who exploded onto the awards circuit last year with his haunting, dreadful thriller, The Killing of a Sacred Deer), it orbits around a triumvirate of formidable, potty-mouthed women vying for dominion within the English monarchy. Olivia Colman astounds as a fragile, fickle Queen Anne, whose worsening infirmity and emotional instability are manipulated by the two women jockeying for her affections— and her power.
Rachel Weisz portrays the prickly Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, Anne’s quasi-business manager and lifelong confidante, whose cruel tongue and refusal to flatter drive a wedge between her and the thin-skinned queen. Emma Stone plays Abigail Masham, a one-time lady disgraced by destitution who schemes her way up from scullery maid by pouring honey into Anne’s ear. Hoult appears as the dandyish Robert Harley, an imperious, conniving Tory organiser who allies with Abigail in the hope that she can bend the malleable queen to his political will.
“The majority of the time when you read scripts for period dramas, they’re really boring and they’re very dry,” Hoult says. “Tony [McNamara]’s writing on this one was just completely different. It was fun, and I got to say words—which I won’t repeat now—that you’d never expect to be written in most scripts, let alone a period piece like that.”
Hoult is onto something; this isn’t your grandmother’s period piece. Tony McNamara’s waggish script crackles with vulgarity, nudity and brazen sex acts. Contrasted against that lively wickedness and depravity is the austere look of the film, where characters are just as isolated by the camera as by their conduct. Robbie Ryan’s Kubrickian cinematography foregrounds the film’s women against opulent interiors in forlorn, isolating fish-eye shots. According to Hoult, the alchemy behind the making of the film was just as delightfully disorienting as the end result.
“It was an odd preparation,” Hoult says. “I asked Yorgos, ‘What do you think this character is like?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know. We’ll see.’ That’s the only time we spoke about the character. Yorgos likes to rehearse, but it was very unconventional. We’d dance and play games where we had to walk in sequence with each other while doing scenes. It helps him put everyone on the same level, I think, and gives an understanding of tone to the script. He creates an environment where you’re not entirely sure what’s happening or what you’re aiming for, but you’re very confident in his vision. I remember he came up to Emma and I and said, ‘What kind of movie do you think you’re in?’ And we said, ‘We don’t know.’ He said, ‘Have fun. Relax.’ He manages to create confidence in that environment, which is amazing.”
The Favourite crystallised long before the #MeToo movement took flight (in fact, Lanthimos spent nine years tinkering with the story), but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. As Hollywood is rocked to its core by a historic reckoning, forced to look in the mirror and reconsider its abusive and discriminatory treatment of women, a female-dominated film like The Favourite is timelier than ever.
“The brilliant thing that has come out of all this is the fact that people are talking about it and they’re aware of it,” Hoult says. “Change always takes a bit of time, but change is happening. Inclusion riders are happening and you’re seeing more female faces on set. This film has been in the works for a long time, but it still speaks to the time. These three strong women are powerful, but also misled and misguided, even tender at times, all struggling to survive in this triangle of power and love, which is just brilliant to see.”
“When you’re younger, you scatter yourself all over the place, and then eventually when you get a little older, you think, ‘Okay, let’s just focus on the important relationships.’”
Hoult is uniquely equipped to star in a film such as this one, given his upbringing. He often claims that he was raised by women, as his father, a pilot, travelled frequently, leaving Hoult in Berkshire to act as the man of the household with his mother and sisters. The benefits of such a childhood have been multifold.
“It’s fortunate, because it means that you just have the ability to sit and listen and be around women without being a dick,” Hoult says. “Sometimes there are elements that men don’t understand or can’t relate to, but by osmosis, if you’ve been around girls, you get how it is. You go, ‘Alright, I see.’ It helps with relationships, with friendships—with everything.”
Beneath the bawdy palace intrigue, The Favourite is rooted in moments of startling vulnerability, as when a tearful Anne reveals that her 17 pet rabbits are surrogates for her 17 dead and stillborn children, or when a rueful, banished Sarah appeals to Anne through a locked door, begging Anne to remember the complexity of their love and reconsider her banishment. In this court, power and love are braided together, yet both corrupt, isolate and tarnish.
“It’s great storytelling and I think it’s necessary,” Hoult says. “We’ve got to tell a variety of stories. Nobody wants to see the same thing rehashed, particularly on film. Everybody watches films from a young age. You kind of read them in shorthand, so you need fresh, original, new ideas to keep your attention.”
After The Favourite, Hoult’s next film to hit theatres is Dark Phoenix, the latest instalment of the X-Men franchise, which is set to land in February 2019. It’s safe to say there’s no rehashing here—Dark Phoenix introduces Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner as Jean Gray, and it takes the X-Men away from Earth, to the final frontier.
“It’s completely different working on an action movie,” Hoult says. “You turn up and you’re pretending to fight aliens or do cool stunt work. That’s completely different from turning up on The Favourite, where a day’s work is throwing oranges at a naked man wearing a wig. X-Men is like a big family, which makes it a lot of fun to go back. I think the X-Men comics are very special in terms of what they’re saying about society, this mutant-human divide and various subcultures. It’s got a tone very different than standard superheroes.”
Eight years after his debut as Beast, the brilliant scholar turned superhuman, the character is charting new territory in his fight for a more progressive world, but one thing hasn’t changed—Beast is as bushy and blue as ever.
“The first time I played Beast, I was 20,” Hoult says. “Now it’s gotten to a point in the stories where he’s becoming a man, not necessarily under the wing of the older characters quite as much. In quite a lot of work, I like to wear a ton of make-up, to disappear physically through costume and make-up and whatever else.”
Hoult has disappeared into his fair share of fictional, fantastical characters—take Mad Max: Fury Road’s gaunt, fanatical Nux, for example, or the zombie with a heart of gold he played in Warm Bodies—but he’s also a dark horse in the world of biopics, shapeshifting into such disparate luminaries as Nikola Tesla, JD Salinger, and up next, JRR Tolkien. As Tesla in The Current War, Hoult evoked the famed inventor’s flamboyant sense of showmanship; meanwhile, portraying Salinger in Rebel in the Rye, he earned glowing reviews for managing to access what has so often proven inaccessible about the reticent author, who eschewed public life. In Hoult’s deft hands, Salinger’s irascibility and evasiveness seem part and parcel of his genius. Yet much as Hoult thrives when inhabiting real individuals, he doesn’t bear the weight of that mantle lightly.
“The wonderful thing about it is that you get to learn about those people, to try and inhabit their mainframe as much as possible—to play a distant ghost of them, in a way,” Hoult says. “Ultimately you don’t take it on lightly, and there’s the pressure that comes with it, but you can’t let that affect you. You have to let that go at the same time. The odd thing about it is that you go into it, you learn more and more about this person, get more and more attached to them as a person and a character, so it means more and more to you. All you can do is prepare as much as possible and then hope you’re in good hands in terms of directing and writing, then try to figure out what it is you’re trying to say.”
On the eve of his 30s, after a string of successes portraying this trifecta of real-life titans, Hoult hopes that the best is yet to come.
“It’s a career where I’m constantly getting to learn new things, to run toward new things. That’s what I love about pretending to be new people. You learn new passions that you didn’t have, and you learn about history that you don’t know. And then you strive to create an environment for other people around you to do the same.”
“The actors I frequently look up to don’t do a lot of their best work until their early 30s,” Hoult says. “I looked up to Fassbender, McAvoy, Hardy— those guys who are 10 years ahead of me, because that’s when I was in my early 20s. Obviously you look up to people like Jack Nicholson, Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman. But those were the guys I was watching, partly because I worked with them. I’d watch them and try to steal.”
As Hoult hurtles toward the decade that catapulted his idols to a new plane of accomplishment, he, like any other individual on the eve of a monumental birthday, is studiously taking stock of how far he’s come and how the journey has transformed him.
“I feel like my 20s have been about trying things, messing up—some things working, some not,” Hoult says. “It’s all a learning curve, but the more you grow as a person, the more you have to invest into your work and distill into it. The early 20s to the late 20s is such a big change. It’s pretty bizarre. I feel as though I seek to learn more; I crave new things more than I once did. I’ve broadened horizons in that sense, but also focused more in terms of relationships in a smaller way. When you’re younger, you scatter yourself all over the place, and then eventually when you get a little older, you think, ‘Okay, let’s just focus on the important relationships.’ Particularly in this line of work, because you’re travelling so much. There’s not a whole lot of time, so it’s precious. I think I’ve become more aware of time.”
For Hoult, surveying his career thus far is a different proposition than it is for the garden-variety 20-something actor. When he was just 11, Hoult’s breakthrough role came with About A Boy, in which he wowed critics with a sensitive performance as a lonesome, bullied schoolboy struggling to hold his suicidal mother together. Just a few years later, his star continued to rise with Skins, a popular British television series about the sordid day-to-day struggles teenagers confront. Hoult starred as Tony Stonem, a manipulative antihero whose life is forever levelled by the catastrophic injuries he suffers from a bus crash.
“It’s weird to have been in the game for as long as I have,” Hoult muses. “You get a quite good understanding of it. It’s good that I can see the highs and lows. I’ve spoken with older actors about it, who told me, ‘There will be moments when you’re on top of the world, and there will be moments when you might still be doing well, but not as great. You’ve got to ride those waves and see how it all pans out.’ I’ve been pretty fortunate to be in quite a few of the things I’ve been in so far.”
In considering the peaks and valleys of his career, Hoult strives to apply the wisdom of those older actors—to look on the sunny side, and to mine something productive from his failures.
“When you’re learning on the job, and I think in life when you fail, it’s obviously a lesson,” Hoult says. “It’s difficult and you learn from it, but at the same time, it’s different when the failure is out there publicly, when you have comments or reviews. That’s always something to avoid, but occasionally, you can’t help it. You get a reaction, and that’s something I’ve learned massively. All you can do is invest in the experience of making something, the doing of it, and then the end result will be what it will be. Whether it’s a great success or the opposite, you can’t let that tank what the experience was for you.”
Yet much as Hoult strives to take a holistic, experience-forward view of his work, like most child actors, his past isn’t exempt from some cringe-worthy encounters. Thinking about them, he covers his face with his hands.
“I don’t have many regrets, because it all adds up to an end result,” Hoult says. “But there are occasional things. When I was 15 or 16 and I’d do a photo shoot, at that age, I didn’t want to rock the boat or say, ‘I don’t want to wear that.’ Then you end up seeing the photo at the end and you’re like, ‘Well, shit. I should’ve said something, because look at me! I look like an idiot.’ Then that photo exists forever on the Internet. That’s something that comes with age, though—you realise that ultimately it’s you that’s left with it, that’s the front of it. It’s your face, so you have to be more assertive and not such a people-pleaser.”
Despite the occasional ignominy of it all, Hoult made it through the child star gauntlet unscathed. As he looks ahead to new challenges (and better outfits, squirrels, tartan and all), he has a wish list in mind.
“I haven’t done a proper western—just kind-of Westerns,” Hoult says. “That’s a tricky genre to make work, nowadays, but I’d like to be involved in something around that. I’d like to do a bit more comedy, too. I try to find the comedy in most things anyway.”
But more broadly than trying his hand at new genres, Hoult’s purest goal is to keep people guessing. It’s a fitting ambition for a performer who relishes variety, who never plays the same type of character twice.
“If I can keep on such that when people see me in a film, they say, ‘Oh, I wasn’t expecting that,’ then I’ll be happy,” Hoult says. “I’ll think, ‘Alright, I’m doing my job.’ There’s no point in me spending the next 10, 15, 20 years— however long I’ve got—hashing out the same thing, and everyone saying, ‘Alright, we get it.’ You know when you see things and it doesn’t make you feel anything? I want to avoid that, if possible. Both in terms of when I’m doing the work and when people are reacting to it. I want to avoid nonchalance.”
Hoult’s humility—his belief that the Hollywood rug could be ripped out from beneath him at any point—is among his most endearing qualities. But whatever’s up next, and however long he’s got, he isn’t one to shy away from a challenge.
“I quite enjoy a challenge,” Hoult says. “I relish that zone. If it’s a challenge, whether it be work or personal life, that’s the time when you prove the type of person you are. What’s that quote—‘when everyone else around you is losing their head and you can keep yours’? That’s what I like to think about challenges. I don’t thrive, but I think, ‘This is a time when I can make this work. I can figure it out and do it.’ There’s always ups and downs and roundabouts.”
“You know when you see things and it doesn’t make you feel anything? I want to avoid that, if possible. Both in terms of when I’m doing the work and when people are reacting to it. I want to avoid nonchalance.”
Hoult is quoting the opening lines of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’: “If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you.” Yet if any experience could cause a man to lose his head, it’s Hoult’s latest role, perhaps at once his most challenging and invigorating yet—fatherhood.
In April 2018, Hoult and his girlfriend of about a year, 24-year-old model Bryana Holly, quietly welcomed their first child. News of the birth stunned tabloids, as the couple, fiercely private about their personal life together, hadn’t announced or indicated the pregnancy. Fatherhood has grounded Hoult, reordered his priorities, rejuvenated his craft and forever transformed his relationship to time.
“As you grow, you have more knowledge and more input, so you have more to output at the same time,” Hoult says of how fatherhood has changed his process. “In terms of time, you value your time much more, and very differently. You think differently about the world and the characters you play, so it changes everything. I also feel a slight surge of creative energy through it. When I’m working, there’s this beautiful grounding and base. There’s an ability to commit more, in a way. But also, going home at the end of the day is a really great feeling. It’s wonderful.”
As fatherhood drives a man to look forward in time, so too does it drive him to look backward. As a new father whose life has been swiftly brought into sharper focus, Hoult is reflective about his own parents.
“My parents are always saying things like, ‘You’ll understand when you get there,’” Hoult says. “And it’s so, so true. They’ll say, ‘You’ll understand when you do this, or when that happens,’ and then you go, ‘Ugh!’ when it happens. You go, ‘Oh my God, they were so right!’ But you can’t see it. That’s the thing. You can’t see it until it happens.”
Hoult isn’t all business all the time; as his concentration on the domestic front has increased, he’s grown passionate about staying active and thrill- seeking. One might say the man contains multitudes.
“I want to commit more time to things outside of work—to new passions and new skills,” Hoult says. “I’m trying to get quick on the motorbike around the track. I’m not very good at it—it’s very humbling and scary. And I like boxing. I just took up trying to learn to kickbox as well, and I’ve been taking jujitsu. But mainly, just trying to be a good dad.”
Hoult strives to keep a level head on his shoulders, and to resist the blinkered outlook the Hollywood machine can produce. In addition to his hobbies and his family life, he keeps his feet firmly planted on the ground through charity work.
“Once a year, my close friends and I try to do a trip for charity where we raise money by doing something that’s slightly ridiculous,” Hoult says. “Once we travelled across India in a rickshaw. With the three of us in a rickshaw, it took us two weeks to travel from the south to the north of India. At the beginning of this year, we did a cross-Morocco trip on 50cc—miniature monkey bikes. We’re not sure what our next one’s going to be just yet. It’s great because you get to travel, to see places, to meet people. With those sorts of expeditions, you’re always breaking down or something’s going wrong, and you end up in weird towns you’d never otherwise end up in asking people if they’ve got parts to fix something you don’t entirely know how to fix, communicating completely through sign language. It’s a wonderful experience in those terms, but also in terms of trying to give back through the funds you can raise. Normally, once a year I send out an email to anyone that’s unlucky enough to be in my contacts list. Sometimes I haven’t spoken to them in a while, shamefully, and I’ll say, ‘Hey, can we have some money, please? For a good cause?’ And luckily, most of the time people are pretty generous.”
Rickshaw Run is an annual race in which teams drive motorised rickshaws across India to benefit charities of their choosing. In 2017, Hoult and his team raised money for Teenage Cancer Trust and World Wide Fund for Nature. Hoult’s philanthropic ambitions are noble, to be certain, but why does the method to the madness have to be so strange, so remote, so dangerous, you might ask?
“Because that’s when you feel alive,” Hoult says with a grin, as if it were self-evident. “Also, people aren’t going to give money to charity for me saying, ‘I’m going to sit on the sofa for a week.’ Although maybe they would. Maybe I’ll send out that email too, see if I can wrangle that.”
Despite the celebrity and acclaim he’s achieved, Hoult isn’t a fame- seeking man. He’s grounded, grateful, and insistent that he was simply dealt a good hand.
“I’m very fortunate,” Hoult says. “I found something as a kid that I really enjoyed, then was lucky enough to turn that into a career. Also, it’s a career where I’m constantly getting to learn new things, to run toward new things. That’s what I love about pretending to be new people. You learn new passions that you didn’t have and you learn about history that you don’t know. And then you strive to create an environment for other people around you to do the same.”
Hoult is in a hurry to hit the road, but our conversation never feels rushed. In fact, he’s apologetic, insisting that under other circumstances, we’d be chatting more leisurely. Even under the gun, he’s expansive, contemplative, full of thoughtful pauses—and curious about what I think, to boot. Though Hoult may be running out of time today, in the words of TS Eliot, another noteworthy Brit, “there will be time”. There will be time for those westerns, for those comedies, for being a good dad, for projects that will surprise Hoult and Hollywood alike. After all, for an actor so bent on striving, seeking and finding, Hollywood has plenty of time.
Photographs: Michael Schwartz
Styling: Fabio Immediato
Groomer: Erica Sauer @ The Wall Group
Digital Tech: Dan Atteo
Photographer Assistants: Eric Bouthiller, Julius Frazer