When he was 11, Nicholas Hoult received a gift that proved to be prophetic: On the set of 2002’s About a Boy, directors Chris and Paul Weitz handed him a copy of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. The book left an impression on the young actor, as did Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy—“The films are burned into my retina,” Hoult says—though in preparation for portraying the revered author, in May’s illuminating biopic Tolkien, he realized that his grasp of the philologist’s dense mythology had loosened. “I wouldn’t say I retained a lot,” he admits, adding that it was a nice homework assignment to revisit the novel.
It’s a chilly afternoon in Hollywood, and Hoult, 29, has arrived early for lunch, dressed in a blue bomber jacket and jeans. Traces of the cherubic misfit he played in About a Boy are still visible, though his eyebrows now flare upward like quotation marks to add a bit of ironic detachment to his handsome porcelain features. His demeanor is closer to that of a blind date than a child actor–turned–movie star whose diverse résumé includes the X-Men franchise and Yorgos Lanthimos’s Oscar-winning The Favourite. He apologizes for dipping his fries in my ketchup, and asks whether I’m okay when I fan a fly from my face. “Oh, I thought something smelled,” he says in mock relief. “I was like, Did I shit myself and not realize it?” It’s all a little disarming.
“Nick doesn’t have a problem making fun of himself,” says Lily Collins, who costars in Tolkien as Edith, Hoult’s love interest and, later, his wife. While filming in Liverpool, the pair bonded during trips to an art museum and the Cavern Club, an early Beatles hangout. “He’s exactly how I’d hoped he would be,” Collins says. “Nothing has gone to his head.” Hoult laughs off the notion that he’s dodged the curse of the Former Child Star. “We’re still in early days yet,” he says. “It could rear its ugly head soon.”
Set against the looming threat of World War I, Tolkien brings to life the secret society that the author formed with three childhood friends—the fellowship, if you will. In terms of fealty, the group is not dissimilar to Frodo’s Hobbit companions, and the origins of the Lord of the Rings universe unfold on bucolic English campuses and the bloody battlefields of the western front.
When it comes to his own story, growing up in rural Berkshire, England, with his parents and three siblings, Hoult doesn’t recall such boyhood allegiances. Instead, he brings up how his younger sister, fellow actress Clarista, would “tag along with my stupid games in return for my playing with her and her dolls.” As a teenager, he shed his sweet About a Boy image by playing a scheming Lothario for a couple of seasons on the edgy teen drama Skins, but he insists his real life in no way mirrored the series. “We’d go out on the weekends and get in trouble,” he says of his castmates (who included Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya and Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel), “but we were not as crazy as that.”
Upon noticing the collective gaze of a nearby tableful of women, Hoult slouches down in his seat. It’s not uncommon for an actor to guard his privacy, but Hoult does so with a rare ferocity. Last year, he had a baby with his girlfriend, model Bryana Holly, but his family remains a verboten topic, except when joking about the couple’s plans for the little one’s first birthday, which, as of this writing, were still in the works: “I think we’re keeping it very low-key. I got Michael Bublé to record a couple of new songs,” he says with a laugh, adding, “I don’t know. I don’t even have parties myself, because I’m like, No one’s going to show up.” When asked about reconnecting with his ex, Jennifer Lawrence, on the set of this month’s Dark Phoenix, he stays on script. “It’s like going back to school after the summer holidays. The reality of [the X-Men franchise] is there are lots of characters, so everyone was together for brief periods, but not every day for four months.”
Hoult’s pursuit of anonymity recently led him to a book that’s more metaphysical than mythological—Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. “A sports car draws attention, everyone sees you get out, it’s a thing. But on a bike, you’re under a helmet,” he says. “I’m only 50 pages in, but it describes the feeling of being on a bike and in the landscape as opposed to being inside a car. There’s something lovely about that.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of ELLE.
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