When Nicholas Hoult first met Tom Ford, he had no idea who the designer-turned-director really was. 'I'd looked him up on film websites, and the only thing that showed up was Zoolander,' Hoult explains. 'I thought that was a bit weird, and it wasn't until we had dinner that it all came out about his past in fashion. Afterward, I went back to my hotel room and Googled him. And then I realized what a big deal he was.'
That's one way of putting it, and it's typical of Hoult's predilection for understatement. He may be extraordinarily striking-looking, he may be on the cusp of international stardom, and he may have a film career that, at just 19, already spans nine years and has seen him star with the likes of Hugh Grant, Toni Collette, Kenneth Branagh, Nicolas Cage, and now Colin Firth in Ford's directorial debut, A Single Man, but there's something thoroughly unassuming about Hoult -- all six-feet-three of him. In a baseball cap, hoodie, and low-slung jeans, he arrives at our interview without an entourage -- without even so much as a publicist in tow -- and meekly apologizes for being late, even though he isn't. He's flummoxed by questions about his good looks. 'I don't see myself like that at all,' he guffaws. 'You should see me wake up with a hangover.' And he is emphatic when he says he doesn't suffer for his art. 'There are people who suffer, there are people who really don't, and then there are people who pretend to suffer because they think it will make them better. If you don't enjoy it, if it's torture for you, don't do it. I wouldn't.'
Starry, Hoult is not. In fact, when we have to decamp from our initial meeting place in a bistro to the private members' club upstairs -- on account of a nearby gaggle of middle-aged women celebrating a birthday way too loudly, complete with frequent, raucous choruses of 'Happy Birthday to You' -- it's a move that makes Hoult uneasy. Scrunching up his handsome face to make it -- rather annoyingly -- only marginally less handsome, he says, 'I hate clubs where they make you feel like you're not good enough to be there.' Thankfully, this isn't the case upstairs, where we settle down and he orders a burger, fries, and a Coke. While plenty of actors practice a studied reticence and project a contrived normality, Hoult is manifestly genuine.
This easy nonchalance is all the more arresting given Hoult's background as a child star. His breakthrough role was in 2002's About a Boy, with Hugh Grant, in which he played the titular moppet who taught Grant's feckless bachelor valuable lessons about life (About a Boy's writer-director Chris Weitz was responsible for recommending Hoult to Ford). But Hoult's career stretches back further still, to the tender age of 3, when a theater director spotted him in the audience of a play in which his older brother was acting. 'She was impressed with my capacity for concentration apparently and offered me a part in the next play, Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle. That was that, really. At that age, you don't know what's going on other than it being a bit of an adventure. I enjoyed it as a hobby.'
The hobby has turned into a promising career, although he's only come to regard it that way in the last few years, after his turn in Gore Verbinski's 2005 comedy-drama, The Weather Man, starring Nicolas Cage. 'When you're a kid actor, there's always that fear of not being good enough and becoming one of those washed-up child actors, but I took the plunge, left school, and decided to go for it. I think the fact that my older brother James was an actor grounded me.' It has probably also helped that Hoult has largely stuck to roles concurrent with his age and experience, from About a Boy to the groundbreaking British teen drama, Skins, about a gang of friends negotiating the trials and tribulations of growing up. The series [aired in the U.S. on BBC America] unflinchingly featured sex and drugs in a way that no other teen drama had done before. With a writing team that consisted of teenagers as well as more established scribes, it became a cultural phenomenon and a byword for bold, cheeky, and charming TV drama. (It also spawned the inevitable American remake scheduled for MTV.) Hoult played Tony Stonem, the group's manipulative, mercenary, magnetic alpha male. Though he says he is closer to Tony's hapless sidekick Sid, the role made Hoult a household name in the U.K., not to mention a resounding heartthrob. 'They didn't want to make another O.C. or Gossip Girl. They wanted to make something different and more realistic, but no one expected it to become the phenomenon it was,' he says.
And then there is A Single Man, a phenomenon of a different kind. For who, except perhaps the designer himself, could have expected Tom Ford to get it so right with his debut feature, snapped up by the Weinstein Company in the wake of accolades and glory at the Venice and Toronto film festivals? And what teenage actor would gamble his fledgling career on a tenuous movie adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's 1964 novel about a day in the life of a middle-aged gay college professor? A movie, moreover, that requires him to strip for Colin Firth? But Hoult, who had done nude before (in Skins) and played gay on the London stage (in New Boy), was unfazed. For him the challenge was honoring the novel's depth and profundity. 'A great film can change the way people see the world, and I think A Single Man is one of those films. It's about letting go of the past, not worrying about the future and living in the now. That's what drew me to it.'
And how was working with Firth?
'Colin is a very honest and subtle actor, and you really feel like you're there in the moment with him. I never looked at it as being particularly gay. I looked at it as being intrigued by each other, and by the [psychological] connection they had. When I did New Boy, people asked if I was trying to say something about my own sexuality, but I wasn't. It was just a character that interested me. In Skins, I had to kiss another actor, and that was awkward because we were both 17, and we were nervous. But even then, it wasn't a massive deal.' Hoult pauses and smirks. 'You know, you can play a murderer, as I did in [BBC detective show] Wallander, and no one asks if you've killed anyone. But if you play a gay character, people start questioning your sexuality.'
To see our photo portfolio featuring Nicholas Hoult shot by Tom Ford, click here.