Nicholas Hoult is all grown up, but you might not know just how much on first glance. As a character remarks in his latest movie Warm Bodies remarks, he has one of those faces that seems ageless. And considering he’s playing a walking corpse, it’s one of the best compliments that could be received by anyone.
As a grunting and surprisingly introspective zombie named R, Hoult plays a member of the living dead that slowly begins to have feelings for a survivor he feels sympathetic toward instead of eating. It’s a rare role for an actor to have such a role that requires an actor to show a slowly building range of emotions and sense of awareness with barely any dialogue or actorly tricks, and it becomes a welcome challenge for any actor. But what really brought British born Hoult on board to star in the Montreal shot adaptation of Isaac Marion’s best selling novel was a chance to work within numerous genres he doesn’t normally get to do – including horror, comedy, romance, and action – at the same time.
The former About a Boy, A Single Man, and X-Men: First Class actor called in to talk to us about making the walking dead sympathetic, working with director Jonathan Levine, creating chemistry with a leading lady when you can’t speak in a scene, and what it’s like to get the actual walking part of being a zombie just right.
Dork Shelf: It was strange for me when I went to see a screening of the film to see all these fans of the book watching to and reacting to the movie, and the book turned out to be a lot more well loved than I thought it was. I only really knew about the movie itself and the concept behind it more than anything. Were you aware of the book when you signed on to do the film?
Nicholas Hoult: No, I hadn’t heard of the book. I read the script first and I really enjoyed that and liked it a lot, and then I went through the process of auditioning and all that sort of stuff which was about when I became aware of it, and I read the book when I got the role. And it’s great because the book turned out to be different from the film in many ways. Both had great ways of balancing our feelings with what it is and what it means to be dead, and both are really fantastic in sort of establishing this cult-like zombie world that we go into. The book was fantastic and a really good read to get a bit more intimate and gain a bit more information about the character and how he’s dealing with these feelings.
DS: I think the highest compliment I heard was a row of people behind me who had all read the book saying that they really enjoyed the changes you guys made.
NH: That’s wonderful! And I think that’s a huge credit to Jonathan Levine and how he was able to go about adapting it in a way that kept the heart of the story and the characters there, but how he was able to make it a bit more screen friendly.
DS: Jonathan Levine’s involvement was really what made me take notice of this project in the first place since he’s never made the same film twice, and this feels a bit like a mash-up of all of the genres he had worked in previously. What was it like getting to work with him, because he seems like someone who would run a pretty interesting set?
NH: Yeah, he’s honestly one of my favourite directors that I’ve ever gotten a chance to work with just in the sense that he has this endless knowledge and enthusiasm about film that leads him to care so much about what he’s working on. He creates a really creative environment, and in many senses he’s great at how to keep things light and how to keep the characters likable. He doesn’t take everything too seriously, but he always manages to put a lot of heart into it. I think when you watch movies like 50/50 or The Wackness or (All the Boys Love) Mandy Lane and you realize just what different kinds of movies they are, but they’re all rooted in a sense of realism which is what you need on a project like this because when you hear what the premise of this one is you wonder “Oh, I have no idea how that’s gonna work.” (laughs)
DS: Well, you guys are also making this sort of romantic fantasy that’s hard to pull off, but you also have all of this comedy, horror, and action elements to it, and I think it gets to a point where you pull it off because all of these different elements come together kind of how the would in real life even if there weren’t zombies everywhere.
NH: Yeah, totally. There’s a really eclectic mix of stuff going on that makes it kind of hard to describe in a condensed sentence. The characters really make that come together because they’re easy to relate to and you really want to see them succeed, and you make the decision to side with and support them early on as you watch them grow and change.
DS: Was it hard for you as a lead in a film like this to balance the different elements of the story in equal amounts, especially when dealing with the more comedic aspects of the script? I can imagine when you’re playing as a zombie for laughs it might be hard to keep a straight face or keep things broad.
NH: Oh, that’s totally the case sometimes, and you always have to keep that humour in check a little bit. I would definitely start to get a bit silly and broad with it, but then Levine would reel me back in. But I think it was something that had to be grounded and something had to be there for me to stick to for you to believe in the relationship that develops between all of the characters in this world. It was times like that where I asked what would be believable to me and to figure out what R was trying to explain or express how he was going to try to care for Julie, and that was the kind of thing I had to play perfectly straight in a lot of ways. That sometimes brings out the best in things; when you aren’t trying to be funny or overly straight and you just let the humour come out of the actual situation or the script.
DS: Now before R starts speaking it seems like it would be hard to build a relationship with your co-stars that you are going to have to interact with, even when they are still zombies like Rob Corddry plays or when you have Teresa Palmer playing Julie. How do you build a relationship with someone when you can’t really speak to them?
NH: (laughs) It was certainly something different, and with Rob we had a lot of fun with it figuring out the different ways that these guys would communicate in such a strange fashion, and he would definitely make me laugh a lot. In some ways that first scene that we have together in that airport part where we trying talking to each other was really based around how people would actually communicate in a bar and starting from there. It’s those little things quite early on and the little mannerisms where he just kind of gives me a tap on the shoulder to indicate moving on. Those moments are the ones that seem the most real.
And in a lot of ways it’s the same between R and Julie. He’s trying to help her remain calm, and she’s terrified of him at first, but then she gets slightly opened up through his personality and how he’s trying to do his best, and through that she has to learn to trust them. And that’s when they kind of start to get each other out of an equally sticky situation, because she’s kind of given up hope on humanity, as well, and he can only really find that in her even if he doesn’t know how to verbally express it.
(Teresa and I) worked together for about a week before shooting and we read through scenes and stuff, but the script was just developed so nicely that there were natural ways for that relationship to progress. We weren’t really rushing it and I think Teresa did a great job of playing it realistically and not suddenly throwing up her hands and saying “Oh, hey! Life’s great now!” She’s very wary and it takes time, and Jonathan purposely had that scene with the two of them in the old airplane not really saying much to really have that sort of idea all play out before they get to know each other. And that was one of the most fascinating things because when you’re in an audience you understand over time why they want to be together and why it works, but the film has to earn that relationship with the audience, too.
DS: You’re playing a character who doesn’t really have a backstory at all aside from the one he kind of inherits from someone else’s memories of Julie’s life. Did you ever come up with a background for R that you took with you?
NH: No! I actually made the decision – and you might think it’s a lazy decision (laughs) – that if he didn’t have any memory of it, then I didn’t need to know it. Does that make sense? Because it’s really the one thing he’s wanting and searching for at the beginning, so if I knew it then it might have been more of a hindrance to me than anything else. So, I really just tried to focus on the present state of his situation rather than what it took to get him there.
DS: And that sense of not knowing actually plays really well into the comedic aspect of the movie because then characters begin to wonder what’s so special about R’s awakening in the first place.
NH: Exactly. He’s a guy who doesn’t even know his own name, so it kind of kills the joke and the mystery knowing what school he went to or what he was into before that.
DS: I know a lot of people have asked you about your brain eating in the film and what that tasted like already, but something that I always wanted to ask a sort of “leading zombie character” was what goes into creating how your zombie kind of walks and shuffles around, because it plays into one of the funniest gags in the film. How did you come up with R’s movements because it seems like a more physical role than people would realize? It seems like something that once you decide on how to do it you have to remember it and stick with it.
NH: (laughs) Yeah. The sort of thing that made it a bit harder was that over the course of the film we had to gradually improve his motion, as well. It takes a bit of practice, but it’s really more of a feeling than a specific physical thing in some ways. You just kind of get into this headspace and you try to make yourself kind of feel exhausted, like your legs getting really heavy, and then you kind of go from there. I guess that’s the best way to describe it is as a feeling you have to get into.
There’s an interesting physical demand on this, but it’s a good one. You don’t have to really sit there and have to worry about your lines or a rewrite for the next day or whatever and you just have to think a lot more about your movement and how your speech might have gotten better. It’s a lot smaller and there’s a lot more little and interesting things you can spend your time focusing on. It’s quite liberating in a way. I mean, I went through the script to sort of pinpoint moments where he would logically be changing and progressing and used that to help guide me on my way to keep it gradual. (laughs)
DS: You’ve done and had a lot of classical acting training and in so many ways this is a Romeo and Juliet story. Had you ever had exposure to this kind of a love story before?
NH: Nothing like this. I did some Shakespeare at school, but even that was Much Ado About Nothing. But yeah, this is a new kind of twist on that. I mean, ultimately most love stories kind of stem right back to Romeo and Juliet, but I certainly haven’t played anything like this before. (laughs)
DS: It really is one of those once in a lifetime sort of roles.
NH: No, exactly, and I’m very very glad that they chose me to give it a shot.