Nicholas Hoult: The more you learn about Tolkien, the more you're amazed by his achievements
Dome Karukoski got to know the man behind the myth in anticipated biopic Tolkien. But it's far more than just an impersonation of the iconic author, stars Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins tell Gemma Dunn
Few could accuse Nicholas Hoult of underpreparing for his roles. From losing weight and taking science lessons to play Nikola Tesla in the long-stalled film Current War; to embarking on a hot yoga routine to bulk up for his upcoming reprisal of Beast in Marvel Comics' X-Men: Dark Phoenix; and even living in a hutch, in anticipation for the BBC revival of Watership Down.
Okay, he was joking about the last one. We think. But suffice to say, Hoult - a rising star in Hollywood - would probably give it a shot.
"Acting is exploring different things, times, periods. It's learning new skills, understanding different people," he recently told Esquire.
The latest addition to his skill set is painting. A pastime he adopted in training for his role as literary great JRR Tolkien.
Steered by Finnish film director Dome Karukoski, the biopic - simply titled Tolkien - tells the story of how the young writer transformed from a lonely orphan into one of the greatest storytellers of all time.
Hoult (29) recalls: "I was shooting X-Men before this, so I'd do a little bit of an action sequence and then I'd go into my little Beast tent - I'd have my watercolour kit - and copy some of Tolkien's illustrations in there...
"And then I'd be like, 'Yep, one second!' and then go back out and be Beast!" he cries, animatedly. "I normally try and pick up characters' hobbies or things whilst playing them and sometimes I'll carry them on for a little bit, but then I'll try something else for the next role, whatever it is."
Hoult will star in the epic opposite English-American actress Lily Collins (30), who shines as star-crossed lover Edith Ann Bratt - a young pianist who went on to become Tolkien's wife and the mother of his children.
Exploring the formative years of his life, including the friendship he finds among a fellow group of writers and artists at school (nicknamed T.C.B.S. for Tea Club, Barrovian Society), as well as the devastation of the First World War, the film focuses on the events that drove the author to pen his Middle-earth novels.
It's a side of Tolkien neither Hoult nor Collins had encountered before.
"Though I've loved Tolkien's novels since I was a boy, I knew nothing about this time in his early life, which is so intriguing and illuminating," begins Hoult, who first came to the fore as the woolly-hatted Marcus in 2002 comedy-drama film About A Boy.
"I never knew about his personal losses, tragedies at love and at war, or about the foundational friendships that meant so much to him. Or that he found a great love and had it taken away and struggled to find it again."
Hoult - most recently seen as the flamboyant Harley in The Favourite - soon dived headlong into research, looking for ways to make the role his own.
"I read all the biographies, listened to recordings of Tolkien in later life and went through all the photographs," he notes.
"And the more you learn about Tolkien, the more you are amazed by all his achievements and ideas. Still, as an actor you have to reconcile with the fact that when playing a real person, you can only ever play a kind of ghost of them. You can't impersonate them, so you try to capture some of their living essence."
For Collins, landing the part felt like she had come full circle. For the Les Miserables actress had auditioned, to no avail, in 2014 to play an elf in Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies - a creation said to be based on Tolkien's beloved Edith.
"It was for the character that Evangeline Lilly ended up playing...," Collins confides. "I was one of hundreds probably, but an elven character.
"I was very much inspired by Peter's movies and Tolkien's books growing up, so to even be able to have auditioned was amazing," she says. "And then who knew years later I'd get to play the woman who ended up inspiring those characters?"
As for Edith's wit. "I actually almost think of her as kind of a woman ahead of her time," admits Collins.
"The photos that we can find of her, there's a child-like cheekiness behind her eyes, kind of as though she's in on something that we don't know about and I really loved that quality in her.
"And the fact that she wanted more for herself..." she adds. "She knew what her prospects were, but she wanted him [Tolkien] to be able to live out his dream and through him doing that, she was able to escape as well."
For Collins and Hoult it wasn't an arduous task to find the onscreen chemistry.
Due in the main to their similar work ethic, reckons Collins.
"Nick is one of the kindest, most down-to-earth human beings I've ever met," she says.
"He also has an extreme dedication to his craft, an interest in doing everything he can to make his character better, while also really enjoying the experience. He was always so positive."
"Lily brought so much grit, intelligence and grace to Edith that you could feel all this energy from her," mirrors Hoult.
But despite their fledgling friendship - and the theme of fellowship high on the Tolkien agenda - there were no new clubs nor societies formed behind the camera, they confess.
"We didn't have a secret tea society on set, no," Hoult says. "But film sets kind of feel like that anyway because everyone is thrown together to create this thing. You become fast friends and spend 12-15 hours a day together, so it feels like you're part of a group anyway."
"Yeah and you can go on to the next film and run into that person and always have that sense of connection," agrees Collins.
"So, in a way, it becomes quite secretive because years later you could have that same feeling with that person and harp back on that history," she finishes. "So it's nice to bring that with you wherever you go."
- Tolkien is in cinemas now