Going up in the world: Nicholas Hoult
Former child star Nicholas Hoult is all grown up and slaying monsters in a Hollywood blockbuster, writes James Mottram
Nicholas Hoult is in between worlds right now. The 23-year-old British actor who shot to global fame as Hank McCoy (aka Beast) in X-Men: First Class is just back in London from Namibia. He has flown in for a brief meet-and-greet before heading back to Africa to complete filming of Mad Max: Fury Road, the long-awaited fourth instalment of George Miller's popular post-apocalyptic series.
Dressed in a maroon leather jacket, charcoal combat trousers and a grey T-shirt, Hoult walks into the hotel room and removes his baseball cap to reveal a skinhead cut. "People have a different response to you when your head is shaved," he says with a grin. Part of his guise for playing the warrior Nux in Mad Max, it looks severe: the cherubic lad with the pudding-bowl cut he so charmingly embodied in 2002's About a Boy is long gone.
It's also some way from his role in Bryan Singer's fantasy Jack the Giant Slayer. Hoult plays Jack, a farm hand who opens a gateway to a world of fearsome giants. So what's the appeal? "There's the romance and the adventure and the epic scale of it, and the world that you get taken into is really spectacular. But I think there is also humour and lightness to it. It's a good family romp," he says.
The movie is inspired by the Jack and the Beanstalk fairy tale - and for those craving overgrown vegetation, the film doesn't disappoint. "They built 50-foot-high pieces of beanstalk and then proceeded to throw water on us, and get these really powerful air cannons and spray us with those as well. We're just hanging on … these beanstalks, slipping around," Hoult says.
Shot two years ago, Jack the Giant Slayer was slated for release last summer but was delayed for nine months while Warner Brothers reportedly pumped more money into the special effects budget. Now it's one of this season's biggest releases, looking to do battle with Sam Raimi's Oz the Great and Powerful at the box office. Hoult is aware of the pressure on his young shoulders. "You're in the middle of what is costing a lot of money and you don't want to mess it up."
He admits it was "calming" to have veteran actors Stanley Tucci, Eddie Marsan, Bill Nighy and Ewan McGregor on set. "Otherwise, I would've panicked a little bit."
Still, it's easy to get the impression that Hoult sees this as a chance to test his mettle. Just look at the way he talks about Jack. "He's a good, grounded guy, someone you believe can step up to the mark and is a have-a-go hero - and there's definitely that aspect of my personality, of trying to prove something to someone."
Having starred in recent zombie romance Warm Bodies, he's not entirely a newbie when it comes to leading the line - and there's no question about his talent. He's gained street cred for playing troubled youths, in the Noel Clarke-scripted film Kidulthood (2006) and the 2007-2008 TV series Skins. Then there was a radical switch, as Colin Firth's student in the Tom Ford-directed A Single Man.
More recently, he's stepped up a gear, in Hollywood terms, playing the mutant Beast in X-Men: First Class. Asked if he feels as if he's come a long way, he fixes me with his bright blue eyes. "Yeah and no … it's weird. At the moment, I feel like I've grown up and learnt so much. But I know that, looking back in two, three, five years time, I'll go, 'It wasn't that much different to when I was 11.' I've been fortunate so far to be able to make the transition from acting as a kid to working as an adult."
Born in Berkshire, England, the third of four children, Hoult wasn't reared in the showbiz industry, with his mother a piano teacher and his father a pilot for British Airways. But older siblings James and Rosie were both into theatre - and when he went to watch his brother perform in one show, he was spotted by the play's director, and cast in her next project, The Caucasian Chalk Circle. He was just three at the time.
Three years later, he made his film debut opposite Julie Walters in Intimate Relations. "I was lucky enough to be the third one along out of four," he says. "What [my older siblings] did carved a way for opportunities to arise for them, and I got sucked in along the way."
By the time of About a Boy, when he was 11, Hoult was studying at London's Sylvia Young Theatre School, although he returned to normal secondary education. Even now, it appears that he's somewhat uncomfortable with the prospect of standing out from the crowd. "I'm fortunate that I can keep under the radar. Maybe that's partly to do with how you live your life, what you do and where you go … you can keep out of it if you're smart."
That Hoult is no longer dating best-actress Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence - whom he met during the making of X-Men: First Class - will probably help preserve that precious anonymity. He doesn't even have a Facebook account anymore. "I found that when I had Facebook, it was like homework for me. I'd look and go, 'Ah, six messages in the inbox - I have to reply to them.' Then I'd leave them, and I wouldn't get excited about it. If I got Twitter, I can imagine it not being fun. And I can imagine not having anything interesting to say most of the time."
Spending the past five months in Namibia helped keep Hoult away from prying paparazzi lenses too. Instead, it left him at close quarters with the uncompromising Tom Hardy, who is set to play Mad Max, the role made famous by Mel Gibson. "He's always thinking laterally about what he says. He never takes the direct route," says Hoult. Is he the same? "No, I'm very simple, straightforward and down-the-line. I'd like to be more like Tom. But he's obviously a bit older than me and has experienced a lot more."
After Mad Max: Fury Road, Hoult will reprise his role of Beast in X Men: Days of Future Past before starring in the big-screen version of Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong. Among his idols, he cites Christian Bale, another actor known for his versatility, and it's apparent that Hoult craves the same sort of career. "You know when you're always re-inventing yourself in your head?" he asks. "I'm always doing that when I'm watching other films. And that's part of the appeal of doing different films." With these ambitions, Hoult may yet be a giant in Hollywood.
Jack the Giant Slayer opens on Thursday