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As he drove toward the Sonoma Raceway in a $275,000 Ferrari Roma, Nicholas Hoult was becoming increasingly nervous. “I’ve loved car racing since I was a kid, so the opportunity to actually do it, I would be absolutely insane to pass up,” the 32-year-old actor said, his sharp blue eyes widening behind oversized Fendi tortoiseshell sunglasses. “But it’s also terrifying. I think it’s always good to get yourself outside of your comfort zone.”
Hoult has had to drive on-screen many times before, in The Young Ones, in Collide, and most notably in Mad Max: Fury Road. But he has recently been prepping for a more difficult real-life role behind the wheel. He’s been training with Ferrari to potentially join their Challenge Series, a program of races the Italian supercar brand sponsors for owners of its cars.
Hoult drives an electric Jaguar I-Pace in Los Angeles and a motorcycle when in London, and doesn’t own a Ferrari. But, working in concert with the brand, he has attended Ferrari-sponsored driving courses over the past few years, driving a track-only, 670 hp Ferrari 488 Challenge Evo at private circuits in Florida and California and even on the Formula One course in Austin, Texas. The weekend, when The Hollywood Reporter rode shotgun with him, it was his first time on the track without an instructor, and with other cars racing around him.
He points out a key distinction between the skills he’s picked up on set, and those he’s garnered in his work with Ferrari. “In filming, you get to do very exciting things, and have great experiences. But it’s normally in a controlled, fake environment,” he said. “And it’s normally for the purpose of trying to make you look good for just that brief second. Whereas this is something where I’m trying to see if the skill set is something that’s actually possible to achieve, and that only comes from time, and practice.”
Hoult is taking the mission seriously, working with a professional coach, a process he likens to listening to and integrating notes from a director on-set. “I think I’m good at taking instruction,” he said. “I think that’s something that comes naturally.”
But if flubbing a line on set typically has limited repercussions, harsher outcomes follow mistakes on the track. I asked what he’s most fearful of. “Crashing. Obviously,” he said. Slamming several hundred thousand dollars-worth of exotic racecar into a barrier would be inadvisable on many levels. Fortunately, Hoult’s instructor provided him with some expert advice for avoiding such a situation.
“Just don’t look at the wall,” Hoult repeated. “If anything like that happens, don’t look where you don’t want to go, because then you’ll end up definitely going there.” This goes against our most basic animal instinct. “Any loud noise or anything scary, you want to look at it, to figure out what’s going on,” he continued. “So you have to override all that at that moment to do the opposite.”
As a distraction from the butterflies in his stomach, as he drove toward the track, Hoult dove into a different gastric issue — fake food and eating on-set. This isn’t a complete non-sequitur. He is the star, with Elle Fanning, of the counterhistorical Hulu series, The Great, for which he received a nomination for outstanding lead actor in a comedy series nomination at this year’s Emmys. In the show, now filming its third season, he plays Peter III, a vainglorious Russian Emperor whose Achilles heel lies in his digestive tract. Hoult’s also the star — alongside Anna Taylor-Joy and Ralph Fiennes — of The Menu (Nov. 18), a horror-satire of luxury restaurants and capitalism, in which he plays a swaggering foodie. This required compelling preparation. “For some roles, you have to push your body, or your boundaries,” Hoult said. “For this one, I had to go eat in nice restaurants.”
Hoult spoke about substituting ginger ale for beer, grape juice for wine, and water for vodka, all of which seemed obvious. Replacing scallops with potato lumps seemed like an ingenious way of avoiding toxic bivalve poisoning. Using creamed shortening instead of ice cream prevented melting, though was definitely not delicious. Chicken hearts on blini were resourcefully replaced with cooked mushrooms. Then there was the questionable rodent-for-rodent proxy.
“One thing in this script was, we find rats, and hunt rats. So the prop department said, do you mind eating squirrel? Squirrel kind of looks like rat,” Hoult said. “This was, like, months before the shooting, and I was like, Yeah, yeah, I’ll eat squirrel. Whatever’s best for the show, whatever’s good for the scene. And then I got to the day, and I’m meant to be cooking it as well in the scene. And it was a whole, skinned squirrel. It had its head and its claws and everything, and I had to take a bite out of it.”
As we approached the track, Hoult went silent. He said he needed to clear his head. As if on set, he was learning his lines. Quite literally: in racing, the quickest and most efficient way around the various sweepers, hairpins, and chicanes on a track is known as “the line.” Hoult seemed preternaturally calm, but revealed that his external demeanor often masks internal tumult. “Inside, all the little me-s are bouncing around, terrified, and my heart’s racing,” he said.
The effort of maintaining all of this artifice, within reality, seemed exhausting. But, having worked as an actor since childhood — his breakout role was as the eponymous boy in 2002’s About A Boy with Hugh Grant and Toni Collette — he finds intriguing value in the stratagem. “I mean, we’re all potentially faking to a degree all the time,” he said. “And I do believe that there’s like a sense of, if you pretend to be good at something, it normally makes you better at it. Instantly.
He continued. “We’ll see if that’s completely true, when I go out on the track next. They’ll be like, what were you doing out there? And I’ll be like, I was pretending,” he said. “That’s what we’re doing, right?
After his first solo laps, we asked how it went. “Well, it’s put this big smile on my face. There’s a lot happening, there’s a lot coming at you fairly quickly, so, mentally, it’s tiring. But it felt good,” he said. “When you’re waiting for the day, the buildup, it mounts over time. I always think that, like, going to the dentist, if you’re doing anything like that, it’s best just to do it.”
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