TIFF: 'Equals' Star Nicholas Hoult Talks About Portraying J.D. Salinger

The actor dishes on the pain of first love, writer worship and how he relates to the reclusive author.

Equals, the new indie film from Drake Doremus, has been called the date-night movie for the next generation.

Nicholas Hoult plays Silas, who lives in a future society that has learned how to suppress emotions in favor of workplace productivity. Silas becomes infected with an enigmatic new illness, SOS, and begins to notice that his co-worker Nia, played by Kristen Stewart, also has the bug. Pretty soon, they find that they can’t suppress their attraction toward each other. They risk their lives to explore this new emotion of first love. Doremus had one directive for the young actors: Be honest and vulnerable. Hoult and Stewart light up the screen with the kind of chemistry that studio executives kill to find.

At 25, Hoult has been in the most eclectic mix of films this year, from Mad Max to his other Toronto film, Kill Your Friends. And up next, he’ll be taking on the life of celebrated writer J.D. Salinger.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Hoult to discuss overcoming lows, being free on set and playing one of America’s most enigmatic literary figures.

Was it difficult for you in this role to imagine a world without love?

Yeah. It's weird when you see so many opposing levels of it everyday in the news, and you see moments of real kindness and genuineness with people and caring for each other and you're like, "That's the human spirit. There it is." Then you see other moments of just, wow. People can just walk past that on the street or this has happened right there, and everyone is just blind to it. So you see both elements of a lot all the time.

Was there anything desirable in this world for you, not having to succumb to emotions?

I think everyone's had that thing at some point when they're in real low. When they're like: "Ooh, it'd be good to skip this day or a couple of days." There's also something I kind of enjoy, which sounds a bit twisted, but I kind of enjoy feeling the lows. It’s that feeling that you’re alive. It's that thing of balancing our highs and lows out.

Have you grown as a person, overcoming low points?

Yeah, you do come back a little bit wiser hopefully. You know what it is once you've experienced a couple of lows; once you're in one, you can kind of see the way out. Whereas, particularly, this film was about first love, first love that we've all had where you fall head over heels for someone, and there’s often heartbreak and it's earth-shattering. And you don't think. I've talked to my parents, and they’ll say, "I know you can't understand this right now, but this happens, and you'll be OK." And at the time you're like, "No, no one understands this. No one gets this." Then you get older and a little bit more cynical and experienced with life, and you think, "All right, I'm feeling a bit rubbish right now, but it will pass."

It’s also about long-term relationships. How do you balance those highs and lows?

Communication. You're asking the wrong person. I don't know. I think that's the thing: Nobody really knows. I'm no expert. But finding someone you have an understanding with where it's like, "Look, we get it. I'm still myself, you're still yourself. But this works well." And then hard work and commitment.

How did you capture the intensity of your character onscreen?

Honestly, for me, it was working with Drake and Kristen. It was a very calm and very intimate set. And John [Guleserian], our DP, was phenomenal, and all the crew, in a way of making it feel like they weren't there. So there's that thing of, we'd keep rolling, so you wouldn’t have people coming in and doing touches. A lot of the time when you're working on films, it’s like, "So the camera's going to move here, you're going to do this, there's going to be a beep, explosion over there, and then you say your line." It's a dance where everyone's working together to make that happen. Whereas with this, there was a thing of "OK, we kind of know what the scene is, but feel it, and don't do something until you feel it."

There’s a real freedom and then hopefully honesty that comes with that, where you're not doing something for the sake of it because it says so in the script. You're doing it because that's what you felt at that moment.

Speaking of playing emotions, your other film in Toronto, ‘Kill Your Friends,’ seems to be the opposite kind of role.

Yeah, it couldn’t be more opposite. The character in that film is a psychopath fully.

I’m always trying to do very different things: Equals, Mad Max, Kill Your Friends. I'm still figuring it out. I’m learning. Kill Your Friends is just a twisted film. I really enjoyed John Niven's writing, and the book was phenomenal. He switched it to a screenplay really well. It was a fascinating character and that world where people do anything to succeed, where everyone is stabbing each other in the back and out to get each other. It was a really fun movie to make.

You’ve been announced to play J.D. Salinger in Danny Strong’s Rebel in the Rye. How will you take on such a reclusive character?

Well, you know what? First of all, he's one of my all-time favorite authors and had a fascinating life, and Danny's written a beautiful script. I’m just so intrigued. It's a huge honor to have the chance to play him.

I think writers are the most phenomenal people: the ability to create something from nothing in your mind and to put it into words and create characters and worlds and people. People who can create music and writing, my mind is blown because my brain isn’t wired like that. I can interpret things, but it's a different muscle completely. I’m completely fascinated by it.

There are also elements of his personality from reading his biographies and reading his writings. There are elements where sometimes I'm like: "Oh, I understand that. That makes sense." I'm getting better at it, but doing interviews is an example. This is something that he definitely would not be doing. I know from when I was younger, having to do press, and I'd read something I’ve said that comes off something else entirely, that makes me seem like something I’m not. It was misinterpreted, and now everyone's going to think this.

He had a huge concern of being portrayed as smug and things like this at times. It is that weird thing, where you suddenly feel fear of interviews and being put out there. Everyone's got an opinion on me, and I don't want that. I don’t want people to think anything of me. I want them to think of my work, and it's the work and that's it. So it’s that strange thing where there's lots of things that I relate to him from what I've read about him. I can understand it. I'm really, really excited about it.