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Nicholas Hoult: A Tsar Is Born

How that adorable kid from 'About a Boy' survived childhood fame (and a very bad ‘90210’ audition) to become TV’s favorite despot on 'The Great': “I feel like I’m very much at the start of things still.”

“Are you interested in how I got dog poo on my face when truffling?” asks Nicholas Hoult one chilly October morning, seated at a tucked-away eatery in North Hollywood. Something in the way the 31-year-old Englishman says it — brightly, eagerly, as if he’s offering a tea cake — makes it sound not entirely unenticing.

So this is how Hoult got dog poo on his face when truffling: It was spring 2021, and the actor was in a forest somewhere outside London filming the second season of The Great, Hulu’s breakout dramedy about the rise of Russia’s 18th century ruler Catherine the Great, which returns Nov. 19.

Hoult plays her spoiled and volatile man-child of a husband, Peter III — a bravura performance that earned him Golden Globe, SAG Award and Critics Choice Award nominations — while Elle Fanning plays the empress, whom last we saw staging a successful coup against him.

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And so now Peter is being held captive inside his own castle. When Catherine refuses to let him and his beloved poodle out on a promised truffling expedition (Peter is an unabashed foodie), he outruns the guards and storms into the woods in a fur hat and nightgown to root out some truffles on his own.

“So I was snuffling through the woods,” Hoult continues. “We finished a take, and there was a slightly green, weird mud on my face. And I was like, ‘Oh. This is definitely poop.’ For some reason, it had snowed in England. Didn’t see the poo.”

No one can appreciate the humor in that humbling situation more than Hoult, who, figuratively at least, has had to endure countless such indignities on his journey from child star (starting with that bowl cut he sported in his breakout turn in 2002’s About a Boy) to handsome leading man.

Case in point: By 2008, Hoult, then 18, had found continued success in the U.K., having starred in Skins, an edgy young adult series that brought him what he calls “a weird-ish level of fame because only people in your age group are watching.” But he was struggling to find a footing in Hollywood.

His agents at the time were throwing everything at the wall and hoping something stuck. So they sent him in to read for 90210 — yes, the CW reboot of Beverly Hills, 90210. When he arrived, the Studio City waiting room was packed with dozens of actors his age nervously running lines. Hoult’s heart sank as he waited for his turn to be called in.

“I did one reading, and then they were like, ‘Great, thanks,’ ” he recalls. “I was like, ‘Should we put it on tape?’ And they were like, ‘No, I think we’re good.’ “

File that one under “bullets dodged,” as not long after, Hoult was selected by Tom Ford to star in his directorial debut, 2009’s A Single Man. That would be followed by a series of high-profile gigs in pics like 2011’s X-Men: First Class (he played Beast in three of the films); 2012’s Mad Max: Fury Road (he was the crazed renegade Nux in the postapocalyptic action stunner); and 2018’s The Favourite (the savage period comedy that led him, via screenwriter Tony McNamara, directly to The Great).

“He’s basically one of those actors that ticks every box,” says Fury Road helmer George Miller on a call from Australia, where he’s in preproduction on Fury Road‘s follow-up, the 2024-slated Furiosa (in which Hoult does not appear). “Not just his talent, not just his skill level and not just his ability to collaborate under difficult circumstances. But also as a human being. For such a young person, Nick is quite exceptional, mainly in the way that he displays grace under pressure.”

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Hoult jokes his “basketball credential is 6-foot-3, acting credential 6-foot-1.” Photographed by Shayan Asgharnia

Hoult spent his childhood in Wokingham, a picturesque little market town about an hour east of London. His father was a British Airways pilot and his mother was a flight attendant. They met working on a flight together and were married eight weeks later (and remain married). Because his dad was so often working, his mother — who quit to raise a family and teach piano — would bring Nick along to dance classes attended by his two older sisters. He also has a much older brother, 12 years his senior, who “kind of raised me in many ways,” he says.

It was in 1995 at a competitive talent show called the All England Singing and Dancing Championship — a precursor to reality shows like American Idol — that an agent offered to represent the two Hoult sisters and Nick. (This despite Nick having performed a less-than-showstopping rendition of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’s “Comedy Tonight” in a clown costume.)

“I remember them saying, ‘If you want to, do it, but you don’t have to,’ ” recalls Hoult of his parents’ take on showbiz. But he quickly realized that he loved it and that he was quite good at it. His first screen role came in a 1996 film called Intimate Relations, playing Julie Walters’ grandson. “I was 5,” Hoult recalls. “For the audition, I had to sit under a table and pretend to eat cake. I was like, ‘This is easy. I can do this all day.’ “

By 11, he found himself up for the title role in About a Boy, a British-American co-production based on the Nick Hornby novel and directed by American brothers Chris and Paul Weitz. The part required some meaty acting chops on the part of the boy, who shared the screen with Hugh Grant, already a massive star.

“I could tell it was a bigger deal than other things, but by then I’d auditioned for Harry Potter,” he says, adding with a laugh that he “must have done something really special” to be “a British actor and not gotten any of them,” meaning the eight films in the franchise.

But after five auditions, he did land About a Boy, which made $130 million worldwide, or about $200 million when adjusted for inflation. Hoult suddenly found himself going up for bigger films being shot in America, landing his first in 2015 with Gore Verbinski’s The Weather Man, in which he played Nicolas Cage’s son and Michael Caine’s grandson.

At 18, having left the last pudgy traces of adolescence behind, Hoult drew the attention of Ford, who was casting A Single Man, his adaptation of the Christopher Isherwood novel about a professor (Colin Firth) grieving his partner’s death.

Ford still hadn’t found the right actor to play the student who develops a crush on Firth’s character. In London, Hoult was told to put a few scenes on tape and send them to L.A. via courier. Two days later, he was awoken by a 3 a.m. call informing him he’d been summoned to Hollywood to meet with Ford.

“Being a bit of an idiot, I looked him up on IMDb, and all it’s got on there is like ‘[appeared in] Zoolander as himself.’ I’m like, ‘Interesting. … But the script’s really good.’ ” Hoult hopped the next flight to L.A. and took a jet-lagged meeting with Ford at the Sunset Tower.

“I was like, ‘So how’d you get into directing?’ ” he says. “He was very humble. He explained how he was working in fashion and then grew very emotional about why he wanted to tell this story.”

When Hoult got back to his hotel, he did a deeper dive on the guy he’d just met. “The first image that popped up was Tom on the cover of Vanity Fair. I felt like a true idiot.” (The two grew much more acquainted through the making of the film and beyond. Ford signed Hoult to be the face of his 2011 eyewear campaign.)

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Hoult in A Single Man (2009), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and About a Boy (2002). “He’s basically one of those actors that ticks every box,” says Fury Road helmer George Miller. Eduard Grau/Weinstein Company/ Courtesy Everett Collection, Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection, Jasin Boland/Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection

The two strangest auditions Hoult has ever experienced were for two of the more lauded films in recent history— Miller’s Fury Road and Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite. Hoult theorizes that their highly unorthodox approach to choosing actors “speaks to something about both of those guys as directors.”

For Fury Road, Hoult was paired with Gugu Mbatha-Raw (who was not ultimately cast) for a marathon audition overseen by Nico Lathouris, Miller’s co-screenwriter. “It was five hours of acting games,” Hoult recalls. “Nico would come up behind me with this rattle, and he’d give you words and you’d have to repeat them and move around this room — all while keeping physical contact with Gugu. The last sentence I had was, ‘Pain is my pleasure, pain is my pleasure.’ “

Miller acknowledges the test was grueling. “It was very tricky, very verbal. And Nick just seemed to get through that. He wasn’t daunted,” he says. “This wasn’t a very easy movie to make. We were out there in Southern Africa, in the desert. It was a really long shoot every day. There was a lot of tension on the set between myself and the studio. Amongst all that, he was one of those people who just helped get the film made. A lot of directors have those actors they want to work with over and over again. It’s not just their talent or skills. Key to it is their understanding that they’re part of an ensemble — a whole group trying to make a film. Those are ‘filmmaker actors.’ Nick definitely falls in that category.”

In 2017, having just completed work on The Current War, in which he played Nikola Tesla opposite Benedict Cumberbatch’s Thomas Edison, Hoult was asked to audition for a role in The Favourite, a dark comedy set in 1711 about England’s Queen Anne (daftly envisioned by Olivia Colman, who won an Oscar for her portrayal) and the two conniving cousins jockeying for her affection (Rachel Weisz, who coincidentally had played Grant’s love interest in About a Boy, and Emma Stone).

Hoult was being considered by Lanthimos for the role of Robert Harley, the First Earl of Oxford, a noted politician and patron of the arts in the queen’s court. “[Yorgos] was like, ‘OK, this time, do the dialogue, but whenever the character is talking, you also have to hum a tune; and then you also have to be sculpting an imaginary beam of energy around the room,’ ” Hoult says. “So you’re trying to multitask six different things whilst remembering dialogue.”

Like in the Fury Road audition, Hoult was able to handle whatever the director threw at him. He soon was back on a movie set with Weisz, trading barbs with all three women in a scene-stealing role that required him to don a powdered wig and heavy makeup.

Hoult proved marvelously adept at handling the film’s intricate, vicious dialogue. Watching it all unfold with utter delight was the man who penned the lines. “I was just knocked out with what he was doing with the character and how funny he was,” says McNamara, the co-screenwriter of The Favourite and creator of The Great, who until then had been working as a playwright in Australian theater.

The two men struck up a friendship, and McNamara knew that if he ever managed to turn his play The Great into a movie, Hoult was the only choice to play his version of Peter III — a violently capricious heir outwitted by his socially progressive bride. Says McNamara, “It’s a really good marriage, Nick and I.”

But the scope of the story proved too huge for one film, and so McNamara instead re-envisioned it as a TV series with enough plot to potentially last six seasons. Hulu greenlit a pilot in 2018, at which point Fanning — who serves as an executive producer — and Hoult were announced as the leads.

Fanning and Hoult had played a terrible husband and pregnant wife before, in 2014’s Young Ones — yet another postapocalyptic tale set in a future desert world, directed by Jake Paltrow (younger brother of Gwyneth). “I was 14 at the time,” says Fanning. “Nick was 22. So we have this history of him not being a great husband to me.”

They got to know each other over Young Ones cast dinners and discovered, as two former child stars finding their ways as adults in the business, that they had a lot in common. “We both work in a very similar way,” Fanning says. “Maybe because we both grew up acting. I think we look at the business in the same way, and our perspectives on it are the same, where it sits in our life is the same. We can relate.”

Fanning, 23, says the constantly sparring couple begin to realize they might actually be — gasp! — falling in love in The Great season two. “It’s all becoming a bit more apparent to her,” she says of her character. “This push and pull of wanting to hate him, and wanting to kill him, but then also constantly wanting to be around him. And, weirdly, learning from him.”

Hoult agrees with Fanning that the power reversal has made for some interesting developments in his character, if not quite growth. “Even when he’s an idiot,” he says, “he’s also weirdly quite right about a lot of things in terms of what it takes to be a ruler. That’s quite an admirable quality.”

When it comes to Hoult himself, however, Fanning lists plenty of things to admire: “He’s so handsome and tall.” (Hoult says he’s 6-foot-1 “and a bit.”) “Those are few and far between,” she adds, “tall movie stars. He’s so funny. He’s so attractive. And he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s just the whole package.”

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Hoult’s rendezvous with THR comes during a short hiatus from filming his next project, The Menu, a satiric thriller set at a restaurant on a remote island. He and The Queen’s Gambit star Anya Taylor-Joy play a couple who travel there for an ill-fated gourmet meal in the film, currently shooting in Savannah, Georgia. (Frequent Succession helmer Mark Mylod directs, while Succession scribe Will Tracy co-wrote the screenplay with Seth Reiss.)

While back in L.A., Hoult is on “dad duty,” as he puts it, with Joaquin, the 3-year-old son he raises with girlfriend Bryana Holly, a 28-year-old model from Huntington Beach with 1.4 million Instagram followers.

He’s savoring the downtime, golfing and training in jujitsu. While costume dramas might not suggest it, Hoult is extremely athletic — a 2019 New York Times profile timed to his starring role in the biopic Tolkien featured his exploits in the boxing ring. He even was offered a key role as a villain in the next Mission: Impossible by Tom Cruise himself after acing an arduous fight-sequence audition. COVID-19 delays, however, led to scheduling conflicts, and he ultimately was replaced by Esai Morales.

Next, he’s returning to horror-comedy — a crowd-pleasing hybrid genre he’s already mastered in the 2013 zombie rom-com Warm Bodies — with Universal’s Renfield.

The movie, set to begin filming this year in New Orleans with The Tomorrow War’s Chris McKay directing, imagines what would happen if Dracula’s long-suffering butler (Hoult) “finds a help group and discovers his own worth,” Hoult says. “It will have monsters and gore and Dracula and that stuff. But the core of it is just about this power dynamic of this relationship between Renfield and Dracula.” (Hoult says they’re nearing an announcement on who will play the Prince of Darkness.)

“I’m 31,” Hoult says, “but I feel like I’m very much at the start of things still. It bums me a little bit when people treat me like an adult. I still feel like a kid.”

This story first appeared in the Nov. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.