J.R.R. Tolkien, Mad Max, X-Men: Nicholas Hoult on living out fantasy
the actor had to embody the man behind the myths
In one particular scene in the new bio-pic Tolkien, the young J.R.R. Tolkien (Hoult) takes his friend Edith Bratt (Lily Collins) out to lunch at a fancy restaurant. Both poor, both orphans, the teens uncomfortably negotiate their upper-class surroundings, but then Tolkien finds his ease telling Edith about a particular English phrase that’s transfixed him lately: Since the phrase is beautiful, he reasons, it should mean something beautiful, beyond its banal definition. With her prodding, he starts creating a redefinition, conjuring a mystical forest inhabited by elves (take a guess for yourself what the phrase was, trivia masters! If you need a hint, try working backwards from the elvish city of “Caras Galadhon” and its ruler, “Celeborn”). The give-and-take of their blossoming romance is founded on language, and in such ways, Tolkien makes a case for why the mind of The Lord of the Rings author was as fascinating as his fantasy epics.
The power and mystery of matching sounds with meaning is, after all, what compelled Tolkien, born in 1892, to write his legendarium in the first place; it’s also what drew Hoult to the role a century later.
“I think it’s why these worlds are so rich, because of his knowledge of history and language, and his love of it,” Hoult says. “When I was a kid reading these books, you’d see the name of a place or character and you’d just think it was a funny-sounding word, and that would be it. But then you go back and you see that, oh, this name comes from the Old English for this and relates to that.”
For examples of that Tolkien etymology in action, take the elven city of Rivendell, where the Fellowship of the Ring is first formed. Elrond Half-elven’s home is named after its location in a valley cleaved by a great river (in other words, a “riven” “dell”). Shelob, the monstrous spider of Cirith Ungol, gets her name from a portmanteau of her gender and an Old English word for arachnids (“lob”).
Hoult, 29, made his screen debut when he was seven; he says staying engaged in the acting craft is learning something new with each role, whether it’s in an edgy TV show (2007–08’s Skins), a blockbuster epic (the ongoing X-Men movie franchise), or an eccentric period piece (2018’s The Favourite). Each offered lessons that enrich his life and fuel future performances.
For example, years after filming 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road in the wastelands of the Namibian desert, Hoult recalls watching in awe as director George Miller laid out an encyclopedic vision of his carefully curated apocalyptic world: “Over the course of two days, he sat me down and spoke through that world and the character of Nux that I was playing. Watching George in those moments, he is a creative genius and also a world-builder. He had an attention to detail and an understanding of history and how that can play into the future, and geographical knowledge in terms of the shooting of it.”
Tolkien, too, was a careful world-builder, and thanks to the decades-long editing efforts of his son Christopher, we now have a thorough understanding of how the Middle-earth mythology changed over time. However, there are somewhat fewer details of Tolkien’s own life, offering plenty of wiggle room for real-life myth-building, as Hoult, Collins, and director Dome Karukoski fill in the blanks with their interpretations of these historic figures. Tolkien suffered from trench fever during his service in World War I, so the film infuses that experience with the seeds of Middle-earth: Before Tolkien’s sick eyes, cavalry troops become fearsome Nazgûl, and a flamethrower resembles dragon breath. Then there’s Edith, who served as the direct inspiration for the legendary elf princess Lúthien, one of the most important characters in Middle-earth lore.
“Nicholas and I get along so well,” Collins says, glowingly. “He’s infectious and wonderful and passionate; he’s all those things that I think are so important to play Tolkien. The scenes were so beautifully written, and Dome wanted us to just take the words and run with it, which is very much what Tolkien did. He created these languages and these worlds, and then left it to interpretation for everyone to disappear into their own heads. Nicholas and I did the same thing with the characters in the script.”
But even as Hoult steps into the shoes of one of the most famous authors of the 20th century, he also continues to inhabit an actual icon of nerd culture in the X-Men movies. Hoult first played Hank McCoy, the brilliant and blue-furred mutant superhero Beast, in 2011’s X-Men: First Class. There have been several sequels since, culminating in this summer’s Dark Phoenix. But what’s kept Hoult coming back—other than the “summer holiday” experience of periodically reuniting with costars like James McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence every few years—has been the chance to explore a different aspect of the character each time.
“It’s been interesting to play that character over a prolonged period,” he says. “Hank in that first film was very much one of the students and struggling with who he is, so to play that character and then play him as he grows more comfortable with himself and becomes a teacher at the school…. I feel like he’s been growing and evolving as I have.”
Hoult’s artistic evolution will continue for the foreseeable future, as he’s cast as Russian emperor Peter the Great on Hulu’s series The Great, written by The Favourite‘s Tony McNamara. He’ll bring Tolkien’s passion for language with him when he goes (along with Miller’s sense of world-building, and Beast’s character growth, and everything else he’s learned in nearly two decades of acting).
“I’m now aware when words don’t capture the right phrase or describe the sense of feeling behind it,” Hoult says. “The focus and awareness that that’s left me with, and trying to understand [Tolkien’s] love of it, is something I’ll take forward to my next role.”
Tolkien hits theaters on May 10.