Interview: Nicholas Hoult, the royally comic king of ‘The Great’
Nicholas Hoult has entertained us for nearly two decades, growing up before our eyes. From an awkward kid in 2002’s About a Boy to polysexual bad boy Tony in the UK show Skins, Hoult really came into his own in 2009’s A Single Man from Tom Ford. From there he landed two huge gigs – playing Hank aka Beast in the X-Men films of the 2010s and Nux, craven racer in George Miller’s epic Oscar winner Mad Max: Fury Road.
He traverses biopic dramas, high concept zombie comedies and sci-fi comic stories with ease and his distinct boyish handsomeness that allows him to toy with the audience’s perceptions of his characters. In Hulu’s The Great, he takes on the role Emperor Peter, leader of Russia, who takes a bride (Catherine The Great, played by Elle Fanning), gets poisoned and battles against a palace coup. He’s the king you love to hate, and hate to love.
I caught up with Hoult, who was spending some time with his son making cardboard rocket ships, to talk about the delicate balance of playing Peter with right level of evil and allure, how he approaches roles and the internet fascination over his conversation with Normal People‘s Paul Mescal.
EA: Peter sometimes feels like a close cousin to Harley in The The Favourite. Were you worried at all about jumping into a character like Peter so soon? Or was Tony McNamara’s script just too good to pass up?
Nicholas Hoult: It was certainly the script being too good to pass up. And the things that I loved about playing Harley, the dialogue and the rhythm and all those things, as you say, are kind of similar, they’re kind that voice of Tony’s, the turn of phrase and what makes it so idiosyncratic and irreverent and fun to portray as characters. But also told that Peter was very different from Harley in many ways. And also, I kind of got a little taste for it playing Harley, I suppose, so I was eager to do more.
And then it was just looking at it just in terms of the power structure and how the two characters operate and everything is just completely different. So it was fun and different period and different costumes and stuff.
He sort of vacillates too, between this rakish boyish charm and some real villainy, and then everything in between. Did you find any specific character behavior that was harder to portray than others?
I don’t know if it was finding particular aspects harder to portray. I think it was more in just picking the right moments to display them. And that luckily, with Tony’s writing again, is very clear what he’s kind of aiming at and what he wants you to do with it as the character. I would say that the difficult thing, actually it’s difficult, but it’s also actually a really fun thing about it, is how quickly it can shift and turn on a dime within a scene. And that’s something that, particularly with Pierre, he’s kind of someone who can be having a brilliant laugh one minute, or a jape as they would say, and then the next moment would be turned to completely murderous. And then similarly, the other way around as well. He can be in a terribly foul mood and someone can give him a different angle on it, or Catherine, Elle’s character, can kind of somehow appease him and he can suddenly be without a care in the world. So he’s very mercurial in that sense, which is probably the difficult thing, but also the really fun thing as an actor, that you got to do that so many times within a scene.
And you’ve worked with Elle Fanning before in Young Ones. Were you able to connect easier, especially when you had to go from those comedic moments to really cruel ones, because you had worked together before?
I think so. Elle and I kind of have a little bit of a shorthand, I suppose, in terms of the way we approach work. I think we’ve both growing up in the business and kind of doing it for a long time and learning on the job essentially, we’ve kind of picked up similar traits, I think. And that means that we’re both keen to keep learning and try things and experiment, but also kind of focused, but also fairly, I guess, relaxed in trying things and just experimenting. And I think in a scene partner, we both give each other that kind of a lot of fun and things to bounce off of, but also kind of that environment where you don’t mind about making a fool of yourself or things not working or failing or whatever else it might be.
So it’s actually kind of this really fun … it opens up us to have kind of a really fun sparring match in a way within those scenes. Because you’re both really rooting for each other to do brilliant work within the scene, but also you’re kind of, from the character perspective, trying to rattle them and spin things on their heads and stuff. So it’s a really fun dynamic, working with her.
The dynamic between you two is incredible and it’s necessary for everything to work. And it’s one of the best parts about the show, period.
Thank you. That was something that Tony wanted; to almost to just look at a marriage essentially in a way, this kind of arranged marriage or dysfunctional marriage and these two people and how they can go from not understanding each other at all, to, at times, liking each other and kind of the back and forth of that; how that relationship evolves. And it was something that I was excited about, because I didn’t realize exactly when I first read the first couple of scripts, where it would go, that we would kind of start to see more tender moments from Peter, a then falling in love and Catherine being so confused about her feelings for him as well. Because seeing him as this monster, then at times finding him kind of this sweet child that she can kind of manipulate and have around. So it’s kind of this really fun relationship to unpack gradually.
Absolutely. How much did the huge poetic license with history that the show takes, afford you more room to create your version of Peter, Emperor Peter, versus having to play him in a more rigid biopic form?
I find it very, very liberating. And I found that it was the same thing on The Favorite, where it was this thing where, I think sometimes as an actor, when you’re playing a historical figure or you want to learn about them and do them justice and kind of create as authentic interpretation of them as possible, but then that kind of also actually confines you in a way into to trying to imagine that we’re playing a ghost of someone…in a way that’s not possible. And with this, because it’s never trying to be something that is claiming to be historically accurate, there are the occasional things that are, but it’s kind of one of those things where it gives you complete freedom to not ever have to consider that or be held back by it or to be aiming for a target that you can then miss. You kind of just are given the freedom to do whatever you want.
And that really fun because you get a great framework with Tony’s writing and the scenes and the world you’re in, but then you’re can kind of free to just have fun with it and play and do anything. So it’s kind of the perfect spot, I think, to be in for an actor. Or I find that anyway.
I think so. And it seemed like a perfect marriage of script and actor for everybody that’s on the show and you have one of the season’s really just most eclectic ensembles. It’s fantastic. Can you talk a little bit about the incredible group of actors that you got to work with?
Oh yeah. Like you say, every single person will be picked out because I think it’s something that, reading the scripts, it’s something that I would … you see the character obviously on the page, but then every single person in the cast kind of elevated the character beyond what was on the page. Phoebe, Gwilym, Charity, Douglas and Andrew and Belinda. Everyone. I’m probably missing a couple of names there, but it was that thing that it was so fun to watch their characters on unravel as well, because that was the brilliant thing. You have this whole power struggle going on within the court and the whole time, and people trying to make alliances and break them and manipulate people and spin things on their heads. And so within that, to see … Oh, Sacha even. Sacha’s character’s watching all are kind of completely changed, and the character you meet in the first episode to going off to becoming this man who kills and drinks, and is becoming kind of … they’re just really fun transformations for every character, I think. And that’s, again, part of Tony’s genius in the writing, but also credit to every single person in the cast for making the most of that.
Yeah. And it was originally a feature, right? And then became a series.
Yeah, it was actually a play. I first read the feature, but yeah, it was a play that they put on down in Australia many years ago. And then I read a feature script that Tony had after we shot The Favorite, and loved that. There were a lot of similarities between that and this, but obviously being over 10 episodes that then gives the time within the writing to look into those other characters and you just fill out the world a lot more.
I’m curious if you take elements of characters that you’ve played before with you when you’re done, either in real life or to your next project?
I don’t know if you take parts of the characters on. It’s weird because there’s kind of a little bit of a gray area at times with that, because obviously humans are kind of creatures of habit in a way, and you pick up, even if you’re kind of hanging around a group of people, you kind of start to mimic them or speak like them and end up becoming more similar. So it’s safe to assume that at times, if you’re hanging around on a set where everyone’s talking in this rhythm, or you using that to kind of dialogue a lot, it’s safe to assume that at times it might slightly infiltrate the real world as well. Not negatively hopefully, but it’s kind of one of those things whereby … I think hopefully the thing that you take is kind of the knowledge of just what it was like working with those people, the directors, the cast, and playing that character and what it felt like and you’re kind of always learning on this job.
So occasionally I think what you can do is be like, “Oh, I can equate this back to that. Or I can remember seeing this person do this scene, and that could be similar to this.” So I guess you’re always picking up bits of information and carrying them forward, but not necessarily.
What about on the opposite? How much of your personal life and who you are finds its way into how you play a character?
That’s also tricky because I’m not someone who … I try not to allow it to do that at all, essentially. I’m not someone who’s like in scenes thinking about my own memories or life to try and prompt emotions within the scene. It’s very much acting, but it’s also one of those things whereby everything you do in life is something that informs what you then do on screen, I guess. So it’s whether a newspaper article you’ve read or a song you’ve heard, or a film that you’ve watched or a conversation that you had, maybe 10 years prior, like suddenly you see something in a script and it clicks and it reminds you of that memory. And you go, “Oh, that’s something that I understand because of that.” So I think it’s always something, as an actor, well it’s good in life, just to be able to kind of always keep speaking to new people and learning new things and skills or whatever it might be, because you never know when they might end up being useful on set, I guess. Or for a character.
I chatted with Renee Zellweger last summer, and she said that part of the break that she took was to live some life experiences instead of just pretending to on screen. But also so that she could take those new experiences and then bring them back into her future performances; it was twofold for her. Which is not something I had not heard before from an actor and I thought was kind of fascinating.
Yeah. No, it’s completely that. If you’re living set to set in a bubble, you can’t, in theory, have a good viewpoint of the world. You just run out with stuff to say eventually, don’t you? Because you’re not having those experiences or that energy and motivation, whatever it is, to kind of tell stories, in a way.
I’m not sure if you saw the response to the actors on actors chat, between you and Paul Mescal, but it really, really set the Twittersphere on fire.
Oh yeah? Okay.
There was fan art and thirst tweets and people referring to you as “our boyfriends” and saying things like, “Find someone who looks at you the way that Paul Mescal looks at Nicholas Hoult.”
Oh wow, okay. I really enjoyed that chat because I loved watching Normal People and it’s fascinating to then try and, from my standpoint, to just understand what it was like on that set and how it was, how they created it, and what Paul was doing. Because, as actors, we’re kind of always learning from … you’re always watching other people and kind of learning from them. So for me, I was like, “Oh, this is a great opportunity for me just to learn from him and kind of steal all the tips I can.”
It was a really fun chat, and really popular.
Before we close out, it was recently announced that the show got renewed for a second season.
Yeah. Woo hoo.
Yes. Huge congratulations there.
Yeah, thank you.
I think everybody’s very, very excited. We’ll have more ‘Huzzah’ drinking games for season two.
Yeah. Many more huzzahs to come.
Indeed. What do you think the second season for The Great might look like? Where do you think that it’s going to take Peter and Catherine?
I’m not sure. I do have an inkling from speaking to Tony and there are some really fun ideas and very different things to try. And that’s what I think is great about the show is it kind of never quite goes where you expect. And the thing that he’s excited about unpacking as well is this young girl who goes to Russia and takes over the throne and usurps power and all these things, but where that comes from and how difficult that is to achieve. I don’t think Elle or I were expecting to leave this series where we did exactly. I’m very happy where it ended, but I think it leaves a lot of room within this second season to explore that relationship more, but also the dynamic. It leaves so many things open.
I think there’s a lot of fun to be had and I know Tony’s got some great ideas. I don’t want to go into them too much, but in theory, at the end of that last episode, the coup had failed, she was locked up, but also her baby Paul was on the way to look forward.
Yeah, there’s a lot to look forward to.
So who knows? Anything could happen. And that’s going to be the great thing for me, is like through the first series, receiving the new scripts, it was genuinely a really exciting thing. It felt like back when you were waiting for the new Harry Potter book to come out, you know what I mean? It felt like that but with new scripts. So now that we’ve got the go ahead to start again I’m like “Great. I can wait with bated breath for what’s to come next season.”
Excellent. I think we’re all excited for that. Nicholas, thank you so much for taking some time and talking with me today.
Thank you for taking the time. I appreciate it. Have a great afternoon. Take care.
Nicholas Hoult is Emmy eligible for Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for The Great, where all episodes are available to stream on Hulu.