Nearly nine years ago, Nicholas Hoult gave a series of interviews. They all followed a similar template: remember the kooky, pudding-bowl kid from About a Boy? He’s grown up, got hot and is about to star in some new series called Skins. He’s also, most pointed out, very amiable and polite, at 17 still a little gauche beneath the cheekbones – a nice Wokingham lad.
I wrote one of these. I remember Hoult was ever so excited to have just bought a moped, which he used to get to and from sixth form college. His mum – who had packed him cheese and ham sandwiches to take along for the day – was more sceptical.
So it’s hard to imagine the unhappiness of Mrs Hoult after her son was cast in Mad Max: Fury Road – eight months in the Namibian desert hanging off exploding lorries, told not to move lest his head come off. The watchword of George Miller’s movie is verisimilitude; CGI sneered at for all but tweaks. As critics have observed, the fear on Hoult’s face is pretty convincing.
In fact, the experience helped exorcise his petrolphilia. Just as gearheads round the world get revved up over the rigs, he says his motoring mania is behind him. “I’ve grown out of it. OK: a great car does have a little bit of a soul to it. There can be something special about the noise of it. But I’m no longer obsessed.”
Instead, Hoult speaks knowledgeably about daytime TV – in particular Homes Under the Hammer, Wanted Down Under and Come Dine With Me – and with studenty enthusiasm about food: “When I fall asleep I’m thinking about breakfast and then after breakfast it’s lunch and then it’s dinnertime with snacks in between.” At 25, then, he remains appealingly suburban despite the glam location (beach cabana at the Hotel du Cap, Cannes’s most exclusive) and rising star status (X-Men, Clash of the Titans, Jack the Giant Slayer, Jennifer Lawrence’s ex). The guns are more pumped, the giggle less nervous, but Hoult is still a genuine sweetie.
Likewise his Mad Max character, Nux, despite being a psychotic, terminally ill slave whose bald chalky skin is covered in tumours and a massive chest tattoo of a carbolic engine (he spent two hours in makeup each morning). Tom Hardy has said he channelled a wolf to play barking Max; for Nux, Hoult opted for a puppy: “He’s very enthusiastic and committed and affectionate but also kind of clumsy.” Species? He thinks a labrador, but retracts when he twigs it’s probably just because of the ads (“This film was inspired by loo roll”). “Maybe a German Shepherd. He does have some bite.”
Indeed. Nux is, in fact, a suicide bomber of sorts, whose worship of the great wheezy leader, Immortan Joe (the movie is set in a ravaged post-apocalyptic future 45 years hence), means he dreams only of a “historic death” in which he will reach Valhalla through an act of homicidal martyrdom. Luckily Max, who Nux initially co-opts as a portable bloodbank, intervenes, alongside Charlize Theron’s one-armed freedom fighter.
When Miller wrote the script in 1999, he conceived of Hoult’s character as a quasi kamikaze pilot. Then the film got stuck in development hell after the dollar crashed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Today, he’s careful not to be drawn too far on the contemporary echoes. The concept of a glorious battle death resulting in entry to warrior paradise is age-old, he says. “Now we have another rendering of that, but it’s been a constant” while Joe’s kingdom is, “like all cults, invented to get people to die on your behalf”. Theron, too, steers clear of generalisation. “Everybody’s looking for a sliver of hope and for most of these boys that’s the only thing they have. That’s where their worth is. Very much a reflection of what’s going on in the world.”
Hoult, however, concedes the radicalism more freely. “It’s certainly I think the first time that a film of this scale has humanised those sorts of characters. You do actually, hopefully, relate to him. He hasn’t experienced a lot of things – and the second someone opens his eyes up to a different world and shows him a bit of kindness he changes. Before that he’s got nothing else to believe in.”
The conditions of the shoot encouraged indoctrination. Every morning the actor playing Joe would preach to 150 of the cast and stunt team at the gym, running through nursery rhymes and have everyone pray to him. “There was a kind of a culty thing going on behind the scenes, and you saw that transmorph onto set. So I’m sitting in my car and the engines are rumbling around you and the war drums are getting beaten on the truck next door, and there’s 100 guys in makeup and costumes really fired up. And that does make the hairs on your arms stand up a bit.”
He sips his Coke, apologises for any belching. “I don’t know if this is a bad thing or a good thing, but I don’t have anything in my life in which I believe so strongly that I would [die for it]. I’m not particularly religious in any sense. George would say: “This, for you, is scoring a goal in the World Cup final.” And I was like: “Right, OK, thanks for breaking it down simple.”
Hoult beams away, bouncy beneath some mockney self-deprecation. Yes, he says, he too wants an exceptional life. “Not in an extreme way. I don’t think there’s anything exceptional about me but I’m lucky to live in a sphere of people who are quite exceptional.” He’s never thought of himself as a role model, he says, feels no pressure about such a possibility, only mild bafflement. “People shouldn’t look up to me. Everyone’s got to make their own mistakes and do their own thing.”
In 45 years, he’ll be Miller’s age and hopes to still be working, as well as “pottering on the golf course and chilling at home with the grandkids”. What about the possibility the world won’t support such a lifestyle? Might Mad Max’s cautionary moral contain something? “Well, you can’t help but worry. There’s so many great documentaries like Blackfish and Virunga and you sit there and you go: Blimey. We’re in a lot of trouble. I hope people stop it because I wouldn’t survive. There was a big team keeping us all alive. I wouldn’t last 10 seconds.”