About a man: how Nicholas Hoult survived child stardom
He's accustomed to the spotlight, having starred opposite Hugh Grant when he was just a boy, but Nicholas Hoult is all grown up now. The Hollywood-based Hoult tells Ciara O'Connor how he managed to stay sane and slightly aloof from celebrity, how it is to be a Berkshire boy in La-La Land, and how he's just a bit Irish
Nicholas Hoult has asked for a moment to think, because I've caught him off-guard with a question about his desert-island smells (in fairness, we are here to talk fragrance for Emporio Armani) and he is taking it very seriously indeed. He begins, "Yeah. I mean just anything being roasted or cooked. Fresh baked bread... that smells pretty good, doesn't it? Maybe a hint of rosemary."
"It's weird. It's kind of weirdly satisfying, and like... this isn't a smell, but like… clean-house smell? Like the hoovering's just been done, and you're like: 'Oh. This is great. Should've done that a long time ago'."
Nicholas Hoult and Italian actress and Alice Pagani star in the new Emporio Armani advertisement
"New car smells very good. That's always a nice one. I mean, you know, I don't get to smell that very often, but when you do... I think everyone appreciates that."
A pensive cock of the head, then he says, "You know what's really nice, actually? This isn't really a smell. You know, when you been, like, on a flight or you've been, like, having recycled air for a long time? And then you get out and just... crisp, fresh, cold air. It hasn't got a smell, but you can smell it. Heathrow on a cold morning, when you've just got off the plane. It's great."
There is little to suggest that I'm talking to an LA-dwelling movie star; getting Nicholas Hoult to acknowledge that he is, in fact, Nicholas Hoult, is surprisingly difficult.
He's quite sweet - which is not the word I expected to be using for the new face, along with Alice Pagani, of Emporio Armani's scent duo, Stronger With You Freeze for him, and In Love With You Freeze for her. His speech is peppered with 'ums', 'likes' and pauses; he starts and restarts sentences - especially if it's a question he hasn't answered a hundred times before. He is cautious, making sure he understands (and on occasion, perhaps, misunderstands) the question, and is very polite: he wants to get it right.
It's a demeanour somewhat at odds with the imposing figure sitting in front of me, all 6ft 3in of him, clad in perfectly cut black. At risk of sounding like a sexist old pervert, the weird-looking kid from About a Boy really has grown into a very handsome man: he's tall and broad and clean, all Hollywood cheekbones and blue eyes and reassuringly Berkshire eyebrows.
Indeed, it's those instantly recognisable brows that take up the first shot of his film for Emporio Armani's twin fragrances. It's telling, somehow, that he likes the fact that the 'for him' scent, Stronger With You Freeze, isn't overpowering; that, with smoky vanilla, it "wouldn't be weird" to smell it on a woman. His is not a hyper-masculinity, but a very contemporary one: it's softer, understated and thoughtful.
In the short film for the fragrance duo, he stars alongside actress and model Alice Pagani, the 21-year-old Italian whose CV is populated mostly by cool, subtitled indie flicks, and sprinkled with a successful Netflix Original, Baby. And it turns out that the five-day shoot for Emporio Armani, where the pair tease out a very physical love story in cars, baths, and on merry-go-rounds, was done with a significant language gap.
"But that was kind of a brilliant thing for us to work, because you're telling a story without dialogue, essentially in very small snippets; you have to focus in really on those little things that create that relationship, and tell it on the screen," Nicholas says.
Those little things include a lot of snogging and smouldering - a fairly unusual role in which to see Hoult. He has a face for romcoms, but whether as a hairy blue mutant in X-Men, a zombie, or the bewigged and made-up 18th-Century dandy in The Favourite, many of Hoult's box-office hits have featured him looking rather different to the man before me today.
Hoult has been in show business almost all his life. Brought up in Wokingham, an old town on the London commuter belt, the story goes that Nicholas was talent-spotted at the age of three while watching his brother in a play; the director was impressed at his ability to "concentrate well". He appeared in his first film a couple of years later.
At the age of 11, he was cast in 2002's About A Boy; he burst back into the popular imagination five years later, starring in the iconic hit TV show Skins as Tony Stonem - the character who represented the social and sexual awakening of every woman born at the start of the 1990s. The show's cult appeal endures, and teens today are still discovering it (and Hoult) on Netflix. From there, it was a short hop to A Single Man, with which Hoult broke America. In the 10 years since, he's worked on several films a year without pause.
Hoult defies typecasting, often appearing in outrageous, character-driven roles - and meeting the softly spoken man behind them makes me appreciate quite how good an actor he is. He just loves stories and doesn't mind what kind, as long as it's good.
Everyone from period-drama fans to sci-fi devotees will have seen him in action: he's a Marvel regular, as Beast in the X-Men series; and features in Mad Max: Fury Road; as well as more cerebral roles like writers JD Salinger in Rebel in the Rye, and JRR Tolkien in Tolkien. He's done countless smaller-budget indie labours of love as well as Oscar-baiters like The Favourite (Emma Stone has said she'd like to see a sequel centred on Hoult's character, Harley, in whom the comic timing we knew him for at the age of 11 is very much in evidence).
But he can't tell me what it is about him that accounts for the prodigious breadth of roles, or why directors want him. "I just try to, I guess, try and do different things," he says, wilfully misunderstanding.
Then, he suggests that it's because he has a good agent. Then, "I'm just great at lying to their faces that I can do it!" he laughs. "I don't really know, to be honest with you. It's weird, because you don't often find out why people cast you..." at which point he goes into sensationally subject-changing detail about unusual auditioning methodologies.
Finally: "I think, I think... I like... I like being directed. I like input and being told, 'try this' or 'do that'. I like doing that."
Nicholas Hoult may not wear his success lightly, but he didn't walk into fame and About a Boy ignorantly. "I knew it was a great thing to be a part of. And then you're learning from really talented people at the top of their game. I was also aware that like... I'm a kid, and everyone always talks to you about how these kid actors don't make it, so you're aware of that."
It's a euphemistic reference to the pitfalls of child stardom - Hoult is one of the few proper child actors who made it, utterly unscathed and seemingly entirely well-adjusted, to 30. But he didn't do it by being susceptible to Hollywood hokum. Any attempts to draw out LA celebrity nonsense are in vain. I ask him how he managed to escape the pitfalls of young stardom and he is momentarily baffled. If I was hoping to hear transcendental meditation or juicing or crystals, I'm disappointed.
"Well, it was just having good family, and friends around you, isn't it? People that don't let you go insane."
How? I ask.
"Well, most of the time you just have a pretty normal life, don't you? Yeah," he says softly. "You do…I mean, it's not like everything changes. You still just like, go back to school. It's just the normal stuff, most of the time."
Let's not forget, though, that Hoult went out with Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence for five years, and that his idea of the normal stuff is probably a world away from the guys he went to school with in Wokingham.
For Hoult, the idea of a single big break is a bit of a myth, you need to keep catching breaks to carry on working. "You just, you know, keep doing it. You wait and see. And then, yeah, you kind of work hard to hopefully create a bit of luck for yourself, and then get more breaks along the way. It's like... it's waves."
Hoult has been around the block. When I ask him about his recent 30th birthday - that millennial deadline for 'adulting', he says, "I wasn't like, 'Woah! Thirty'. But it's something definitely that when you say it, or people say it to you and stuff, it's... it's just different. You go, 'OK. That seems like more of an adult age'.''
Because between working solidly since he was 16, and becoming a father a couple of years ago, with his partner, Bryana Holly Bezlaj, a US model, Hoult has been adulting for a long time.
At the suggestion of this, he looks sideways and smiles. "Or maybe I'm just going the other way. I was, like, too grown-up for too long, so now I'll just regress," he says.
His resistance to celebrity BS, his wilful misunderstandings, modesty, meanderings and undeniable charm - there's something almost Irish about Nicholas Hoult.
"I think so! So, on my father's side... I can't remember exactly. I mean, I'm not good at all this family-tree stuff, but I have some Irish roots somewhere along the way. And when I did my 'percentage of heritage', I got more Irish than I expected, actually. I was very happy - eight or 12pc, let's say."
He deadpans: "That'll be on the internet forever."
Conversation descends into silly nonsense about getting the keys to Dublin, and dedicated parades. And talking wild imaginary hypotheticals, away from the subject of Nicholas Hoult, he finally relaxes.
British actor Nicholas Hoult is the new male ambassador for Emporio Armani empowering fragrances duo Stronger With You Freeze for him and In Love With You Freeze for her, available at select department stores and pharmacies nationwide