Maybe you’ve read one of his famous books, maybe you’ve read them all, or maybe you’ve just seen the film’s based on his work… no matter what, it is tough to find anyone out there, who has never heard of J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings was groundbreaking at its time, taking the atmospheres and feelings of classic works such as Beowulf and presenting the stories in a more palpable, world-reaching container. Skip forward 50 years, and the film adaptations of the book became the standard for grand scale filmmaking and special effects epics set in the realm of high fantasy. Yet just a miniscule portion of fans of either his books or the movies they inspired, including The Hobbit trilogy, know the background of J.R.R. Tolkien.
The new biopic about the legendary storyteller and professor, Tolkien, stars Nicholas Hoult and Lily James and touches on many of the important and meaningful portions of the author’s young life, all while whisking in some of the people, places, and creatures that inhabit the worlds he’d go on to create. Though don’t be fooled… while it can be easy to fall into the trap, the film stays clear of trying to pinpoint every exact moment in Tolkien’s life he gained a particular inspiration for moments in his text. Hoult, who portrays the film’s subject matter as a young scholar in love with a girl while being pulled away by his great expectations as a scholar—and the impending doom of the First World War—was kind enough to sit down with us to talk about what it is like to portray a man of such well known stature and importance.
Unless they are Tolkien historians, most people just think of him as that picture of an older man, a lot of times seen with a pipe. Was it hard for you to get over any preconceived notions you might have had about him?
I really didn’t have that many preconceived notions. It was one of those mad things that when I read the script, I suddenly realized that I cherished his stories and the mythology he created, but I didn’t know anything about him or where they stemmed from. So to read this and learn about his childhood, and when he was a young man—those friendships and relationships that then sparked his imagination and creativity, and gave him that space to come up with those stories—I was really inspired and loved the story.
Well, talking about those images he created; in the sections of the film that are during The Great War, we see a lot of romanticized ideas of what he may see out there, and it certainly isn’t what he is thinking about in the moment, but what are you reacting to in those sections? Is it more about the war, or what the script is trying to paint?
It’s a mix, because the war-like elements of it, [director Dome [Karukoski] had these wonderful ideas in terms of—you know a lot of the images we see of World War I are these black and white propaganda images. His inspiration was the colors that would be intertwined, but also, the true reality of it, which is horrific. And then Tolkien suffered from trench fever. So it was one of those things to have those slightly hallucinatory elements embedded into this very realistic war tone, [it] was something I thought was very cinematic and wonderful. There’s this odd thing where you’re playing it very real—and the sets they built were so realistic that you’d be in this very visceral environment, but it would also be with a slight twist of the imagination of what was happening.
For a film like this, yes it is based on real people, but it is ultimately just a story about friendship and love.
Is that mainly what you were drawn to?
Completely, I think it is one of those things where by; as a fan, I love to see where it all came from and learn about the man. But also, at the same time, it was something that if you read that script, you’d see it as a story that stand alone in terms of the young orphan finding love and friendship, and the space to create. It’s an inspiration. so that is what I loved about it.
I don’t want to take away from anyone else in the film, but it must be wonderful to spend any amount of time with Derek Jacobi.
Yeah, we were so fortunate to have him be a part of this. And also Professor Wright [played by Jacobi], who was Tolkien’s professor at Oxford, and Tolkien later took on that same position later on, to see that character and that person that pushed him, and also saved him—you know he was on the verge of being kicked out of Oxford and his life would have taken a very different course. So to find someone to find and nurture that talent, and then have Derek Jacobi on set to bring him to life, was brilliant.
It almost feels like everyone in his life was there to nurture those feelings. Not that he could not have done anything on his own, but he needed that push from everybody.
Yeah, completely. I think that is the same with anybody who does great things in life. When you go back and you map out the influences and ideas, and the people who made it possible—yeah, that’s what this story is all about.
I’m kind of interested to know, with all of the people that you’ve worked with, and of course you have tremendous talent of your own, but do you ever find that you’ve picked up affectations of them, portraying them in any way?
I’ll tell you, the only reason I ask, and it has been so long, so I don’t even see why there is reason for this to be… but when you’re talking to Edith on the beach before you deploy, it was a little Hugh Grant-ish, to me.
Maybe—yeah, there is probably some—I mean, certainly working with him when I was at that age, he’s certainly someone that I look up to in terms of his work ethic, how he treats people. It was a great first influence when I was working with him, so maybe I’ve taken on board a few little things.