Nicholas Hoult on Tolkien: ‘It’s an origin story’

Den of Geek catches up with star Nicholas Hoult to talk about bringing the Hobbit creator's early years to life on screen

“I grew up with Tolkien’s work. It was a big part of my life. I was a fan. But I didn’t know anything about him. And then this script came through and I was like, ‘Hang on a minute…’”

Nicholas Hoult isn’t alone. First published in 1937, The Hobbit – along with its bigger three-part cousin, The Lord Of The Rings (1954-55) – has been a staple of fantasy-lovers’ formative reading lists for almost a century. The appetite for JRR Tolkien’s mythology shows no sign of stopping, either, what with a new big-budget LOTR prequel series in development at Amazon and a Gollum-focused videogame on the way.

What of the man himself, though? Nowadays, thanks to the age of new media, we know pretty much everything there is to know about our pop-culture heroes. But many of Tolkien’s modern fans likely won’t know much about the creator of their beloved Middle-earth. Luckily, that’s where Tolkien comes in.

Eschewing the traditional biopic route, the film goes back and forth in time, narrowing in on John Ronald (Hoult) at key points throughout his earlier life – from a childhood tragedy to the ups and downs of his teenage years, from the grand halls of Oxford University to the horror-filled trenches of the First World War. Throughout all this, he experiences loss, love (with Lily Collins’ Edith) and, yes, fellowship, thanks to his three best friends – a group known as the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (or the TCBS for short).

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Throughout all this, the film smartly weaves Tolkien’s Hobbit-y inspirations into the narrative, showing just how much of himself the writer put into his global bestseller.

“It was one of those things where I read the script, and I was like, ‘If this is all true, it’s remarkable, in terms of what he’s experienced, and where the mythology that he created stemmed from,’ Hoult tells Den of Geek. “I just loved that. Regardless of it being about the man who created all these things that we love, this is just a great story about love and friendship and this young orphan boy finding his passion and his way in the world.”

Here, Hoult talks Den of Geek through his experience of making the film and why Tolkien’s story is still relevant today.

Being a Tolkien fan, did you feel any pressure taking on that kind of legacy?

Yeah, of course. You want to be respectful and honour the person. The pressure, oddly, mounts as well. First of all, you just read the script, and you really like it. And then you slowly start to research and read and learn more about them. And then you can feel that you’re getting closer and closer to the person, and have more of an understanding and knowledge of them. And then you care more and more. So it kind of mounts to this point where you’re like… It’s quite overwhelming at a certain moment. And then, you have to just…do it. You can’t let it overwhelm and stifle you.

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It’s quite interesting to see Tolkien’s influences on The Hobbit played out in such a visual way. Was that something that appealed to you?

Yeah. That was something that was so wonderful in the script, in terms of it not being a straight biopic. I liked the fact that it was focused on those formative years, on the early part of his life. And then also the fact that it’s very cinematic in terms of… You know, obviously, his imagination is something that we can’t even begin to fathom or fully interpret. But through the film, we can kind of, perhaps, begin to try to pinpoint roughly where those ideas might have stemmed from. And that’s what I really loved about it: the elements of that were really intertwined beautifully so that it’s not just a straight period drama.

It must have been interesting to film, because there are parts of it that are more period drama and then you’ve got these harrowing war-movie scenes, too…

Yeah, it’s interesting, because reading the script they blended together beautifully, but when you’re filming, you shoot them in blocks. It felt almost like three different movies, in a way. We had part of the shoot in Liverpool, and then we went to Oxford for a week, which was incredible – to be there, walking in the footsteps of Tolkien, because he was a professor there and studied there, and going to The Eagle And Child, the pub that he used to drink at. I felt close to where and how he would be living.

And then we finished with two weeks in these trenches, this incredible set that had been built. And yeah, they feel like very different— and obviously, it’s all the same character and the same story, but they feel like separate stories within that as well. I guess that’s just life, isn’t it? With anybody’s life, you have these separate little stories going on.

It gives you a window into someone who’s had such an influence on pop culture in the years since – even things like Game of Thrones probably wouldn’t exist without Tolkien’s work…

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Yeah, I think that George R.R. Martin was heavily influenced by it. Actually, I think he’s doing the Q&A at a screening in LA next week, so I’m looking forward to meeting him and seeing what influenced him. That’s the thing: I guess that Tolkien ultimately felt like Britain didn’t have its own mythology. He felt like Norse countries, Greek mythology… All these countries had their heritage and their stories steeped in their history. He didn’t feel like Britain had that. So he wanted to create that for us, and he did a damn good job of it.

The film is set almost 100 years ago, and a lot of it takes place in and around privileged settings like Oxford University. Why do you think this movie is relevant to moviegoers today?

It’s an interesting comment, because that’s something that I was trying to play with a little bit in terms of the character. It’s like, yeah, he lost his parents. He lost his dad at a young age, and his mum passed away when he was young as well. So he was orphaned and not privileged at all. Luckily, a priest, who was a benefactor, got him through school and all these things. But he wasn’t privileged.

It’s difficult, because in that era, the clothes and the way people speak would make it seem from an outside viewpoint, or to our modern eyes, like they are very affluent. So it was quite an interesting thing, trying to slightly soften the way the accent would sound, or to have clothes that were still smart and of the era, but not made of the finest fabrics, and things like that – so that you don’t feel like he is very privileged.

But in terms of how it’s relevant today, the core themes of the movie are basically, you know, love and friendship and being made to grow up very quickly at a young age, but still being able to find your place and creativity. And also the loss of war and all those things. Those are all things that will outlive all of us.

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Was there anything that surprised you about Tolkien’s story?

The whole thing surprised me, to be honest with you, because I really didn’t know about him. I was surprised that he stole a bus. Being arrested for stealing a bus… I was like, “That’s not something that you expect from this man.” Particularly when you see interviews with the elder gentleman and the professor. You’re kind of like, “Oh, that’s not quite in line with what I had imagined.” That, and also his love of language, and the idea that it all stemmed from wanting to create languages. That was something I found really interesting.

In terms of this film – and obviously, it’s very different to your next film that’s coming out, X-Men: Dark Phoenix – is it important for you keep doing the smaller movies as well as the bigger movies?

Yeah. I really try not to repeat myself, or to do things that are similar. And that’s just what I love about acting. I’m trying to disappear into characters or worlds, and variety is what keeps it interesting for me – and hopefully for anyone watching.

In terms of Tolkien, what do you think that fans of Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit are going to take from this?

It depends. For the fans that know all their stuff, I think it’ll be fun to see how it’s weaved together and intertwined. But for a lot of people, it will be a new story, and things that they don’t know. So that’s what’s exciting about it. It’s kind of suddenly realising that all of these things that you’ve seen and know and are fully aware of… It’s being like, “Oh, that’s where it came from.” I guess it’s an origin story.

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Tolkien is in cinemas now.