I am rarely nervous before interviews. Sure, I’ll stress out about what questions to ask with my typically limited time; in a press junket setting, 5 minutes translates to 4 minutes, which translates to only two or three questions if you’re lucky. So, naturally, when the folks from Jaguar asked me if I wanted to spend 45 minutes tooling around downtown Austin with Nicholas Hoult in a bright orange Jaguar F-Type, I leaped at the opportunity. Who wouldn’t want to hang out with the star of movies like X-Men: First Class, Warm Bodies, and the upcoming Mad Max: Fury Road? And in a car that I would likely never be able to afford, no less? As Jack Kirby or Stan Lee might say, “‘Nuff said.”
At 25 years old, Hoult is just entering into the prime of his career. After star-making turns in massive summer blockbusters like X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past, Hoult is increasingly in-demand. In addition to appearing in 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse and George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road this year, he is also starring in another film about a high-speed chase, the aptly named Autobahn, alongside Felicity Jones. Plus, he has a black comedy about the Britpop music craze called Kill Your Friends and Equals, a sci-fi love story opposite Kristen Stewart, as well. In short, you’ll be seeing an awful lot of him on the big screen over the next two years. In the meantime, though, Hoult has been popping up on the small screen in Jaguar’s ongoing series of commercials starring popular British actors as supervillains.
Unlike those insipid Kia hamsters, these car commercials are actually watchable. Past commercials in the “British Villains” series have enlisted the likes of Tom Hiddleston, Gary Oldman, and Mark Strong as supervillains who rely on Jaguar to help them do their dirty work because, after all, it’s good to be bad. Hoult plays the evil Q to their James Bonds, the mastermind behind the highly advanced Jaguar technology they rely on for whatever evil schemes they may need to perpetrate. Plus, everything sounds a little bit more trustworthy when it’s said in a British accent. Though I know they’re still tying to sell cars, the commercials feel almost like short films hinting at a larger cinematic universe. If you’re reading this Jaguar, maybe consider financing your own spy thriller; you can subtly sell people luxury cars while making a murderer’s row of excellent British actors commit acts of villainy on the big screen.
I had actually met Hoult two years prior while doing interviews for the zombie rom-com (zom-com?) Warm Bodies. Fresh off of X-Men: First Class, the young actor was a hot commodity, transitioning gracefully into a leading man nearly a decade after he charmed the pants off of viewers worldwide as precocious tween Marcus Brewer in About a Boy. While our interaction was friendly, it was distant — something that is commonplace in a press junket setting in which actors are forced to sit in the same sweltering hotel room all day long answering the same 5 or 6 questions as a parade of journalists shuffle in and out. It’s a necessary but taxing part of an actor’s job, but you get the distinct sense that you’re not talking to the real version of a person; rather, you’re speaking with the media-trained, PR-friendly version of an actor who is there to promote their latest work.
With that in mind, I was curious as to how spending 45 minutes together, alone in a two-seat Jaguar convertible would be. Would it be awkward? Excruciating? Tense? Thankfully, all of my fears were assuaged once I met Hoult in the lobby of the J.W. Marriott Hotel beforehand. Dressed in a crisp white t-shirt, a green flight jacket, and jeans, he was immediately welcoming. I could tell that he was a little apprehensive about the interview as well, but we soon established an easy rapport. “What if I crash the car?” he asked me jokingly. “It’s okay, I have health insurance,” I shot back. The wall of tension was gone, and we strolled out into the bright Austin sunlight to find out ride. As it turns out, a bright orange Jaguar F-Type is hard to miss amidst a sea of black SUVs.
I was a little awestruck, actually, something that Hoult picked up on. I told Hoult that it was actually my first time in a Jaguar, which caught him off-guard. “You’ve never been in a Jaguar?” he asked. No — back in Los Angeles, the nicest car I had been inside of was the one time a BMW 7-Series showed up when I called an UberX. In fact, my car — a hand-me-down ’97 Nissan Maxima — was on its last legs, meaning that I would soon be forced to go through that godawful gauntlet known as buying a new car. While I would much prefer to buy myself a Jaguar, I told Hoult I was more likely looking at something more in my price range, like a Honda Civic.
Pushing the F-Type’s start button, the engine roars to life. Well, roars is a bit of an exaggeration; the car was surprisingly quiet. We’d be following a leader car on a little tour around the city, which was fine by me. “Do you ever watch Top Gear?” he asked me, shifting into drive and pulling away from the hotel. Before all of this Jeremy Clarkson drama, I did on occasion watch the show. Suddenly it clicked. “Didn’t you get to ride on the track?” I asked him. “I was doing that the other week, yeah,” he told me. “It was a lot of fun, but we were in a Honda Civic for that.”
I remarked that Civics had good handling, and Hoult nodded. On the Top Gear course though, things are slightly different. “They’ve got a roll cage in it, obviously in case someone screws up, so it doesn’t roll too bad,” he said. “But the best thing was they had one of these–the coupe, the V8 of this, and they were testing it down there that day. The hidden driver, he took me out in this, and floored it around the track. He was flying, right? We were sideways going round–because the other tracks were control–going sideways around corners.”
“He taught me how to go around the track with the other car, and he’d be like ‘All right, this is your breaking point,’ blah, blah, blah. And it’d be like 50 yards before the corner, and you’d be slamming on the brake. You were going so fast, he was smashing the brakes at 150 yards before we were in the Honda, just dragging it. It was so much fun! It’s amazing to see what these things are actually capable of.”
As he described his experience on the track, Hoult grew more and more animated. You can tell he really loves being behind the wheel, especially in something like the Jaguar. Unfortunately, the traffic at SXSW meant that we couldn’t really put the pedal to the metal. “Most of the time, you don’t ever get to drive like these things are built to handle,” Hoult remarked. “The car’s ability is usually way more than the driver’s.” He actually looked a little bit sad as he lamented that we’d never really be to put the car through its paces today. “You get one of these and you know you’ll never be able to go at top speed. It’s not possible,” he told me matter-of-factly.
Suddenly, I remembered that I was supposed to be interviewing Hoult about his various projects. Almost simultaneously, the road in front of us opened up for about 100 yards, and Hoult wasted no time in taking advantage. A powerful rumble erupted from the engine as the car sprung forward with a sudden burst of speed. It was both startling and thrilling, and made me wish that we could take the car to a closed course rather than deal with downtown Austin traffic.
Though he is an ambassador for the company, I was curious as to how long Hoult had actually been a Jaguar drive. “Only for the last year and a half,” he said. “I was doing this film called Autobahn, and in that, my character basically, he’s trying to save his girlfriend, who is played by Felicity Jones. And then he messes up terribly–it all goes wrong. He’s trying to get money to pay for this operation she needs, it goes horribly wrong, and then Anthony Hopkins is trying to kill him–he’s trying to kill everybody. It’s a nightmare. It’s all gone wrong. And I’m tooling it around the autobahn in Germany, trying to get away, trying to save her,” he continues. “In that, I get to drive a [Jaguar] F5 and an XK,” he said with a grin.
In order to prepare for his role in the film, they took him to a driving course in Finland where professional drivers took him on high-speed treks through forests, snow, and across frozen lakes. Yes, you read that right — frozen lakes. “It was really fun, but kind of scary,” Hoult admitted. “I’ve driven since I was 17. I’m not a great driver, but I know my limits” Reassuring words to hear from a guy who is driving you around, I suppose. With that, I felt another burst of acceleration as we tried to catch up with the lead car.
So, what’s that experience of driving on a frozen lake actually like? “You know, the slightly odd thing is you can hear the ice cracking under the weight,” Hoult said. “It’s taking the strain. At first you’re like, “This doesn’t make any sense,” but all the the Finns are like, ‘Oh, that’s fine! You can go out and do that.’ But it’s a real test of handling, because we were doing figure of eights, and drifting the whole time, so you’d be in one of these, but trying to get the back end out with the throttle and the steering. It’s more about the throttle control, which is bizarre. It’s quite a driving experience.”
I could only imagine. The closest I’ve come to an experience like that is growing up in the Boston area, and dealing with black ice on the roads after a storm. So driving there–you’re just driving down a street, and like, I’m just going to take a turn, and suddenly you feel your back end whipping around, and you’ve got to compensate.
As we drive around the outskirts of the city, we somehow find ourselves in even more traffic. “You know,” Hoult told me, “this does nought to 60 in under 5 seconds.” I pondered the implications of that statement. By this point, people had merged in front of us, obscuring our view of the car we’re supposed to be following. “Do you know where we’re going to go?” Hoult asked me. “Are they taking us into the woods?” While it would be the perfect crime, as it turns out, we were making a giant loop around the city.
Pulling up to a stoplight, Hoult asked me if I thought he could make it as a driver; I told him yes, absolutely. I would definitely enlist his services. Although I saw him as more of a Jason Statham/The Transporter type rather than a mere livery. “Whenever I have to get you somewhere, I drive like your life depends upon it. It’s like, ‘Hey, no. I’m just heading to the shops. Will you chill out?'” “You made great time, but there were so many explosions,” I replied. “‘You killed a lot of people.’ ‘Yeah, but I got you there.'” he shot back in his best tough-guy voice.
Between Autobahn and Mad Max, it seems like Hoult has been doing a lot of driving lately. He told me that, ever since he was a child, he has been obssessed with cars. Despite that obsession, he isn’t particularly handy when it comes to mechanical matters. “I’m absolutely useless under the hood,” he said with a laugh. “I did build a model engine for Mad Max, because my dad is really good at that. He’s built cars and knows what’s going on. I said to him I’m doing one of these car movies, and I don’t really understand. So now I understand the concept. I understand how it all works.”
Hoult pressed the gas pedal again, harder this time, and the car screamed forward with a deeply satisfying roar of the engine. “This is in normal mode,” he said. Wait, normal mode? What else is there? Nitrous like in a Fast and Furious movie? Hoult pointed to a button on the dashboard, pushing it and explaining that “they get so serious when you put it into this mode–all [the dashboard] lights up red. It’s like you are in the danger zone.” I observe that it should start playing the Kenny Loggins song too. “I’ll put in back on normal,” Hoult said, looking over his shoulders. “I don’t want to get arrested. That would be so embarrassing. Locked up abroad.” Again, we played through a silly scenario that culminated in the two of us getting tased after a high-speed chase.
As a fan of old Steve McQueen car movies and the original Mad Max, Hoult was champing at the bit when the opportunity to audition for Fury Road came up. Still, joining an iconic franchise some 30 yeas after the last one hit theaters with a director like George Miller at the helm isn’t your average assignment.
“It was different right from the beginning,” Hoult explained, “when we did the audition.” For his audition, he chose to do a scene from Network. Not just any scene. The scene. Peter Finch’s “I’m mad as hell” speech, which is one of the best monologues ever committed to film. The gambit paid off though, and Hoult made it through to the next round: a work session with George Miller and another actress. All in all, it lasted four hours, with Miller leading them through various acting games, exercises, and a few scenes that weren’t actually in the movie, but were close to what might be in Fury Road.
Hoult left the audition with a sense of clarity. “I walked out of the audition, and I thought, you know what? Even if I don’t get the part in that film, I had the best experience working with him as a director,” he said. “I’ve learned so much, just from an audition. And then there was no script, essentially. There was like a 300 page comic book. I had to go to a lawyer’s office in LA to sit and read it in there. They were keeping it so secret.”
That level of detail is par for the course with Miller, who would furiously scribble storyboards late into the night for the next day’s shoot while making the first Mad Max films. On set, was no different. While Hoult was in make-up, going through a process of trying to nail down the final look, Miller would describe the character’s backstory to him. “He would describe every day of your character’s life,” Hoult explained. “Not every day, but every moment, every significant moment of your character’s life up until the moment of the film’s start. Your parents, why you’re here, how you’re doing this, how you got sick, how you became–my character is one of the most pursued drivers, who has managed to drive again, to drive one of his master’s cars.”
If it sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. But, for Hoult, he wouldn’t have it any other way. “When you’ve got that much information and history and everything from your director, it kind of makes your job easy,” he told me. “And then you get put into this wild world where you’re in the middle of the desert, with hundreds of these amazingly individually-designed vehicles that all look so very crazy cool, driving in my armada across the desert, and all these V8’s pull up around you, and stuff like that. You can’t hear anything because it’s so loud, and you can’t see enough to be sure when you’re meant to be doing the scene. You’re like, ‘Oh God! AHH!! AAHHH!!!’ And then you get chills–it’s really exciting.”
Hoult got quiet for a moment before smiling and nodding. “It is nuts,” he said “but my job is quite cool!” Talk about an understatement.
The lead car has just changed lanes, leaving us with a stretch of open road before us. “This is where we lose them,” Hoult said with a mischevious look. “We’ll never see them again. We’ll drive off, and suddenly we’re in Mexico.”
“Well, we’re going to start new lives,” I replied, ready to bid Nerdist adieu for a life on the lam.
“It’s just you and me now. And it turns our we’re smugglers. I didn’t tell you about that.”
“I was wondering about that person in the trunk.”
“That water that we gave you before?
“Full of peyote?”
“You’re pretty sleepy, aren’t you?”
“Hey, why are you a mass of tentacles and stars?”
Coming back down to Earth, I told Hoult how it blows my mind that the same guy who brought the world Mad Max is also the guy who brought the world Babe.
“That’s what I mean,” Hoult said. “He’s just an incredible–he is a genius, I genuinely think it. And also, he paid for, he financed a lot of the first part of Mad Max by being an emergency room doctor.”
Without, another driver cut us off, merging into our lane without using a turn signal — a huge pet peeve of mine. It prompted Hoult to bring up some of the wackier things he’s seen while driving around, including someone who was reading a book while driving.
“Those are not two things that go together, reading and driving,” Hoult says incredulously. “I get it, you’re having a sip of water. So you’re sitting at home, you’re reading your book, and you’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve got three pages till the end of the chapter. I’ve got to go to work. I’m going to be later. Should I wait for these few pages? No, you know what? I’m going to combine two things technically completely apart.”
Driving past a small bar just south of downtown Austin, there was a big piece of knitted wool stretching between two trees. “I think they call that knit bombing,” Hoult observed. “You knit stuff, and then you wrap it around things. There’s some really interesting stuff if you go online, people wrapping tanks in knitting and stuff. It looks amazing.”
When I was doing research for the interview, I came across multiple Hoult fans on Twitter who mentioned that he was an avid knitter himself. “Do you knit at all?” I asked him. “I do,” he said plainly. “I learned to do it on the Mad Max set. One of the make-up artists was doing it, and I was like, let me have a go at that. How does that even work? I don’t understand it. So I learned how to do it. And that’s what I do when we’re hanging around on set.”
So what sort of homemade knitwear can Hoult manufacture? “I’ve made hats,” he explained, “and then somebody taught me how to make the baubles for the hats. So I make hats with baubles. I was pretty happy with it. It’s pretty damn cool.” Considering that I can barely sew a button back on a shirt, I’d say that, yeah, it is petty damn cool.
But high-octane, automobile chase-filled thrillers aren’t the only things that Hoult has coming down the pipeline. He recently wrapped production on a sci-fi love story called Equals, which he filmed in Japan and Singapore. Directed by Drake Doremus (Like Crazy) and written by Nathan Parker (Moon), the story takes place in a utopian future where mankind has been genetically modified to the point where they no longer have emotions. “In the past, human error and pride and all those things kind of destroyed the world, because we went nuts,” Hoult elaborated. “So now everyone works together to kind of—there is space travel, and everything’s very serene. But there’s this thing called ‘switched-on syndrome’ which essentially, occasionally people get a little bit wrong, and they start to feel things.”
Both Hoult’s character and his romantic co-lead Kristen Stewart’s character come down with “switched-on syndrome”. One thing leads to another between the two, and they soon find themselves on the wrong side of the law. It all sounds like it has a very 1984 or Brave New World vibe to it. As for working with Stewart, Hoult had nothing but glowing things to say. “She’s a real artist, you know,” he told me. “Even though she’s famous, she’s smart. So it’s like, to work with those two, to get the chance, it was pretty inspiring.”
Finally, the lead car pulled off to the side of the road in front of a chic gastropub that has been redecorated as the “The Boffin’s Lab”, a mobile version of Hoult’s character’s secret design lab where he makes Jaguars for a wide variety of British supervillains. “We made it!” he exclaimed. “No one got hurt. Perfect!” All told, we had been in the car for about 45 minutes and change. It was a smooth ride, thanks in part to Hoult’s driving ability, but also because the car was really, really nice. Seriously, if you can afford a bright orange Jaguar, I highly recommend it because it was a lot of fun. You may have to pay a little bit more for Hoult, but I’m fairly certain he is available as one of the upgrades.
Stepping outside of the car, we bid each other farewell, and our trip came to an end. We shook hands, and he was escorted inside the event space by a throng of PR reps. I stood there for a few moments taking it all in and staring at the Jaguar, and finally came to a decision: from henceforth, all interviews should take place tooling around major metropolitan areas in high-end luxury cars. If you are a major car manufacturer and/or a film star with a sweet whip, you know where to find me — and I make a great passenger. Don’t believe me? Just ask Nicholas Hoult.
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