Look who's Tolkien: Nicholas Hoult on playing The Lord of the Rings creator

by Russell Baillie / 06 June, 2019
Formative years: Nicholas Hoult as JRR Tolkien. Photo/Supplied

Formative years: Nicholas Hoult as JRR Tolkien. Photo/Supplied

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Nicholas Hoult stars as JRR Tolkien in a biopic that contemplates how the writer’s early life may have influenced his adventures in Middle-earth.

Nicholas Hoult remembers reading The Hobbit. He was an 11-year-old on the set of About a Boy, in which he played Marcus, the awkward kid in the adaptation of Nick Hornby’s book, in what was his first major big-screen role. He was given a copy by one of the films’ two directors and devoured it between takes. About the same time, a certain Middle-earth movie series was kicking off – he loved those, too. He’d soon be staying late at school playing The Lord of the Rings trading-card game with his mates.

Now, 18 years and many movie roles later, Hoult’s latest film has a scene in which he picks up a pen and writes: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit …”

Hoult plays JRR Tolkien in Tolkien, a captivating and imaginative biopic about the author’s life until the early 1930s, when he began writing his first Middle-earth tale. Hoult may have read the books, seen the movies and played the card game, but he says he didn’t know anything about the man himself. “I was even mispronouncing his name – I was saying Tol-kine not Tol-keen.”

He knows quite a bit more about him now, having done a crash course on the life of the writer, a long-time Oxford professor whose study of ancient languages and mythology and gift for illustration were the foundation of his fantasy epics.

“It was a steep learning curve in terms of getting an understanding of him. But it was actually a real joy to go back and revisit his work by learning about his life and trying to line up the patterns and similarities and where the inspiration might have come from in those formative years – where those ideas and that imagination stemmed from.”

The English actor is talking to the Listener in a break from being a star attraction at Armageddon Wellington, where the autograph requests will be coming from fans of his X-Men superhero franchise character Hank McCoy/The Beast, the unhinged Nux of Mad Max: Fury Road, the love-struck zombie in Warm Bodies or his role in edgy teen British television drama Skins.

JRR Tolkien in the 1940s. Photo/Getty Images

More recently, he appeared in The Favourite as politician Robert Harley, a big Whig in a very big wig. He was one of few memorable male characters in the female-powered period black comedy, which won Olivia Colman an Oscar, among many accolades. Asked if The Favourite felt like it would be something special while making it, Hoult is equivocal.

“The ingredients were all there for it to be an interesting, original, good film, but, at the same time, you never quite know what the results will be. Sometimes you can make what you consider to be a good film and it just isn’t released at the right time, or it doesn’t get picked up in the right areas and it’s not part of the zeitgeist in terms of what people are feeling or thinking about. But it’s nice when it all works out right.” No, he didn’t keep the wig.

Studio connections from The Favourite put Hoult in the frame for the title role in Tolkien. The movie started with Irish playwright and screenwriter David Gleeson, who thought the early life of Tolkien might be the basis for a movie.

The job of making it was given to Finnish director Dome Karukoski whose previous film was the critical hit Tom of Finland, a biopic about the Finnish homoerotic artist Touko Laaksonen.

Karukoski has said that Tolkien’s knowledge of the Finnish language and mythology, and their apparent influence on his own work, attracted him to the idea. So, too, did the dramas in Tolkien’s early life. He was left an orphan at 12, graduated from Oxford at 23, fought in the Battle of the Somme at 24, and, at 28, became a professor at Leeds University, before returning to Oxford where he would spend the rest of his academic career.

Formative years: Nicholas Hoult as JRR Tolkien. Photo/Supplied

Formative years: Nicholas Hoult as JRR Tolkien. Photo/Supplied

Karukoski’s film also tells the story of Tolkien’s fellowship with three school chums, at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, where they formed the “TCBS” (Tea Club and Barrovian Society). Only Tolkien and one other would later survive World War I. There’s also the love story between Tolkien and Edith Bratt, whom he met when they were teenage residents in the same boarding house.

Banned by his guardian, Catholic priest Father Francis Morgan, from having anything to do with her until he was of age, Tolkien eventually persuaded Bratt to marry him, despite her already being engaged to someone else.

The movie shuffles the chronology of the real love story – Tolkien and Bratt were engaged before WWI and married before he was posted to France in 1916. The movie has them rekindling their romance on a station platform just as he’s shipping out.

As with Tolkien’s most famous books, the movie starts at “Bag End”, which was the name of an aunt’s farm in the West Midlands countryside, an inspiration for the unspoilt idyll of the Shire. Elsewhere, it’s hard not to see Tolkien’s linguistics mentor at Oxford, Professor Joseph Wright, played by Sir Derek Jacobi, as the film’s own wise Gandalf.

“It was just beautiful to listen to him deliver that dialogue,” says Hoult of his scenes shot with the veteran actor at the University of Oxford. “We were very lucky to work with him.”

The Tolkien Estate, which has never approved a Middle-earth movie and occasionally sues rights holders when they overstep the mark, put out a statement in April saying it wasn’t involved in, authorising or endorsing the biopic. That was characterised by media such as the Guardian as a “broadside” against the film, though the three sentences in the press release were, effectively, a position statement: please, don’t call us.

Photo/Supplied

Tolkien. Photo/Supplied

Hoult notes that among the actors playing troops in the WWI scenes is one Callum Tolkien, a great-grandson of the man himself. Neither Hoult, nor the director, is worried by the supposed snub. After all, they’ve made a film that is reverent and skirts some of his more difficult characteristics, such as his devout Catholicism – Edith’s forced conversion before their marriage goes unmentioned.

It also takes a leap into fantasy when it comes to depicting his time on the Western Front. The WWI scenes come with hallucinations of fire-breathing monsters and dark knights; all part of a delirium brought on by trench fever, a condition that curtailed his frontline duties.

“I believe that him seeing evil and darkness is the emotion he took from war,” says Karukoski of his creative interpretation, hinting at the monsters to come in Middle-earth. “I wanted to bring that into this story.”

For Hoult, that meant spending some of the shoot lying in a muddy water-filled hole in no man’s land. “I think that’s the lovely contrast of making this movie – there were these wonderfully written dialogue scenes where you get to appreciate the relationships between the characters. But you are torn out of that occasionally into this horrific world of WWI.

“You weren’t just sitting in nice tea shops in historic costumes … getting thrown into a freezing cold puddle in the bottom of a bomb crater is quite a nice antidote.”

Tolkien is in cinemas from June 6. Click here for a chance to win a double pass to the film.

This article was first published in the June 8, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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