Former child star Nicholas Hoult has become one of Britain’s most compelling actors. Following key roles in X-Men and Mad Max, he’s now ruthlessly eliminating A&R rivals in Kill Your Friends, an adaptation of John Niven’s cult novel about the ’90s music industry. We sent the only person for the job, bestselling author John Niven himself, to get into Hoult’s head.
The first time I met Nicholas Hoult was in an office at Pinewood Studios, back in March 2014. It was a couple of days before shooting was due to begin on Kill Your Friends, the film of my 2008 novel of the same name. My first thought was something like, “Wow, someone this tall and handsome shouldn’t really be allowed to exist.” You can imagine my crushing disappointment when I then discovered that in addition to being tall and handsome, Nick was also intelligent, warm, friendly and barkingly sane.
Of course these last qualities are all completely alien to Steven Stelfox, the character Nick was about to play. For those of you who haven’t read the book, Stelfox is a ruthless, amoral A&R man at a major record company in London in 1997, the height of Britpop. He’s a guy who will literally stop at nothing to get to the top of his profession. The more I got to know Nick the more I thought, “Wow. He’s really going to have to act on this one.” Thank God he did, bringing the character to life in chillingly memorable fashion.
Of course, when you work with someone (I wrote the screenplay for the film) you rarely stop to ask them too many questions. You’re too busy getting on with the job. So I was pleased when NME asked me to sit down with Nick and find out a bit more about what he was thinking when he took on a role that has been described as “one of the most disgraceful characters in literature”. We met at the Soho Hotel in Dean Street, London, where we drank Martinis, ate tiny burgers and caught up for the first time in nearly a year.
John Niven: With Kill Your Friends, what did you read first, the script or the novel?
Nicholas Hoult: “The script. Gregor [Cameron, producer] came up to me in Hyde Park a couple of years ago and just gave me a copy! I thought at first ‘Uh oh, crazy guy alert.’ And Owen [Harris, director] wasn’t even attached then, so it didn’t feel real to be honest. I was filming another movie for a year and then Owen came on board – I’d loved his Black Mirror episode – so I read the script again and then the book, and it was at that point that I was like “F**k. I have to play this guy.” And, you know, that year in between made a big difference…”
Yeah, initially I thought you were too young to play Stelfox. I think you were 23 when you were first approached and the character was 26. But you’re, what, 25 now?
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And a couple of years make a big difference at your age. “Also, casting someone like Craig Roberts opposite you makes a big difference to how you come over on-screen.
Definitely. Craig’s great in the film. And it’s difficult, because after you read the book you start to have such definite ideas about what the characters look like, especially as I would be trying to see everything from Stelfox’s perspective.”
Did you have any reservations about playing someone so blatantly and unapologetically unsympathetic?
“No. Weirdly, I kind of enjoyed being in his company. I was reading the book again just before we started shooting. I’d be walking around town and occasionally I’d have to stop myself because I’d look at someone and hear Stelfox in my head. You know, what he’d think of them, describe them or what he’d want to do to them. It would happen a lot on the Tube…”
Were there any particular moments in the script where you thought, “I cannot wait to do this”?
“Certainly anything where his veneer gets broken and he loses control for a second. The speech at the dinner where he’s trying to sign The Lazies and it goes into what he really wants to say.”
That was one of the pleasures of the novel: the disparity between what he’s thinking and saying in any given situation. We had to try various devices to make it work on film…
“Owen got me to watch a lot of House Of Cards.”
It’s very frustrating as a writer, because the original draft of the script I wrote four or five years ago, in 2010 or 2011, had a lot of that confiding-to-camera stuff in it and then – you know the movie-making process, it takes so long to get anything made – by the time the film was happening House Of Cards and Wolf Of Wall Street had both been out and people just think you’re ripping them off. I’ve got drafts dated three years before either of those films happened.
“I love all those brutally honest bits. The rhythm of the language and the creativity with saying disastrous, horrible things that are still astute and observant. That was very appealing.”
Why did you finally decide to do Kill Your Friends? You could have made a lot more money doing something else…
“Ah… Yeah! I could! [Laughs, then grows thoughtful] I just… I believed in it. You know? Firstly, I hadn’t read anything like it. I mean, obviously you hear the American Psycho comparison, but I don’t think it’s tonally like that at all. There’s certainly a lack of empathy to both characters…”
With the novel there is – very deliberately – next to no backstory in it. You get no sense of why Stelfox is like he is. Presumably as an actor you had to think about this a little?
“Owen and I talked about how Stelfox was desperately scared of becoming one of the people he most despises, which is to say a ‘toler’, in his words – a member of the general public. Just a nobody. We talked about how he probably came from a relatively poor upbringing and how he had no safety net underneath him, while a lot of the people around him in A&R probably come from money. Stelfox has to succeed at all costs.”
Funnily enough, one of the inspirations for Stelfox was Don Simpson. Simpson was a poor kid from Alaska who carved his way to the top in Hollywood and he was just a source of great quotes. He said something like, “You know, I see kids come into the movie business all the time. And they’re smart and funny and they love movies and they like to go to lunch and stuff and I just think I AM GOING TO RUN YOU OVER WITH A F**KING TRUCK.” He was someone with this extraordinarily demented ambition and focus. You should read his biography by Charles Fleming.
“It’s a bit late for research now…”
True. Let me ask you this, do you remember much of the music in the film? Presumably you were in primary school in the period the book is set…
“In 1997? Yeah. I was seven! I think ‘(What’s The Story) Morning Glory’ by Oasis was one of the first albums I bought, a few years after it came out. I used to sneak into my brother’s room and listen to his Walkman. The Prodigy’s ‘The Fat Of The Land’ was a record I remember hearing like that and being all “Wahhhhghhh!” What else? I remember being really into Gina G’s ‘Ooh Ah… Just A Little Bit’. I was like “F***ing tune!” As I said, I was seven.”
I guess the ’90s for you must have been like looking at the 1970s for me – almost historical.
“Yes and no. The way my brain works, it all feels kind of contemporary until you get back to the 1950s or ’60s. Someone pointed out to me the other day that ‘Crazy In Love’ is now 12 years old. I was like, ‘Hold up – what?'”
Dude, I’m ancient. I think The Strokes are kind of a new band.
“Hahahahahaha! If I’m talking to someone who’s 18 or 19 and I mention a classic rap album and they don’t know it, I think, ‘How can you not know that record?’ Then I remember they were about seven when it came out and probably not listening to too much rap.”
You’re a big rap fan?
“I am, actually. I think the last gig I saw was Kendrick Lamar.”
I love that last album.
“Do you know his first album?”
Not so much.
“Dude, it’s phenomenal.”
‘Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe’?
[Eyes actually going misty] “That’s got a special place in my heart.”
What else musically?
“Eminem I still love. The first ‘Marshall Mathers LP’. Etta James, Otis Redding, The Rolling Stones. I liked Jamie xx’s last record. It’s like films, isn’t it? You don’t say ‘I only like one type of movie’, do you? But then, I don’t really listen to a lot of death metal, for instance.”
As well as Kill Your Friends, you’ve been in a couple of X-Men movies. Recently we’ve seen Spielberg and Emma Thompson weighing in on the ubiquity of the superhero movie…
“At times I’ll see superhero movies and admittedly be frustrated by them. It does feel like some are just packaging and they’re not trying hard enough because they know it’s a bankable formula. But I love the X-Men films because they have a heart to them and you have actors like Michael Fassbender who bring so much to the characters. The superheroes in that world aren’t smug. You don’t want to watch someone who you know is going to win from the start just being awesome for two hours.”
It’s an interesting time for you as an actor, doing things like X-Men and Kill Your Friends…
“Yeah. Not because I’m thinking, “Oh wow! It’s all happening for me!” but because I’m getting to do different, interesting things. A few years ago I’d be reading scripts like Kill Your Friends and thinking, “I’d love to do this,” and they’d cast someone in their late 20s. Now I’m getting to do things like this and Mad Max and Equals.”
Was it fun, playing someone like Stelfox?
“It really was. Since being a kid actor I’ve always been aware of the pitfalls of the whole game. And the chance of failure. So I’ve always been very sensible, driven and careful not to let the whole thing run away from me. Because when you’ve been in a very successful film when you’re young, you don’t want that to be the highlight of your life. Also, everything feels a bit safer these days, in music and acting. So to play someone like Stelfox who embraces the darker side and just goes crazy with it was really fun.”
Speaking of About A Boy, do you ever get asked to recreate the Killing Me Softly scene at parties?
“Ah… No. But people used to sometimes sing ‘Shake Your Ass’ at me when I was walking down the street.”
And did you?
“Never. Never ever.”