Renfield, a blood-spattered mash-up of horror, comedy, action and workers’ rights (yes, really), could be seen as a tale of two Nicks. Nicolas Cage eats up the screen as Count Dracula, the most maniacal vampire in pop culture, but Nicholas Hoult is just as entertaining as his long-suffering lackey, R.M. Renfield. “It honestly felt different to most things I’ve been reading,” Hoult says when we meet at a smart London hotel, right before he has to hotfoot it to the airport. “I liked the idea of taking Dracula and Renfield, these classic characters, but saying it’s 100 years on [from Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel] and actually, they’re just in a toxic relationship.”
In previous Dracula movies, Renfield has been portrayed as deranged and ardently devoted to his master; in Stoker’s original story, he is described as “a possibly dangerous man, probably dangerous if unselfish”. But Renfield, scripted by Ryan Ridley from a story by The Walking Dead co-creator Robert Kirkman, cleverly reimagines him as a humbled family man who made a misguided pact many decades earlier. In exchange for a small portion of the vampire’s powers, he is tasked with tending to Dracula’s every need – namely, bringing him a steady supply of fresh human flesh to feast on. Set in present-day New Orleans, the film begins with Renfield stumbling into a support group for people in codependent relationships and realising that he, too, is trapped in one.
“He is someone who isn’t a hero and doesn’t think of himself as a hero, which makes him an interesting lead character,” says 33-year-old Hoult, who’s dressed sharply in head-to-toe black: a sartorial choice that matches the film’s darkly comic tone. At the same time, it’s a bit too pat to frame Renfield as an antihero given that he’s spent decades being an accomplice to murder. “He’s doing his best, even though he’s found himself in these terrible circumstances,” Hoult says. “He is somewhat trying to find loopholes within Dracula’s requirements where he can try and do some good even when he’s still bringing him victims.”
Hoult’s morally compromised flunkey may not exactly be a good guy, but Cage has described his co-star’s performance, accurately, as “so full of wit and charm”. This is quite an achievement given that we see Renfield literally chomping on insects to top up his powers. Is that what he was aiming for? “Um yeah, I suppose,” Hoult says as he ponders the question. “I don’t think you can necessarily play charm. I wasn’t like, ‘I’m going to be charming in this moment.’ I feel like that might have been a note I’ve been given in other things – not in this – like, ‘Be charming’. And I’m always like, I don’t know how to be charming. That’s not something that I could act.”
“I don’t know how to be charming”
It’s a typically modest response from Hoult that, perhaps a little ironically, comes off as quite charming. “But,” he continues. “I think the way Ryan Ridley wrote the script is very charming because [Renfield] is someone from another era [who’s now navigating] this modern world. He’s someone who is so uncomfortable in himself and trying to find his place and his voice. So I think there’s a charm in how the character was written.”
The “c” word also comes up when NME talks to the film’s director, Chris McKay, a few hours later on Zoom. “When I read the script, the only person I thought of was Nick Hoult,” says McKay, whose previous credits include The Lego Batman Movie and adult animated comedy Robot Chicken. “I honestly thought that this movie doesn’t work without Nick Hoult.” Why? “He’s unafraid to play unlikable people, but what’s so great about him is that because he’s also so charming and vulnerable, audiences want to root for him.”
McKay proceeds to support his point with highlights from Hoult’s CV including the 2013 zombie comedy Warm Bodies and 2015’s post-apocalyptic blockbuster Mad Max: Fury Road. “So, he can be a War Boy in Fury Road and you’re going to grow to love him by the end of the movie,” he adds. “You know, he can be a zombie [in Warm Bodies] or be an unlikable guy in The Great, but he will still find a way for you to sort of love him and think he’s funny. That’s why, to me, this movie didn’t work without Nick Hoult.”
Interestingly, McKay also suggests that Hoult’s ability to imbue complex characters with an unexpected sympathetic quality may have been shaped by his first big film role. As a child actor, he starred opposite Hugh Grant in 2002’s About A Boy, a poignant comedy-drama about a rich drifter who beriends a socially awkward 12-year-old. “I think that was maybe a formative experience – I’m guessing, I don’t know,” McKay says. “I’m just assuming because, you know, [Nick was] around somebody like Grant at a really young age and watching him perform at a high level. I think there’s something about Hugh Grant’s early charm that is similar to what Nick does.”
“I went to the NME Awards one year and got to meet Alex Turner”
Five years after About A Boy, Berkshire-born Hoult landed a role in Skins, the zeitgeist-grabbing TV series about Bristol teenagers exploring their burgeoning sexuality while dealing with mental health issues, substance abuse and even death. He starred in the first two series as Tony Stonem, a budding alpha male with a penchant for philosophical literature and a flair for manipulating his mates. “Skins captured that moment – the way Euphoria captures the moment now,” Hoult says today. The show remains so fondly remembered that Gossip‘s disco-punk banger ‘Standing In The Way Of Control’ still brings back images of its chaotic house parties, but Hoult isn’t trapped in its nostalgic shadow. Skins let him bridge the tricky transition from child star to in-demand adult actor, but it never threatened to define his career.
In fact, he says he’s never even watched the show, though he looks back on this time with plenty of affection. “It’s funny, because I remember my Skins days being so intertwined with NME,” he says. “I went to the NME Awards one year and got to meet Alex Turner, which was so exciting because I loved Arctic Monkeys. It was a really fun party you guys had.” What did Alex Turner say to him? “I can’t remember. Also, I was probably drunk. Who knows? But I remember having fun. And I’ve still got that picture of us somewhere, which is cool.”
Since Skins, Hoult has almost exclusively taken on film roles – he played Hank McCoy/Beast in the X-Men movies and a scheming courtier in 2018’s The Favourite, the bracingly bawdy Restoration comedy for which Olivia Colman won an Oscar. But he agrees that his recent return to TV in riotous historical romp The Great has been “significant” for his career, not least because it’s the first time he has played a character for three seasons.
“It gave me a character that I could really just do whatever with – there are no limits, which is really fun,” he says. Hoult isn’t exaggerating: his Emperor Peter III of Russia is a wrecking ball of petulance, privilege and impulsivity who gives his ambitious wife Catherine (Elle Fanning) an actual bear as a wedding present, then kills it to taunt her. “And I know that people seem to like the show,” he adds. “But in terms of [its] significance for my career, I do feel that I have been lucky because it’s given people a chance to see the more comedic stuff I can do.”
Hoult’s Emmy-nominated performance has proven so popular that he’s since read scripts where a character roars “huzzah!” the way Peter III does. “I was like, ‘I’ve just been saying ‘huzzah!’ all through this series, I can’t go and say it in something else,” he says with a laugh. Plus, repeating himself in this way would be “no fun” for him as an actor. “I’m always like, do I see myself in [this role]? Can I commit enough at the moment with whatever else I have going on to do it justice and elevate the end result?” he says. “If it’s too similar, I’d be bored doing it because I don’t know if I could find something more in the character.”
Hoult also says that “on some level” every character he plays is “a version of myself”, before pricking his bubble of serious actor talk with a joke. “But you know,” he continues, “it’s not like I walked away from Renfield thinking, ‘I’m eating bugs now’ or ‘I’ve got to go do my master’s bidding today.'” Believe me, there was none of that.”
‘Renfield’ is in cinemas now