Nicholas Hoult On Becoming J.R.R. Tolkien
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
J.R.R. Tolkien - and more about that pronunciation in a minute - had a love for language and fantasy that drew fans into the worlds he created in "The Hobbit" and "The Lord Of The Rings." The Oxford professor brought to life the realm of Middle-earth for millions of readers. And a new film now explores his early life, when he grew up as an orphan, formed secret literary clubs, fell in love and then went on to serve in World War I. Nicholas Hoult plays J.R.R. Tolkien in the new biopic "Tolkien." He joins me now from our studios in New York.
Thanks so much for being with us.
NICHOLAS HOULT: Hello. No, thank you very much for having me on.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's start with the pronunciation. I grew up saying Tolken (ph). The movie makes an early and very deliberate point of the pronunciation of his name.
HOULT: I was doing the same thing, to be honest with you. I was saying Tolken but started doing some other research and found Judi Dench saying the correct pronunciation on a documentary, so just repeatedly went over that in my head.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We have Judi Dench to thank for that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What drew you to this role? Were you a fan of his work?
HOULT: Yeah. Yeah, I was. I got given "The Hobbit" to read on the set of "About A Boy," actually - by the directors, the Weitz brothers. So I read that then and really loved it, obviously. It's a magical world to disappear into. And then I was a fan of the films. They came out when - I think I was about 13, 14.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Exact age when this is the good stuff to be reading and watching.
HOULT: Oh, I was prime, yeah, for that.
HOULT: And then I - you know, I would even play the card game after school. I'd stay behind and play the card game. So it was like - so I was a fan. But that's the crazy thing about it is like, I suddenly - it suddenly occurred to me reading the script. I was like, well, I actually know very little about the man behind it and his story.
So, you know, he was born in South Africa but then grew up in England. And he was a - he lost his mom at a fairly young age. And then it's all about him, kind of this orphan finding love and friendship. And, you know, I had no idea that he was involved in World War I as well. So just all that and where his inspiration came from was so incredible that I was like, this is a really beautiful tale in itself.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The thing that you mentioned that I also didn't know was how important World War I was to Tolkien. The movie cuts back and forth between his early life and scenes from the battlefield. And Tolkien suffered from trench fever during his service in World War I.
HOULT: Yeah. That was something that I really loved about this script, actually, when it came in was the World War I element of the movie. It's depicted very realistically and shows the - you know, the horrendous elements of that war. But also, it - because of him suffering from trench fever, it has this hallucinatory element to it whereby you're kind of getting glimpses into his dark imagination and what he might have actually been witnessing instead of the reality around him at that time.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, the battlefield becomes kind of Middle-earth's Mordor in many ways.
HOULT: Yeah, yeah, completely, which - I mean, he always said that that war wasn't an allegory for his work and the lands he created. But at the same time, I mean, obviously you're always influenced by experiences like that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you do when you go into a biopic like this?
HOULT: I never have, like, any set method approaching any role. But obviously when you're playing a real person, it's something that you don't take lightly. And so you kind of take his work and then kind of mix this puzzle in your brain of what he might have been feeling and put the truth of what you can into the scenes you play. But it's tiny little things as well. I'd - he did all the illustrations for his books. I would copy the illustrations and just try and understand...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You draw?
HOULT: I mean, not - no, not really. Not very well. But it's something that he did. So I was like, all right, I should attempt to do this. We were lucky. We got to go to Oxford for this filming, as well. So I got to kind of walk in his footsteps and go to The Eagle and Child, which is one of the pubs that he would go to with his friends and sit in the nook where they would tell their stories and share their work. So it kind of felt very close to him.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to ask you about the reaction from Tolkien's family and estate to this movie. Both have said they wish to make clear that they did not approve of, authorize or participate in the making of this film. What's your reaction to that statement?
HOULT: You know, it's kind of a blanket statement, in many ways, in regards to the film being made. And they've obviously got lots of other projects on the go...
HOULT: ...Based on his work. But at the same time, you know, we set out to make this film as fans, primarily, and to honor him and celebrate his incredible story. We have invited them. We've written to the estate and invited them to watch the movie. So hopefully when they do see it, they like it and see why we were so passionate about it. We did have - his great-grandson, Callum, came and appeared in some of the World War I trenches scenes. And he came to the premiere in London the other night and told me he liked the movie. So that's good.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why do you think his work has resonated with so many?
HOULT: I think that, you know, the fantasy genre, it lets you explore all these human emotions and feelings. But now, going back and learning about his passion for language and realizing that each word, name of a place or person, it's steeped in so much history and thought that you realize that the reason these worlds feel so realistic and are easy to disappear into are because of the amount of work he put into it - and building maps so that he could figure out how long it would take a character to travel from this area to this area and if they could reliably be there in the time it needed for the story to work and make sense. And just things that - the depth of his knowledge and creation was incredible.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So last question, I understand that you can speak some Elvish now (laughter) as part...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Of your going into the characters. I was wondering if you could say something for us.
HOULT: Let me think. It's going back - it's going back a minute now. (Speaking Elvish). The languages that we created with the professor from Oxford are kind of precursors...
HOULT: ...To the Elven language. That was kind of a tiny bit. But I can't remember all of it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Of course not (laughter). Nicholas Hoult, he plays J.R.R. Tolkien in the new movie "Tolkien."
Thank you so much.
HOULT: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.