According to fashion designer turned film director Tom Ford, the character of “Kenny” in the new film A Single Man, which is blazing a trail across the current year-end prestige film season, is supposed to be “a kind of angel” for the story’s bereaved college professor protagonist George, played with sincerity and sensitivity by a top form Colin Firth. Dressed in white, Ford said that Kenny was meant to “rescue George both emotionally and literally,” on the fateful day on which the film is set, as George, mourning a soul-crushing loss, gets his affairs in order and plans to exit this world.
The beautiful Kenny is played with an other-worldly innocence by the English actor Nicholas Hoult, who most audiences will remember from his sharp turn in The Weitz Brothers’ 2002 film About a Boy, though Hoult has been acting since the age of three. Rumor has it that another high-profile, young British actor dropped out of the project at the last second, and Hoult, who had been on Ford’s mind for the part prior to the casting of the other young man, stepped in with very little prep time, and as it turns out, was a much better fit for the character. It is surprising to watch the handsomely angular, very grown-up Hoult’s sensual, intelligent turn in A Single Man and think that only a few years ago he was playing a heartbreaking adolescent misfit opposite Hugh Grant. “Its odd because it feels like so long ago,” said the charming, self-effacing Hoult during our lengthy chat at the Weinstein Company’s downtown Manhattan office, just a day after his twentieth birthday (looking out the windows at the sweeping New York skyline he asked “how much do you think the rent is here?”).
As Kenny, Hoult grounds A Single Man’s striking portrayal of middle-aged ennui and longing with a sparkling blue-eyed effervescence and youthful guile, playing the pivotal role not as a literal angel, but as a curious, nurturing force who reminds George of himself and of life’s happy, accidental connections. The film asserts that sometimes who we end up loving is a surprise, especially when we think that we can’t love anymore or that we will never love again. A Single Man, while tackling the serious topics of grief, suicide and aging, also finds a surprisingly sweet, romantic groove, thanks in no small part to Hoult’s unique performance as a young man who embodies all the qualities of a sex object, an academic, a ghost, and a beam of light.
Tell me who your character in A Single Man is… how are you similar to Kenny and how are you different from him?
Kenny is a student at the college where Colin Firth’s character George teaches. He’s quite advanced for the time its set -– 1962. He’s kind of a character who is quite a few years ahead of his time. In a few years he’ll be a part of the hippy movement. He feels as though people his own age don’t understand him and he’s looking for a connection, trying to figure out who he is. George is someone who he feels, you know his girlfriend doesn’t really understand him; he has an intellectual connection with. He’s on the hunt for that. The similarities? Growing up as a young actor you hang out with people who are a lot older than you. Generally, on sets you’re the youngest person, you kind of have that older figure that you look up to that guides you through the process of what you’re doing. Kenny’s someone who is very much living in the present, which I try to do. As an actor you kind of have a great time when you’re working and then when you’re not, you’re worrying about if you’ll work again or getting the next job, making a living. Kenny’s very much about seizing the moment and the present and being spontaneous, which is a good thing in life, generally.
Why do you think Tom Ford cast you in the part?
(laughing) You have to ask him that I think! I sent him an audition tape doing the scene in the bar, where Kenny follows George. I think it was actually seven pages of dialogue. I read that scene in London and sent it over and got an email from Tom saying that I brought a lot of life to the character. I think that was kind of it, I guess he liked the audition.
How did Tom Ford work with you and the other cast members to prepare for shooting? Did you learn anything about the youth culture of that era?
I joined onto the film very late, about a week before we started shooting so it was all quite a fast process, it was all very hectic. The key thing that Tom did for me was he brought me the book The Power of Now [by author Eckhart Tolle], which is completely Kenny’s mindset in life. That helped a lot to get into that outlook. We didn’t really rehearse that much. Colin and I had maybe a 45 minute rehearsal where we pretty much just read through all of our scenes once and then walked around to pace the walking scenes and that was kind of it. There was no grand, master plan on our side where we sat down for hours and thought it out exactly, the beats and everything, it just naturally occurred. Tom was very prepared, which he had to be on a short shoot like that. [It was] 21 days, so you had to be on the money every day and know exactly what was going on and what shots are where. And he [Ford] was, to his credit. We never felt under a crunch, time-wise. It was a very relaxed process.
On such a short shoot, is there any room for improve or do you just need to get every take right?
There wasn’t a huge need for improv a lot of the time because the dialogue was so superbly written. It’s kind of a dream for an actor, when you get scenes like that, this great dialogue and these great interactions between characters. One of the lines that George says is “One of the few times I’ve really felt alive in life is when I’ve had a connection with another human being.” I think that’s very true, it’s very rare that people do connect and even when they feel they have, a lot of the time it’s really just scratching the surface. For scenes when two people are really connecting and sharing love then that’s fantastic.
As an actor why does playing a character with ambiguous sexuality appeal to you?
Tony was the character I played on Skins. When we started the series only the first two scripts were written when we began. The character was a real alpha male, kind of the leader of the pack, quite manipulative. Tony was not a nice person; everything had come very easy to him in life. He was very clever, top of the class. Then it got to episode six or seven of the first series and I got the script and suddenly my character was kissing one of the other blokes who was a gay character and their friendship circle. I remember saying to the writers “hang on, this is kind of out of left field – what’s going on?!” and being a little bit thrown by it. They said that because Tony is this character who finds everything so easy, he wants to push the boundaries and create little exciting moments for himself, so he’s very different from Kenny. Kenny’s got a girlfriend and is looking for more of an intellectual connection and an understanding about himself and the world and he feels that people his own age don’t understand him. He’s slightly wise beyond his years in that sense. They’re very different characters and they explore these things for very different reasons. That’s one of the things I love about Kenny is that in the end, a lot of people who have seen the film, they come out and they say “what’s he all about? What did he want?” They never quite put their finger on what exactly he was after and understood him. I love that, when people can’t quite understand the character you play or you as well, I think. It’s difficult when you’re doing interviews and stuff and people want to kind of get to know you, I guess, but at the same time, you want to not be known.
Is Kenny an erotic fantasy for George, an object of desire?
I think he is an object of desire. George is dwelling on the loss of his lover and has lost the joy of life completely, he’s going through the motions and his heart isn’t in it. He’s just about keeping it together. He’s obviously planning on ending it all. Then Kenny’s somebody who comes along and injects the life into him. He hasn’t been breathing properly for years, George, and Kenny gives him a big dose of oxygen. He brings him spontaneity, excitement and youthfulness as well. As we get older we kind of get set in our ways and more restrained and Kenny’s somebody who hasn’t become like that yet. He gives George a big dose of excitement, I think. Also, George is going through his last day picking up on the beauty in the world – not with Kenny, physically, necessarily, but the beauty of his youthfulness, his innocence, and at the same time his naivety.