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.
Speaking of being “physical”, you’re naked a lot in this film. Tell me about filming the skinny-dipping scene in the ocean with Colin Firth – was it fun or complete hell and freezing?
(laughing) I didn’t realize but everybody keeps bringing up this nudity thing. I always think there’s loads of nudity in most things you see. I feel like doing press for this film that I am the first person who has ever slightly bared his flesh. I’m going to get a bad reputation for it (laughing)! The ocean scene, it’s not too awkward at the time because you’re in the moment, you’re in character and you have their thoughts and feelings about it. Tom explained everything very clearly and I understood it all very well, so it wasn’t awkward then. It is mostly when “cut!” gets called and then you’re stuck there, at work, in the buff, which I think is a lot of people’s worst nightmare. The ocean, I think it was quite liberating in a way because even though it was obviously very contrived, it wasn’t one of those spontaneous things, you had to get into that headspace and have fun. The second you’re in the water and freezing cold and come out and they say “we better do it again” you kind of go “I don’t know…it wasn’t that bad the first time. No, I don’t want to go back in there again.” We had to do it three times. There were fires at the time and there was ash in the air and I got ash in my eye and we had to stop after three, which Colin was very thankful for (laughing)! We got along very well. He’s very relaxed and calm and certainly a fantastic actor, so he’s very present in the moment when you’re doing a scene with him. It makes it very easy on you.
So I did a little bit of online research on what you’ve been up to and is it true you’ve recently gone to college?
(laughing) I guess you really can’t believe everything you read on the internet!
I found out yesterday that I’ve got a fake Twitter!
Everybody’s got a fake Twitter these days…
I know! I would never have thought it. They looked it up during this interview and I was like “well what am I saying then?” and it was stuff like “I’m exhausted, going to work” or “I’ve just finished filming” at twelve o’clock at night. I thought, wow, this person really believes they are me. They weren’t saying anything that bad, so as long as they’re not saying anything malicious or taking advantage of people…
My writing for PopMatters usually centers on actresses, so I want to ask a few questions about you’re a few of your co-stars, if you don’t mind.
Who’s your favorite actress?
Of all time? Jessica Lange. What about you?
I was reading a bit about Marilyn Monroe the other day. I read a script about her and think she’s a very fascinating character. She’s not necessarily my favorite but I find her intriguing. She did bring a great sense of life to the screen. Which sometimes within a film can be rough, you know, because you’re doing things over and over again and you’re trying to get it right for the camera or whatever and I think a lot of the time, it can become quite contrived and there’s no spark. Who else? Charlize Theron’s up there, always. Penelope Cruz is always really good and I am looking forward to seeing Nine. What a cast they got together for that one! I would have liked to have been in that one…
Do you sing?
No, I don’t sing very well. I’ve got this chronic disease where I think that I sound like whoever sings the song. If I ever actually hear myself back I think “wow, that’s incredible! I sounded like The Beatles, or Eminem or whoever it was. Chris Martin.” Then I play it back again and think oh, it’s just me howling like the wind.
What other kinds of roles are you looking to play right now? What would really challenge you? Or maybe you don’t want to be challenged and want to run around with a laser gun shooting aliens or something…
It’s difficult. I’d like to do a mixture of different genres – really mix it up. I’d like to do comedy, drama, action, really try and keep it fresh. I just did a small role in Clash of the Titans and that was fascinating to see how those epic, grand scale epics work. The original is brilliant. The scale of it was unbelievable. It’s a very different kind of experience and a very different kind of acting. It’s about finding new challenges. By no means do I think I’ve cracked anything or become wonderful at anything but I keep on my toes and try and learn from everything and get better. I never want to do anything where my heart’s not in it all the time. I don’t want to be on a film set just to make a few quid to pay a few bills. Knowing on the other end, that if I have any fans, if they’re going to see it, because of the fact I’m in it, I don’t want to feel as though anybody’s being mugged off!
Back to actresses! You’re a lucky, lucky guy because in the film Wah Wah you worked with two of my favorite underrated actresses of all time, Miranda Richardson and Emily Watson – what was that experience for you because it sounds like absolute heaven to hang out with those two in Africa, at least to me.
And Julie Walters! They were fucking fantastic! Why didn’t I think of that?! I should have just said “the actresses I’ve worked with (laughing)”. It was splendid. I was quite young doing that one, like 14 or so. It was a lot of fun and Swaziland was beautiful. [Director] Richard E. Grant assembled the cream of the crop, acting-wise, for that film, so I was very lucky to be in it. Emily’s incredible and incredibly underrated. I think actresses get it very tough in this business. She’s hugely underrated.
But how unlucky for you to be in a movie that co-stars Julianne Moore but to not share a scene with her!
I know! It’s terrible!
She’s really one of the best working actresses we have, don’t you think? What do you like about her turn in A Single Man?
I met Julianne for the first time at the Venice Film Festival. She was just fantastic, the best lady, so intelligent. I just love listening to her talk, at Q&As and stuff, about how she works. She’s got a really great understanding of film. [In A Single Man] She’s the light in George’s life and whenever he thinks about her, she’s in raging Technicolor. The scene where George goes around to Charley’s house for dinner, it’s almost like a short film within the film. You just get taken away and it’s fantastic! I think it was about 17 pages, that section of the film and it’s a joy to watch. It’s funny and charming so real. It’s a fantastic character.
So, I’m sure everybody asks you about About a Boy, which was your big breakout hit. You played opposite a wonderful cast which included Hugh Grant, Rachel Weisz and Toni Collette – all amazing, talented people. When you were filmed this one you were relatively young but had been acting a long time already. When you look back at this experience – how did holding your own with such a heavyweight cast on this film influence you?
I suppose that when you’re that young you don’t really worry about holding your own. You just have a laugh, hit your marks and sort of think “well, this is fun, I’m having a good time.” I just had an incredible time and remember everybody was looking after me. Hugh was a wonderful role model. I was very lucky that on my first thing that was kind of high profile to see how the industry works and how to behave – how to conduct yourself on set, to create a good environment for everyone to do their best. It was the same with A Single Man. Tom and Colin and everyone gave us a perfect environment to create a good film. I think the best training is on the job, as you go along. When you meet Tom and realize how personal A Single Man is to him, and you see how much he’s put into it, that puts more pressure onto you because you don’t want to muck it up for someone. I felt the same with Wah Wah as well. When people put so much time and their lives into making these films, and they’re so personal, then you feel a bit more pressure because you don’t want to let them down when it means so much to them.
What do you think happens to Kenny after A Single Man ends?
(laughing) In the works: A Single Man 2!
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A Single Man is now playing in select theaters.