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Talking ‘Tolkien’: An interview with Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins

An interesting interview with the stars of ‘Tolkien’.

Earlier in the year, I reviewed Dome Karukosi’s biopic Tolkien. Written by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford, the film explores the formative years of J.R.R. Tolkien, renowned author of The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit.

From the halls of Oxford to the grim and bloody trenches of World War I, this biopic explores the early years of J.R.R Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) and the relationships that defined the legendary author he would become. Chronicling his romance with Edith Brant (Lily Collins), as well as the various members of the Tea Club, Barrovian Society, Tolkien slowly grows from a shy and bookish young man into one of history’s most beloved writers – seasoned by life and everything that comes with it.

Overall, while Tolkien isn’t the most ground-breaking biopic to hit screens in the past few years – sadly formulaic for the most part – it’s certainly an enjoyable watch. Hoult and Collins are worth sticking around for alone, the pair offering compelling on-screen chemistry and solid, layered performances. But they’ve had a lot of practice, to say the least.

Hoult’s breakthrough role came in the 2002 comedy-drama About a Boy, before he transitioned to adult roles with the drama A Single Man and the classical fantasy Clash of the Titans. He was cast as the mutant Hank McCoy in Matthew Vaughn’s superhero film X-Men: First Class, a role he has reprised in later installments, including the recent X-Men: Dark Phoenix. Other recent roles include Jack the Giant Slayer, Warm Bodies, Mad Max: Fury Road, Kill Your Friends, The Rebel in the Rye, Sand Castle and The Favourite, among others.

Collins broke out with the likes of Priest, Abduction and Mirror Mirror, where she played Snow White. She then starred in The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Stuck in Love The English Teacher and Love, Rosie. She won a Golden Globe nomination for Rules Don’t Apply and earned praise for To the Bone and the TV miniseries Les Miserables.

To celebrate the upcoming digital and DVD/Blu-ray releases of Tolkien, Hoult and Collins answer some questions about themselves and their relationship with J.R.R. Tolkien, his books and his story:

Who is Tolkien to each of you?

Nicholas Hoult: I didn’t know the man, to be honest with you, before reading this script. I knew his work, so he was someone who sparked my imagination and gave me a wonderful world to escape to and be part of. But then reading this story, I was suddenly opened up to a whole new thing. I had disappeared into his world for years but suddenly became aware of the man behind the mythology that I love. And his story is remarkable, incredible, and one that stands alone. I thought it had to be told.

Were there any traits you recognised in him?

NH: When Dome and I would speak about it, we thought he was quite hobbit-like in nature. He likes his comforts, but he is very dedicated and loving and caring, obviously very imaginative and creative, and a bit of an outsider in some ways who was looking for a place to be and to escape to. He was also someone who had a serious intellect.

In what ways did the story resonate with you, Lily?

Lily Collins: Something that resonates with me very strongly in the story is that one can have a soulmate and it doesn’t even have to be romantic. It can be a friendship, and in this story,  we deal with Edith and Tolkien’s love, and that from a very young age was a soulmate connection. But he also has these three friends who are very much soulmates in their own right. You don’t necessarily know the impact you are going to have on someone and vice versa. It could be years later that you are still having that impact on them. Also, Tolkien, to me, is a creator of stories that deeply impacted my wanting to be an actor.

How so?

LC: I lived in the English countryside when I was little. It was very Shire-like, and I used to go around the garden, pretending that there were magical creatures everywhere. I would read the books and disappear into this world in my head, and I wanted one day to translate that to other people. Acting is exactly what that does for me and, ironically, I ended up doing a movie about the man behind that. Tolkien found the magic in the mundane and in nature, and that felt very connected to me from such a young age.

Did you read other books in that genre? C. S. Lewis, maybe?

LC: Anything fairy tale. C. S. Lewis, Harry Potter, Tolkien, anything fantasy-based. I also loved reading the darker side of fairy tales, like the Grimm stories, which maybe are not the Disney versions we all know.

Who did you want to be in the Tolkien books?

LC: The elven characters resonated very deeply with me because I used to run around the garden pretending there were elves and fairies everywhere. I auditioned for one of the Peter Jackson films to play an elven character – one of hundreds of people, probably – and didn’t end up getting it. But then again, eight years later here I am playing the woman who partly inspired her and was quite muse-like in that regard for all the elven characters. That was something I felt naturally inclined to.

NH: I think the reality of my nature, especially as I get older, is that I am more hobbit-like. I appreciate those characters, although thinking about it now just as you were talking, I was like, ‘It would be good to be a wizard, wouldn’t it?’ I did love Aragorn too, and especially Viggo [Mortensen]’s interpretation of him in the movies. What a hero. What a guy.

What happened at your Peter Jackson audition, Lily?

LC: I didn’t do well. There was no script to read, just these sides that were quite confidential. Don’t ask me to do it now because I won’t be able to, but we had to speak Elvish! And we had to make it up because they hadn’t given us a proper language. It was the role Evangeline Lilly played [Tauriel], so another Lilly, but not this Lily! It was just an honour to just go in for it.

Was Peter there?

LC: No, it did not get that far. So, he probably never even saw it.

Have you learned any Elvish, Nic?

NH: I have learnt bits for this film. The languages I speak in this are more the precursors to the things that he then created for The Lord of the Rings. We worked with a professor at Oxford, and he would take Norse and Anglo-Saxon elements and combine them into these limericks that I would then learn. Basically, they would send them to me, written down, and I would look at them. And then I’d hear them, and I’d think, ‘Well, that doesn’t align. That sounds nothing like what it looks like,’ so I would have to write it out phonetically and learn it and recreate it and then kind of put back in the meaning behind it.

Both these characters follow their dreams, so how important was that for you, to be true to yourself and to follow your dreams?

LC: Something that I have always been taught from an early age is to follow your gut and your heart and to do what it is that pleases your soul. But that doesn’t always come easily. Growing into adulthood has been a journey of discovering what it is that I really enjoy and why I enjoy it, as well learning about myself and getting to know that roadblocks are going to come your way. It is how you deal with them that defines who you are and where you end up. That is pretty much the book I wrote a couple of years ago – the book dealt with those kinds of things, too. It is an ever-evolving process, and the goal is always to stay true to what makes you happy and to find people to surround yourself with who respect that and maybe share some of your interests.

NH: It is about listening to gut instincts and those things because that’s something that is quite difficult to do and be honest with. It is something I am still learning and trying to get better at. In terms of following dreams, I am lucky that I found something I loved doing at a pretty young age. I still love doing it, and it still feels new and fresh to me in many ways. I don’t feel that I have been doing it for a long time. Each job feels like a new challenge. I turn up on day one, and I have no idea what I am doing. And I really love that. I am very fortunate to pursue that.

What are your own experiences with writing?

LC: I used to write for magazines when I was younger. I wrote for US and UK magazines – online stuff – and then I wrote a book two or three years ago, which was a memoir of sorts.

What inspired you to write the book?

LC: I was receiving a lot of messages on social media – specifically Instagram – from young women all over the world, expressing to me their insecurities and fears and feelings about themselves, and always prefacing them by saying, ‘I know that you cannot relate to this because you are an actress and live in Hollywood, but this is my insecurity, my issue.’ I thought they were so brave because, on Instagram, your photo is right there. So, it isn’t anonymous, and I thought, ‘If they are going to be brave and do that, I am going to be brave and do that.’ They are feeling alone, and if they don’t feel alone, maybe it will help them get through it, and maybe I will find something therapeutic about that, too. So, it was really just me trying to say, ‘You are not alone, so be brave.’ And for me, I felt I had a lot of baggage that I was carrying around, not that anyone knew about it, but I thought I had to get rid of that in order to take on the baggage of any characters I played.

Was it difficult deciding what to sift out when writing the book?

LC: I’m not sure that there was a lot that I left out, to be honest. Maybe there will be a Part 2! At the beginning, when I started to write it, my editor said, ‘Don’t sell yourself short. You can go a little bit deeper here and here.’ It was interesting because as I was writing, I was shooting To The Bone, which is about a subject matter that I write about [anorexia]. And my experiences within acting greatly influenced my understanding of some of my chapters. Therefore, I went deeper into those chapters and came to an inner peace more because I had worked through them. It was really interesting that they both married with each other.

Do you ever write diaries or journals, Nic?

NH: I wrote The Lord of the Rings (laughs)! My answer is not as impressive as Lily’s! I played a writer a few years ago [J.D. Salinger in The Rebel in the Rye], and to play him and to get an understanding of that process, I would write short stories. But apart from that, no, would be the answer. I love reading, but I have never felt that was something that I could do.

Would you ever want to publish your short stories?

NH: They are not very good (laughs). Honestly, they are not good. A lot of the time, Salinger wrote about kids because he found them innocent. Also, his central characters were more honest and truthful because of that. So, I would walk around New York, then go home and write stories about what I saw that day. They were normally just about relationships.

Was there a big difference between your preparation for playing Salinger and for Tolkien?

They are very different people, creatively and everything. There was a similar process in some regard, in terms of learning the facts, but then that film dealt with a much bigger time span. They both had some similar experiences in that that they both fought through war, and we see how that affected them. But they are very different characters. I wrote stories for Salinger, while I practised painting for this film.

Who introduced the Tolkien books to you?

NH: I was given The Hobbit by the directors of About a Boy, Chris and Paul Weitz. It was lovely, and I still have that copy of the book, and so I went back to it again in the build-up to this, and it felt very fortuitous, in a way. What better gift could you give to a kid of that age, a gift of that imagination and story? That was probably the thought behind it. I look forward to sharing that and passing it along.

LC: I just remember the time period of being in elementary school and having always had this love of magic and fantasy, knowing the world of Harry Potter and then also Tolkien – they took me away to different worlds. I used to go to the library as a kid in school, and I would just sit and read them. It was a private time and a sense of escapism, in a way. And then I would look forward to the Peter Jackson films when the trailers were coming out. I got really excited, and I would look at the release date and go with friends. And I still have all my ticket stubs – I keep all my ticket stubs.

Lily, how did it feeling turning 30?

LC: It was great. I had a great time. It was going to happen regardless, so I thought I had better have a good attitude about it. I was filming in Birmingham, Alabama, and my mom flew up for my actual birthday. But then the next weekend two of my best friends from the age of five flew out. We took a road trip to Nashville. It was so fun. We had 36 hours. We rode horses and went to all of the honky-tonks. We went to the bars, wore cowboy boots and cowboy hats. It was great – just pure, innocent fun. And then I drove back, and I went to work the next day.

TOLKIEN IS RELEASED ON DIGITAL DOWNLOAD ON AUGUST 26 AND BLU-RAY™ & DVD ON SEPTEMBER 9.

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