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"Only connect," wrote E.M. Forster at the beginning of his masterpiece Howards End, coming up with one of the great summations of humanity, and that exhortation colors every frame of Tom Ford's sensual and poignant debut, A Single Man. Making the jump from a notorious, sexy (and sometimes quite silly) career in fashion, Ford's film is remarkably self-assured, taking the audience into a simple day in the life of college professor George Falconer (Colin Firth), a buttoned-up Englishman lost in America, deep in mourning for his partner, Jim (Matthew Goode), who has died in a car accident. Adapted from Christopher Isherwood's novel (he also wrote Berlin Stories, which became Cabaret), we watch as Falconer moves through his day, meeting with characters such as his lifelong friend Charley (Julianne Moore) and a persistent, curious student, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult).
Set—significantly—in 1962, Falconer's world is orderly and bleak, rendered in muted tones: his gorgeous California abode, all pine and glass, his yellowing office at the college, or Charley's pastel mod home. Both Ford and Firth do a fine job of getting the audience in Falconer's head. A gun appears in the first act, thus the day is set with dread: it appears to be Falconer's last day on earth, and as he makes his march, he starts connecting—noticing aspects of people and human life—and the screen fills with luscious color.
Ford has a sure hand with actors. Firth gives a revelatory performance, ably supported by his costars. In a short amount of time Firth and Moore conjure up a lifetime of companionship. Then there's Hoult, who is probably most familiar to American audiences as the twelve-year-old dork tutored in being cool by Hugh Grant in About a Boy. (He also made an impression—mostly in England—in the cult TV show Skins, which also introduced Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel.) All grown up, lit and shot like an Adonis, Kenny's intentions and interest towards Falconer serves as a source of shifting fascination. Hoult avoids making the character into a naive puppy (into which it could have easily devolved) and instead renders him into something more opaque in his stunning pas de deux with Firth.
I talked to Hoult at the Weinstein Company offices. He just finished shooting Clash of the Titans and is also busy with modeling (where he's the new face of Tom Ford International). Tall (6'3"), handsome, and best of all, interesting looking in person, it's easy to see why his combination of features—lush lips, striking blue eyes, and a slightly Cro-Magnon brow—lead him to appear quite malleable on screen and in photographs, where he's devastating one minute and sort of dorky the next. (Considering he's a mere twenty years old, I suspect he's going to grow out of the dorkiness.) He had a bright, alert energy, said the word "whereby" all the time, and made me laugh out loud. At one point he blurted, "This is a very serious piece we're writing. Oh, well, it's not we're writing, no. [Laughs.] This isn't a very serious piece. I'm sorry!"
Tribeca Film: How did you get to this role?
Nicholas Hoult: This came on very late for me, maybe two weeks or so before they started shooting. There's kind of a lot of different versions of this story, I think. (Rumor has it Jamie Bell originally had the role.) Point is, about two weeks before, I sent a tape over auditioning and I got an email from Tom saying how much he liked my audition and he thought I made a very good Kenny. And they said, "Can you come out and play?" I came out, I met Tom, I had dinner, and then it was like, get a visa, get spray-tanned, cut my hair, work on the American accent: shoot! Go!
Tribeca: How long did it take to nail the American accent?
NH: Tom said when I sent the tape over, there was one word that was wrong. Perception. There's more emphasis on the Per in American dialect. Per-ception, per-ception. In this British accent it's more [says the word with no emphasis] perception. I worked with great dialect coaches [who] made it quite specific to the era. It's having the confidence and the ability to forget about the accent on set because the last thing you want to be doing is worrying about how you sound. You need to be concentrating on other parts and the moment in the scene. In the morning we'd do these exercises that I'd never shown anyone before because they're very odd. It's quite relaxing, it's like therapy, the more you do them. Start working the sounds to get into the accent and then just start speaking it for the day and it seemed to just become your own voice. After five minutes or so it sounds pretty natural and you go about your day.
Tribeca: There seems to be a lot of careful calibration in your playing of Kenny. I felt like he could've easily have been this eager little puppy of a boy, and I didn't get that from your performance at all. Which is great!
NH: It's always interesting to see people's different opinions on the role, because nobody's come out and understood him fully, yet. Which is a good thing, I think. I think if it was too on the surface with Kenny, I think it would be boring. It would be annoying, as well, in the film, when Colin's doing such a fantastic performance.
The character was written superbly by Tom, and has a lot of Tom within it, and he was very understanding of everything he was feeling and going through. Which helped a lot—yeah, I tried, not to play him as a puppy, a lot of people see him as a predator and stuff—I kind of see him as someone who's very present in the moment, and living life full on, which is an exciting prospect to play a character like that, which is not a live wire in a bad sense. There's a lot of constraints on people in life and [they] kind of subdue themselves and don't want to stand out, or do anything that's perceived as weird. Whereas Kenny's just kind of young, but he's breaking through that.
Tribeca: And you do get to be in glorious color throughout most of the film! Did you know that was a motif?
NH: No, no, no, we weren't aware. When Tom was adapting the book and everything—the book's taking place completely inside George's head. He had to think of ways, throughout the day, without nattering on. Tom pretty much wanted to make a silent film—because film's a visual medium—a silent film and then layer on the dialogue over that, but you should be able to go through it and understand it... sorry, I'm just continuously talking!
The color thing was something that he didn't mention to us while we were on set. That's partly George's emotions throughout the day, where he sees things of beauty and interest to him, and he's actually looking at things for the first time. What I picked up while watching it was that thing we get from life—we don't really properly connect with people most of the time and it's all on the surface, and you're in your own little space. You don't stop and smell things or see things for the real beauty within them. I think that's a great thing that hopefully people will take away from this. Maybe they'll start doing that.
Tom added the color and saturation thing as ways of telling George's story and emotion and also the score, that's very key to that, he got great composers, and the strings come over and really help you get intimate with George. Not that you need any help, because Colin's a fantastic actor and the great thing was, the stillness,. You're allowed to be with George and be still with him. Tom wasn't trying anything fancy with the camera, he stood back and let it happen. For a first time director—even though he didn't seem like it—he was unbelievably prepared and had great vision, to not overdo things. That's very brave and fantastic.
He wrote such a fantastic screenplay. I read [it] and then realized that I can work more from the screenplay for the actual part because it was so different, and quite autobiographical on Tom's part—he put a lot of himself in the character. The understanding of thoughts he's going through.
Tribeca: Your eyes—which are fairly blue—were really popping throughout the film, too.
NH: Part of it was the tan. I don't work without tanning anymore! It's very key to the personality [we laugh] and it accentuates the eyes.
Tribeca: How do you approach playing such sexually frank roles? Skins was rather notorious in its depictions of teens and sex and drugs and in this case, there's lots of nudity...
NH: Well, I'm very sexually restrained, so it's quite odd.
NH: Why is that odd?
Tribeca: Well, you're British, so, of course.
NH: [He laughs.] They're very different in the way they approach things, Kenny is sort of someone who is looking to understand himself and the world around him, and to find a connection with another human being. Which I think is a fantastic thing in life because there's not enough time and we do rarely connect with people on a different level. Tony in Skins was a character who was malicious and did things because he could—and to create entertainment for himself and to spruce things up—which is a very different approach. Kenny doesn't have that side of things, he's still slightly naive and I think shy in a way. He does this and goes out in a way and puts himself on the line, I think, in the scene I bare all—bare my soul is the way that Tom described it—and there's a beat, and it goes very awkward, and you can see this breakdown and shyness whereby he goes out with women, and he doesn't know what he's doing.
Tribeca: It must be sort of funny talking so much about human connection in what is, pretty much, an artificial set-up [i.e., half-hour interviews and roundtables with a variety of journalists].
NH: Every time I say that I feel slightly ironic. Yesterday [at the A Single Man press conference], in particular, it was my birthday and I was sitting there thinking, "This is rubbish, I'm spending my birthday with people I don't know, telling them things about this movie. This isn't right."
Tribeca: How did the premiere go?
NH: The first one we did was Venice, which was insane, and I've never experienced anything quite like it: the red carpet there was extreme. Seeing the film for the first time on a huge screen—the cinema seats about 1000 people, I think—sitting there and watching there, the great sound system and the huge screens, the subtleties of Colin's performance and what Tom had done in the edit and seeing other people's work: it was really special and I was proud of it. Colin won the best actor award as well and he was chuffed to bits about it. It got close to a ten-minute ovation there. It's amazing how much it touched everyone who saw it.