During this year’s movie awards season, the rumours were swirling: is Nicholas Hoult, the one-time English child star turned teenage hunk, still dating Jennifer Lawrence, the willowy American superstar-ingenue with whom he starred in X-Men: First Class and who, last month, won the best actress Academy Award for Silver Linings Playbook?
"Um, well...” falters Hoult with a mutter, in the way he begins many a sentence, “You can kinda see that we’re not..."
And that, pretty much, is as far as he’ll go on the matter. Which is fair enough. For one thing, Hoult – famous since his appearance alongside Hugh Grant in the hit adaptation of Nick Hornby’s About a Boy – has never been much of a public talker. In subsequent interviews he revealed himself to be a pretty normal British kid: a bit mumbly, a tad sulky, totally suburban (he’s from Wokingham, Berkshire) and about as far as you could get from his buffed, polished, PR-drilled Stateside peers. As he says now, film sets are great and all that but, "I get fed up being told where to go, what to wear, what to say, how to say it, where to look, what time I’m waking up, what time I’m leaving, what time I’ll be home."
He’s not one for the industry hoopla, either. "I presented an award at the Baftas but avoided the dinner and the after-party. I went out with some mates in Soho – went to Bodean’s BBQ, had some drinks, had some pork. It was great."
Right now, the actor – 23 years old, 6ft 3in, handsomeness-on-a-stick – is friendly but frazzled. He’s just flown in from LA to promote his new film, fairy-tale reboot Jack the Giant Slayer (in cinemas Friday 22 March), in which he plays the eponymous killer of grumpy behemoths. He loved working with Ewan McGregor, Bill Nighy and Ian McShane, but concedes, "There was a lot of looking up at a tennis ball, 20 foot in the air – and that’s the giant."
It comes hot on the heels of another round of PR in America, where he was promoting his other current film, Warm Bodies, a post-Twilight zombie love story, which topped the US box office on its opening weekend.
"I’m really thrilled for everyone that it did so well," he smiles of a film in which he made an excellent fist of a performance largely based on a lot of grunting, shuffling and staring. "It’s the highest opening for a zombie romcom ever," he beams. "Well, it’s the only zombie romcom ever."
Thinking back to his movie breakthrough, Hoult admits that he had no sense of ambition, or of his future. "I really enjoyed making About a Boy. But if there was a cricket game going next door, I’d be more interested in playing in that than doing the scene. It wasn’t like I was thinking, ‘Oh, this is gonna to be a career, let’s focus on acting.’"
Did he get stick at school? "Not really, no. No one at school really cared. I get more stick from my mates now. They love it! They’ll sit there in the cinema, watching me, and p*** themselves. But I’d much rather have that than people going, ‘Wow, that was amazing,’" he chuckles, adding with a shudder that he couldn’t live in LA – too much luvvie air-kissing and ego-licking.
A Single Man, in which he played the student who bedazzles Colin Firth’s depressed academic, was the role that attracted his best notices. But the E4 series Skins remains the part for which he’s most recognised. "You’re in people’s houses each week on TV, so it’s kinda different from people going to the cinema to watch you in a film."
He coped with the attention partly by "staying out in the country", at home with his piano teacher mum and pilot dad, both now retired, and three siblings. "It was odd..." he reflects, just about. "It was just odd," he repeats. "Then it died down and it was fine."
For all today’s slumped-in-the-chair fatigue and hard-to-hear shruggery, Hoult is living the dream. He’s just completed seven months in Africa, filming a new Mad Max epic alongside Tom Hardy. He wiled away the long hours on set by skipping to lose weight. And by knitting.
"A make-up artist taught me," he says, insisting that he’s not lying. "No, I didn’t knit this jumper," picking at his slightly gnarly student-y sweater, "But I did knit these underpants... no," he grins, "I’ve stopped. Although I did become obsessed with it. I made two scarves, a snood and five hats. It was such a masculine set – I’m sitting there with my shaved head and full-on make-up... knitting."
He’s also in the middle of the six-week Colorado shoot for Young Ones, the new film by Jake Paltrow, brother of Gwyneth. Next month, filming begins on the new X-Men movie. And after that, Hoult will begin work on a big screen adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong, which has long been his favourite book.
All of which, means that Hoult still calls his parents’ house home. "But I’m looking for my own place!" he insists, suddenly voluble, lest we think he’s a cosseted mummy’s boy. As soon as he’s finished the Paltrow film, and right before he reprises his role as a scientist-turned-beast mutant in the X-Men blockbuster, he’s
on a mission to find himself a pad.
"So, any estate agents out there," he says, mustering a wink, "let me know of any bargains." Preferably one with a nice, light-filled front-room for the knitting.
Jack the Giant Slayer is in UK cinemas from 22 March