WARM BODIES directed by Jonathan Levine, written by Levine from the novel by Isaac Marion, with Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, Rob Corddry, Analeigh Tipton and John Malkovich. An eOne Films release. 97 minutes. Opens Friday (February 1). For venues and times, see Movies.
The tall, striking 24-year-old - you may remember him as the awkward kid Hugh Grant pretended to take under his wing in About A Boy, or the tender young man who offers a despondent Colin Firth his sympathies in A Single Man - gets his first romantic lead in Warm Bodies, playing a lovelorn zombie who falls for a human.
In a post-apocalyptic America, R - he only remembers that much of his name - is a self-aware (if tragically inarticulate) zombie who finds himself smitten with Julie (Teresa Palmer, of The Sorcerer's Apprentice and I Am Number Four). And while the feeling isn't exactly mutual at the outset, R slowly wins her over. After all, he's loyal, handsome and a good listener. He'd be the perfect boyfriend, except for the whole brain-eating thing.
Warm Bodies offers a romantic twist on the zombie genre that we haven't seen before. The movie's being packaged as a naked bid for the tweens and teens who drove the Twilight saga to record box-office returns, and Hoult is being offered up as its (extremely pale) face.
"Nick is at a point in his career where he's still fresh - he still feels like a revelation," says Warm Bodies director and screenwriter Jonathan Levine. "A lot of movie actors are so good-looking, you wanna kick them in the face because you're not as good-looking as them. Nick is good-looking, but in a way that [makes] you want to be his friend."
While Levine credits Hoult's performance on the British television series Skins - "this amazing combination of charisma and vulnerability" - for catching his attention, Hoult says the thing that most intrigued him about playing R was the opportunity to act instead of talk.
"A lot of the time you read scripts and you think, ‘I don't need to say half of this; I can act it,'" the actor admits on a Toronto press stop.
"You're saying what you're thinking, which isn't what people do. I mean, it's obviously a little bit tricky to have a lead character who can't really communicate, but the main thing about him is that he wants to show Julie that he's trying his best, and he cares about her and he'll keep her safe."
"He did such a good job," says co-star Palmer. "It reminded me of The Diving Bell And The Butterfly in a sense: he's trapped, he can't express himself. Nick was able to give me so much without being able to say any words at all. He was so limited in his vocabulary in this film, it's just testament to what an incredible actor he is that I never felt alone in the scenes at all. I had so much to play opposite."
Hoult deflects the praise back to Palmer, citing Johnny Depp's scenes with Dianne Wiest in Edward Scissorhands as a touchstone.
"There's gotta be that same kind of balance to make it work," he says of his onscreen rapport with Palmer. "It's just focusing on what Teresa was doing, and that was nice, cuz she was acting really well. She did a good job, so I was just enjoying it."
The role of R contrasts with Hoult's other major recent role, the blue-furred mutant Hank McCoy in 2011's X-Men: First Class. Not only is McCoy famously articulate, but he spends most of the movie pining for Jennifer Lawrence's young Mystique. (The young co-stars became an off-screen couple during the shoot; news of their breakup began circulating earlier this month.)
"You know, when you hear the premise of a girl falling for a zombie - I was kind of sitting there saying, ‘Ah, come on, not again,'" he laughs. "So, yeah, you've got to give it time to grow and understand it and root for them individually, but also for them as a couple."
Despite its horror trappings, Warm Bodies is a romantic comedy - at least when certain characters aren't being quite so bitey. The film's midsection is essentially a series of exchanges between R and Julie.
"When two characters are so unlikely and shouldn't technically be together, it's important to see Julie warm up to R and to see R doing his best to just let that relationship develop," he says.
And just as Julie warms up to R, R literally warms up to her - becoming a little more talkative and a little less rotten.
"In terms of makeup, it was kind of a thing where Levine and I sat down and went through the script, so it was the makeup gradually changing, but also the speech and the movements - everything else improving as well," he says. "We found the key points when major changes would happen, and then Levine would keep an eye on me: ‘More zombie.' ‘Less zombie.' ‘Talk a bit faster.' Otherwise," he laughs, "it would have been a three-hour movie."
Hoult is looking forward to getting all blue and furry again for the X-Men sequel Days Of Future Past. The first shoot was a lot of fun, he says, especially once he realized the series continuity connected his Hank to Kelsey Grammer's performance in X-Men: The Last Stand.
"I wanted to do a subtle version of Grammer's voice," he says. "I watched a lot of Frasier; I was walking around the set doing Frasier Crane: ‘Niles!' [And] I read a lot of the comics, just to get a sense of what the character was supposed to be like. That way, if they needed him to do something in a scene, I could say, ‘Well, he says behoove a lot in the comics; why doesn't he say something like that?'"
Having spent the last few years going from one big studio project to the next - Clash Of The Titans, X-Men: First Class and March's Jack The Giant Slayer, with Days Of Future Past and next year's Mad Max sequel Fury Road still to come - Hoult says the relatively small scale of Warm Bodies almost felt like a character drama.
"Recently I've been doing the big actiony films and not doing a lot of dialogue. I miss just having a simple scene between two people just talking."
Even if one of them doesn't say all that much.