A Chat With Nicholas Hoult Of ‘The Great,’ Who’s Getting Really Good At Playing The Bad Guy

If you ask Nicholas Hoult, he’ll blame the wigs. They’re one of the reasons why he’s gotten into the habit of playing scene-stealing baroque dandies in wildly funny period dramas. They’ve given him a new avenue to explore in his decades-long career and introduced him to eccentric, extremely GIF-able villains you can’t help but laugh at. They’re what allowed him to shove Emma Stone in a ditch in Yorgos Lanthimos’ Oscar-nominated The Favourite, and they’ve helped him get into character again for Hulu’s upcoming 18th-century punk Russian soap opera, The Great.

Of course, Tony McNamara is the bigger reason why Hoult seems to gravitate towards this time period and these completely-obtuse, too-powerful historical figures. He penned The Favourite before helming Hulu’s stylishly modern retelling of Catherine The Great’s early years. Elle Fanning may play the show’s leading heroine — a young woman thrust into the freakish, almost campy court of Peter III — but it’s Hoult who seems to be having the most fun with McNamara’s quick-witted, satirical script (of course, he’s also the one who gets to toss a Pomeranian off a balcony so…). We chatted with Hoult about his career evolution, not getting bored, and why 18th-century life feels oddly relevant right now.

You’re unnaturally talented when it comes to playing these aristocratic, asshole types. Does putting on a wig just do that to you?

Yeah, there’s just something in my DNA, where I put on a wig and I just turn into these bizarre humans. I do weirdly find it quite fun, playing these offbeat, very disconnected people, who have no sense of the world around them. That, with Tony’s writing, I think it’s just so singular and unique and fun. They’re characters that, you can feel like you can do anything, at any moment with them. That’s something that’s really liberating and freeing. They’re wild and untamable, but you’ve also got a construct of a great script that you can stick to.

Playing these really terrible characters, does it ever cause you to self-reflect?

I don’t know. In many ways, you have to always understand the voice, or where this character’s coming from, I suppose. Peter, he’s been put into this position where he never quite knows who he can trust. Also, he’s been put in this position. He doesn’t really want it. He just wants to have fun. Now, he’s stuck with all these things that he has to do that he doesn’t enjoy. It is interesting playing this character, because you don’t want him to be completely unlikeable and so far removed from being an understandable person, that there’s no redemption for him. He’s following in the footsteps of his father. His mother obviously tortured him as a child and scarred him. He does want to better himself at times. He’s trying to improve, but he just lacks certain social skills, and understanding to be able to work on that. It’s a little bit of a balancing act, I suppose, trying to create a character that’s very much in that gray area of, not fully good but not fully bad and so horrible that you just detest him.

I think that comes down to the comedy in the script because this show is so darkly funny. How do you do justice to that humor?

It’s always that thing of not trying to play jokes. I think I got a good education working with Tony’s writing and doing The Favourite — how Yorgos approached that process. It’s very much letting the words do the work for you, which is actually a brilliant thing as an actor, because it takes all pressure off you performing, or trying to make things funny. There’s nothing worse than reading a script that’s clearly meant to be funny, but isn’t, and I have to try and make it funny. Whereas this, you can really just let the words do the business for you, in a way.

There are plenty of absurd moments in the show, normally involving your character. Were any of those challenging to film?

The most difficult thing I found, honestly, was trying to not giggle on set when someone else had a funny line, or I had a funny line. There’s a weird thing where, it can completely take you out of the moment, when it actually becomes funny to you while you’re doing it. My stern voice has to come out and I have to say, “Come on. People want to get home to their families. You don’t want them to go home and complain about how this actor sucks, and he can’t say his lines without giggling.” I have to give myself a talking to.

You could try going full method.

Yeah, but then I’d be acting like I was the emperor of Russia for six months, which I don’t think, for normal life, is too habitable.

It sounds fun though.

It could be really fun, but I think I’d come out the other end a little bit shocked at what happened in life, and how I’d ended up in this position.

There’s such variety in the projects you’ve chosen, throughout your career. How do you approach choosing what you’re going to work on next?

It’s definitely a thought process. I think I’d just get bored as an actor, and as a person, if I was rehashing the same type of character, or genre of show, film, whatever. I always want to be evolving and trying something new. That is a very much conscious decision, whenever I get sent a script. I enjoy trying to make bold characters, I guess. Obviously, it depends on which character you’re playing and what world they’re in, but it is fun when you get to play these slightly more obscene, larger than life characters, that you can fully commit to. That then is just a fun environment to be in, as long as if you’ve got good people around you that you trust. It’s wild. It’s a let loose kind of relief.

This is a show about incompetent leaders and how disconnected they are. It’s set in the 18th century, but it feels oddly relevant.

Yeah, definitely. It’s politics. Because of the year the show’s set, it’s very much on the microscopic level. Peter’s always having his ear bent, whether it be by the church, the aristocrats, Catherine, or all these people trying to get their way, keep their power and manage their interests. I think that’s very much what’s going on in the world. I’m a fan of Veep, and those sorts of shows, that do a similar thing, in a similar tone in some ways, where they take a look at what’s happening. Sometimes, the ridiculous elements of those things are actually, probably closer the truth than we’d like to admit.

I like that you referenced Veep because I feel like maybe this is just a historically based, period Veep with more wigs.

There you go.

Hulu’s ‘The Great’ premieres on May 15.