By Susan Wloszczyna
Most American moviegoers first laid eyes on Nicholas Hoult as Marcus, the gawky 12-year-old London lad who latches onto Hugh Grant's shallow cad of a father figure in the 2002 comedyAbout a Boy.
Ears are probably still ringing from his "social-suicide" school-recital rendition of Roberta Flack's Killing Me Softly With His Song.
What a difference a decade or so makes.
Just like the centerpiece beanstalk in Hoult'sJack the Giant Slayer, a male-driven addition to Hollywood's ongoing fascination with live-action fairy tales that arrives Friday, the cherub-lipped 23-year-old actor with the distinctive Mr. Spock brows has sprouted into quite a striking specimen.
Model handsome and hovering near 6-foot-3, he has matured into a rare commodity: a soulful man of action who appeals to ga-ga girls and geeky guys alike.
Jackwas supposed to come out last summer, but was pushed to this year to better accommodate the massive task of fine-tuning its special effects. The delay proved surprisingly fortuitous, allowing Hoult to blossom into a full-fledged celebrity.
The reason? The paparazzi descended once he began dating Jennifer Lawrence, the freshly crowned best-actress Oscar winner fromSilver Linings Playbookand his fellow blue-hued mutant in 2011'sX-Men: First Class. That is, until they broke up in January.
Yet Hoult soon found a consolation prize after topping the box office with his first movie lead as a love-struck zombie who falls for a living human in the romantic horror comedyWarm Bodies.
A sign of his rising profile: He has been the target of a fake Twitter account. In retaliation, he started his own - @NicholasHoult - a month ago and already has 80,000-plus followers.
As a result, "We've got a movie star now," says Bryan Singer, the director ofJack the Giant Slayer,who worked with the actor as the producer and co-writer of theX-Menprequel. Hoult first crossed over into more adult roles as Colin Firth's angora-sweater-swathed object of desire in 2009'sA Single Manand by playing a sexually voracious teen on the racy U.K. TV seriesSkins.Still,Jackis a giant step into the realm of being a headliner.
"Unlike the Hemsworth brothers, Chris and Liam, or Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult has a different quality," says Paul Dergarabedian, Hollywood.com box-office analyst. "He has a physical presence, but doesn't come off as hulking. He has a look that allows him to be a lead in a comedy, romance or an action movie, and isn't limited to being the big hero.''
Hoult had competition for the role of Jack, includingAnna Karenina's high-society rogue Aaron Taylor-Johnson. But as a fan of his work onSkins, Singer knew Hoult was the best choice: "Not only is he really talented and charismatic, but he can also be vulnerable. He has some Hugh Grant-isms about him, some 'aw shucks-isms' that are endearing."
Never more so than when Jack dons ye olde adorable hoodie before scrambling up the famous stalk to rescue a princess from monstrous behemoths in the sky.
He also impressed his elder co-stars. Says Stanley Tucci, who plays villainous royal adviser Roderick: "He is so pretty, tall and slender, and very nice. A hard worker and a professional."
But as an interview subject, Hoult seems to be channeling his stiff zombie-esque persona more than a robust storybook warrior when speaking on the phone. He is polite. He is pleasant. He only balks when urged to confirm that he is currently single and fancy-free.
His answer? A moment of silence.
There is no mistaking him for a raconteur, but at least he makes an attempt. Asked whether bringing a fairy-tale icon to life was fun, Hoult replies, "No matter what role you are playing, you try to have fun. The best stuff happens when you can relax on set."
Do people often say they can't believe he was the dorky kid inAbout a Boy? "I still have that. When I visit friends and they have kids now, I think, 'Wait a minute? How much time has passed.' I really enjoyed doing it. At that point, acting was more of a hobby, a fun outside-of-school activity."
What would be his dream role? "Bond. I'd really like to play Bond. I need a few more miles on the clock, though."
He also requires more free space on his calendar before he comes close to fitting in a swing at 007 any time soon. Next year, Hoult will be seen as Nux the driver inMad Max: Fury Roadopposite Hardy and Charlize Theron; he'll reprise his role as Beast in a Singer-directedX-Men: Days of Future Past;and he'll appear opposite Michael Shannon and Elle Fanning in the futuristic thrillerYoung Ones.
However, all work and no play makes Jack - and Nicholas - a dull boy, and Singer suggests there is more to Hoult than meets than ear. "He has a dry, dark, funny side. Every day he came on set with a new routine on how to turn a scene into an X-rated version ofJack the Giant Slayer."
Eleanor Tomlinson, who plays the actor's empowered-princess love interest Isabelle, got a taste of that prankish side when Hoult and Singer pulled a fast one on her while filming on location at Norwich Cathedral in England.
"There were suits of armor lined up and they put a prop guy hiding behind one," she says. "I had to run down the corridor past the armor. Everyone had their iPhones at the ready to record it. I was supposed to yell, 'Jack!' And the prop guy jumps out and grabs me. I had never been so terrified."
Still, Tomlinson forgave her co-star enough to give their lone smooch her best effort. After all, "There are much worse people to kiss than Nicholas Hoult."