What The Tolkien Cast Found Hard About Researching Their Characters

Tolkien Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins dance in costume in the alley

When playing a real life figure like J.R.R. Tolkien, or his wife Edith Bratt, it takes a lot of research to make sure you’re doing your job well. It’s something that both Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins faced when preparing to star in director Dome Karukoski’s Tolkien, a biopic on the life experiences that lead the titular author to start writing the Middle-Earth franchise.

But when trying into character, both Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins found that there was a fair degree of difficulty and liberation when it came to portraying the couple that would eventually fall in love and get married during the events shown in Tolkien. And a lot of those difficulties came from the fact that the younger incarnations that they were inhabiting aren’t exactly captured in a lot of media that they can base their portrayals off of.

When CinemaBlend spoke with both Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins during the press day for Tolkien, the question of the hardest challenges when honing their characters came up. And in the case of Hoult, the actor had the following feedback to provide when it came to his own research efforts:

There was lots of fun little things, like that him and Edith [Bratt], his long time love, would throw sugar cubes in people's hats when they went for tea. And then he stole a bus, he was arrested for stealing a bus when he was younger at Oxford. But I just didn't know anything about the man behind the legend, so it was a steep learning curve. I was mispronouncing his name, to be honest with you. I was saying "Toll-kin," and I quickly realized that was the wrong pronunciation. I had to say "Toll-keen." And yeah, it's learning about those relationships that kind of gave him the safe environment to create, and it inspired him to then tell the stories he did.

The lack of footage for both J.R.R. Tolkien and Edith Bratt’s younger selves is something that certain actors might see as stifling for their own creative process. After all, you don’t want to go into a film like Tolkien and totally botch the characterization of the man who wrote The Lord of the Rings, or his beloved wife for that matter.

But as folks who see the movie will find, both actors are up to the task of portraying very humanized versions of Tolkien and Bratt, as they tell the story of their meeting, and eventually their falling in love. Without proper characters, this wouldn’t work in a fictitious narrative, but in the case of Tolkien, you have to believe that the love between Ronald and Edith is so strong, he’d create epic romances and ravishing Elvish beauties in the name of that love.

To that respect, Lily Collins saw the challenge of portraying Edith as a similar learning opportunity to that of her Tolkien co-star, as she provided the following answer to that same question:

For me it was a little different, because there’s no real footage of [Edith.] There’s not many photos, so it’s not like people can really compare what they know to be true of her, and then me. But I think, in general, when you are playing someone who has a public persona that people already know of, mannerisms, making sure that innately you seem to have understood their aura, and kind of just the character in general of how they acted. When you can directly compare it to video footage or photos, it’s always going to be difficult, because people have a preconceived idea walking in.

While Nicholas Hoult had footage of J.R.R. Tolkien’s interviews from later on in life to go off of, Lily Collins didn’t have anything of the sort when it came to her portrayal of Edith. While it’s certainly an added level of challenge, at the same time, Collins admits that so long as her performance landed in a zone of approximation that matched what was written about Edith Bratt, she was free to move her performance in any direction that suited the sort of aura surrounding Edith’s character.

You can see Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins explain this for themselves, in the video below from our sit-down during the Tolkien junket day:

Very rarely can any actor capture the complete essence of the person they’re playing in a biopic. But in the case of Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins, their portrayals of J.R.R. Tolkien and his wife are so well drawn, you can believe their story is not only true, but worthy of a happy ending.

The life story of Tolkien and his ultimate creation of Middle-Earth make for good movie watching, and audiences can see it for themselves as they see Tolkien in theaters, starting with early shows this evening. If you’re interested in further coverage on the film’s release, stay tuned to CinemaBlend as the week progresses.

Mike Reyes
Senior Movies Contributor

Mike Reyes is the Senior Movie Contributor at CinemaBlend, though that title’s more of a guideline really. Passionate about entertainment since grade school, the movies have always held a special place in his life, which explains his current occupation. Mike graduated from Drew University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science, but swore off of running for public office a long time ago. Mike's expertise ranges from James Bond to everything Alita, making for a brilliantly eclectic resume. He fights for the user.