But in fact, as directed and adapted by Jonathan Levine (The Wackness, 50/50) from Isaac Marion’s yearning, existential 2011 novel, Warm Bodies feels more rooted in the sort of achingly bittersweet teen “outsider” films of the ’80s.
Plus, the new film’s high-concept Romeo and Juliet premise–an overly sensitive zombie boy known only as “R” falls for Julie, a pretty, apocalypse survivor –is nicely grounded by honest, likable performances by British actor Nicholas Hoult (About a Boy, A Single Man, X-Men: First Class, and next month’s Jack the Giant Slayer) and Australian actress Teresa Palmer (I Am Number Four, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and the upcoming Terrence Malick film Knight of Cups). Warm Bodies also stars Analeigh Tipton, Rob Corddry, Dave Franco, and John Malkovich.
I sat down in Chicago a few weeks ago to chat with the with the equally charming Hoult and Palmer about Warm Bodies, the Zen of Zombies, and little chocolates made to look like pebbles.
Warm Bodies is currently playing in theaters everywhere.
These are candy?
Nicholas Hoult: They’re chocolate! Delicious!
You’re just trying to get me to eat rocks, aren’t you?
Hoult: I didn’t believe it either, but then I’ve licked wallpaper before because someone told me that was edible, so…
Was this when you were 10 years old?
Palmer: This was last week.
Now all I want to do is keep eating these chocolate rocks.
Hoult: Can we preface the interview that we were eating rocks throughout?
Palmer: Chompin’ on the rocks.
Palmer: It was a new and refreshing idea, just a unique concept. I’d never seen a zombie film told from the perspective of the zombie. I loved that they injected humor and romance, plus there was action, kind of this mishmash of genres.
Hoult: I really liked the script. This character I cared about and understood. And with Jonathan Levine directing, I thought it was something that could be very cool.
Palmer: I love The Wackness.
Did you read Isaac Marion’s book Warm Bodies?
Hoult: I read the book after I got the part. I read the script first, liked that, met Jonathan, got the role, and then read the book as kind of a little bit of extra knowledge. It’s great, really well written and gives insight into a lot of things the script couldn’t—the feelings, the thoughts, it’s all in there. The book is very different – for example, R has a zombie family in the book. But the script, a lot of the time, can condense that and make it a lot more streamlined for me to get my head around.
Palmer: To be honest, it was really all there in the script. Julie was a very well-rounded character, strong, brave. I thought she was sassy and had a good sense of humor. I just wanted to get beneath all of that and bring some of my essence to the character, too. I was so happy that the groundwork had already been done for me, so I just had to be there and try and be as present as possible and let this relationship develop organically without too much over-thought.
Was it a challenge to convey that Julie is falling in love with a zombie?
Palmer: We really wanted this movie to be grounded in reality, and that meant that she needs to be petrified by R at the start of the film, otherwise there’s nowhere to go. Because of her genuine love for life, despite the dismal circumstances she lives in, it enabled me to play around with the fact that she’s very fearful, but then notices R is very different from how they perceive zombies to be, that fear turns into curiosity. And it’s that curiosity that ultimately turns into fascination, then admiration, then love.
So it just felt really kind of natural. I think it’s a mutually beneficial relationship because they breathe life back into each other. Even though she does have a bright spark inside of her, Julie still needs to find her passion again. And R just ignites something in her, and it changes not just the couple, but everyone around them.
Hoult: The nice thing about it is that it’s obviously not the stereotypical relationship in many ways, but Jonathan and the script gives it time to grow, so it’s not just thrust upon the audience.
Palmer: You have to believe these two can fall for each other.
Hoult: It give you time to see them get to know each other, trying to communicate, and her sensing something different about him.
Over the course of the film, R slowly becomes more “alive,” less “undead.” Nicholas, during filming was it tricky keeping track of where the character was emotionally?
Hoult: Yes, we went through the movie and found a basis, a place to start with zombieism, and then Jonathan and I went through and found the key points where something happened. Those moments where R’s speech or movements would improve a little bit, and he would come back a little more to life. Jonathan would guide me on set as to whether I was in the right mode at any time. “Talk less zombie, talk faster, otherwise it’s gonna be a three-hour movie!”
Palmer: And I would always have to get sped up. I was looking at him and feeling things and pausing, and Jonathan would say, “Let’s do a take that’s a little bit faster.”
Did you find yourself slowing down in scenes with R because he was speaking slower, pacing yourself to him?
Palmer: I did!
Hoult: People generally become a lot slower around me.
Palmer: I find there’s a lot of beauty in stillness, and in our relationship there’s so much unspoken, it’s the moments in between words that were really magical, so I like to linger in those moments a little too long. But yes, R’s manner was slowing me down, pacing me down, more gentle.
Nicholas, to find the character of R, did you start with the sensitive youth inside him and layer the zombie mannerisms over that?
Hoult: It was about getting the physical and verbal stuff of the zombie, and then having that become natural enough that I wasn’t thinking about it. I was just thinking about Teresa and the other people in the scene and focusing on him trying to communicate with them and connect, and being trapped inside. So that was the road I went down. Hopefully it worked.
It did. The film works because both your performances work.
Hoult: There’s a nice balance to it. When we first did an audition together, I knew Teresa would be really great for it, because I’m not doing a lot on screen and she’s got this positive energy and this spark and that smile that lights up. So you could see why as a zombie R might decide not to eat her and instead try to change.
How do you guys deal with balancing the film’s different genres; the action zombie Walking Dead movie vs. the awkward young romance film?
Palmer: It’s almost a character piece inside an action film.
Hoult: I like that balance. It’s one of those things where playing it I never tried to differentiate between the different modes, but to just be honest to the character and focus on that. Then Jonathan could sculpt it and fit all those things in together to make it work. You can’t suddenly be like, “Now we’re in action mode.”
Palmer: It doesn’t serve you well in my opinion as an actor to be over analytical of pace and themes and genres. Just be present, breathe, have a connection with the person you’re working opposite. That’s the main thing, and it really is up the direction to mold the tone of the film around your performance.
From this, The Wackness, and 50/50, it feels like Jonathan Levine has a different, effective approach with actors.
Palmer: I just loved, loved, loved that he was so open to us having our own interpretations of the characters, and Jonathan put his trust in us and let us follow our own instincts–it was incredibly liberating. If something felt inauthentic, he would tell us to scrap it—he wasn’t married to his words. He’d say, “If it doesn’t feel right, say what feels right—tell me what feels better.” That’s rare in a director, and it’s nice.
Palmer: And full of passion.
Hoult: That’s infectious, and creates a nice atmosphere on set. Everyone was relaxed and having a good time.
Palmer: I think it translates on screen, setting that positive atmosphere, and having that energy throughout the shoot. It was integral to bringing this movie to life. It felt fun because we were all really having fun, and the crew loved what they were doing, too.
Hoult: It felt more like an indie film.
Teresa, I have to tell you, I’m trying very hard to not to ask you about working with Malick. Are you even allowed to talk about King of Cups?
Palmer: He keeps his stuff very private, but even I wanted to talk, I don’t know really know much about it. I know the vibe of it, but I don’t understand exactly what the story is. I think they’re gonna find it in post.
Hoult: I drew you a picture of a tiger in the jungle.
Thank you, this is excellent! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to fill my pockets with little chocolate stones before I go.
[Note: I thought I was special because Hoult drew me a picture, but later I learned he drew almost everyone in the press a picture. Though not of a tiger...]