This year’s South by Southwest festival is in full swing, which means that some of the buzziest names in film, tech, and music have descended upon Austin to search for the next big thing. And in Owen Harris’ Kill Your Friends, out April 1, Nicholas Hoult stars as an A&R man in the ‘90s Britpop scene who’s determined to do just that.
John Niven adapted his 2008 cult-favorite novel for the big screen, and the film version of Kill Your Friends stars Nicholas Hoult as Steven Stelfox, a chillingly devious A&R man in 1997 who won’t let his distaste for music or his competitive coworkers impede his quest for ultimate power. Even if that means taking out anything — or anyone — that gets in his way.
Stelfox’s quest to sign the next hit artist leads him to SXSW, and EW has an exclusive clip from the film of Stelfox’s trip to Austin. Below, we talked to Hoult about embodying such a ruthless character — and the unlikely TV star he turned to for inspiration.
You actually got the script for Kill Your Friends a couple years ago, right?
Yeah, it was a very random script process, because I was sitting in Hyde Park in London, and [a producer] walked up to me and said, “I’ve got this script called Kill Your Friends.” And obviously, in my mind, I was like, “Um, okay. I’ll give you my agent’s details, but I don’t expect to ever see a script or for anything to come of this.” And then a little while later, I actually got the script and read it, and at that point, I didn’t feel that I was old enough to play the character. It was quite early on in the process of it getting developed, and it just didn’t feel right.
I think it was maybe a year later, they came back around, and they had hired Owen Harris to direct it, and I read the script again, and I don’t know. At that point, I was like, yeah, why not? Let’s give it a bash. Something had changed in that year where I felt more capable of taking this on.
So what was it that really hooked you the second time you read the script?
I liked John’s writing a lot. I find it dark and very twisted and kind of observant. It delves into the music industry, and for my friends who are in the music industry or who’ve been in the music industry, it can be quite a horrid place. Like any industry, I guess, depending on what side of things you’re on. I just thought John just had such an interesting take on it, and this character was irredeemable. It just kind of made me chuckle, in a way that maybe I shouldn’t have.
Did you have any hesitation at all about tackling such an unsympathetic character? Stelfox is so manipulative and bloodthirsty and generally pretty awful.
Not really, because I’m not someone who’s trying to form a career on people thinking, “Oh, he always plays the nice guy” or that sort of thing. I didn’t really have any reservations. I mean, taking on any role, there’s always reservations in terms of, can you do it? Is it going to work? You get to set for the first day, and then you’re like, “Alright, now I’ve actually got to do this,” and that’s quite a terrifying prospect with any role. There’s certainly roles that you look at, and you think, I’ve got an idea of how to do that, and that’s within my comfort zone, and I think this role was not in my comfort zone of what I’ve been doing and what’s more natural for me to do perhaps. So it was a good challenge.
The movie walks this really interesting line between black comedy and some really dark, intense moments. Was it tough to find the right tone?
That was more down to Owen and John than for me. For me, it was always playing it fairly straight. I’m never playing this particular type of thing as comedy. But I think it’s something that sometimes audiences have a difficult time reading. It’s so darkly funny at times or wrong that you really aren’t quite sure whose side to be on or what is acceptable to chuckle at, and it kind of challenges people a little bit in that. There’s a couple of moments where I sit there and I go, ohhhh, that’s probably a little too close for comfort. But it’s based on something quite true, because John did work as an A&R man in the music industry in the ‘90s. Quite a lot of the story is fictional, but the characters and things are based on real people and the events are very similar to real events that happened.
You play an A&R man who’s not interested in music, even though that’s his whole job. But did you do any research or try to immerse yourself in ‘90s music? Was there anything you were listening to?
Well, because of the fact that my character has no interest in ‘90s music or music whatsoever really, there wasn’t any need for me immerse myself in the music of the time. But luckily, we’ve got a great soundtrack, because lots of musicians love the book and are fans of it and John. So they’ve very kindly given us their music to use, which is great because it is a kind of trip down memory lane when you hear some of those songs. You’ve got Radiohead and Oasis and all these classics. I was just kind of on the brink of that. In ’96, I was like 7 years old, so What’s The Story Morning Glory was one of the first albums I bought. That was kind of my musical awakening, in some ways, to use a terrible term.
But in terms of research, you know, hanging out with A&R people within the music industry, and I met a few of the people characters were loosely based on and things like that, so that was more useful in that sense. And then watching Kevin Spacey in House of Cards. He has a great way of breaking the fourth wall, so watching a lot of that as well, because there were times when I had to do that, which is a very tricky thing to pull off.
That’s such an interesting place to look to for inspiration. What was it about Spacey in House of Cards that you focused on?
It’s that sort of disconnect between public persona and private thought. It can be a tricky thing to do, but it’s kind of what’s going on with every single person in the world. I mean, people rarely say exactly what they’re thinking at any given moment.