Jack and Princess Isabelle, the two central characters of this weekend's Jack and the Giant Slayer, stand apart from most the archetypically generic heroes of Hollywood's fantasy films because they're recognizably human. That doesn't mean they're not culled from the pages of fairy tales — thanks to the stylings of director Bryan Singer (X-Men, Superman Returns) the movie pops with color, imagination, and breezy thrills — but Jack and Isabelle are distinct because they feel human.
Bringing that naturalism to the fantastical are actors Nicholas Hoult and Eleanor Tomlinson, who both worked with Singer to bring your usual fairy tale characters into the 21st century. "One of the things that drew me to Isabelle was that she's different than your normal princess," says Tomlinson. "She's feisty. She doesn't want to be a piece of history as a king's daughter. She wants to experience the real world. She's a peoples' princess." For inspiration, Tomlinson turned to one of her acting heroes. "I went along the lines of Sigourney Weaver type characters. I think she's a very powerful woman. I'm a big Sigourney Weaver fan. Alien is just like… oh God. It's amazing. And in Avatar, she was just inspirational."
Hoult has scaled his own beanstalk to become a full-fledged Hollywood leading man, was happy to discover a meaty part in Jack. "It's fun having characters who are a bit more leading in films because you get more time to develop them, but there's also a bit of pressure that comes with that, to carry the film," says the actor. Hoult found ways to make Jack his own, and in turn, a more relatable hero. When he first received the script, Hoult says Jack was written as your typical, bumbling everyman. Together with Singer, he injected his own sense of humor into the part. "We could joke around, bat around lines and like them and keep them in the film. It was quite freeing. We could invent, create stuff as we went along. It wasn't too rigid."
On the set of a blockbuster movie like Jack, the challenge isn't simply getting into character. It's finding a groove then sticking to it while climbing up an enormous beanstalk set or invisible giants start are lifting you into the air. Hoult admits that, while he's done a few movies with heavy special effects and green screen work, he's never done one with characters that would only appear after he's done shooting. "The giants on this… it took imagination and timing to figure out what they're doing on screen so you can figure out how to react and work with them. I don't think my imagination could emulate what ends up on the screen. The performances they capture from Bill Nighy is very subtle and realistic."
Jack's villains were the creation of a crack team of computer graphic experts, enhanced from their original form on set: tennis balls. "For the eyelines it was tennis balls on a stick, which was pretty intense," says Tomlinson. "Very testing as an actress because you've got to make the audience believe there really is the most terrifying, ugly giant sitting in front of you. But it's just an orange tennis ball." Though looking back, Tomlinson wishes that all of her giant costars had been little orange spheres.
"The stuff for when the giant has to grab me, they made a body mold made of hard plastic that I would lie in and it was on a metal gimbal and they would dress me over that. My armor would go over that. And then the gimple would move, throw you upside down, turn you round and round." Although it may have been physically demanding, the rig put Tomlinson in the right mindset. "Most of the screaming [in the movie] is, 'Ow, God, this hurts!'"
Hoult and Tomlinson trained for two months to prepare for Jack and the Giant Slayer, including horse back riding and practice climbing sessions on the constructed beanstalks. From the sound of Hoult's voice, that was the easy part. What killed him was the hair. It's always the hair.
"I had to make my hair a little longer, so they could make a little texture in the hair," says Hoult. "The occasional wind shear and the gel there. It was a whole thing to itself." The actor says that transformation is why he was drawn to becoming an actor but that the work on Jack was even more demanding than on his previous film, 2013's Warm Bodies. "Funnily enough, it probably took as much makeup to make me look human as it did to make me look like a zombie. Trying to make my hair look like a swashbuckling hero. Very time consuming."
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[Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures]