LOS ANGELES — Compared to those lucky, sparkly vampires, zombies usually get a raw deal in romance. Sure, both are undead and must feast on the living, but a passionate neck bite has much more aesthetic appeal than ravenous brain slurping. There is also the issue of rotting flesh, but in “Warm Bodies,” stars Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer overcome the cultural differences.
Based on Isaac Marion's young adult novel, “Warm Bodies” is an update of “Romeo and Juliet” set during a zombie apocalypse. But Hoult's character, who calls himself “R” because his atrophied zombie brain cannot recall his full name, begins the story already dead, a victim of a plague that turned most humans into stumbling, frustrated corpses.
Hoult said he relished the challenge of playing a character with severe communication difficulties and a seemingly inescapable stigma attached to him. But while “R” breaks ground as a zombie love interest, Hoult said he spent time studying the best of undead cinema to get his moves down.
“I watched a lot in the buildup to this, as many zombie films as possible,” Hoult said during a press day at Los Angeles' Four Seasons Hotel. “Right back from the '80s classics up until ‘Shaun of the Dead' and ‘Zombieland' and ‘28 Days Later,' just for ideas and a sense of what I was getting into.”
But Hoult said director Jonathan Levine (“The Wackness,” “50/50”) suggested a few possible influences that went beyond the zombie canon. Between checking out examples of characters trapped inside uncooperative bodies and practicing his shuffling, stumbling gait, Hoult found a way to bring his dead character to life.
“We watched other films — ‘Edward Scissorhands,' as well, stuff like that,” said Hoult, who made his film debut when he was 12 years old in “About a Boy” and went on to play Beast in “X Men: First Class.”
“There is that fine line: He is undead, he eats brains,” he said. “I guess with this, the movement fell into shape, the grunting, the groaning and that form of talking. You just think about it a lot, work with Jonathan, chat about it, watch stuff and eventually you just go on set and go for it.
“It was more just a feeling of being very tired and heavy,” Hoult said. “He hasn't got to be anywhere.”
While Hoult and co-star Rob Corddry worked with a trainer from Cirque du Soleil to perfect the physicality of reanimated corpses, Palmer aimed to give her character, Julie, the strength it would take to survive in an embattled dystopia.
“She's a strong, feisty woman who can shoot a gun and take care of herself,” Palmer said. “I think I would be pretty good in that kind of world, I have to say. Because of all the training on ‘I Am Number Four' ... and knowing how to shoot a shotgun because of ‘Warm Bodies,' I think I'd fare pretty good in a zombie apocalypse.”
But while Palmer toughened up for “Warm Bodies,” she did not face the unique culinary difficulties encountered by her co-star. As part of his performance, Hoult had to consume a concoction made to look like human brains.
“It was a wet and cold thing with blood on top and some grapefruit occasionally, and bits of random stuff,” Hoult said. “It was like a peachy sponge.”