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"I have to not take myself too seriously and I have to realise that if it is meant to be, it will be."
Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer overcome death for passion in Warm Bodies

How do you flirt with someone when your main mode of expression is a grunt? What are long walks on the beach like when you can merely shuffle at a medium pace?

These are struggles that Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer had to face when concocting the onscreen romance between a zombie named R and a living girl, Julie, in Warm Bodies, opening Friday.

It’s like The Notebook, but one of the characters is dead.

“Ultimately it’s a story about these two characters connecting against the odds and making a difference — really positive,” said 23-year-old Hoult on a recent Toronto visit with Palmer to promote the movie.

“I hate getting dragged along to romantic comedies that don’t make me laugh. I kind of sit there and go yeah, she’s enjoying it but I haven’t got any interest in it.”

In Warm Bodies, zombies treat brains almost like a drug — a small bite allows them to relive the memories of the person they’re feasting on. When R and his friend M (Rob Corddry) go into town for food, the young emo zombie fells Perry, whose brain is ripe with memories of his girlfriend Julie (Palmer).

Pocketing Perry’s brains for later, R smears Julie in his foul blood to mask her human smell and whisks her away to an airport where the living dead are holed up. These zombies shared the limitations common to the species: limited facial movement and minimal speech, save for groaning.

Palmer, an Australian actress who played an alien in the science-fiction film I am Number 4, said this didn’t interfere with her co-star Hoult’s ability to express love, and the connection between the two was clear as they joked with each other in the suite at the Shangri-La Hotel.

“He did this really beautiful version of confused/in-love,” said the 26-year-old. “He was feeling these loving emotions but he didn’t really know why this was happening and it was a bit shocking.”

Hoult’s proficiency with the limitations of being a zombie extends beyond romantic encounters. He and Daily Show veteran Corddry share an onscreen friendship that provides levity to what can be a heady premise at times.

“I had a tricky time not laughing in scenes with him. He’s a fine actor — it’s odd that both of us are pretending to be zombies and only able to groan throughout scenes, but still managing to have a conversation,” said Hoult, who shot to fame after playing the boy in 2002’s About a Boy, opposite Hugh Grant, and Beast in 2009’s X-Men: First Class.

Corddry and Hoult’s lighthearted exchange stands up nicely against the steely actions of General Grigio (John Malkovich), Julie’s zombie-hating father and the leader of the human resistance.

The film, based on Isaac Marion’s freshman novel of the same name, reaches toward deeper themes of compassion and humanity amid impossible circumstances.

“There’s a good balance where it’s got some romantic elements for the date side of things, but it’s not too sappy,” said Hoult.

“It definitely has some hidden messages in there,” said Palmer.

As for whether R and Julie find love forever, the stars are optimistic their relationship lasted but worry about the world they’re in.

“Peaks and valleys, like any relationship. I’m sure there’s some other apocalyptic thing headed our way,” said Palmer. “M’s impregnated a few people.”

A sequel to the book — if not the movie — is in the works, according to the author’s blog.