Issue 32

Will Poulter

Few people, in any field, gather 17 years of experience in their craft by the age of 30. Yet, despite breaking into film from an early age – having graced Oscar-winning epics, cult-horrors, format-busting TV, and this year, a Marvel blockbuster – the British actor remains deeply down to earth. Reflecting on his journey to date, he contemplates the invaluable perspective his family brings, confronting privilege, and engaging with social media without eroding mental health

Will Poulter wears Dior Pre-Fall 2023 throughout

“At the risk of being that person who starts a conversation by talking about the weather, I’m looking out the window right now and it’s proper raining,” Will Poulter narrates with a genuine sense of awe and betrayal. “This was not in the brochure!” It’s raining where I am too, in London, albeit less surprisingly, and while my day is coming to an end, Will’s has just begun. He’s been in LA shooting his latest project for a while now, and tells me that despite coming out to work in the city since he was about 16, he’s only experienced it raining there once before. But in the last week of filming, it has not only downpoured, but also hailed and snowed in the Californian city, with cast and crew on set filming in disbelief. We make a quick half-joke, half-truth about global warming before deciding to move on.

Despite the decidedly British manner in which our chat has kicked off, and his polite yet self-deprecating humour that bubbles up throughout our discussion, the comment sections beneath YouTube videos of the 30-year-old actor are littered with fan reactions to the revelation that he is not in fact American. Having spent so much time working in the States and playing a whole host of American characters alongside some of the country’s biggest talents, it’s a testament to his aptitude with accents and fully embodying the roles he takes on. But in predictably modest style, he plays it down as circumstantial: “I’ve always said that within the UK, we’re almost at an unfair advantage in the sense that we grow up with so much American media, and America is so dominant and prolific in the entertainment space. If you’re a Brit, it’s very likely that you grew up watching sitcoms or sketch shows or films that featured American accents pretty heavily, or at least gave primacy to them. We’ve become exposed to them much earlier,” he explains. “That’s really how I learnt, it was just being a bit of a nerd and wanting to try and do impressions of them and bother my family or friends, or occasionally teachers.”

Growing up, films, TV and subsequently drama became a bit of a saving grace at school for Poulter, who doesn’t describe himself as particularly academic in the traditional sense. Hailing from a family of medics, he’s previously joked on a podcast, when asked why he didn’t follow in his family’s scientific footsteps, that his grades pretty much decided for him. But it was through school that he discovered his love of acting. “Drama saved me,” he declares. “It was what I wanted to be in school for and it got me through the days… but wanting to be an actor kind of felt like wanting to be an astronaut, it was one of those things that’s a nice idea, a dream job, but how realistic is that?” Whether he thought he could go all the way or not, Poulter remembers throwing himself into every production he possibly could, from playing “trees to man with ladder number 3”, and eventually landing leading parts. But his debut role came in the form of a lead in the charming independent feature Son of Rambow, directed by Garth Jennings (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), after the casting team toured schools in the UK, hosting auditions for their two young protagonists. “I think that was the luckiest break I could have asked for and also the most wholesome, gentle introduction into the film industry,” Poulter says with pure fondness. The film was a heartfelt exploration of childhood imagination, adventure, and a coming-of-age centred on an unlikely friendship struck between two friends as they attempt to make a film during their summer holidays. When I tell him watching the film during a family movie night at a London cinema is a core childhood memory of mine, he puts a hand to his chest in what looks like a blend of shock and gratitude. Without downplaying the achievement of it, he describes the project as a “little engine that could” type of production that, given the scale and budget, ended up superseding expectations. In it, Poulter is electric as the fiery but rough-around-the-edges visionary Lee Carter opposite Bill Milner’s Will Proudfoot, who he convinces to take part in the sequel to Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo: First Blood. “It was quite a comfortable mould to be poured into… we were these two boys making a movie in our summer holidays about two boys making a movie. And then it ends up going to Sundance and being distributed worldwide.” He even has a poster from the film’s Korean release, he tells me, before making sure to explain he hasn’t put it up in his house or anything; instead it now lives at his mum’s. Despite his impressive catalogue and years perfecting a more American polish, Poulter is still breezily humble in that distinctly British manner. When I ask if he ever revisits his own films, he visibly cringes and says, “no no no I can’t,” before clarifying, “from a practical sense I do watch myself back, I have to.” Seconds pass before he qualifies this again by quipping, “but I’m just watching to see exactly how many things I think are horrible regarding my performance. Just trying to make sure that I didn’t ruin the movie.”

Growing up onscreen and living out your pipe dream comes with its own very specific set of challenges, ones that we’ve seen play out with child actors time and time again. After all, at the age of just 30, it’s rare to imagine many professions where you’ve already racked up 17 years of experience under your belt. As a result of that, those who seem to have remained stable, happy, humble and highly successful – all at the same time – are often lauded as something of a medical and spiritual marvel. Having risen through the ranks of the industry to massive profile and critical acclaim, whilst still being widely regarded as a genuinely kind and down-to-earth personality, Poulter has become a premium example of this. I ask him with real curiosity how it is that he’s managed to stay quite so grounded through it all. “I appreciate you framing it in that way because I sometimes do find that question wild,” he laughs. “Just because I think in society, we do celebrate people in the media to a greater extent than we celebrate people who – I think – objectively do far more important things.” In other words, in the nicest way possible, it’s just not that deep. “It’s not to say that entertainment isn’t important whatsoever,” he expands. “But there’s a scale to these things and I’m very aware of where my job sits on that scale in terms of objective importance versus, you know, how it’s valued in society, at least publicly. Like, they don’t televise the award ceremonies for firefighters and nurses and teachers.” He cites his family as a huge source of both support and perspective on that journey. When he was cast in the Chronicles of Narnia series at 16, his father, a professor of cardiovascular medicine, took a sabbatical while his mother and younger sister also relocated to Sydney, Australia, to be with him while they shot it. “Then I’ve watched my older sister work the craziest hours in the most intense conditions as a paediatric nurse,” he tells me. “And observing these sorts of things has made me feel an admiration for my family, allowing me to, as quietly as possible, go about what I do, I guess. The fact that they’re all so supportive of me is just something I’m really grateful for.”

Over the course of our conversation, Poulter brings up themes of privilege, gratitude and awareness repeatedly, but in a way that is casual and sincere rather than performative or rehearsed. At one point he admits, “the imposter syndrome is so real” that he often feels like he’ll be found out in the weeks leading up to a new release. There’s a sense that his pleasant start in film might have left him unable to believe his own luck, even all these years later, as if he’s still just the charismatic kid who happened to land the perfect role and the rest is all a mystery. But his CV to date would beg to differ. For many, his performance in projects like action-comedy We’re the Millers and dystopian sci-fi The Maze Runner will have served as their introduction to Will Poulter. In the former, he shines as the sweet, lovable innocent opposite huge names Jason Sudeikis, Jennifer Aniston and Emma Roberts, providing endless comic relief in the face of the film’s pure chaos. 2015 saw Poulter hold his own amongst heavyweights Tom Hardy and Leonardo DiCaprio in Oscar-ordained The Revenant, as conflicted young fur trapper Jim Bridger. He met his unfortunate end in Ari Aster’s already-cult favourite Midsommar, helped guide the audience through an entirely new type of viewing experience as the bone-dry game developer Colin in Black Mirror’s ground-breaking interactive film Bandersnatch, and shone in the Emmy-award-winning TV series Dopesick, which explored the opioid crisis in America. This year, he will have joined the behemoth that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Adam Warlock in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. There’s a staggering range to his oeuvre, and a clear ability to play things light, just as often as he can access his own depth. It’s a power that makes it almost impossible to predict what he might do next, and in many ways that’s intentional. “The film that I always cite as making me really want to be an actor was Hook. To this day, it’s one of my favourite films, it’s so full of nostalgia. Robin Williams, from that point on, became a bit of a hero of mine,” he says. “He was someone who could do comedy and drama in a way that I hadn’t really seen before. He could toe this line in between the two things and walk that tightrope, with more elegance than anyone else I’d ever seen.”

Having explored such a wide-spanning range of characters and genres however, if there’s one role that he thinks has taught him the most about himself and about the world, it was his chilling portrayal of a racist police officer in 2017’s Detroit alongside John Boyega. Centred around the real-life events of the 1967 Detroit race riots, the film is a ruthless watch and Poulter’s performance is directly in the eye of the storm. “I was confronted with a lot of information about my own privilege, and I think I got educated on a lot of the history that was absent in school, and that I feel like I always ought to have had. As well as preparing for the role, it sort of shifted my perspective on all things,” he tells me, shedding the light-hearted demeanour momentarily. “It helped me develop an understanding of white supremacy, of systemic racism, of a system that I was a beneficiary of that I wasn’t as conscious of as I should have been.” Playing roles of such a controversial and triggering nature often comes with a weight and an ambivalence both for actors and audiences alike, but Poulter is once again quick to point out the privilege that comes with that. “Was I nervous about people thinking that I embodied any of that character’s feelings? Yes. But as a white actor, the amount of variety and the roles that I’ve had made available to me has always been expansive, in comparison to my black counterparts. So, for me to take umbrage (with) being cast as a racist would be totally unfair, it didn’t feel like I could shy away from that opportunity,” he states plainly. “And it was also important to expose that sort of individual and make a point that this person walks among us.”

Conversely, Poulter feels a little more at home in the skin of the latest role he’s tackling, which is just in the process of being announced when we speak, and what he’s in LA filming at the moment. He’ll be starring as Lee alongside Daisy Edgar-Jones, Jacob Elordi and Diego Calva in an adaptation of Shannon Pufahl’s On Swift Horses, and the response to the announcement alone proves that it will be the convergence of so many committed fandoms at once across literature, film and TV. The story is a complex drama following a newlywed couple and the husband’s renegade brother in the search for love, answers and the American Dream. “It’s been so cool, so much fun and it’s just the most beautiful script,” notes Poulter. And on getting acquainted with his character Lee? “I really respect the guy. He’s motivated to do the right thing and cares deeply for people, he’s not without limitations though… But it feels nice to play a character who possesses qualities that you kind of aspire to. The way that he shoulders responsibility, takes ownership, he’s about accountability and integrity.”

The thread running through Poulter’s catalogue and bringing him to his most pressing priorities in this moment feels super clear. His own social media presence functions primarily as a space for him to platform important social causes: from the environment and crisis relief to bullying, and racial and social inequalities, Poulter makes a point to unequivocally put his money (and his time) where his mouth is. “I think I’ve managed to find a relationship to social media that I hope works for everyone in the sense that I’m able to profile some of the organisations and charities that I’m lucky enough to collaborate with and focus on the things that I think are most important. And then it’s also a way of me being able to kind of engage with social media in a way that doesn’t erode my mental health,” he says. “It’s not even an entirely selfless thing because I feel like it enriches my life and provides even more purpose to what I do, being able to use the stage I’m on to point to these amazing changemakers.”

When I ask if there are any principles guiding the roles he’s most connected to today, his answer feels like a natural progression of that too. “More and more it’s a social application,” he says. “I don’t necessarily mean that something has to be chock full of socio-political commentary or anything like that, but just thinking about what kind of comment it’s making on the world that we live in and how it’s going to impact people.” But true to form, he makes it clear that there’s still space for joy and lightness within that too. “Even if times are quite bleak in some respects, can we be a part of something that encourages kindness? Or maybe it’s just escapism, and that’s okay. Perhaps it’s just a laugh and a chance to have some fun.”

Will Poulter wears Dior Pre-Fall 2023 throughout

Photography Vicki King 

Styling Stuart Williamson

Styling assistant Lizzie Ash

Grooming Nadia Altinbas using Bumble and Bumble, Tom Ford Beauty and 111SKIN

Photography assistant Andy Broadhurst

Production The Production Factory

This article is taken from Port issue 32. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here