The actor’s latest role is in The Little Stranger, a film that twitches with tension about class – which resonates with his own upbringing.
No one needs to teach Will Poulter anything about checking his privilege. The career choices of this 25-year-old show an actor drawn to films with a social conscience. In scarcely more than a decade, he has left behind CGI blockbusters (one Narnia and two Maze Runners) and broad comedy (We’re the Millers, in which he snogged Jennifer Aniston and Emma Roberts, and briefly sported a swollen prosthetic testicle). Instead, he has moved on to more serious, searching projects: the below-the-breadline chamber-piece Glassland, Kathryn Bigelow’s race riots drama Detroit and now The Little Stranger, a ghost story that twitches with class tension.
In person, too, Poulter is constantly checking, unpicking, interrogating and rechecking himself. Five times during the course of our two conversations – first in a Dublin hotel bar a few hours before the premiere of The Little Stranger, then the following day on the phone – he describes himself with an air of contrition as a “white, straight, middle-class male”, careful to the point of fastidiousness that nothing should be omitted or misunderstood.
So cards on the table: he was a pupil at the Harrodian School in west London (current fees: upwards of £6,000 per term), whose alumni also include Robert Pattinson, Jack Whitehall, Tom Sturridge and George Mackay. “What my privilege has meant is that I haven’t experienced the same levels of exclusion and inaccessibility that might come with being working class,” says Poulter, who is tall and trim, with a serious expression, narrowed eyes and a courteous, meet-the-parents air.
“I’ve certainly felt guilty about that. But guilt for those less privileged and those who experience the prejudice from which I’m protected isn’t enough. Acknowledgement is the first step in hopefully using your privilege to realise a more equitable society. I’m trying to find ways to deconstruct that hierarchy as opposed to just enjoying the privilege and acknowledging the guilt.”
Such as? “I’m keen to develop as an activist and involve myself in charities and organisations. And with my acting, it’s important that the projects I do have a sociopolitical impact. I try to be conscious about the message. As a white, straight, middle-class male, I’m aware of things I take for granted.”
I wonder how it felt to hear Daniel Mays observe, in 2016, that the industry was “awash” with privately educated actors, or to read the Sutton report’s findings that the same group takes a disproportionately high share of awards (42% of British Bafta winners and 67% of British Oscar winners). Is it like being under attack? “No, no. Not at all. I’ve undoubtedly benefited from my middle-class environment. I hold my hands up to that. And I know that unless we try to make pathways into the industry more open and accessible, then we can’t expect it to reflect society.”
This is all pertinent to The Little Stranger, in which a doctor (played by Domhnall Gleeson) in late-1940s Warwickshire is summoned to the country pile he has coveted since childhood. There he finds Roderick, played by Poulter, who suffered severe burns to his face and leg during the war and has grown old prematurely.
“He’s this boy whose youth has been cut short by his injuries so that he’s almost jumped forward in time to become an old man. He’s confined to the house, he’s hitting the bottle, living with all these regrets. There’s this emotional decay, which is a strange reflection of what’s happening to the house. He feels intrinsically tied to the state of the home and he is trying, like a lot of the landed gentry, to take pride in its status, just as he does in his own. But there are these parallels of degradation.”
Poulter’s distinctive facial features serve the part well. Though he is clearly young, there’s an agelessness to him, an ability to seem both juvenile and jaded. Partly it’s those windscreen-wiper eyebrows, which sit at a permanent 30-degree angle and are capable of lending devious or calculating inflections to his soft face. In Detroit, where he played the ringleader of a group of racist cops torturing and murdering African Americans with impunity, it was disturbing to see so much savagery emanating from someone barely out of the playpen. His was a performance in the tradition of cinema’s great baby-faced monsters: Richard Attenborough in Brighton Rock, David Bennent in The Tin Drum, Cagney in everything.
Small wonder he was first choice to play Pennywise the Clown in It before that project lost its original director, Cary Fukunaga. Or that in his mid-teens, he was the standout star of the Edinburgh fringe hit School of Comedy, later adapted into an E4 series, in which child performers delivered blatantly adult material dressed as grownups. It was a kind of Bugsy Malone of sketch shows. Poulter’s most memorable character was a cocky white van man hollering incomprehensible remarks at passing women.
By that point he had already made his film debut at the age of 13 – as a soft-centred hard-nut in Son of Rambow, the coming-of-age comedy about a pair of schoolboys who make their own camcorder version of First Blood. “That was mad, man,” he says. “I don’t know if I would be so in love with what I do if I hadn’t had such an amazing first experience.”
He was already passionate about acting, which provided an alternative to the sort of academic demands made difficult by his dyslexia and dyspraxia, as well as a reprieve from some unkindness among his peers. “I had experiences of bullying. I used drama as an antidote to some of the less enjoyable aspects of social life at school.”
Garth Jennings, the writer and director of Son of Rambow, remembers Poulter as a precocious talent. “I never did more than a couple of takes for anything,” he says. “It wasn’t just that Will got it – he also understood what the rhythm of the line was, and that it would be funnier if you paused first. His instincts were ridiculously good. I spent most of my days shaking my head in disbelief, just going, ‘Yep. That was it, sunshine. That was it.’”
Poulter’s career since then has not been without its taxing moments. Was it true, as rumour has it, that eight months playing a trapper on The Revenantnearly broke him? He gives a rueful laugh. “Um. I’m always hesitant to complain too much as an actor, but I’ll say it was physically and emotionally probably the hardest thing I’ll ever do. I just can’t imagine a tougher shoot. The conditions were so inhospitable. We were up the side of a mountain in temperatures I didn’t know existed. I find acting enough of a challenge at room temperature.”
Jennings met up with Poulter when the actor was on a break from that movie. “Will was staying in the accent so he didn’t lose it when he went back. He was really locked in. Watching him in the film, you think, ‘Oh yeah, there you go – DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will.’ He just fits right in.”
Lenny Abrahamson, the director of The Little Stranger, thinks Poulter has even bigger things ahead. “He’s viewed in the industry as this incredibly exciting talent,” he says. “You look at him and think, ‘Is there a Bond in Will at some point? Maybe in 10 years?’ I could see that. I could imagine him being a very dark Bond indeed.”
• The Little Stranger is out now.
Cover photo: Privileged background … Will Poulter. Photograph: Michael Buckner/Deadline/Rex/Shutterstock