Will Poulter is a terrific young British actor who I’ve been fortunate to see a lot of in the last year or so. Last year, I sat down with him and his MAZE RUNNER co-stars, and recently we did Q&As in Chicago and Austin (during Butt-Numb-a-Thon), so we had a great deal of time to talk about his brutal, life-changing experience shooting THE REVENANT, in which he plays Jim Bridger, a young trapper who gets caught between wanting to do the right thing and not being killing by the elements or roving bands of angry Native Americans in the territory where he is trapping. Although the trailers for THE REVENANT center primarily on the characters played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, Jim Bridger is essentially the third lead in this epic story, and plays a major part in the outcome.
Poulter is probably best known in the U.S. as the weird fake son in WE’RE THE MILLERS (who has his balls viciously attacked by a tarantula), but I remember him as one of the two young leads in 2007’s SON OF RAMBOW, one of my favorite films about how kids’ imaginations work. Poulter also starred in THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER, and just finished shooting the Netflix-produced Afghanistan War drama WAR MACHINE, co-starring Brad Pitt, directed by David Michôd. Sadly, the rumor that Poulter would play Pennywise the clown in the feature film version of IT seems to have died when director Cary Joji Fukunaga left the project. I sat down to interview Will Poulter when he was in Chicago not long ago, the morning after our first Q&A, and he gave a great deal of insight into THE REVENANT production, as well as his career moving forward. Please enjoy…
Capone: It’s been interesting to see how many of the people that made THE REVENANT have come out to describe how brutal an experience it was, but also that they wouldn’t change a thing about it. Why do you think this experience stands out, and how did you change because of it?
Will Poulter: I think I speak for all of the guys when I say it wouldn’t necessarily be described as the worst experience or even a bad experience at all. I think “incredibly difficult” is the more appropriate description for what it was, and actually I think as actors, if you pull through the other side of an incredibly difficult process, at the end of the day, you feel like there’s a product you’re proud of and that you are, in my case, a small hand in the creation of that, that’s the ultimate feeling. That’s what you shoot for. You want to be a part of those really difficult projects that are incredibly tough to make and push you to the limits because it’s all the more satisfying when you achieve something at the end of it all.
For me to be involved in something of this proportion and this epic at this stage of my career was just a huge honor before anything else and a massive challenge. I didn’t have a lot of experience to draw on, so I think—slight pun intended—the mountain I had to climb was even steeper in a way. I was so impressed and so inspired at times by how easy Leo and Tom made it look. I remember one of the scenes that I was really, really struggling with the blocking of—it was just frying my brain, and Tom just had it down. That comes with experience. That was inspiring to me. It was something I looked at and wanted to emulate. Leo too, there are certain technical things that are weaved into his DNA that he doesn’t even have to think about now, that he can just do as second nature, and they’re awareness of the camera for the sake of not being aware is really admirable. All of these things came out of observation and time sitting back and watching these guys work.
Capone: They are two very different actors in the way they’re perceived. With DiCaprio, we keep thinking we know what he’s capable of, and it’s a very high level of acting, and then he does something like this, and our perceptions are blown out of the water. When you’re working with these two, do have to up your game a little bit and not just learn from them from watching? You have scenes when you are going toe-to-toe with Tom Hardy. That is a scary prospect for some of us.
WP: Yeah. There’s this unspoken but very, very present feeling that we were all there to work to the highest of standards. No one explicitly said “We need 100 percent focus right now. We need to absolutely nail this. There is no opportunity to make any kind of mistakes.” It just was in the ether on set. That was such an encouraging, exciting place to go to work. It wasn’t stifling or scary or anything like that. I think everybody felt like they prospered in that environment.
Capone: Can you talk about some of the training and the research you did?
WP: One of the biggest things was familiarity with the props. Those guys are so reliant on the essentials they have about them, particularly their weapon. Their weapon is an extension of their body. The notion of a weapon being an extension of your own body is something that’s carried right through to modern-day military now. So familiarizing ourselves with these guns, which were prehistoric. I think I made a comment last night about how difficult it is to reload those things.
Capone: The musket reloading—there’s a great scene in the beginning when DiCaprio is doing it, and he’s barely looking at what he’s doing. Then I started watching everybody else do it.
WP: I guess I was lucky I never had to do it on camera [laughs]. I was never put to the test actually. But that was a big thing. And then besides that, a lot of the research was as old school as the practice. It was through conversation and reading. It wasn’t like we had a ton of stuff to watch or listen to. Even with the accent, that was mostly through conversation and reading, going through and reading things phonetically. So the research for this is interesting, and it was nice to return to a slightly more organic approach.
Capone: Your character was a real person, but, as you said, we don’t have any video or audio of him for you to study, so you have a bit of freedom to create as well. Did you get to insert some of what you thought he would be like and your ideas from your research?
WP: I think so. We were afforded a little bit of creative license with the story. I think Alejandr [Iñárritu, director] did a great job of keeping the skeleton of THE REVENANT tale, and building around that a series of stories with multiple strands that all tied in really, really beautifully. You’ve got the father and son tale, you’ve got Captain Henry’s ordeal in there, you have Fitzgerald’s own personal mission, you have the fate of Bridger, and you have Leo’s individual battle as well with himself and nature, and the of course the Native American sorry, which is essential and ties in beautifully with Leo. There are so many different elements, and the book I think provided a great spine to our story.
Capone: You mentioned before, you’re always looking for things that are going to push you and challenge you. That being said, there’s no way you could have known necessarily how tough and how much suffering you were going to go through to make this film. Would you jump at the chance to do something like that again? Are you looking for something that’s going to push you to that degree?
WP: Absolutely. If Alejandro said he was shooting a film on the moon tomorrow, I would get in a spaceship and go and do it. 100 percent.
Capone: Tell me about his directing style. There seems to be, as you said, a little bit of freedom, but at the same time, there has to be an enormous amount of choreography in regards to where the camera is. How is that balance with him?
WP: He speaks often with a certain poetry with his choice of words. He has a wonderful way of getting right to the point and addressing the essence of the scene and kind of the emotional core of each scenario. It was almost like we had two conversations. We would have the technical conversation, and then we would have the emotional conversation separate, then they would seamlessly bind as we went thought the day, as we progressed through the day.
Once we had the technical elements of the scene down and the choreography of these very complex and long camera moves. we would then address the emotional aspect of the scene. I can confidently say that I never went into the shooting of a scene in those small windows of light that we had not feeling like Alejandro had not equipped me with what I needed. Even if it was “I know you’re confused, just play that,” you never felt left out to dry by Alejandro.
Capone: You said last night when you expressed to him that, as the character, you were having certain conflicts and that his response was “Yeah, you’re supposed to. So use that. Make that you.” I love that he just turned it around like that.
WP: Exactly. It’s actually a brilliant piece of direction. It’s comforting for me to feel as though in a way I was finding like an accidental symmetry with my character. “I really am feeling I guess what Jim would feel in this situation,” and that was encouraging and very smart of Alejandro to unpick that and have me analyze it too much. Just leave me be and let me play that. It’s smart.
Capone: You mentioned last night that Bridge is, in a way, in between the extremes of these two other characters. If there is a particular entry point into the story for the audience, it might be though him, because he is the naive younger guy who is torn every time he has to make a decision. Every decision he has to make is a life or death decision, either for him or for somebody else. I didn’t know how long you were going to be in the movie. I won’t ruin how long you are in the movie, but if you had died in the first 10 minutes, that would not have surprised me either. How did you see his role in the bigger scheme of this story?
WP: I feel that whenever I play a character, I try to find a strand of something that I can respect about that character. With Bridger, I respected a great deal. He’s certainly not necessarily the most mature or the most resilient of characters as of yet, but I think he’s well intentioned, he’s on his way to being a fairly strong and capable individual and a good trapper. I think morally, he seems pretty adept to me. So I was, for those reasons, on his side immediately and excited about also voicing a lot of the audience’s concerns. I think when the audience is thinking, “Oh my gosh. How can you leave him there?” Bridger voices that on occasion. There’s an empathy about him, which sticks out in those inhumane and brutal moments. There’s an empathy about Bridger that pierces through that, and I enjoyed playing that.
Capone: Two quick questions about things you’ve got coming out. WAR MACHINE, which I’m very excited about. That’s the one that’s going to be on Netflix, with an incredible cast.
WP: Yes, sir.
Capone: Who do you play in that? It seems like there’s a lot of younger actors in that as well, in addition to Brad Pitt.
WP: I play Sergeant Ricky Ortega of 3rd Platoon. Yeah, it was a phenomenal experience. It was a life-changing experience, actually, working so closely with military men, which was a complete honor. I worked with an amazing cast. Keith Stanfield, Pico Alexander, Hopper Penn, Kola Bokinni—an amazing group of young guys, all split between the UK and the U.S. pretty much, and of course Mr. Pitt. Just a really fantastic experience. I feel very lucky to be involved.
Capone: I don’t know if this is a rumor still or if this is real. I know it came out awhile ago that you were going to be in the film of IT and play Pennywise. Is that for real? Can you say anything about it?
WP: I was set to play Pennywise and I was looking forward to that when Mr. Fukunaga was involved. Now that he’s not involved, I’m uncertain about whether I’m still going to be involved.
Capone: I wondered if that was the case. I’ve met the new guy [Andy Muschietti, who directed MAMA]. He’s really nice.
WP: I haven’t actually met him, but I’m not exactly sure what the future holds just yet.
Capone: Fair enough. That’s more than I thought you’d say.
WP: Sorry I can’t say more [laughs].
Capone: It was great to see you again, Will. Thank you.