Will Poulter is topping the box office, but can he cope with being hot property in Hollywood? By Siobhan Synnot
Most people remember Will Poulter as the chippy, creative child brandishing a toy gun and in borrowed makeup and fatigues in Son Of Rambow, the 2007 coming-of-age drama about two teenagers who decide to recreate Sylvester Stallone’s First Blood with a video camera and their school friends.
A lot has changed since then: Poulter graduated to a lead in The Chronicles Of Narnia, then bruised and angsty teendom in the British indie Wild Bill. Last year he made his first American movie, and he is back for more this autumn with The Maze Runner, with a brief pause to pick up the 2014 Bafta Rising Star award. Even so, it’s still a little surprising when Poulter and I meet for the first time since Rambow, and he looms over me, a 6ft 2in gentle giant. He’s not entirely unrecognisable, however: his hair is a slightly more adult variation on the spiky crop he had in his teenage years, and he’s also hung onto those distinctive Spock-like eyebrows.
Poulter has just turned 21 and The Maze Runner is his eighth film, a dystopic young adult movie, part Lord Of The Flies, part The Prisoner, in which a bunch of teenage boys find themselves trapped in a mysterious rural idyll at the centre of a maze, with no memory of how they got there, and escape discouraged by giant robot spiders.
Poulter is the film’s most interesting and contradictory character, a hot-head who nevertheless argues that it is better to conform in relative comfort, raising crops and hunting game. To prepare for the film’s hunting, fishing and sharecropping, Poulter was sent to what sounds like a Bear Grylls prep camp, learning basic survival skills alongside co-stars Dylan O’Brien and Love Actually’s Thomas Brodie-Sangster.
“Oh they made it sound more hard-core than it actually was,” he says.
So what skills has he acquired? Can he catch trout with his bare hands? Skin a rabbit? “I’m really OK at making a fire,” he says, cautiously. “We actually used flints, and I got quite good at making sparks. I became a bit of a pyro, really, although that was the last thing we needed during filming because it was about 100 degrees every day. So I’m good if you want to stay warm, but maybe you should catch your own fish. I’m the kind of guy who cried at the end of Finding Nemo.”
Nevertheless, The Maze Runner marks Poulter’s progress into a tough new environment: the American movie industry. Rambow was a lucky break, a small British film which was looking for 11-13 year olds just as Poulter was starting to discover that he rather enjoyed acting, via a stint in School Of Comedy – a children’s sketch show that played the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and got picked up by Channel 4.
“I wasn’t good at anything at school,” says Poulter, who struggles with dyspraxia and dyslexia. “Acting was the only thing that I really loved doing and was interested in. It wasn’t that I chose acting, more that it was my only option.”
He remembers Rambow as “an eight week school holiday – and I had no idea who Rambo was”, but his sharp, angry character lodged with casting agents. His family were supportive too, at one point uprooting so that he could work on Narnia in Australia, but there’s a sense that they finally relaxed when he landed We’re The Millers, a Hollywood comedy about a set of drug mules forced to smuggle cocaine into America by posing as a family. No-one in the casting department seemed to be aware of Son Of Rambow, or Wild Bill, and when the film was released he says he was surprised it wasn’t marketed as “the galactically famous Jennifer Aniston, Jason Sudeikis from Saturday Night Live, Emma Roberts from so many movies. Plus, who on Earth is this guy?”
Poulter played Kenny, a sweet open-faced nerd with an unexpected passion for TLC’s Waterfalls and an unfortunate, accident-prone tendency that at one point gets him bitten on the testicle by a spider.
“Luckily, that was a prosthetic, which took three hours in makeup. The guy who did the gluing was Tony from North Carolina, who was brilliant about it. He was like, ‘I do this all the time, you’re not the first fake penis I ever fitted’, but it was a little awkward chatting to Tony while I had my trousers around my ankles. It felt like going to the dentist’s, except all the work was southbound.”
He also had to get past the fact he’d learnt his American accent by watching a lot of American television shows like Friends. “It was my favourite show when I was a kid. If you’d told me that I would one day work with Jen, I would’ve told you that you were mental,” he says, a sweet expression of enthusiasm that he did not share with Aniston the day they had a kissing scene. “The bits where Kenny is blushing? That’s not a special effect. Genuinely, I was so embarrassed.”
The Millers experience also brought home to him the attention of the press. “On set, wherever we were there would be people hiding in bushes, climbing trees, breaking into places, trespassing, basically doing anything to get a picture of Jen.”
His face falls when I remark that he may have to gear himself up for that kind of attention, with The Maze Runner currently topping the American box office.
“There isn’t a cheque that anyone could write me to make me give up the ability to walk in the park, or have dinner with my mother without somebody filming me. I’m experiencing a tiny amount of it already and it’s already quite uncomfortable, so it’s quite scary to think how it might escalate. It’s not something I want to experience. I recognise it’s important to take care of one’s profile for the sake of getting more work and establishing a relationship with the public. But I try not to let it distract me too much.”
He’s already on his guard; one of his fellow nominees for the Bafta Rising Star award was George MacKay, who enjoyed a critically acclaimed year for his work on Sunshine On Leith and For Those In Peril, and is also a good friend of Poulter’s. I ask if they are still good friends since Poulter’s win, and instead of laughing, Poulter earnestly assures me that both families got together for a celebratory drink beforehand and that having each other around “is only a positive in my eyes. I mean it was amazing to win but the last thing I want is an achievement that gets in the way and affects things.”
“I think some people were looking for a juicy tidbit on whether we’ve had a fight outside or something like that – that’s not the case at all. I was proud to be nominated with George and it certainly hasn’t been awkward or anything like that.”
And Poulter of all people knows what awkward is like.
He smiles. “Yeah, it certainly hasn’t been Tony-from-North-Carolina awkward.”
The Maze Runner is in cinemas nationwide