WILL POULTER’s career as an actor owes much to a teenage comedy performance at the Edinburgh Fringe. The young star of Son of Rambow and now Wild Bill is still grateful for his Scottish start
Cast your mind back to the summer of 2007. In a small Fringe venue, a troupe of youngsters calling themselves School of Comedy – none of them older than 16 – was making its Edinburgh debut and playing to packed houses. Their wickedly entertaining, controversial sketch show took aim at the absurd behaviour of adults. Chock-full of profanity, the material was all the funnier for being performed by children in outsized clothes, complete with blatantly phony moustaches and beards.
Will Poulter, just 14 at the time, was one of those youngsters. As it happens, the BBC invited me along to see the show and then speak about my outrage – or lack thereof, which was actually the case – on The Culture Show. Though the cast was uniformly strong, Poulter stood out as the big talent. His face is unforgettable, and his skill seemed immense, even then. One to watch, I noted, and I have kept him in my sights ever since.
What happened next was like something out of a Jack Black film, Poulter says when we meet in London, and his expressive face still lights up as he recalls their good fortune – for School of Comedy became a successful Channel 4 television programme and Poulter has gone on to even bigger and better work.
School of Comedy was more than just a hobby, it was a lifeline, he says, explaining that he wasn’t much good at school because he battled dyspraxia and dyslexia. Coursework was such a struggle that he only came alive during the drama lessons run by Laura Lawson. “I started off with one lesson per week, and then any opportunity to do more, I took. I really don’t know where I’d be without Laura, or how happy I’d be. Laura gave me an amazing opportunity and I got involved with everything she put on at school, whether it was a pantomime, a musical, a play or a sketch show. Then I joined the after school club, School of Comedy, which progressed wildly, and in quite a Hollywood way. It sounds like School of Rock, right up to trying to raise money to pay for a venue in Edinburgh. And then we got scouted for the BBC to do a Comedy Shuffle, and from there, by Channel 4, who made a pilot for Comedy Lab and then commissioned two six-part series. They put us on before The Inbetweeners. It was a dream come true.”
Dyspraxia affects coordination, and Poulter describes himself as a clumsy, accident-prone kid. “My teacher told my mum, ‘I think William has dyspraxia,’ and Mum asked what that meant. She said, ‘Well, if I put a chair in the middle of the room and asked every child in the class to walk around it, William would be the only child in the class to walk into it.’ Mum was like, ‘Yeah, that’s my boy’.”
He had a lot of extracurricular help with his dyspraxia, and by working hard earned both GCSE and A level qualifications. “And somehow I got a place at Bristol University. I’m still waiting for the phone call to say that they made a mistake and got the wrong person,” he jokes. But that won’t happen, and come October he’ll begin studying for a degree in drama and film studies.
The sweet wee boy I remember capering about at the Fringe is all grown up. Really grown – he’s a tall, slender beanpole, albeit one who’s woefully aware that from the neck up he still resembles a 12-year-old. Perhaps that’s a good thing, at least for now, because his most recent film is an independent movie called Wild Bill in which the 19-year-old plays 16-year-old Dean, who’s forced to grow up fast when his mother runs off with her boyfriend while his dad’s doing an eight-year stretch in prison. He’s left to care for and support his younger brother by working as a labourer helping to build the Olympic village in east London.
Wild Bill was written and directed by Dexter Fletcher, himself a former child actor (notably, in Bugsy Malone). It was cast by Nina Gold, best known for collaborating with Mike Leigh. Together the two have assembled a dynamite ensemble cast, headed by Charlie Creed-Miles as the dad, Bill Hayward, Sammy Williams as 11-year-old Jimmy and Jaime Winstone playing a social worker. Plus, there are two blisteringly good cameos, one from Andy Serkis, playing the local ganglord Glen, and another from an almost unrecognisable Mark Warren, as the alcoholic father of Poulter’s love interest, a teenage single mum called Steph.
Though he plays a teenager, this is Poulter’s first crossover role. After School of Comedy he appeared in Son of Rambow, directed by Garth Jennings, who made The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Then he went to Australia for six months to film The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third instalment of The Chronicles of Narnia. He played Eustace Clarence, a prig of a boy who is transformed into a dragon and quickly sees the error of his ways. It was a huge job that taught him the secrets of stunt work and special effects – he had to battle a computer-generated mouse – as well as how best to juggle the demands of both his director and his on-set tutor.
Poulter has said elsewhere that the minute he read the Wild Bill script he was bursting to be in it, and that he considers Dexter Fletcher “an absolute legend”. So how did it all come together? “Dex is incredibly talented and experienced, so he has made a lot of contacts. And the fact is that he co-wrote [with Danny King] a brilliant film and then directed a great film. He’s a quality guy, very professional, and people love him. Because of that, they wanted to work with him. It’s that simple, really.”
Mere months passed between the completion of the script and the start of filming, a time frame that’s practically unheard of in the slow business of movie-making. Poulter nods. “Yeah. A lot of people were already in Dex’s phone book and wanted to work with him – but that doesn’t take anything away from how hard he worked. He poured his heart and soul into it.
“I loved Dean, he was such a challenge. I come from this bubble in life – I come from a great family and went to a nice school and I have friends and life is pretty rosy. Whereas Dean has grown up having to bear responsibility that most adults can’t even imagine. At 16 he’s looking after his brother and he’s the main provider of the house – if you can call it that.” Indeed, danger lurks around every corner of the deprived housing estate where Dean and Jimmy share a flat so run down and unkempt that the toilet could double for the one from Trainspotting.
“Dean doesn’t have any normal relationships. He’s very closed off to the world, and rather defensive in many instances. When his father comes back, that manifests itself as anger. There’s a lot of hurt, and for Dean it’s scary, because he’s had to be a rock his whole life. When his father returns, not only does Dean find it highly invasive, but it stirs up childhood emotions that he’s had to try and pack away.”
Poulter was gutted not to have any scenes with Andy Serkis, who makes an indelible impression despite being in the film for just a few minutes. “He almost steals the film in two small scenes,” Poulter agrees. “If Charlie wasn’t so brilliant, Andy would have stolen the film. I am honoured to be on the same credit list as Andy Serkis.”
As a director, Fletcher makes the most of his actors’ faces, bringing his lens in tightly for lingering close-ups on Creed-Miles and Poulter – two actors who can work wonders with their eyes. Poulter’s face is, I suggest, his fortune: once glimpsed, it’s impossible to forget. He deflects the compliment while also thanking me for it, but in a way that implies that he’s too polite to tell me I’ve taken leave of my senses.
“It’s weird. The thing I get a lot is, ‘You’ve got a very recognisable face.’ I’m never quite sure what to make of it. It’s funny, I did Narnia and Son of Rambow, and this little TV show called School of Comedy – and 70 per cent of the people recognise me from that, because it’s on Channel 4.”
He was so funny in that, does he plan to return to comedy in the future? “Drama is what I’m really obsessed by. It’s what gets me up in the morning, what I live for. But I’ll always have a love for comedy because it was my first opportunity, and I associate it with my best friends, who I made during School of Comedy.
“I have thought about writing stand-up. Do you know, I’d love to do that, but it’s difficult when you want to try to do all this other stuff. My problem is I’m not talented enough to do everything, but I want to do everything. I’m like ‘Oh God, I wish I could dance! Oh God, I wish I could rap!’ I can’t be a rapper and I’m sure as hell not going to be able to dance for a living, but I want to do it all, you know?”
Luckily, acting might give him a chance to try those other jobs on for size. “That’s true. The new film I’m starting in March is about wrestling. It’s tough training, but I’m enjoying it. And I’m enjoying trying to put on weight – a lot of chicken and rice at Nandos.”
Poulter is one of the new breed of young actor I keep encountering: middle class, expensively educated and possessed of textbook good manners, telling me more than a dozen times how lucky he is. Yes he’s a brilliant actor, but he seems to really mean it when he says he can’t believe the way things are turning out.
Asked about his family, he volunteers that his father is a professor of medicine and his mum a former nurse. He has a little sister, Charlotte, an older sister called Jo, and an older brother called Ed. “They’re the most incredibly supportive family. Telling my professor father that I wanted to tread the boards was interesting, but he was very cool about it. Charlotte has gone into medicine as well, and is a fantastic cook and amazingly intelligent and a great sports person. She’s an all rounder. My big sister is another one – she’s a fully qualified nurse. And my brother was a phenomenal sportsman who’s now in finance. Good looking. Built like nothing else. So they’re doing all right.”
He seems willing to believe in everyone’s beauty and ability bar his own. In the few interviews he’s given so far, he’s said that in a dream world he’d continue acting, but that he reckons his chances are low. I find this absurd, given his manifest talent.
Once more brushing away my compliment, he explains, “I mean my dream would be to be an actor, but it’s such a competitive world, and I’ve been lucky so far. I hope that I can act for the rest of my life. That would be amazing.”
Would it content him to be a jobbing actor, or has he set his sights higher? With a big, cheesy grin, he admits, “I am completely unrealistic about that. I want to be considered one of the best actors of my generation. That’s what I want to do, but people will say it’s impossible. I know I’ve set myself a ridiculous task, but I will be disappointed in myself if I don’t do it. I will be. I know it sounds silly.”
What sounds silly is his inability to agree that his small, impressive body of work gives every indication that his is a perfectly achievable goal.
So what does Poulter do in his downtime? “It’s ironic, but I watch a lot of films. Even as a kid I used to sit in front of the TV and watch black-and-white cowboy films, like John Wayne movies. And then I’d run around the house making gun noises all day. Or reciting Dirty Harry. Ridiculous, really.”
And his favourite actors? I’ve heard him cite Matt Damon as an inspiration. “I talk about Matt Damon a lot. And Ben Affleck. Watching Good Will Hunting was like a wow moment for me. That’s a standout film for me from my childhood. Daniel Day Lewis is phenomenal. Terrifyingly good. And I’m a huge fan of Gus Van Sant’s films.”
If I was a betting woman, I’d put money on the certainty that in a decade or so, some youngster will be uttering those exact sentiments into my dictaphone about Will Poulter.
• Wild Bill is on general release in cinemas from this weekend.