Acting Responsibly with Will Poulter
Whether playing Marvel’s new anti-hero Adam Warlock or his ‘hot chef’ cameo on The Bear, for young British actor Will Poulter, being a storyteller comes with a sense of responsibility.
Between mouthfuls of noodles on our lunchtime call, actor Will Poulter (he/him) is explaining why landing his first film role in Son of Rambow, aged 12, was like winning a competition for the best summer ever. How lucky he feels to act for a living is a theme the BAFTA winner keeps coming back to. ‘I still have to pinch myself’, he says. ‘Not everyone gets to turn something that sustains them into a job, and I’m grateful for it.’ But the reality is that beyond his far-reaching talent and easy charm, London-born Poulter has nailed the art of picking projects that hit differently on a cultural level. Be that an innovative TV moment like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, or Ari Aster’s game-changing horror fable Midsommar.
Jumping straight from his debut in Garth Jennings’ low-budget indie hit to the third instalment in The Chronicles of Narnia, a major Hollywood franchise, set the tone early for a career defined by contrasts. Recently, Poulter has collaborated with director Steve McQueen on a short for Greenpeace, become a Marvel anti-hero in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, and starred in the Autumn Winter 2023 campaign for COS. ‘No two days are ever the same, and that’s another privilege that comes with my job’, he says. What connects such a diverse range of work, however, is the 30-year-old’s sense of responsibility as an artist. ‘When it comes to selecting a project now, I'm thinking more and more about what the message is, and its social application.’
The importance of collaboration is another ingredient close to Poulter’s heart. ‘That togetherness exists on all the best projects. The unity you feel with the cast and crew when you’re all pulling in the same direction comes through in the quality of the work.’ So joining the tight-knit brigade of chefs in breakout comedy-drama The Bear for its hotly anticipated second season was a no-brainer.
Here, having just returned from a city break in Copenhagen and still daydreaming about relocating to Denmark, he speaks about getting into character using fashion, learning to love people’s strange habits, and how acting has helped him understand what makes us tick.
‘Fashion shouldn't just be for other people, it should be for you and what makes you feel good.'
‘There is real value and power in creating something for the purposes of entertainment and escapism, and I still want to have a part in that. But I do think there's a responsibility in being a storyteller to affect culture with the messages you are sending out – the statements you are making with your performance, or your character, or the dialogue that you are speaking. As an actor you have a platform and an opportunity to maximise your voice, so it’s important to say something responsible.’
‘As my relationship with fashion has evolved, I've been able to appreciate the emotional link with clothes more, how wearing different things makes me feel a different way. It's a huge part of my character development now, I always try and get a few pieces from wardrobe that I can wear in my downtime that help me feel more like the character. So, I’m never fully untethered from the person I'm playing.’
‘There's something interesting about wearing clothes inspired by things you've seen on TV or in films. They feel like a wellspring for inspiration, almost as if you’re time travelling, getting in closer contact with that world and those characters. I mix things up, like modern and vintage. I did a job recently that was set in the 1950s and I started to think I should just always tuck in my shirts and wear my trousers higher. So, that experience influenced me to change how I dress. I really like the fact that there's so much scope for expression when it comes to fashion. it's whatever you want it to be, right? Fashion shouldn't just be for other people; it should be for you and what makes you feel good. It's about being the best version of yourself.’
‘There is a need for this generation of artists to inspire positive communication, truth and togetherness.’
‘Every generation has its artists who affect culture by inspiring new thoughts and new ideas. I don’t know if it’s greater now than ever before, but I think that because the internet and social media now play such a role in society, there is more need for this generation of artists to inspire positive communication, truth and togetherness. To make art that is socially conscious and contributes to the greater good. That’s always existed, but maybe social media has made the need greater.’
‘One thing I find rewarding about my job is that by analysing the psychologies of lots of different individuals for the purpose of playing their characters, I've been able to develop a better understanding of people in general. If someone acts a certain way, I consider what might have contributed to them making that choice, more than I would if I didn't do this for a living. I remember Kieran Culkin talking to COS about how the fun in acting lies in exploring different versions of yourself, and I completely relate.’
‘People have their idiosyncrasies and strange habits and that’s what makes them who they are. That's what you fall in love with. And it's fundamentally what makes us human, our complexities. I think if Adam Warlock – a character created to be genetically perfect – didn't have that he'd be less human and therefore less relatable. Exploring his flaws and showing the cracks makes him a better being. As soon as they cast me, I knew they'd obviously gone in a different direction!’
Are you a perfectionist or more easy going?
I'm a perfectionist, but I'm so far from perfect, and I make a lot of mistakes
Which is your favourite London hangout?
Brixton Village, for the food
(Arsenal footballers) Bukayo Saka or Emile Smith Rowe?
I don’t want to choose because they’re mates with each other but, based on last season, Bukayo Saka
Marvel Cinematic Universe or DC Universe?
Marvel, they're my employers!
Words by Ben Perdue.
Will Poulter wears the Autumn Winter 2023 collection for COS. Photography by Daniel Jackson. Styling by Jane How.
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