The big picture: How Will Poulter shook off the tough tearaway tag to become Hollywood's latest loveable dork

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

He never set his sights on conquering America but now Will Poulter has graduated from low-budget Brit flicks to working with the A-list

He's only 20, but Will Poulter has already been in the middle of a snogging sandwich with Jennifer Aniston – one of the most famous women on the planet – and Emma Roberts – rising starlet and niece of Julia. OK, it was for a scene in a big new Hollywood movie. But it still represents a funny – and very public – coming of age for the young British actor. And it must have prompted more than a few high-fives from his mates…

"It's not like I managed to woo Jennifer Aniston," demurs Poulter. "It was pretty much the least romantic, least sexy thing you've ever seen in your life: people were just shouting, 'You're blocking the light' and 'Can we wipe the sweat off Will's face?'"

Still, it's quite the change of pace for a young man previously best known for his roles as the priggish Eustace in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and as tough- nut kids in British independent movies Son of Rambow and Wild Bill.

In We're the Millers, Poulter plays a dorky, never-been-kissed 18-year-old opposite former Saturday Night Live cast member Jason Sudeikis's small-time pot-dealer, who accidentally ends up as a mule for a drugs baron. How to smuggle two tons of cannabis across the Mexican border? By playing the family guy, in chinos, driving a campervan, with an all-American wife and kids in tow – that's how.

Poulter is his neighbour Kenny, a naive teen enlisted to pose as his son, with Aniston playing a stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold fake mom, and the spunky, punky, homeless Roberts pretending to be a preppy daughter. They start off snarling, but, of course, wind up learning the true value of being there for each other. Aw shucks, etc.

The comedy is certainly broad – another of Poulter's most-discussed scenes involves a tarantula biting his balls, for which he donned a large prosthetic: "That was uncomfortable to say the least… to be wearing a swollen testicle, with your trousers round your ankles, on the side of the road: tick, tick, tick on the embarrassment checklist," he grins. But We're the Millers is frequently very funny, even if it wants both to satirise traditional family values and sentimentally promote them.

While the film doesn't quite manage to have its cake and eat it, the performances are warm and engaging, Poulter's included. Those distinctive eyebrows are permanently curved in eager-to-please anxiety, and there's a puppyish quality to him, half bounding keenness, half bashful shyness. In the US, reviews have been lukewarm, but the movie has been a surprise hit with the public, taking $26.5m on the opening weekend alone.

So convincing has Poulter been in playing vicious-looking kids with buzz-cuts in the past that it is almost a surprise that in real life, Poulter is all private-school politeness. "I was quite looking forward to not playing the brat or the bully," he says of his latest role. "There's this depiction of me, that I'm really hard – and that's not the reality at all. I am not the guy you want in a fight; I'm the guy who cries at Finding Nemo."

It is hard to think of Dean, his bruised and angry teenager in Wild Bill, weeping over animated clownfish. Dexter Fletcher's underrated 2011 directorial debut, in which Poulter gave an impressively seething performance, was set in the drug-filled estates and under-construction Olympic sites of east London, and the 20-year-old is honest about what a contrast it all was to his nice family home in Chiswick – diametrically opposite not just in terms of geography, in the west of London, but also in comfort and suburban leafiness: "Stratford – it felt a world away," he says. "But Dexter grew up in that world; it was fantastic to work with him, in that environment."

Although his performance was critically lauded, small Brit-flicks don't set gossip blogs alight. We're the Millers is a step up in the fame stakes – and Poulter's next role will likely continue the trajectory: The Maze Runner is the first in a potential Hunger Games-esque franchise based on another dystopian young-adult fiction series, and is out next February. Not that Poulter is in it for the fame: he says he chooses projects solely on the quality of the script: "Hollywood has never been a goal, necessarily – there was no 'Conquer America' game plan for me."

His experience of shooting with Aniston and Sudeikis has evidently given him plenty to think about. "Jennifer is galactically famous, but so down-to-earth and so sweet," he says. "That's really refreshing and inspiring. And it's not that people don't make it hard for her… I am so frustrated by celebrity culture," he breaks off, trying to stop himself from saying anything too controversial – but can't help himself striding forth on a topic into which he's clearly had an unnerving insight. "The fact that there aren't more restrictions on the media is disgraceful. I think it's appalling. I'm not suggesting I'd ever get to Jennifer or Jason's stage, but if I ever had more of a voice in this industry, I would campaign instantly for greater amounts of privacy and the rights of people in the public eye, because it's horrible.

"As much as I would love to do roles in big movies and am keen to establish myself in the industry," he continues, "I don't want to sacrifice things that I really enjoy, like spending time with my family and friends. I'd like to go to university, I'd like to do a bit of travelling… I don't know if I could deal with being as famous as someone like Jennifer," he concedes.

Last year Poulter began a course in drama at Bristol University, though his studies are on hold now. "I love student life, but I also loved, from a young age, being in a working environment where you are treated as an adult," he says. Nevertheless, he's going back to Bristol in October, to live in a house with – gads – seven other drama students. He has always been a bit of a junior luvvie, mind – although he visibly balks when I use the term "child actor".

Perhaps that's because he had a slightly unusual start. Poulter attended the Harrodian School – which, despite not being a performing-arts school, has turned out many a young British star (Robert Pattinson, Jack Whitehall, Tom Sturridge). Aged just 11, he starred in School of Comedy, a sketch show aimed at adults, performed by kids from his school; in London, they played above pubs none of them were old enough to drink at, then they hit the Edinburgh Fringe in 2007, becoming a sell-out success.

"I'm terrified of the idea of going on stage now; I don't know why I wasn't scared then. It was a hell of a time, and actually being on stage, live – I haven't found a feeling that matches it," he recalls. A TV series on E4 followed, and while it revealed the natural patchiness of a bunch of schoolkids, Poulter shone.

Drama was a lifeline for him even at that age, he explains; he has dyslexia and dyspraxia, and struggled at school. "It felt like it didn't matter how hard I tried, I wasn't getting anywhere. That's the most demoralising thing, as a kid. And to find something like drama, which I loved so much… it gave me a sense of purpose."

His family has always been supportive, even relocating to Australia during the shooting of the Narnia movie; Poulter, though, thinks they might just have been relieved that he found his niche. "I'm the black sheep of the family. My dad's a professor of medicine, my mum was a nurse, my little sister is going into healthcare, my older sister is a nurse, my brother's in finance – I'm the runt of the litter.

"In all honesty, as supportive as my dad is of what I do now, he was very worried about me. I was years behind [at school]; it was so frustrating to him, because he was an academic, to have a son who just couldn't do it."

These days, Poulter has that sky's-the-limit eagerness of someone for whom doors have opened early. He is hoping, even, one day to return to live comedy, despite that stagefright: "I constantly write stand-up, without having the balls to do it!" He's also written a script – a "weird little sci-fi movie" – which he's currently in talks about. It was co-authored with a pal, with whom he's also about to start shooting a super-low-budget feature film in west London; he can't give away any details, but buzzes that, "It's written by two friends of mine and it's being directed by a fantastic first-time director. It's a real passion project."

Such ventures are close to his heart and to his home, but with We're the Millers, Poulter is part of a wave of young British talent conquering America (just call it the Downton- Thrones Effect). But while he acknowledges that he has benefited from Hollywood's current transatlantic crush – he was one of a gaggle of Brits cast in The Maze Runner, including Skins' Kaya Scodelario and Love Actually's Thomas Brodie-Sangster – Poulter has his reservations about the trend: "It's funny how English actors are flavour of the month; we're as good or as bad as we've ever been. Nationality doesn't dictate talent. You should just be looking for the best actors."

Even if precocious English teenagers fall out of Tinseltown fashion, you suspect Poulter will still be hearing plenty from casting agents. At 20, the fearless kid who made audiences laugh is fast turning into a bankable star – whether he raises those eyebrows at the prospect or not.

'We're the Millers' (15) is in cinemas now

Arts and Entertainment
The crowd enjoy Latitude Festival 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
'I do think a woman's place is eventually in the home, but I see no harm in her having some fun before she gets there.'

Is this the end of the Dowager Countess?tv
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Martin of Coldplay performs live for fans at Enmore Theatre on June 19, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn