At 23, Will Poulter looks at once a little older and a little younger than that. His once-boyish face – with the quizzical, perma-raised eyebrows on which a character actor's career could be built – is settling into striking shape. Yet as he lopes into the frou-frou dining room of Claridge's, clad in practically unskinny jeans and a baggy white T-shirt bearing no trendy insignia, he doesn't seem a whole decade removed from the keen 12-year-old we met in Son of Rambow.
Nothing seems managed about his look, his manner or even his enthusiastic handshake. His meat-and-two-veg lunch order is unfashionably ravenous. And simply being an eager good sport has earnt Poulter quite a career so far. "I'm just lucky that I was kind of ugly enough, and kind of obnoxious enough, to play the bully," he says, referring to his scrappy debut in Rambow. He says it with a matter-of-fact shrug, as if he doesn't expect anyone to spring to his defence.
Obnoxious ugliness is in the eye of the beholder, after all. Whatever made the Son of Rambow casting directors pluck him out of a west London day school has thus far brought him a host of benefits: hefty young-adult cred from the Narnia and Maze Runner films, a snogging session with Jennifer Aniston in We're the Millers, even a Rising Star Bafta award two years ago.
He's Bafta-bound again this weekend – not as a nominee this time, but as a co-star sharing in the considerable glory of eight nominations for The Revenant. Alejandro Iñarritu's muscular, wilderness-set revenge parable has already carried Poulter down more A-list red carpets than he's ever trodden in his career before. He was a wide-eyed guest at last month's Golden Globes, where the film took three prizes, including Best Film; he's hoping to make it to the Academy Awards, where it's up for a whopping 12 gongs.
Poulter is at once thrilled and bemused by the glitter trail of awards season. "I've never been part of a film that's had this type of attention, and it's not as if we made it with this world in mind," he says. "The Globes were amazing, because that in itself is a massive production: I didn't feel like I belonged there at all, so it was strange being a sort of fly on the wall. But I'm glad of any opportunity for a bit of fun after what was a shoot with, well, not too many opportunities for fun."
He flashes a sly half-grin to acknowledge the extent of his understatement. The arduous nature of The Revenant's seven-month shoot, across several frostily remote rural territories of Canada and Argentina, has been so well publicised it's become part of the awards campaign; Leonardo DiCaprio's valiant guzzling of a raw bison liver is now the subject of various online memes.
"I haven't spoken to anyone in the cast or crew who isn't in agreement that it's the hardest thing they've done," Poulter says, though he's glad he escaped the offal challenge. He instead focused on channelling the emotional turmoil of his character, Jim Bridger, a young fur trapper made reluctantly complicit in the attempted murder of DiCaprio's protagonist by a villainous dissident played with deranged conviction by Tom Hardy. As the film's fractured moral conscience opposite Hardy, Poulter in many ways shoulders the film's most complex part; while his senior co-stars each got Oscar nods, his might be its richest performance.
Poulter resists such praise, instead describing the project as a kind of apprenticeship. "I thought I knew at least a little bit about the basics of film-making, but all of that went out the window for the sake of adapting to Alejandro's style." That entailed adjusting to the unforgiving shooting pace Iñarritu developed with ace cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki: filming in long, unbroken takes under the restrictions of natural light gave the actors little scope for trial and error.
"You had to welcome the camera into your world so much, and then, for the sake of being present in the scene, you had to banish it from your mind. That created a real conflict for me," he explains. "I remember coming to Alejandro in a bit of a fluster and saying, 'All these things are going on and it's killing me. I don't know how to play it.' And he replied, 'Just play that confusion. Why are we even having this conversation?' Not assessing it so technically is something actors like Leo and Tom have mastered. I'm still very much trying to learn."
Did tempers ever flare under such conditions? He elegantly overturns the question. "When you're working so hard together for that long, you become a surrogate family. You can't help but come out the other side with very strong feelings about one another, whether it's love or hate." He pauses in mock-suspense. "It turned out to be love, of course, which was great."
If The Revenant represents the most gruelling work Poulter has undertaken, he's swift to acknowledge that he has it pretty good. His family is in the healthcare business: his father's a cardiology professor, his mum and sister both nurses. "They all do far more important jobs than me, and get a lot less attention and reward for it," he says. "Not that I could follow in their footsteps even if I wanted to – I didn't exactly have a host of amazing science grades. I had nothing else going for me at school. I lived for my one lesson of drama a week."
Poulter didn't have tertiary drama education either, preferring to learn on the job. On the currently heated question of whether the British acting business is slanted in favour of wealthier classes – those who can afford expensive education and little-paid neophyte work – he professes optimistic uncertainty. "I hope not," he says. "It's important to declare the fact that talent and privilege in the arts, there's no correlation between the two of them. I don't [correlate them] because I didn't go to a drama school. I'd like to think that there's equal opportunity for everybody. [Though] I'm sure that's not the case."
American casting directors, on the other hand, tend to presume – with some measure of awe – that he and his fellow British acting exports all boast Rada-style training. While the misconception amuses Poulter, it's working out for him: he recently wrapped shooting in Abu Dhabi on War Machine, an Afghanistan war satire from Animal Kingdom director David Michod, in which he plays opposite Brad Pitt. And last year, internet horror fansites were sent into a tizzy following the announcement that Poulter would play the shape-shifting Pennywise in a remake of Stephen King's It; he describes his involvement as "not confirmed", however, following the departure of director Cary Fukunaga from the project.
Even as such big-name opportunities come knocking, however, Poulter is determined to keep a foot planted in the British independent film industry that made him: also on his 2016 slate is Kids in Love, a small-scale study of young London bohemia. "I'm not giving audiences anything if I'm not giving them variety," he says, aspiring to the restless style-hopping of his favourite actors – Christian Bale, Dustin Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix among them.
Apart from anything else, he's reluctant to relocate from his native Chiswick, where he's currently seeking his own digs not far from the family nest. Not, he admits, that he'll ever be there for too long a stretch at a time. "I hate sitting on the sofa," he says as he clears his plate. "It's what I'm worst at."
'The Revenant' (15) is in cinemas now
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