The Saturday Interview

Will Poulter interview: 'Even I find Midsommar disturbing and I was in it'

The 26-year-old on the horror film that everyone’s talking about, why playing Eminem would be his dream role and his decision to leave – not quit – Twitter. By Jacob Stolworthy

Saturday 06 July 2019 13:41
Poulter attends the premiere of ‘Midsommar’ in Hollywood in June
Poulter attends the premiere of ‘Midsommar’ in Hollywood in June

Will Poulter found himself feeling slightly unnerved at this year’s Glastonbury – and no, it had nothing to do with hallucinogens. Instead, the culprits were a group of revellers wearing floral crowns as they danced under the beating sun. That such a pleasant image could unsettle a 26-year-old movie star might not make a lot of sense, but it will once you’ve seen Midsommar.

The latest horror from Hereditary director Ari Aster follows a group of friends who journey to a remote Swedish village for a seemingly innocent midsummer festival. But it soon descends into a ritual bloodbath, involving runes, ancestral trees and pubic hair. It makes Fyre Festival look like Disneyland.

“I’ve got to say that being out in the sun at Glastonbury and seeing the odd person with flowers in their hair did trip me out a bit,” Poulter tells me, now safely hunched over a coffee cup in a trendy London office.

The British actor appears in the film alongside Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor and, after watching it in New York last month, the co-stars – including William Jackson Harper (Chidi in The Good Place) and Swedish newcomer Vilhelm Blomgren – were left speechless by what they saw. Poulter even struggled to sleep that night.

“What you come to terms with pretty quickly is that there aren’t ghouls or goblins in Midsommar; everything that is horrifying comes from a very organic place and all the terrible things that happen are enacted by humans on humans,” he says. “That’s really quite disturbing to me.”

Poulter in folk-horror film ‘Midsommar‘

Unlike Hereditary, which was billed as one of the scariest horror films in years following its buzzy premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2018, Midsommar is a film that draws bigger laughs than shrieks, but over the course of its lengthy running time – a justifiable two hours 27 minutes – it slowly takes its toll on your nerves. Poulter nods when I describe it as a film that doesn’t seem terrifying until you’re alone several days later.

One of the film’s most memorable images is its very first shot: a tableau of folk art that splits in two – like a Punch and Judy show – to present the film within. According to Poulter, this particular moment is filled with an assortment of hints.

“I don’t want to give too much away, but Ari’s movies warrant a second and third watch because there are loads of details that foreshadow things. Watch that tapestry – if you look at it closely you’ll see clues about the story. It’s exactly how the narrative unfurls.”

Poulter seems older than his 26 years. Gone are his character’s short back and sides in favour of a bedraggled but stylish rock star look. He speaks with a maturity not dissimilar to public school actors Tom Hiddleston and Eddie Redmayne, with whom he’s sometimes bracketed, having been a pupil at the Harrodian School in west London (current fees, £5,200-7,987 a term), but is quick to point out that, unlike these peers, he’s no academic. Poulter left school with no qualifications.

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It was standout roles in Son of Rambow (2007), The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010), and Dexter Fletcher’s Wild Bill (2011) that placed a teenage Poulter on the path to wider recognition. Aged just 21, he won the 2014 Bafta Rising Star Award – voted for by the public – starred in an Oscar-winning hit (The Revenant, 2015) and kissed Jennifer Aniston (We’re the Millers, 2013). Midsommar marks his third film with “best friend” Jack Reynor following Irish drama Glassland (2014) and Kathryn Bigelow’s hard-hitting Detroit (2017), in which he won plaudits for playing racist cop Philip Krauss.

Then there was Bandersnatch​. At the tail-end of 2018, Poulter played video game designer Colin Ritman in Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones’s interactive Black Mirror special, which had people choosing their own adventures all over the globe. However, after receiving distasteful personal messages in the wake of its release on Netflix, he temporarily left Twitter, as he puts it, “in the interest of my mental health”. Before departing, he wrote: “There are positives to enjoy and inevitable negatives that are best avoided [and] it’s a balance that I have struggled with for a while now.”

Fionn Whitehead, Poulter and Asim Chaudhry in ‘Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’ 

I ask him how he’s doing six months on. “I’m really glad I made the decision to take a step back and just readdress my relationship with social media. Unfortunately, there are things I’ve had to clear up. I wrote what I thought was quite a detailed statement, but [people thought it was] in response to the critical reception of Bandersnatch, which was untrue; my decision to step away from Twitter for a brief period,” he looks at me, “and not quit – in italics and underlined if you don’t mind – was based on a sum of things I experienced regarding how people treat others online. It’s a shame that those things got misconstrued and that certain outlets took what I wrote and said I’d quit. It was just another part of the reason I left.”

Even if he won’t admit it, the only real career blow Poulter’s experienced thus far is having one high-profile role slip through his fingers: Pennywise. He was set to play Stephen King’s shapeshifting clown in a version of It from Bond 25 director Cary Joji Fukunaga before “a change in development” saw them both depart the project. “The film continued in another direction and it was a successful one,” Poulter says. “I feel justice was served to the story.”

He deems it “unfair” to say what he would have brought to the role over the actor who eventually starred – Bill Skarsgård – but knows there was one area he would have succeeded. “Big feet,” he says. “I have clown feet. That’s the one thing I could have guaranteed.” (For those wondering, he’s size 12.5).

Poulter’s breakout came alongside Emma Roberts, Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudeikis in 2013 comedy ‘We’re the Millers’ (Warner Bros Pictures)

Given his presence at Glastonbury, I wonder if Poulter has any musicians he’d like to play. Music biopics are all the rage at the moment following the success of Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, with several more in the works (Starman, in which Johnny Flynn will play David Bowie, and an untitled Elvis biopic that Harry Styles, Miles Teller and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are in the running to lead). Poulter, though, has a more unexpected icon in his head.

“I’m a big fan of hip hop so if there was ever another film about Eminem, that would be a dream role for me. But I don’t think it would be appropriate, so I’d settle for a supporting role. Alex from Glastonbury’s probably already got the offer, though, so if he turns it down, I’ll be able to audition.”

Unlike the 15-year-old, who became an overnight star last weekend following an on-stage rendition of Dave track “Thiago Silva”, Poulter’s immediate schedule is currently wide open. He’s completed work on Reynor’s short film Bainne, which is currently in post-production, but has no other announced projects on the go. Maybe Fukunaga will remember his would-be Pennywise for Bond 26? He does owe him a villainous role after all. Poulter’s eyes widen. “I should be so lucky.”

‘Midsommar’ is in cinemas now

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