With theatres closed and, until recently, most film and TV production postponed, 2020 has been a difficult time for actors. As a result of the shut down, hundreds of previously busy performers have suddenly found themselves unable to satisfy their creative cravings, at least not in the ways they’re familiar with. And one actor who’s found himself looking elsewhere for a creative outlet is Will Poulter, the acclaimed star of films such as Detroit, Midsommar and The Revenant, who admits he’s been through something of a readjustment since the beginning of the pandemic.
“I suppose there’s kind of a creative hunger that you want to keep satiated,” he explains to RadioTimes.com over the phone in early August. “It’s a bit like a footballer being injured and not being able to step onto the field! But I’ve been fortunate enough to find ways to keep myself creatively occupied.”
And the actor certainly hasn’t been idle during lockdown. As well as catching up on reading (“making up for the lack of it I did as a kid”, he jokes) Poulter took on a new project that represents something of a different avenue for him – narrating his second audiobook. The 27-year-old, who made his first venture into the medium reading John Lanchester’s The Wall for Audible last year, has now lent his voice to one of literature’s most enduring works: Fyodor Dotskyevsky’s seminal 1866 novel Crime and Punishment. It seems like a daunting task, but it’s one that he was only too happy to take on.
“I was incredibly flattered to be asked to narrate something that is considered a classic,” he says when asked about the challenges of tackling such an iconic text. “And it was exciting because it presents a really interesting acting challenge in all the different characters that make up the story. The lead character Raskolnikov is someone who I think goes through an especially interesting journey and experiences a really complex wrestling with his own mind.”
Aside from the challenges posed by the novel, Poulter was also attracted to the project for another reason, one which he says has increasingly been informing his choices. “For a book that was written hundreds of years ago it feels relatively progressive for the time,” he says. “And it’s interesting to see how many of the themes that are explored in this book are still relevant today.”
This aspect of acting – the chance to explore themes that are relevant to wider society – is something that matters very much to Poulter. He says he’s been trying to think more carefully about the social application of his work in recent years, and what he’s really interested in is making sure his acting can intersect with real social action.
He points to Kathryn Bigelow’s 2017 historical crime drama Detroit as the best example of this type of project. In the film, Poulter played Philip Krauss, a fictional cop heavily inspired by real police officer David Senak, who confessed to taking part in the killings of two innocent black men during the Detroit riots of 1967. The film makes for an unpleasant, intense viewing experience, but it’s one that feels particularly relevant now.
“I was very fortunate to have a hand in telling a story that was very much swept under the rug,” he explains. “And it was important that we got that story into the limelight to highlight the issue of radicalised police brutality and systemic racism, not just in America but the world over.”
It’s not just in historical dramas like Detroit that Poulter seeks to make an impact. Although in the past he has expressed a preference for roles in films that are fact-based rather than works of fiction, nowadays he’s less tied to that idea. He reckons that blockbuster cinema has just as much power as historical or biographical works to foster discussion and make progressive statements.
“I think that science fiction films can be infused with really positive socially responsible messaging,” he says. “I think that there are examples of huge popcorn movies or blockbusters that have wonderful social application and are inherently inclusive and informational. And so I think it’s just as important for those films to think about how they are affecting people once they leave the cinema.”
Poulter first shot to fame in his early teens, earning many plaudits for playing the lead role in acclaimed 2007 comedy Son of Rambow, and in the time since he’s amassed a wealth of impressive and varied credits. His filmography makes for interesting reading, comprising a range of often very different projects, including both franchise fare like The Maze Runner series and more small-scale films. (He was also all set to take on one of the lead roles in Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings TV series before a schedule clash put an end to those plans.)
Among his filmography are works from some of the world’s best and most celebrated directors – Kathryn Bigelow, Alejandro Innaritu and Ari Aster to name just three. There are many more filmmakers Poulter would love to work with, (“my list is so long that you would have to shut me up”, he laughs) but he singles out Barry Jenkins and Andrea Arnold as two directors he’d particularly like to collaborate with, both of whom’s work he says ties into his aforementioned desire to make films which have a positive social application at their forefront.
Despite learning from some of the best, though, if Poulter is to move behind the camera himself at some point it won’t be for a while yet. “I don’t see myself doing it for a number of years,” he says when questioned about the possibility of directing. “I feel so green still in terms of acting and with the amount that I still need to learn, I’d love to be able to do it, I just honestly couldn’t say myself whether I’m capable now.”
We’ll have to make do with Poulter as an actor for now, then, and that certainly won’t be cause for complaint among film fans. As his willingness to take on Crime and Punishment attests, one thing that seems to have characterised many of the films Poulter has appeared in is a certain degree of intensity; in addition to his role in Detroit, other recent examples include his turn in the famously gruelling The Revenant and in Ari Aster’s 2019 horror masterpiece Midsommar. Poulter pauses when asked if he deliberately opts for intense roles. “I do like things that are inherently challenging and testing,” he says, after a while. “I think if it’s kind of pushing me to my limits or stretching me then I’m sort of enjoying it more.”
Perhaps one of the most interesting projects he has been involved in recently is the Black Mirror episode Bandersnatch – something which stretched not only Poulter but also the nature of narrative TV itself. The episode marked Netflix’s first move into ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ type storytelling, a move which continued this year with an interactive episode of popular sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. So given the role he played in the streaming platform’s first steps into this type of programme, does Poulter find himself invested in where the future of the medium goes?
“It’s really interesting to see how that develops, for sure” he says. “I was really grateful to be part of Netflix’s first foray – or anyone’s first foray into that world. It’s very, very challenging but it’s interesting anytime technology is used to re-engage people and activate the viewer. I myself am guilty of turning on a TV programme or a film and checking my phone or being distracted or getting up without pausing something unnecessarily. So I think the interesting thing about something like Bandersnatch is it was hard not to stay locked in.”
Whether or not interactive TV is something that has legs to survive is unclear, but Poulter himself is certainly someone who will be sticking around for a long time – and with the actor’s career still in its infancy, it will be extremely interesting to see what still lies in store. Poulter himself has high hopes for the future, not just for his own career but for the state of the film industry in general, which he thinks has a huge chance to take stock from the current moment.
“My hope is that away from coronavirus now more than ever we really think as creatives and as people in various positions of privilege in this industry very carefully about the messaging that we’re sending out and how our projects are influencing society,” he says. “I just hope we continue to be more inclusive and think in a more responsible way about representation, both behind the camera and in front.”
Crime And Punishment, narrated by Will Poulter, is available exclusively on Audible from 21st September. Find out what to watch with our TV Guide.