A group of American college friends set out on a trek to Sweden in Midsommar, the second horror feature from Hereditary writer/director Ari Aster. Among the group are Dani (Florence Pugh), who’s traumatized by a family tragedy and the downward spiral of her relationship with Christian (Jack Reynor), who’s also on the trip. Joining them are anthropology student Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Christian’s friend Mark (Will Poulter) a loud-mouthed, boorish misogynist whose interests extend mainly to screwing as many Swedish girls as he can.
They are guided by Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), a Swedish exchange student who is taking them to his ancestral tribe’s remote village for a festival that happens only once every 90 years. Once they arrive in the land of the Harga, the group’s varying interests — getting away from it all, Ph.D. studies and sampling the local talent — all dissipate in the face of horrific, enigmatic rituals they aren’t prepared for.
Poulter, a 26-year-old native of London, England, paints an incisive picture of Mark as a loutish American abroad, swaggering and blundering into everything while all the while masking a deep insecurity and perhaps even fear of that which he doesn’t understand. The acclaimed young actor has recently been seen in Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit as the terrifying cop Philip Krauss, in Lenny Abrahamson’s The Little Stranger as the badly injured Royal Air Force vet Roderick Ayres, and in the Black Mirror “create-your-own-story” film Bandersnatch, where he played computer genius Colin Ritman.
Den of Geek spoke with Poulter by phone about exploring the part of Mark, immersing himself in the world of Midsommar, and a bit about a role in another major horror film that he was briefly attached to a few years back.
Den of Geek: How did this come onto your radar?
Will Poulter: It initially came onto my radar a good few months before we went into pre-production, and I’d say it coincided with Hereditary playing at Sundance and getting a really great reaction. I read the script, and I thought it was incredibly visceral, totally unique, unlike anything I’d ever read, but highly ambitious. If I’m honest, I was skeptical as to whether there was anyone who could really execute such an ambitious film.
Then I met with Ari, watched of his short films, and suddenly realized that this was the guy who could do it. Then I instantly became obsessed with the idea of having any part in this film. Mark, specifically, I think, is someone that I spoke in depth with Ari about, because I felt like Mark is one of those characters who, I think…I was encouraging people to laugh at him as much as they were laughing with him.
How did you see this character of Mark?
I think he’s the kind of slightly regressive, problematic person that everyone can relate to, or knows potentially. Particularly in the male community, you have that one male friend who you feel like is out of touch and not up to date and is quite problematic. They project something that looks like confidence and security, when in fact, I think they’re quite insecure and self-loathing. I think that’s true of Mark. He had this duality to him, and Ari was keen for me to play that. So it struck me as an interesting challenge.
He comes the closest to the stereotype of the “ugly American.”
To be honest, that didn’t come up so much. I mean, I think with all of Ari’s characters, none of them are caricatures, none of them are templates, or one-dimensional. I think he’s very, very interested in exploring his characters in a lot of detail and understanding their backstory and their psychology. He takes a very psychological approach to construction of characters.
I think Mark is someone who, Ari was very keen for me to try and play while embracing this idea that he’s like a very insecure individual. Part of the reason that he has this mean sense of humor, and he’s constantly detracting from the people and the environment around him, is because he’s insecure in himself. I feel like that’s something that I think is probably quite relatable to a lot of people. He’s a character who you can hold up as an example of how not to be.
Mark is almost a poster child for the out-of-date regressive male. It’s like people shouldn’t have to suffer the Marks of this world any longer, if that makes sense. And I think it’s interesting how people have questioned Christian’s level of empathy, and yet, Christian as a character, turns to Mark, one of his friends, for emotional support. And Mark is unable to give him anything other than quite toxic unsupportive advice in his situation. He’s obviously going through a difficult breakup, and Mark is really only able to speak pejoratively of Dani and make mean jokes, and that’s just quite sad.
If we were to explore his background, and maybe you did, it seems like he comes from being raised to believe that men don’t share, men don’t show emotion, men aren’t allowed to show weakness. And the result is like this wall of bravado that goes up.
100%, I think, definitely. That’s something that I discussed with Ari. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to all men, but I said to Ari that I feel like Mark is lacking female influence in his life. It feels like he wasn’t in any way educated or influenced by women, and he potentially bought into some quite toxic and harmful masculine values that are both harmful to the male community and damaging for the female experience. He just strikes me as someone who is very, very lacking in that area.
The Harga village was built from scratch in a field outside Budapest, Hungary. What was it like to actually be there every day with the level of detail that Ari put into it?
It was incredibly immersive. That field in which the village was built was just stunning. I mean, really, what’s amazing is that never at any point were there are signs of the film world spoiling the image of that village. That village was largely untouched unless we were inside and shooting. Nothing that felt like a set, if that makes sense. There was nothing propping it up. There were no unpainted walls, or wires hanging out the back of those buildings, nothing like that. It was an entirely believable world created by Henrik Svensson, who’s the head art director on this, who I think just did an unbelievable job. And Ari’s attention to detail and his propensity to include clues about the story and how the narrative will unfold in the production design just made it one of the most interesting environments I’ve ever been in.
For all of us, playing these characters that go on this journey that seems relatively A to B in the first instance, traveling from America to a festival in Sweden, and then we embark on something far more transformative and unexpected, I think there’s a wonderment and just the extreme nature of that environment really helped to make that transition feel pretty real, and it was beautiful. And that’s one of the things that’s most disturbing about the film is it has this veneer of beauty and of course, a very dark sinister underbelly. And there’s real trickery going on in that sense, that you’re lured in by the beauty, and then you find yourself being burned by the actions of the Hargas.
Before we go, I had a different subject I wanted to ask you about. You were at one point possibly going to play Pennywise the Clown in It for director Cary Joji Fukunaga before he left the project. I was just curious how far did you get down the road with that?
Truthfully, I’m hesitant to talk about it in too much detail, just out of respect for Andy Muschietti, who directed the film, and Bill Skarsgard, who ended up playing the role, and who I think did a fantastic job. But when I was attached to that role, obviously there was a different director on board. So many of my conversations were in the context of our creative discussions around the character and truthfully, a different script.
So without appearing to be too evasive, it’s probably not all that useful, but I was engaged in early pre-production, and it was very flattering to be associated with that project for the short time that I was. But I was genuinely pleased to see that the film did well. It’s a great story, and I feel like justice was served creatively.
Midsommar is out in theaters now.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye