Will Poulter interview: The Revenant, survival, Pennywise

He's the star of Alejandro Inarritu's new film, The Revenant. Will Poulter talks survival films, long takes and nerve-wracking auditions...

“If we ended up in greenscreen with coffee and everybody having a good time, everybody will be happy, but most likely the film would be a piece of shit,” was how director Alejandro Iñárritu justified his uncompromising approach to making his latest film, The Revenant. And so it was that a top-notch cast of actors, among them Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy and Will Poulter, packed off to remote – and sometimes freezing – locations in Canada.

The results are all there on screen: The Revenant is an immediate, immersive and mesmerising movie, telling the true story of expert frontiersman Hugh Glass and his survival against extraordinary odds in 19th century Montana. Will Poulter plays Jim Bridger, a young fur trapper who has a small yet pivotal role in Glass’s story, and like all the performances in The Revenant, it’s subtle and wonderfully restrained.

As The Revenant emerges in UK cinemas, we sat down with Mr Poulter to talk about the challenge of making the movie, working with Iñárritu’s roving, intricate camerawork, nerve-wracking auditions, and whether or not he’s still playing Pennywise in a remake of Stephen King’s It…

Magnificent film. You must be thrilled with it.

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I think we all feel immensely proud of it, for sure. 

From that battle sequence near the opening, it totally immerses you. 

I think that’s the most rewarding thing from speaking to people who’ve watched it. They feel the immersion. Leo [DiCaprio] described the camerawork brilliantly. He said it was like a voyeuristic fly, which is very true – it’s like an insect buzzing around the action. It’s a different experience to anything I’ve seen before. It just doesn’t feel like regular camerawork – there’s some sort of voodoo magic in what Alejandro [Iñárritu] and his entire team achieved.

How was it for you as an actor? Was it similarly immersive?

Yeah. It was interesting. Shooting in the actual locations with natural light and all the real weather elements, and of course we’re surrounded by actors who are just phenomenal – that made it very immersive, very real. One thing that was pretty tricky was having to collaborate with the camera to that extent, and I should say collaborating with the camera. I love the teamwork, the camaraderie that comes with it. But this was a different level to anything I’d experienced before. 

This was about making the camera an extension of everything you did, and synchronising every decision and every physical move with the camera. Because in order to achieve those long, flowing takes Alejandro’s famous for, we needed to choreograph every scene very, very carefully. And of course, we only had limited windows of light per day, maybe a couple of hours, so we were rehearsing and meticulously plotting everything throughout the day up until that point – and then it’s a mad scramble to capture it in that time before the light goes or the weather fucks us! 

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That sounds quite frustrating. Or was it exciting, that pace of having to do things?

D’you know what it is? It was. It could be very frustrating, because it was really hard. You feel like you know the basic principles of filmmaking, I guess. I knew how to hit my mark, I knew how to find my light, just about. But this was a whole different ball game. Literally measuring what time you reach a prop, what time you lift it towards you, the angle you turn you turn your head. 

You might sometimes have to think about these things, you know, because the lighting’s very specific or the camera move is a bit complicated. But on this, every camera move is complicated, and in every occasion the light was very specific because it was all natural. It could be frustrating, but it was also gripping – it was really challenging, and that  was satisfying. To feel that busy and to feel that consumed by your work was great. 

Every character was really well drawn, but I thought your character was interesting. He’s an artistic character, isn’t he? He really creates the few bits of art you see in the film, other than the odd bit of face paint or something like that. 

Yeah, yeah. I hadn’t actually thought of it like that. 

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That was what I was wondering – whether you thought of him being sensitive and creative in this harsh, insensitive environment.

I thought about him being sensitive. And I loved the symbolism of him giving [Leonardo DiCaprio’s character] the claw [an object Poulter’s character Bridger crafts in the film]. I did appreciate that gesture, because that was one of the things I was struggling with was the moral perspective as an actor. I was struggling with the moral controversy, if you like, of [what happens to] Glass, who I saw as a father figure. 

Those gestures at least went some way to showing that Bridger cared, that the decisions were tough, and that his thoughts and prayers are with Glass. 

In terms of morality, this film doesn’t deal with absolutes anyway, does it? Even Tom Hardy’s character, Fitzgerald, isn’t an absolute black-and-white villain. He does have his reasons for doing what he does – even if they are selfish.

Absolutely. And I think that highlights one of the greatest strengths of Alejandro as a director. What makes him incredibly special is, his characters aren’t black and white. So often in movies, we have good guys and bad guys, and the complexity of humans is sadly lost for the sake of making a character. 

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Alejandro’s interested in humans, and he shows them for all their complexities and their imperfections. He doesn’t celebrate them, he doesn’t do them down for having those imperfections, he simply puts it on show. That’s why I think so many of the performances in his films are as realistic and affecting as they are.

This is certainly one of the best survival films I’ve seen in a while, but it’s something of a recurring theme in recent cinema. Even Pixar have made one, kind of, with The Good Dinosaur. That has a survival element to it.

Oh really?

Yeah. This little dinosaur gets washed down the river and he has to find his way back home again. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but there does seem to be a hunger for films about survival again. Like The Martian was a survival film. Gravity was, too.

Ah, yeah, yeah!

Do you think maybe it’s because we’ve become so attached to technology, that we see these films and think, “How would I cope in these situations”?

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Yeah. It is interesting. I wonder if those sorts of stories are more impressive because we feel such a sense of security; we’ve grown so comfortable in our lives as we surround ourselves with more and more comforts. We’ve stabilised our way of living with technology, etc, etc. Yeah, I wonder if that is the case. It would make sense, I suppose. 

There’s a certain irony as well that the technology we have now can enable filmmakers to make something as real and gritty as The Revenant.

I feel like, for us, we were lucky to be able to return to the filmmaking approach of old, and shoot on location. Because it was almost like stepping back in time and shooting a movie in the old-school way, that pure, uncut way of making a movie. Movies aren’t often made that way anymore. And I genuinely think it translates. I genuinely think that it’s necessary – I don’t think you’d have got that immersive, intense realism we were talking about had we been in a studio with a snow blower and giant kino lights.

What was it like shooting the scene with Tom Hardy where he talks about God being a squirrel? I thought that was a fantastic moment.

It was very well performed by Tom. It was difficult, because he kept putting the meat really far into the fire, so it was absolutely scalding every time he handed it to me! [Laughs] I remember burning my lip. But it’s a great scene, and it provides an insight into the complexity of Bridger and Fitzgerald’s relationship. When he tells Bridger that story, he’s opening up, but he’s also slightly manipulating Bridger, because he’s using the analogy to represent Glass. 

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There are a lot of parallels going on there, and there’s a complexity and muddiness to Fitzgerald and Bridger’s relationship, which Tom was as keen on playing as I was. We enjoyed that, that dynamic.

When We’re The Millers came out, I remember you saying in an interview with The Guardian that you fought really hard for that role. I wondered if auditioning for this film was equally tough. 

I don’t know how many people auditioned for the role, or where I was placed necessarily. I was grateful to Alejandro, because he asked me to send in a tape, so I taped an audition, and then I met him personally. It was great to separate the two things. I hate going into the audition room. I find it the most nerve-wracking, inhumane experience, and I think it’s such an inhospitable environment to give an honest account of the character and, I guess, your ability. 

I find it a nerve-shredding experience. Some people like going for them, but for me int makes sense giving the actor the opportunity to separate the character from their own personality, because then the director gets a sense of who they are as an individual, and what their transformation is. If you do both in the same instance, I find they only get a kind of current performance – a nervous combination of me and the character that tumbles into the room and then spills back out again. I was grateful to Alejandro for doing it a different way, you know?

So what have you got next, then? Is it War Machine?

Yeah, I just finished War Machine in Abu Dhabi, which was an amazing experience. I felt lucky to represent the Marines and to work with that cast. 

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Are you still playing Pennywise in It?

[Thoughtfully] I don’t know. I don’t know. I was once when Mr Fukunaga was directing, but the circumstances at New Line are such that a new director’s attached now. I think, with all due respect to him of course, I was selected by Cary and subscribed to Cary’s vision for the movie, and so I haven’t had a chance to connect with that [new] director. Of course, I have a relationship with New Line so I’m grateful to them for taking a punt on me – both for We’re The Millers and It. But my involvement remains to be seen. 

Will Poulter, thank you very much.

The Revenant is out in UK cinemas on the 15th January.