Will Poulter has a favourite stick. “A big stick. Almost closer to a log,” he explains animatedly. “It’s made entirely out of foam but looks very much like a stick.” It was a memento from his first film role aged 12, in Garth Jennings’ 2007 comedy Son Of Rambow. “I think I used it in a fight scene, or Bill [Milner] used it on me in a fight scene. I always try and rob something from set,” he smiles.
From the set of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, the interactive Netflix film in which he plays games developer Colin Ritman, Poulter snagged a Metl Hedd poster, currently framed on his bathroom wall. “It’s the one that features in the office as a kind of Easter Egg when Thakur says ‘that’s Colin’s new one’, which is quite cool. The art department were good enough to give that to me.”
After days of press and a signing event in a pop-up shop styled to look like a 1980s branch of WHSmith, Poulter is fluent in the Easter Eggs of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. Did I notice the records in his character’s vinyl collection that hadn’t been released when the episode is set? Or the Akira poster which also came out later than 1984? Not careless set-dressing, but a suggestion that Poulter’s enigmatic games coder is, as his hallucinogen-fuelled rant in the film suggests, a time traveller.
We chat about Bandersnatch fan theories, staying mentally healthy around modern technology, and building the character of Colin Ritman. But first, his interest is piqued by a book…
Will Poulter: Sorry to be nosy, is that something you were just reading, or is that an actual Choose Your Own Adventure book?
Den Of Geek: It is. It’s Supercomputer by Edward Packard. Feel free to have a browse.
I thought it was! Do you mind?
Of course, go ahead. Do you recognise them from childhood?
I’m not sure I do but I love the artwork. [The cover depicts a small child lying on some grass, one hand raised in front of their face by way of protection, as a robot super computer rampages around the Taj Mahal with a hot air balloon, a fighter jet and a group of pretty culturally insensitive caricatures of African tribespeople. It was published in 1985.]
The best bits are the quotes in the inside cover from schoolchildren. “Though I don’t like reading much, I loved this” says Robert, aged 10. “It makes you think instead of just reading it and forgetting it” says Charlotte, aged 13.
While you’re flicking, talk me through the creation of Colin Ritman, starting with his voice.
[Laughs] Like a semi-computerised voice.
Was that the idea, to make him so laconic he’s almost like part-machine?
Not necessarily. It was partly an instinctive kind of thing, like a gutturally-led decision, but also in the research process I came across a lot of—and I’m really not trying to conform to any kind of dangerous stereotypes about people who work with computers or ‘geek’, because I think a lot of that is quite mean-spirited—but a lot of the guys specifically that featured in this documentary that I watched about computer programming in the UK [From Bedrooms To Billions], Charlie put it on to me, I came across two or three guys who had a quality to their voice that I was just mimicking.
There was a quality to their voice and it had a slightly nasal [starts doing Colin’s voice] quality to it that I latched onto and thought ‘I like that’. I didn’t know where it came from or why but it just made sense for Colin.
How about the look, the costumes. Did that reference the same documentary?
A little bit. I was really lucky in that costume, hair, make-up, props were all very open to collaboration and I really like, if I can, the opportunity to collaborate with all those different departments in the construction of a character. I certainly follow their lead and often come with some relatively strong thoughts.
What was your input on this?
I wanted a receding hairline! So they shaved into my hair line a little bit, which was cool.
Yeah, and it was their idea to go blonde and spiky, which I loved and had never done before, kind of peroxide and spiky. I felt pretty strongly about glasses and luckily costume and hair and make-up were cool with me having those as well. Fortunately, we were all very like-minded. Costume smashed it so brilliantly with this kind of unorthodox style that Colin has which is cool, not-cool, weird sometimes pretty strait-laced and square… it borrowed from lots of different places to reflect the fact that he’s quite enigmatic and ambiguous.
On that note, Charlie Brooker has said that because Colin is dead and not dead, both there and disappeared… he has this quality that means he could pop up anywhere in the Black Mirror universe.
In the future, in the past…
Yeah. That’s a very exciting notion. I’m also aware that I can see Charlie and Annabel through [points across the hotel room] that window – they’re in the room over there, probably going ‘We don’t want to work with Will Poulter again, he won’t be appearing in any more episodes!’
I would love that. Of course, that would be amazing. I would definitely like to reprise Colin, whether he will or not, I don’t know.
That was a cool quality to him, that he had this ability to potentially time travel and had this sense of knowing and awareness that was, at times a little bit unnerving and I’ve heard him referred to at times as being almost creepy. But then also quite kind of interesting in terms of how it plays into his relationship with Stefan, because in Stefan, he recognises a similar ability.
He’s like his mentor?
Yeah. They’re sort of kindred spirits in some ways. Colin sees a lot of Stefan in him. Actually I think Colin probably wouldn’t admit this to Stefan to his face but Colin sees Stefan as an even brighter spark than Colin. If Stefan manages to absorb the knowledge and keep his head, he can become even more powerful than Colin is the idea there.
Back to the production design. In the set for Colin’s flat, Black Mirror obsessives are always on the lookout for Easter Eggs. Were you aware of the specific props that referenced other episodes? Are there things that have only become clear now while it’s all been dissected online?
A few of them became apparent to me at different stages. Some of them were pointed out to me. I was told… did you see that there are records in my collection that were released years after the time in which it’s set so as to suggest that potentially, Colin does time travel? Actually, my brother sent me a text about a poster, did you see that one? I think it’s an Akira poster, and he said ‘You realise that was released later than 1984.’ That’s kind of cool. Again, it just speaks to the genius of Charlie and Annabel and David [Slade] as a director. The detail they’re able to incorporate and the way they’re able to lace in Easter Eggs and appeal to the more attentive viewers and die-hard fans.
You met some of those die-hard fans at the signing this week?
Yes! It’s a really engaged fandom. They’re so into it and so passionate and so observant. At the signing there wasn’t too much opportunity for chat. Mainly I was signing posters while Charlie was drawing strange glyphs and symbols and Asim [Chaudhry] was just making people laugh.
It’s amazing to see how into it the Black Mirror fans are. I really really do count myself as incredibly lucky to be part of the alumni and to have the change to engage with such a lovely fandom. Everyone I’ve met associated with Black Mirror has been really nice. It’s very dark, too, in lots of ways, so that’s quite surprising.
When you were researching coders, did you also look into the counter-culture, conspiracy side of things that Colin represents?
[Quotes the episode] “That was Huxley, not Leary”. A little bit of that. I personally only had about two weeks’ prep and it was such a short period of time that I was really scared about not actually being able to ‘get there’ as far as the research was concerned, as far as hair length… I was nervous about not feeling ready when it came to Colin.
I did a bit of reading around coding and Charlie gave me this book about coding, which was way too advanced for me. I needed to start way back at the beginning, so I bought a book called Coding For Beginners and started working my way through that and got relatively into that before we started shooting, which made me feel slightly less like a bullshitter.
Have you thought much about what the Bandersnatch story is about?
I think it’s about about responsibility over choice. If it is to kind of fit in with one of the overreaching themes of Black Mirror. If it is part of the spine that seems to run through all of the Black Mirror work, I think it teaches us something about how our decisions around our relationships with technology is very very important so that we remain mentally healthy and we can engage with it in a sustainable way [Poulter recently announced he was taking a step back from Twitter following some negativity surrounding not his work, but his appearance, in Bandersnatch] and a way that is ethically responsible as well.
As bleak as Black Mirror is, as dark as it can be, I think it’s really amazing to have something that educates us on the perils of technology and also highlights some of the pitfalls so that we don’t fall prey to them.
Speaking of choices, you’ve made very good ones of late, working on this, with Kathryn Bigelow [on Detroit], and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu [on The Revenant]. What dictates your choices as an actor?
I’ve always felt that I need to be genuinely emotionally invested and passionate about playing a character and being a part of a project in order really to do justice to it and make the most of that opportunity. I also realise I’ve had a massive amount of fortune and good luck come my way that I don’t take for granted. Sometimes you go through dry spells where that luck isn’t necessarily afforded to you and you might have to change your tack slightly. I always want to try and do things that I’m really passionate about.
What’s happening with your production company [Good Soil, set up in 2014]?
That’s something I still have that is kind of on the back boiler a little bit. I felt like I developed that with ambitions to do X,Y and Z, but I needed to gain a little bit more experience in the acting department before I could really split my time at all.
As somebody who started young in the industry, is it part of your goal to work with child actors?
Potentially, yeah. I was so lucky to get the opportunity I got.
With Garth Jennings in Son Of Rambow?
With Garth, yeah, that was awesome.
It’s such a lovely film.
Thank you, thanks. I’m so lucky that was my first one. Son Of Rambow was one of the best introductions I could have hoped for as far as it was a really fun experience, and also the film just having a really unexpected level of success and such a wide reach. We didn’t anticipate that. Me and Bill Milner went off and made a film for eight weeks on our summer holidays when we were 12, then the next thing you know, Son Of Rambow’s in Korea and playing in Australia and playing at Sundance, and Sylvester Stallone’s watching it.
How did that come about?
Stallone? He watched it because I think for a while there were some issues surrounding the name of the film and I think he went to give it his approval. Once we got Sylvester Stallone’s approval, we were able to use the Rambo the name, there was a ‘w’ on the end as if we’ve kind of spelled it wrong, that was the idea. It got Stallone’s approval, which is very cool.
The 80s were where your acting career really started with Son Of Rambow, and now you’re back there in Bandersnatch. What does it mean to you as an era, considering that you weren’t around in them for real?
It’s funny actually because I sort of feel—and I’m inappropriately co-opting here—a sense of nostalgia over things that are inherently 80s because of Son Of Rambow, because I play-acted in the era. I felt like, when I stepped back into the 80s, a strange sense of comfort, which was really helpful when it came to Bandersnatch. It’s just fun to spend any time in the 80s.
Were there any particular 80s props in Bandersnatch that really helped you get into the period?
Yeah. Costume, majorly. The ZX Spectrum I was coding the games on, I loved that little thing. I had this Zippo lighter that I was always fiddling around with, that was great too. I’ve actually got a Metl Hedd poster, the one that features in the office as a kind of Easter Egg that Tucker refers to and he says ‘oh, that’s Colin’s new one’, I’ve got that poster in my house, which is quite cool. That’s in my bathroom. I managed to steal that one. I always try and rob something from set and the art department were good enough to give that one to me.
What did you rob from Son Of Rambow?
I’ve got a stick! Like a big stick, it’s almost closer to a log than a stick that is made entirely of foam but looks very much like a stick. I think I used it in a fight scene, or Bill [Milner] used it on me in a fight scene. It looks like a very convincing piece of wood but it’s actually completely spongey. I’ve got that.
And The Revenant?
The Revenant I’m really lucky, actually, the director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu gave me a book of photography on The Revenant, which is very dear to my heart. I get so cold looking back at the pictures.
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is available now on Netflix UK.