by: Jay Carlson: Editor-in-chief
I recently sat down with Will Poulter to discuss his time making Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. Most know Poulter from his comedic turn as Kenny in We’re the Millers but make no mistake, there’s much more to this actor than his boyish looks.
Poulter opens up and discusses his experience in making The Revenant as well as his brush with almost playing Pennywise in Cary Fukunaga’s planned version of Stephen King’s IT.
Below is a roundtable interview that took place on December third in Boston:
I saw your movie last night.
Will Poulter: What did you think?
It was brutal.
WP: It’s an intense watch, for sure. The running time is like two hours thirty-seven (minutes). Did it feel that long?
It felt long in a good way.
Some films are two and a half hours and they feel like they just fly by. This one, paced the way it was felt really good at that length.
It fit the scale of the film and the story that we were watching.
WP: That’s cool.
How did this part come to you?
WP: I read the script about five months prior to the shooting the movie, or at least the start of the rehersal. There was a lot of excitement around it for obvious reasons with Leo and Tom attached and Alejandro set to direct. As far as I know the script had been around for several years but hadn’t been made because it was such a big undertaking and the task of making it was so difficult. Few people who were talented and crazy enough to attempt it. So it had been around for a while, but I didn’t know that at the time that I’d read it. What I was struck by immediately was how emotionally engaging it was, just on the page. Even just from reading it I found the kind of intensity you were talking about. It was visceral on paper and I think there were no doubts in my mind that I wanted to be involved. I thought with someone like Alejandro involved and this cast, it could only get better from here. I certainly wanted to be involved so I sent in a tape. My tape was ok, I wasn’t necessarily that happy with it but I was lucky enough to get a meeting with Alejandro in London. We kind of just met up for a chat and I was struck by how intelligent, compassionate and interesting a man that he is. I immediately wanted to work with him. When I was offered the role a few days later, I couldn’t believe it. I was, of course, very excited and couldn’t wait to get started.
What was it like filming in such remote, inhospitable places?
WP: I think we were actually lucky to shoot it in such a way, in such inhospitable conditions, because it reduced the acting challenge in a way. There was less to act because on most occasions we really are cold, we really are tired, the terrain really is tough, all that gear really is heavy. All of that helped us, I think, with the performance side of things. It was also really cool to have the environment be so natural and not fabricated. I didn’t have to interact with any CGI ever. I’m trying to think… Other than pointing out that there were cubs, post bear attack I didn’t interact with any CGI whatsoever. That’s a really rare opportunity, I think, these days. It was like being a part of a filmmaking process of a bygone era. The film stylings of old where you shoot in all one location with all natural light and all real weather elements. I think that was totally necessary because I don’t think you have the intense experience we’re talking about if we’d been in a studio with a green screen and a wind blower. It just wouldn’t have been the same.
You mentioned shooting with natural light what is that process like compared to shooting with lights? Was there more time between shots? How was the time passed?
WP: It really does redefine the filmmaking process for everyone. Rather than using electricity to light each individual frame and separate and compartmentalize a scene as these different moments which you could provide attention to and do over and over again and make adjustments, we were operating in a small window of time when we would actually be shooting so it meant rehearsing all day long up until this point where we perform, almost like a live piece of theater. Every single movement from what way you’re standing in the scene to the angle of your head turn, the timing of you picking up a prop, the intonation of your voice while saying a certain line… Every single thing has to be meticulously planned because there was no, “We’ll get that from another angle” or “We’re going to cut that together with another bit” or “We can adjust the light so you can stand there.” The light was the sun or the moon. So there was no adjusting that. WE had to adjust to nature in that respect. And shooting on a 14 millimeter lens, which we were shooting on most of the time, is so unforgiving. It just sees so much. You had to allow the camera to become part of your process you had to make the camera an extension of you and everything you did had to coordinate and sync up with what the camera was doing. That can make you very conscientious and can remove you from the emotional parameters of the scene. It can have you feeling like you’re on the outside of the main objective. So it was about carefully choreographing everything and making sure you had all the physical and technical elements down and then sort of trying to forget that the camera was there and slightly working backwards in a way for the sake of being emotionally engaged in the scene. It was a very, very interesting challenge, the hardest thing about shooting this film, I think.
Did you guys shoot the film chronologically?
WP: For the most part, yes. While the weather participated with us, yes. And then the weather started to play a few tricks and it became harder to do that. Yes, for the most part we did.
Do you think you’d want to act in other movies where you’re in these remote locations? Did you enjoy doing that or was it just really hard?
WP: No, I did. I did. I found it a really great experience. Don’t get me wrong, after eight months it’s tough and it takes its toll. But I did, for the simple reason that it makes the process easier in a way. From an acting perspective, as much as the approach is difficult initially, at least from an emotional perspective… it feels real and there’s less to invent. It’s such a great opportunity, it’s a treat to be able to work in those kind of real environments. At times when the camera was wider, you’re in these huge, expansive areas of wilderness and you can’t even see the camera, but you’re just free to act. That’s awesome. That’s so cool. For as many times as it (the camera) was this close, it was miles away. It was great.
Was there any kind of preparation for you guys before you went out there?
WP: There was some kind of initial weight loss stuff and that kind of developed throughout filming. Me and Tom (Hardy) in particular, because of the length we were out there, we had to lose quite a lot of weight. There was some boot camping and trapper camp where they familiarized us with weapons and some of the tools we would use as basic survival. That was fun. Really the best preparation was in the rehearsals we did with the camera, which came months before we started shooting.
Did the way that the film was shot add more pressure to the actors? Because, using natural lighting you might have to shoot at a certain time of day and if people kept messing up their lines or their timing you might have to wait until another day for the lighting to be right again.
WP: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, it did add a certain amount of pressure. I think we did come up against a couple of scenarios where we had such a limited window of time. You’re on take two or three and you’ve probably only got one or two more and if we don’t get it we’re coming back tomorrow or shit, we’re coming back on Monday after the weekend. Those pressures were there. For the most part, I think there was only one day that we had to come back and finish something off. Maybe that’s me being really forgetful. There’s one really big scene that sticks out for that reason. But it did add a certain amount of pressure, but it gave us a focus. It gave us a kind of fuel and a target to aim at. Even if the target was small.
Did Alejandro win his Oscar for Birdman while you guys were shooting?
What was that like when he got back on set?
WP: It didn’t change anything. It didn’t change anything in him. Or at least publicly or in anything that he expressed. It really just meant a long weekend for us and that was pretty much it. He came back to work an Oscar winner, but we already knew how talented he was and how great Birdman was. It was really great to see him achieve and get what he deserved. He was still entirely focused in The Revenant. Alejandro has worked SO hard over the last few years between Birdman and this, and the two overlapping. The promotion for that film and shooting this and now the promotion of this and I don’t know but he’s probably got his next project being penned away as well. So he’s a force of nature. Pun intednded.
How did working with Alejandro differ with your past experiences with other directors?
WP: I suppose, aside from his unique way of shooting and new technical challenges that came from working with Alejandro… I learned something quite valuable from him. He taught me to accept what feels instinctively natural a little more than I did. I guess I’m quite instinctive as an actor, I rely on instinct more than anything else. I’d vomit out all these thoughts I had and he would tell me to relax and accept them all. Bridger at times had a lot going on emotionally and a lot of psychological complexes developing. There’s so much going on but Alejandro kind of taught me to just accept that and play that confusion, play that turmoil and not overanalyze.
Did you do any historical research of the time period to prepare for it? We forget how brutal and dirty and violent that time period was.
WP: Yeah, we did. We were lucky we had some great historical experts and advisors on set who really knew their stuff from that period and what it was to be a trapper. Obviously to work with them was great. It was nice to return to an old-school form of research, like rather than watching YouTube and listening to recordings, it was like reading books and having conversations. The research was fairly old-school. That was cool, it was refreshing.
What was it like portraying a story and character that was inspired by true events? How much research did you do for this story and the character you played?
WP: I think it’s an interesting challenge when what you’re portraying is rooted in fact and you are representing real guys. You want to do justice to the story. But I also had huge faith in (screenwriter) Mark Smith’s adaptation and what Alejandro had done with the script in conjunction with that. I think they really elevated what’s in the book, with all due respect. They created a very, very interesting story from that. I think you have to trust the adaptation to an extent. I read the book after the shooting of the film and I’m glad I did because occasionally when you have two sources like that and they have things that conflict, you can confuse yourself. Even subconsciously you can begin to develop a level of uncertainty about who your character is. For example, in the book one of the last things Bridger does when he leaves Glass is that he takes his knife. So in the book, Bridger’s last act towards Glass is to take his last form of protection away. In the film, the last thing that Bridger does is give him his canteen or water which is a symbol of life. It couldn’t be more of a paradox. That, to me, really does epitomize how different Bridger’s relationship with Glass is in the book to how it is in the film. In the film Bridger is kind of an understudy/unofficial son. At least in Bridger’s eyes, Glass is sort of a father figure and a role model. I wouldn’t want to change that. I’m glad that’s the way the script directed that dynamic.
You seem to be making an effort to choose different kinds of roles, which is interesting to see someone going moving so easily between comedy and drama.
WP: Cool, thanks.
What is that like for you, moving from one type of role to a very different one that requires a different discipline?
WP: I think… Thank you, I appreciate that. I guess that’s why I do it. Because I hope it’s interesting to people. I assume it gets kind of boring or not as interesting to see someone play it close to home all the time, meaning to not stretch themselves or not choose roles that make you less recognizable from the previous role. Personally, that’s what keeps the challenge interesting to me. I hope it’s what challenges audiences and keeps them engaged. Role to role I don’t care whether it’s comedy, drama, gigantic film, tiny film, so long as the scripts are the same quality and it’s believable and I can contribute to that performance then I’m down.
How big a disappointment was it to have Cary Fukunaga’s IT fall apart?
WP: Huge, man. It’s a huge disappointment. I was very excited to work with Cary and work with New Line again.
A lot of people, myself included, were excited to see that and to see what you’d do with the role of Pennywise.
WP: Yeah. Yeah. And I actually really have a lot of respect for Cary and New Line taking a (chance) on me, because I don’t think I was the obvious choice and I think it was kind of brave of them to cast someone young in that role. Apart from the fact I have size 13 feet, I was probably not the obvious choice. Who knows what’s going to happen with that, but I just hope I get to work with Cary, and New Line again. Whether it’s in the form of Pennywise, I’m not sure.
How daunting was the prospect of taking on a role that another actor made iconic? People automatically have Tim Curry’s portrayal in their minds because of how good he was in the role.
WP: Big shoes to fill. Yeah. I suppose it is daunting. I hadn’t thought about it like that initially. Obviously when someone makes a character so much their own, you’re quite nervous. Also when it comes to playing evil clowns Jack Nicholson did a pretty good job. Heath Ledger did the best job anyone has ever done playing a villain. I know Jared Leto plays the Joker in Suicide Squad. So all of that added a sense of pressure. I would still like to do it, I just feel like that since Cary is no longer involved it’s just a different project at this stage.
I would have loved to see what you would have done with the role.
WP: Thank you, man. Thank you. I would have loved to have done it.
Thanks for the time.
The Revenant is open in select cities and will open wide on Friday 1/8.