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Will wears all clothes and shoes Ermenegildo Zegna XXX AW19Photography Bruno Staub, Styling Julian Ganio

Will Poulter doesn’t mind playing the bad guy

As a twisted gamer in Black Mirror and Detroit’s corrupt cop, the actor brought wit and integrity – now, he’s the ‘immature asshole’ of Ari Aster’s chilling Midsommar

TextOwen MyersPhotographyBruno StaubStylingJulian Ganio

Taken from the summer 2019 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here

For such an unrelentingly charming guy – the kind who seems genuinely interested in the boring complexities of my love life, and tells me that I will “absolutely not” be paying the bill after our chat – Will Poulter has developed a reputation for playing dickheads.

There was the abhorrent racist cop he played in Kathryn Bigelow’s divisive Detroit (2017), and the slithery Colin in Black Mirror’s choose- your-own-adventure novelty “Bandersnatch” (2018). In the Narnia epic The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010), his petulant character, Eustace Scrubb, was as much of a scrub as the one that T-Boz, Left Eye and Chilli immortalised in song. And in heathen horror Midsommar – the new film from Hereditary’s Ari Aster, out in July – he plays an “immature asshole” who gets wrapped up in a malevolent pagan cult in rural Sweden. When I put this theory to him in an unremarkably tasteful London hotel bar, he doubles over laughing. Is it more fun to play a prick? “It can be!” he says. “It really depends on the script and the integrity of the character. I don’t really care, if I’m honest.”

Midsommar’s terrifying trailer – bear entrails and all – darkly sketches a film which looks like a 2019 Wicker Man touched by the dark magick of Aleister Crowley. Poulter says that his character, Josh, is the comedic and sometimes cruel foil to the film’s central trauma: “the real-life horror of a toxic relationship” between lead characters played by British actor (and Poulter’s close friend) Jack Reynor, and the luminous Florence Pugh. “Ari did something incredible with Hereditary, whereby he made a thing that is truly terrifying, uniquely scary,” says Poulter. “It’s really, really hard in a horror genre to come up with unique scares and work out new ways to say them. (With Midsommar), he takes something as (universal) as a relationship with someone and he finds the real-life stress and disturbia and pain of that, and just turns it up to 11.”

The film’s scares hinge on an unsettling truth that cinematic nightmares from The Exorcist to Rosemary’s Baby – as well as Aster’s own Hereditary – have recognised: that there’s nothing more truly disturbing than the terrors that lurk close to home. “I don’t necessarily find ghosts and ghouls scary,” says Poulter. “But when something comes from a very real and relatable place and it’s conceivable, that’s scary.” (If you’ve seen Hereditary, two words: Dinner. Scene.)

Before shooting kicked off in Hungary, Poulter travelled with Aster and a few of the film’s crew to experience an actual Swedish midsommar celebration. Two hours north of Stockholm, he wound up at a weekend-long session which involved banquet tables groaning with herring, many rounds of the potent Swedish liqueur aquavit, and dancing round the maypole while singing traditional “songs about rabbits and frogs”. It turned out to be a key bonding moment for Poulter and Aster, who connected over a shared love of comedy and cinematic works spanning the unflinching realism of Ken Loach and the absurd hilarity of Step Brothers. Did Aster think Poulter was too nice to play the spiteful Josh? “I don’t think so,” Poulter says, before breaking into a short laugh. “He was like, ‘I’ve seen you play an asshole.’”

The irony of all this is that Poulter – who was also initially slated to play Pennywise in the recent reboot of Stephen King’s It – is not generally a horror-movie person. And he appreciates that Midsommar’s insomnia-inducing chills aren’t for everyone. “I’ve even had people in my own team (say), ‘I love you; I’m going to support you all the way, but I can’t watch this movie,” he laughs.

Poulter admits he was a shy kid, using humour to mask his social anxiety, a skill that paved the way for an acting career. By the age of 13, he’d landed his first big role as a roguish schoolboy in Son of Rambow (2007), and he made out with Jennifer Aniston and Emma Roberts – one after the other – in the lite Hollywood comedy We’re the Millers (2013). All this before he was old enough to drink in the US.

In 2014, Poulter won the rising star Bafta, beating a preposterously star-studded cluster of nominees including Lupita Nyong’o and Léa Seydoux. He said afterwards: “When you’re in a category that prestigious, in terms of the talent involved, you feel guilty, almost.” You could read Poulter’s award as an emblem of the British film industry’s ongoing tendency to reward white, well-spoken actors over more diverse voices. But given that the rising star award is determined by a public vote, it was also a reflection of the loyal fanbase he’d cultivated in his then-half-decade in the movies.

Poulter is acutely, almost painfully aware of his advantages, and says the word ‘privilege’ on seven separate occasions during our chat. It’s part of the reason why he wanted to play scumbag cop Philip Krauss in Detroit, who pistol-whips and brutalises a group of black men and two white women. Bigelow’s film shows the real-life horror at length. “I became keen on the idea of exposing this sort of character and holding him up as an example of what we can’t afford to tolerate in society,” he explains of the role.

 “We live in a time now when audiences don’t suffer fools. If you aren’t being inclusive, if you’re not representing people equally, this generation will say ‘fuck off’’’ – Will Poulter

But Detroit was criticised for its treatment of racist violence. The black critic Angelica Jade Bastien wrote: “Bigelow doesn’t flinch from depicting Krauss’ horror, but she also doesn’t thoroughly indict him or the systems that allow men like him to survive.” When I ask Poulter if a white director was best placed to tell this story, he rightly notes that it’s more of a question for Bigelow, but quickly offers a sincere response of his own. “I appreciate that one has to be careful to not be stealing voices,” he says. “Not for a second to say that if a black director was telling that story they wouldn’t be as good or better, but I do think it’s important that white privileged people don’t just tell white privileged stories.” I get the sense that Poulter welcomes the discussion. “We live in a time now when audiences don’t suffer fools. If you aren’t being inclusive, if you’re not representing people equally, this generation will say ‘fuck off’. Like, honestly, it will just be a case of fuck off. I think that’s great.”

At the same time, Poulter has learned to distance himself from less worthwhile chatter. Earlier this year, he took a break from Twitter because of comments about his appearance in Black Mirror, where he played a socially inept video game developer with platinum hair spiked like a pop-punk frontman. “People being mean to each other online is so lame,” he says. “I don’t need to go back to high school. I know for a fact male privilege has protected me from scrutiny around my physical appearance (in the past). And I’m also aware of the fact that with my first taste (of that) – a small percentage of what I’ve seen female actors go through – I couldn’t hack it and stepped away. And that’s OK. It certainly made me empathise with women in the industry, who face this at a disproportionate rate. It is something that has to change.

In person, the angular bone structure Poulter had as a teen has noticeably softened. His longer hair, flicked like a meringue peak, suits him, and when I compliment his lilac plastic glasses he seems genuinely surprised. He strikes me as the kind of guy who maybe was a little awkward as a teen, and doesn’t quite realise how attractive he is now he’s grown into his looks. I doubt that will hinder Poulter as more scripts land in his inbox. But I can’t quite imagine him as having designs on, say, Noah Centineo’s teen rom-com crown. He strikes me as more in line with arthouse-leaning countrymen like James McAvoy or Nicholas Hoult, who, like Poulter, turned away from early wholesome fare to focus on terrifyingly assured character studies.

For now, though, Poulter has to run to meet a friend who’s staying for the weekend. They’re going to take it easy, but they’re thinking of swinging by the Old Vic to see the new staging of Arthur Miller’s classic indictment of the American dream, All My Sons, starring Jenna Coleman (who Poulter loved in last year’s BBC mystery drama The Cry) and Sally Field. After that? The actor is keeping schtum for now, but he’s embracing the unpredictable lux of his profession. “I wouldn’t complain in the slightest,” he says. “I have no qualifications. I just came back from LA and I was like, ‘Fuck, I don’t have a job!’ You know, and then something comes along.” He smiles. “I’m so lucky. I wouldn’t change my job for the world.” 

Midsommar is in UK cinemas from July 5

Grooming Lee Machin at Caren using Tom Ford for Men, styling assistants John Handford, Mei Ling Cooper, digital operator Denis Shklovsky, special thanks Anthony Kearsley, Marcus Kenny, Polaris and Fifi