Will Poulter wants you to know that he’s not a tough guy. “I’m a scaredy cat,” the 27-year-old actor tells NME via Zoom, safely locked-down in his London home. “I’ll always pick the option to run away and hide, to avoid confrontation.”
It’s a surprise then, that on top of his recent run of scary movies (folk-horror hit Midsommar) and boundary-breaking TV shows (interactive Black Mirror special Bandersnatch), Poulter’s career has been typified by tricky roles and innovative projects. He’s combined gags with military conflict in War Machine; tackled America’s difficult race history for Detroit; and even as a young kid, he was no stranger to experimental comedy, riffing with Adam Buxton on wacky sketch show Comedy: Shuffle. Poulter’s latest gig, The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope, is even more stretching – a choose-your-own-adventure video game with cinematic sensibilities, announced this week, that solidifies his reputation as Hollywood’s go-to-guy for interactive storytelling.
“Beyond acting, I really don’t know what I’m doing”
Equipped with a spooky, otherworldly horror plot, Little Hope is the second of eight planned instalments from the Dark Pictures anthology. The narrative you follow is determined by your choices in-game – and each scenario takes you down a different path within an unnerving, supernatural ghost story.
“I love those things that exist in the gaps between mediums,” says Poulter. “Bandersnatch was a project that fit somewhere in the grey zone of film and game, and Little Hope is another example that fits in that gap, because it feels so inherently filmic.” It may be another industry-changing part for Poulter, but just like his scene-stealing turn in Bandersnatch (the Netflix event that turned millions onto interactive TV), picking another cutting edge project to work on was a stroke of luck. “Gosh, it’s ironic really,” he says. “Beyond acting, I really don’t know what I’m doing. And I’m still trying to figure that out too, if I’m honest!”
Born in Hammersmith, west London, Poulter always seemed destined for success. As a boy, he attended the prestigious Harrodian School just outside the capital, which boasts Robert Pattinson and 1917’s George MacKay among its ex-pupils – the latter is one of Will’s oldest friends.
Despite struggling with dyslexia throughout adolescence, Poulter says acting gave him something to cling onto. ”It felt like it didn’t matter how hard I tried, I wasn’t getting anywhere. That’s the most demoralising thing, as a kid. And to find something like drama, which I loved so much,” he says. “It gave me a sense of purpose.”
“As a kid, drama gave me a sense of purpose”
After discovering the stage, Poulter snagged his big screen break at the tender age of 14, as one of the leads in Garth Jennings’ coming-of-age comedy Son of Rambow. Since then, he’s teamed up with Jennifer Aniston for suburban gag-fest We’re The Millers; mastered blockbuster sci-fi with The Maze Runner franchise; and left Leonardo DiCaprio to be eaten by grizzly bears in The Revenant.
But whether it’s Academy Award-winning thrillers, or technically advanced interactivity, Poulter is always focused on his performance. In Little Hope, out October 30, he plays Andrew: one of four students who, together with their professor, are stranded in the mysterious New England town of Little Hope, after their bus crashes during a field trip. Haunted by the events of some horrific witch trials which took place there centuries before, the gang must fight hard to survive. It’s a creepy set-up and a terrifying world to find yourself immersed in. But for most of filming, Will was standing on a motion capture stage – not scary in the slightest. The actors perform in a bare room which gives the production a lo-fi vibe, despite the advanced technology being used.
“Unlike television and film, which in most cases you have to shoot out of sequence, we were able to shoot in continuity. That was very helpful,” he says. “Because the setting is entirely computerised and shooting in motion capture means you’re always in the same spot, you’re able to move very quickly through the performance side of things.
“The experience of actually shooting is very fast-paced. It is more like theatre than film,” adds Poulter. “In film, you might get through two to five pages of script a day. We were getting through a hundred pages per day sometimes.”
The likes of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch pioneered interactive storytelling on TV, but gamers are becoming increasingly accustomed to it too. 2015’s Until Dawn starred Academy Award-winning Rami Malek in another survival horror, and action hero Keanu Reeves will appear in one of 2020’s most anticipated titles, Cyberpunk 2077. Even king of mainstream shooters Call Of Duty used mocap performances for 2019’s Modern Warfare.
Recently, Poulter has noticed a growing number of his peers are up for getting involved. “I have heard people express more of an interest in it. I think they’re naturally intrigued,” he says. “That merging of mediums – it’s something that’s happened in tandem with the advent of the technology. As technology gets smarter, it’s offering up new, creative opportunities for people making games, films, and television.”
“I have no doubt the ‘Lord of The Rings’ series is going to be incredible”
Now long in the can, Little Hope has fallen down Poulter’s pecking order. Next to shoot, post-COVID, is The Score, a British heist drama which follows two small-time crooks chasing a big windfall. Poulter joins Star Wars’ Naomi Ackie and Johnny Flynn, who plays David Bowie in a biopic out later this year. But there was an even starrier job he had lined up for after that, which didn’t come through in the end. In December, it was reported that Poulter had dropped out of Amazon Prime Video’s megabucks The Lord of the Rings series, which he had been attached to take the lead in.
“Unfortunately, there’s no particularly interesting story, other than the fact that there was a last-minute change to the schedule, which meant that there was a clash for me and I was unable to do it,” reveals Poulter. Instead, he’s now looking forward to watching the series as a fan, which has just been given the green light to start production in New Zealand. “I have utmost respect for everyone involved in that project,” he says. “And I have no doubt it’s going to be incredible.”
There’s another future production that Poulter is keen to speak into existence: a Black Mirror: Bandersnatch sequel. “If Annabel Jones and Charlie Brooker are kind enough to write me into one, I would love to reprise my character,” he says. “Anything [Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones] ever do, I would do, to be honest.”
Poulter’s been plotting a return for his character, alternate reality-hopping video game creator Colin Ritman, ever since Bandersnatch’s release at the end of 2018. “Some people killed me, some people kept me alive, some people killed me then brought me back to life, and some of those people are my family members,” he says. “[Charlie Brooker, Annabel Jones and I] were discussing how much people engage with Easter eggs, and how the different episodes might be linked in some way. We did suggest that Colin might have the ability to time travel…
“Charlie Brooker, Annabel Jones and I discussed how the ‘Black Mirror’ episodes could be linked”
“I would love it if he showed up in full-on, ‘80s regalia,” adds Poulter. “But he was, in fact, in the present day, or somewhere in the future. That would be really fun.”
What about reworking one of his past roles as an interactive reboot – is there any character he’d like to augment with some mo-cap magic? “I think The Revenant could be interesting to remake with a choose-your-own-adventure style narrative attached,” he says. “That could be really fun, because that was full of choices and survival. I think it would work quite well.”
It’s hard to imagine Poulter being afraid to tackle stuff head on, as he claims – though perhaps he only means that when he has a PS4 controller in his hands. “[In Little Hope], some of the things that the characters come into contact with are truly terrifying,” he says. “I saw early drawings, and I’ve now seen full iterations of them in the gameplay, and there are demons in this that are absolutely horrendous looking.”
But making risky choices in real life, well, he certainly hasn’t been afraid to do that. From game-influenced films to film-influenced games; tween fandoms to Oscar-baiting drama; coming-of-age indies to iconic, Halloween costume-defining horror – Poulter has charted a career course as unique as anyone’s. Maybe it’s OK to be a scaredy cat, after all.
‘The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope’ will come to PS4, Xbox One and PC on October 30