Detroit's Will Poulter Talks Making Out with Jennifer Aniston and Being Miserable with Leonardo DiCaprio
The breakout star of Kathryn Bigelow's must-watch film opens up—and tries on the first-ever CALVIN KLEIN JEANS collection under Raf Simons's creative direction.
It was 2017’s most terrifying portrayal of American horror. No, we’re not talking about Pennywise the murder clown. (Though, incidentally, the guy in question was also going to play him—it?—at one point.) This year, the snarling id of the United States came in the form of a racist, homicidal cop who seizes upon and creates more violence and chaos during the 1967 12th Street Riot in Kathryn Bigelow’s hard-to-watch, critical-to-seeDetroit. The man who played him: 24-year-old Brit Will Poulter.
Before his remarkable, despicable depiction of a police officer acquitted of the torture and killing of three young black men in the Algiers Motel (the character is a composite of several real-life racist murderers from the 1967 Detroit PD), the virtually unknown Poulter made off with scenes that rightly belonged to then-(much, much) bigger stars Jason Sudeikis and Jennifer Aniston in the grifter comedy We’re the Millers and Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s survivalist nightmareThe Revenant.
After accidentally drinking Poulter’s smoothie during his GQ photo shoot, I make amends by taking him to old-school burger bar P.J. Clarke’s, where he orders a decadent glass of tap water. As we talk about other actors he admires—Saoirse Ronan is “frickin’ awesome”—it becomes obvious how much of his own fan devotion Poulter has inspired with his commitment and range. (And his very recognizable eyebrows, which arch to a height somewhere between Jack Nicholson as the Joker and a Real Housewife who’s gotten slightly too much Botox.) A portly man with a Steelers jersey and tanline that suggests a very recently shaved Tom Selleck mustache comes up with his partner to tell Poulter that they loved The Revenant and own We’re the Millers “on tape.” When asked what else Poulter has coming up, he directs them to Detroit. “That’s nothing we would like,” Pittsburgh Selleck says. “But if you’re in it, we’ll see it.”
GQ spoke to Poulter about why Detroit is mandatory viewing even if it’s “nothing you would like,” making out with Aniston, and his favorite film of the year, Get Out.
GQ: I just saw We’re the Millers for the first time. That one scene is… very uncomfortable to watch.
Will Poulter: Which scene was that?
I was crawling out of my skin.
It was particularly unpleasant for Jen and Emma. But, yeah, that was super awkward.
In interviews, you describe the process of making most of your films as difficult. We’re the Millers. The Revenant. Now Detroit. Your career is getting increasingly illustrious and increasingly unpleasant. It’s funny, because when I did Revenant I was pretty set on the idea that that might be the hardest thing I ever do.
It basically seemed like you were cold and damp for eight months.
It was incredibly tough physically. But these conversations are always in the context of being an actor—it’s important to I think evaluate the job in the context of life and what other people have to do.
Right. You’re not a coal miner. Leonardo DiCaprio was there. We all get that these are luxury complaints.
Right. Exactly. Detroit was difficult for its own set of reasons, which pertain more to trying to spend time in the psychology of my [racist, murderous cop] character, who was so far removed from anyone I’d even come into contact with.
When I watched it, I was like, “Wow, this is the second big race-based horror film I’ve seen this year,” after Get Out in February. The 45 minutes when the cop you play is torturing young men in the Algiers motel is terrifying.
Well, it’s seriously flattering to be in the same conversation as Get Out. And it’s an example of how we can fuse the media that we produce as creatives with these constructive and thoughtful comments on society. *Get Out’*s a great example of how you make a really incredibly thoughtful and educational comment on race relations in the context of a horror film. And you can do that with sci-fi movies, you can do that with thrillers, you can do that with drama, you can do that with comedies. It’s not like socio-political commentary is in its own genre and then excluded from all the others.
(Interview continued below)
Jeans Are Getting Calvin-ized All Over Again
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It’s a great way to Trojan horse socio-political commentary into people’s heads. Detroit was very different though. It is not enjoyable, at all, really. But it is vital.
Normally when you present a screening of a film, you say, “I hope you enjoy the film.” But at the first screening that I ever introduced with this film, I said something to the effect of “I hope you…” and I stopped and thought, Enjoy?! No. So I said, “I hope you are affected by this film,” and walked off. And I was like, “That might be the most pretentious thing I ever said.” But what else can you say about that film? And I think people like myself—privileged, white, straight, middle-class males—
You really leaned forward and said that into the recorder.
People who’ve lived a life like mine, which is privileged, devoid of any prejudice whatsoever, will be shocked by this film more than most. The prejudice that is so cemented in world culture is a very uncomfortable watch.
The feeling I had watching Detroit, which is based on a true story, and seeing news footage of people of color getting shot by cops, seems to be similar to what’s happening right now with men finally learning what women experience in terms of sexual harassment and assault. You’re right—being exposed to what other people go through is shocking.
It’s not something I really ever fully understood until being part of Detroit—like, Damn, I really was born into a world where there’s a natural presumption of innocence and a protection from guilt.
I thought that we were experiencing a regression as far as civil rights and social issues are concerned. But now I think maybe it’s less that and it’s actually a moment in time when we’re kind of really addressing all of the things that are wrong and hopefully, genuinely tended toward some change. With Detroit, our hope with this film was probably less to kind of entertain people, but more to draw attention to the fact that in 2017 not enough has changed. And we do need to start with a conversation, which is a task can’t just be left to the people who are affected by prejudice.
You’re working with your Revenant co-star Domhnall Gleeson again, right?
Yeah, in [the 2018 horror film from Room director Lenny Abrahamson] The Little Stranger.
I have to assume it’s going to be good, because Domhnall has great taste in films—Ex Machina, Star Wars….
He’s got one of the most enviable IMDb pages—the guy just doesn’t really miss. He’s just a lovely bloke as well, and kind of a big brother figure for me in the industry. People don’t necessarily know this ‘cause he’s such a brilliant dramatic actor, but he’s funny. It’s unreal, mate. Between him and Paul Anderson I don’t think I coulda got more laughs out of The Revenant experience. When you’re cold and hungry, and you’ve worked a 16-hour day, and you’re driving back in pitch black as part of a three-hour trip, you need those boys in the van riding with you, ‘cause it really does keep spirits up.
What’s the comedic style?
Really dark. Very silly. Often totally fantastical.
You’ve described yourself as shy a bunch of times, but you seem very outgoing.
I have pretty major social anxiety.
Yeah, if I’m being honest with myself. It wasn’t until I just spoke to a buddy of mine who deals in anxiety that I realized I do, which is nothing I’m ashamed of whatsoever. I find now that in between roles I’m just trying to be comfortable with who I am and trying to establish who Will is, without that sounding sort of really pretentious. Otherwise I just find myself psychologically recovering from one role before I have to psychologically prepare for the next, and that’s quite an unstable and unhealthy way to live.
So what do you do when you’re being Will?
I love being around my family. That just keeps you sane and wise to what matters. And I watch a lot of film and television.
You said in your BAFTA acceptance speech that you cried during Finding Nemo. I love it when the movie allows me to release feelings. Like, “Okay, I’ll just watch The Fault in Our Stars while I weep!”
One of the best scripts I ever read by the way, The Fault In Our Stars.
You auditioned for that?
I did. Ansel Elgort’s part. Didn’t get anywhere.
You were also in the running for Pennywise in It, right?
Yeah, while Cary [Fukunaga] was the director. It’s great to see how well that movie turned out—Bill did a great job with it, as did [director] Andy [Muschietti]. I met up with Andy and talked a lot about the character and the story, and we parted ways in a very civil manner, which I’m really pleased about.
Those near-misses must weigh on you sometimes.
After a year out of work, auditioning for absolutely everything under the sun and being in the top three and not quite getting it, I got Maze Runner. It was a bit of a turning point for me.
Besides Ansel Elgort, who were the other guys who kept beating you?
Do you know what’s so funny? Now I find like I’m really good friends with a lot of the guys that I go up against. I’ve come to peace with recently this idea that everyone’s on their own journey. I was in major danger of seeing it too much like a competition, like a race. It’s not that.
The most important thing is focusing on doing good work. But… if you’re an actor and someone else gets the part, you don’t get to do any work.
It’s true. Detroit was super interesting because me, Ben [O’Toole], and Jack [Reynor] were all in the same room with some other actors all competing for like three roles. That was really strange, like, If you don’t perform today, you get cut, and you don’t make the team. It’s one thing like sending off a tape and hearing that so-and-so has also sent a tape and a meeting with the director. But being put into one room like, “Fight it out!”…That was very, very intense.
You had a great American accent in Detroit. Americans are fucking terrible at doing British accents.
I suppose in the UK we’re at a sort of advantage, in the sense that we consume so much American media.
That’s very generous, but we’ve heard British accents before. Has any American ever done a good British accent?
Renée Zellweger. It’s kind of phenomenal. She’s the metric for what a great English accent is, as far as a foreigner doing it. Renee kills it.
It’s so true! In Bridget Jones’s Diary. She’s the only one. Even Meryl Streep’s isn’t as good.
You know, I don’t know. I guess I haven’t listened to it closely enough.
That’s smart that you wouldn’t say anything bad about Meryl. When you do in America, Oprah just appears and slaps you and runs away.
I would never do something like that. It’s so interesting to me when an accent or a performance is polarizing. When you have half the people say, “Oh, my God, I think it’s incredible,” and then 50% of the people go like, “I thought it was bad.”
What’s a polarizing performance that you love?
I’ve got a polarizing film: The Master. As an actor, it’s impossible not to just marvel at that cast, particularly Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in that blows my mind. He’s always been kind of one of my favorite actors, entirely different from one role to the next. There are very few actors who are like that. I recently met Dustin Hoffman, who’s also been a top five actor for me.
How did you handle it?
I met him at the Governor’s Ball. I was about to do an interview with The New York Times, and the gentleman that was going to interview me was looking over my shoulder and giving me the eye as if to say, “Go away. I’m going to get Dustin Hoffman.” And I felt the squeeze on my shoulder and it was my agent. He said, “Will, can I introduce you to Dusty?” And I put my shaky, wet fish of a hand towards Dustin Hoffman, and he was incredibly sweet and just everything I kind of hoped he would be.
Styled by Kelly McCabe. Grooming by Benjamin Thigpen.
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