Actors in convo

Naomi Ackie and Will Poulter on responsible storytelling and Will’s strange footwear obsession…
By Ella Joyce | Film+TV | 7 February 2022
Photographer Michael Avedon
Stylist Steve Morriss.

knitwear by dior S22; T-shirt, worn throughout, Will’s own

Actor Will Poulter recently landed the coveted role of bleach-blonde cosmic superhero Adam Warlock in James Gunn’s third – and final – Guardians of the Galaxy instalment. It’s a worthy, intergalactic notch to add to the actor’s already impressive oeuvre that contains more than a decade’s worth of work, including The Maze Runner, cultish horror Midsommar, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s chilling survival epic The Revenant, and this fall’s Dopesick – a miniseries examining the US opioid crisis.

When selecting roles, contributing to a progressive social dialogue has become a key judgement for Poulter, alongside carving genuine friendships and creative relationships. Meeting Naomi Ackie on their thriller The Score, the pair forged a close partnership and remain a port of call for each other in an industry that can be extremely challenging, both physically and mentally.

Naomi Ackie: Hey! Sorry I sound weird, I was singing all day yesterday and my voice is a little bit fucked. Yo, you’re so blonde! [both laugh]
Will Poulter: I think I’m more blonde since the last time we spoke when I was already looking like a lightbulb.

NA: It wasn’t as blonde, those are some strong highlights.
WP: They did an additional day of dying since we spoke on the phone. How are you? It’s so early there, it’s a shoot day for you isn’t it?

NA: Yeah another shoot day, we had a big scene yesterday but it was really good.
WP: Oh great. And you were singing your lungs out.

NA: Genuinely I’m so happy it’s Whitney Houston singing and not me [Ackie is portraying Houston in I Wanna Dance with Somebody, a biopic filming now and set for release in 2022]. It sounded so bad, I could tell! [both laugh]
WP: I’m sure it didn’t, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing you sing live multiple times. When we did The Score together, I remember in rehearsals Johnny [Flynn, actor] saying, “If you lot are going to be lip-syncing you actually need to sing it because it makes a massive difference.”

NA: It’s weird because I don’t like singing in front of other people, so even the day we did our first recording… two years ago? I was absolutely terrified of having to sing because I’ve got crazy stage fright. My family don’t even hear me sing. So, this project, having to sing live, it’s definitely pushed me to the edge a little bit.
WP: And on literal stages, I presume?

NA: Oh yeah, big old stages with people watching, it’s mad. Alright come on, hit me – why are you blonde?
WP: So yeah, I’m doubly blonde since the last time we spoke, I’d just got back from Atlanta where I was doing some hair and make-up tests and rehearsals for Guardians of the Galaxy. All of that stuff was fun, I don’t know how you feel, but for me, the preparation for any character is a blend of excitement, but sometimes it can also be quite stressful as well just because you want to make sure that everything is in place and it all feels locked-in prior to you actually shooting. I’m quite specific and OCD so I want to make sure everything is right, that must be even more applicable when you’re playing someone like Whitney – she’s so undeniably iconic – so getting all of that right must be a major challenge.

top by jacquemus FW21; trousers from ermenegildo zegna FW21

“I really struggled on that job [Dopesick], I really had a tough time with the loneliness and being away from home…”

NA: I think we’re the same in that I love specificity, I live for it. I think potentially this job could’ve derailed me a little bit because I’m a crazy perfectionist. I think you know this.
WP: I do know. [laughs]

NA: I was getting to the point where I was irritating myself and I usually don’t irritate myself creatively. I was getting mad at myself and that wasn’t good. As an example, I assume the tone of The Guardians of the Galaxy has helped inform how you’re creating your character?
WP: Yes, I think being in something with a tone as unique as Guardians – and that very much comes from James Gunn’s sense of humour and his voice – the whole thing has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek. It makes for a really fun and well-balanced tone, and it’s been fun to think about how this character fits into that. One thing I’ve learned quite quickly is to place a lot of faith in James, because he is also someone who really appreciates specificity – he’s about micromanagement in a very healthy way, such a clear vision. He’s the perfect person to place your trust in. Before we’d met, I’d seen you in End of the F***ing World and thought you were extraordinary. You were also someone who I’d heard many wonderful things about as a person, so going into The Score I was so excited, and then to find out we were working with Johnny Flynn who was a dream, it was such a lovely trio and we were so…

NA: Happy! [laughs]
WP: It was so nice and to come with high expectations – I couldn’t have had a better time with you. The fact we became genuine friends is such a lovely thing.

NA: It’s a treat. I feel like it doesn’t happen as often as I’d like. I’ve really realised, even being here in Boston for five months going on six, although I believe I’m doing good work and we’re getting stuff done, it’s so lonely.
WP: Yeah.

NA: I really started to think this year, after Covid especially, going away and doing a job, if you don’t find your tribe – there are some jobs where you’re there all the time, and people are moving in and out… loneliness becomes a real thing. I actually don’t think actors talk about it a lot, it’s weird.
WP: So true.

NA: I haven’t seen anyone in person who I know and love in a really long time, friends and family. I think that is such a treat when you can go into a job and be like, “I’ve made a connection,” and there’s someone to hang out with outside of work.
WP: I fully hear that and, like you said, I don’t think it’s something people talk about enough. I did a job away from home in the States that was a similar length to yours where I felt pretty isolated – it was shooting Dopesick in Virginia where I found myself in relatively unfamiliar territory. I’ve gotten to know the States quite well over the last ten years or so, but I didn’t know Virginia. I didn’t know many people and during a pandemic there wasn’t really an opportunity to socialise. Being in your own company is something you have to get pretty used to, and then you pair that with the stress and pressures of the job, and obviously we’re so lucky to do what we love for a living, and that’s what endures, right? Because you love it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not really, really hard. I was really lucky on Dopesick and I have to give a shout out to Danny Strong and our producer Jane [Bartelme] for this because mental health-wise, I really struggled on that job, I really had a tough time with the loneliness and being away from home. They were so understanding, accommodating and empathetic towards me, and I can’t necessarily say that for the industry at-large, or just generally, people aren’t always as considerate as you would hope.

jacket by jw anderson FW21

NA: It is hard and obviously [mental health issues] are prevalent everywhere, but in an industry where performance is part of the deal, part of your service is to switch on something else, it’s so important these conversations become more open. As you know, I have mental health struggles too and especially with the pressure of doing bigger and bigger jobs, my god, I’ve had occasions where I’ve called you, I’ve sent you voice messages before [laughs].
WP: We’ve been each other’s call in that scenario.

NA: And I’m like, “I’m losing it, dude, I’m losing it.” A part of me was always questioning whether I should tell people about it. Not even the public, but people I’m working with on a practical level – “Here is where I’m at, this is what I can deliver, I need this, this and this to help me do my job and come out of it the other side, if not better then the same as when I entered.” My mother always used to say it’s about energy input and output, it doesn’t matter how much you love a thing, if you leave with less energy than you came with, from a mental health place or a soul place, it’s just not worth it.
WP: Wise.

NA: So I’m starting to be a little more open. I think it’s really brave to talk to the people who are running the show and be like, “Yo, I know this is a dream thing, I know I’m lucky to be here, but I’ve got other stuff going on that has to be given attention, too.”
WP: Exactly. I think the stigma around mental health is so asphyxiating and, like you said, mental health is a global reality of being human. Sometimes it’s spoken about like this unique thing that a couple of people deal with, not that mental health and your physical health are something that overlap. Your mental health is physical health in many respects, so I think the more work that can be done towards accepting that the better.

NA: I’m going to change up the game for a second because I’ve had a burning question for a really long time. [laughs]
WP: Go for it.

NA: One time we were walking in the park and I had on a pair of white trainers, it was muddy and I was walking across the grass. [laughs]
WP: I remember it well.

NA: It really bothered you that I was walking with white trainers on muddy grass, so my question… and you’ve also told me some weird things that you do, I’m going to out you right here, like wearing trainers that are a size too small…
WP: So they don’t crease! [both laugh]

NA: Why do you love trainers so much?
WP: That’s a really good question, I do fucking love trainers and it’s funny you say that because a friend of mine came to me in distress about their Air Force 1s creasing and I was like, “I’ve got a solution for you.” I told them about the half size down, you can even wear two pairs of socks and roll the second pair down.

NA: That’s what you told me! [both laugh]
WP: Cover your metatarsal and your toes you know, yeah hilarious. [laughs] It gets real nerdy but I don’t even know why I like shoes that much. For as long as I can remember I’ve always just loved trainers. When I was really, really little it was the light-up ones, that’s the earliest memory I have of seeing a pair of trainers and being like, “Wow.” They’re a bit of a look in adulthood I’ve got to say, but I back it, if you want to bring back the light-up trainers in your mid-twenties then respect.

NA: I’m already trying to structure an outfit that would allow me to wear a pair.
WP: That’s amazing. [laughs] You’re into your fashion from a technical perspective, like you’ve considered studying it, right?

NA: Yeah, so my mum was a seamstress on the side, she worked in the NHS but she made dresses and bought me a sewing machine when I was little and taught me how to knit. I think I’ve told you this before but when I had Instagram I followed Dior, and they would have these beautiful little videos where they’re all speaking French and beading little pieces of fabric really slowly, dresses that take 200 hours to make, just one bead at a time. Look, I’ll show you this, so to pass the time I actually bought myself some beads and stuff [shows Will a box of beading equipment].
WP: Love it!

coat by dior S22; trousers by ermenegildo zegna FW21

“More and more I’m wanting to align myself with projects with really responsible and nutritious social applications. Projects that carry messages I believe need to be out in the world.”

NA: I was making jewellery.
WP: It’s quite a mindful activity, a nice way to switch off.

NA: I’ve got a really busy brain and so sometimes it’s hard to relax and to sleep, so things like that give little doses of joy, especially when you have an idea in your head and then gradually build it. What hobbies do you have?
WP: Food has always been a major interest of mine and if it wasn’t for the fact I’m terrible under pressure, have no concept of time management and am a bad multi-tasker, I’d love to be a chef [both laugh]. My ideal scenario would be to get a job that required me to go to cookery school.

NA: Have you seen Chef?
WP: Yeah, unbelievable.

NA: It’s one of my favourite films and the best soundtrack ever.
WP: It’s an amazing soundtrack.

NA: Now I’ve got my writer’s head on I’m like, we should make a food cooking film.
WP: I would be more than down – that’s a dream situation for me.

NA: Just for everyone reading this, I’m still waiting for Will to cook for me. [both laugh]
WP: This is the thing, I’m terrified of cooking for other people, which is also a problem if you want to be a chef.

NA: Yeah, it’s a real problem, Will.
WP: I still owe you in that respect, you and Johnny. Mentioning writing and producing, I know that’s something you’re actively engaging in at the moment, you’re already making some pretty major in-roads in that area. Is that important to you from a creative control perspective? What does writing and producing afford you that acting doesn’t?

NA: I think I’ve got to the point where I don’t see myself as an actress anymore, I see myself as a storyteller. I like that idea of an umbrella term that allows me the freedom to tell stories through different mediums. It’s also a mild – for want of a better word – ‘irritation’ that I partly put down to the fact I’m slightly controlling and don’t always like being told what to do. I figure if I do it myself I’ll only have myself to blame. [laughs]
WP: I love that.

NA: What about you?
WP: Very quietly in the background I’ve written a couple of things with other people but I’ve been in a privileged position where I’ve written with people who are far better and more experienced. So I’ve been shadowing them more than anything else, which is really nice. I haven’t gone out on my own and written something solely, I have massive respect for writers who are able to do that, to lock themselves in a room and just write – I think it’s amazing. Producing really does interest me and I produced a short years ago, but I think I find the challenge of acting so consuming, I’d have to consciously carve out some time for myself to focus solely on producing, and or writing. I feel like I’ve still got work to do in the acting department before I make that transition or carve out that space. There’s something about the challenge of it that’s really exciting.

“mental health and your physical health are something that overlap”

NA: Speaking of the acting thing, what would you want? I’m not talking about awards or silly things like that, I’m thinking about for your heart – what do you want to achieve, what are you working towards?
WP: I feel like that’s evolving. More and more I’m wanting to align myself with projects with really responsible and nutritious social applications. Projects that carry messages I believe need to be out in the world. Fortunately, I think there is a conscious effort within the industry to think more carefully about the social application of media and art, so that it goes above and beyond escapism, which we all need as well. Having the opportunity to be part of those projects is a real privilege, and I feel it’s helped educate me where maybe the education system didn’t, or it’s added to my lived experience in ways that I wouldn’t be able to experience were it not for my job. Those opportunities are just so special and I look for them more and more. I’d love to create a portfolio of work that hopefully contributes to and affects social change. At the same time though, we probably both know this from having parents that work in caretaker roles and the NHS, you can’t be under any illusions about what you do as an actor. There is a limit to it. We’re not out here saving lives, but I want to maximise the potential of my job and I think that is characterised by making sure whatever I’m speaking on or whatever subjects I’m addressing, I’m doing it in a responsible way and hopefully raising awareness of certain issues or encouraging people to have conversations.

NA: Absolutely, it’s a really big thing for me, too. It’s funny, I think subconsciously we absorb stories, whether they’re frivolous or really deep, we absorb that, and that’s where the change in perceptions of what people are capable of happen. We’re not saving lives by any means, but I do think that even subtle changes to how we approach things that feel far away are really precious. For myself too, I am trying to be more conscious, and I think with the privilege of moving further up in the industry – whatever that means – we have more of a voice to change those things. I saw you doing that in The Score, I’ve done that in Master of None and in parts of this current job. I hope to continue to do that. This feeling of finding your voice is very interesting for me – I’m trying to find the balance of my responsibility just as a human being walking the planet.
WP: I relate to that. Also what you were saying about always being conscious of how you can potentially improve things around you. Even with something like Star Wars, some people wouldn’t necessarily think that’s going to be chock full of socio-political commentary, but it has been from the beginning. We subconsciously absorb that and it’s important it’s there because it has a massive impact. Hundreds of millions of people watch these things, so there’s a massive opportunity to say something, not that you want to be beating people around the head with lectures. I don’t know, it feels neglectful not to take hold of that mic in a way.

Interview originally published in The HERO Winter Annual 2021.


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