“This was the toughest thing I ever did” — ‘The Revenant’ star Will Poulter talks filming outdoors, working with Leonardo DiCaprio and more

Will Poulter in 'The Revenant'
Will Poulter in 'The Revenant'

The Revenant is now playing in theaters across the nation following a highly successful two-week limited release. The film also just won Best Picture at the Golden Globes, which is certain to only raise its cultural profile as the nation prepares for Oscar nominations to be unveiled in the coming days. We have yet to produce our own review of the film, but suffice to say filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu created a deeply moving and beautifully brutal work of poetry in motion that is made even better thanks to commanding performances from several Hollywood stars. It’s a movie unlike any you have ever seen, and it is best experienced on the largest screen you can find.

Back in December, film critic James Shotwell had the chance to meet with actor Will Poulter (We’re The Millers, The Maze Runner) to discuss the film and the hard work that went into its production. You can read highlights from the conversation, which was conducted in collaboration with critic Ken Murray from IWantMyTwoDollars, below.

You’re only 22, but you’ve already developed quite a filmography for yourself. We’re The Millers and The Maze Runner were massive hits in two very different genres, and now you’ve delivered something equally great and unique with The Revenant. This time around however, you are one of the lesser known stars. What was it like to work alongside Tom Hardy and Leonardo DiCaprio?
WILL POULTER: I think I felt initially quite intimidated because of the names mentioned, Leo, Tom, Domhnall [Gleeson] as well. All guys far more experienced than myself. It felt like a bit of a test for me. I was always mindful that this was quite a big stage to be on and for me it was going to be the biggest challenge yet. I found that the challenge was so great and there was so much to do every day that there was no room for that anxiety and those insecurities that I kind of arrived with. I had to box those and focus on doing my job because I was so occupied psychologically and physically by the intensity of the whole experience.

This particular role seems quite demanding, both on a physical and psychological level. Could you tell us a bit about how you prepared for this project?
On a very basic level, physically, I wasn’t quite aware about how tough it would be so there really wasn’t anything to prepare for that. I guess I had a basic level of fitness, but I had little to no experience with that kind of weather. I was very fortunate to have an opportunity to face that real weather condition, to shoot on location. All that natural weather, all those things helped make that experience very real. The research process was very interesting because it was a return to conversations and reading books compared to watching YouTube and listening to MP3s. The era dictated that kind of research. It was pretty old school. I enjoyed that. I guess I was lucky in the sense that [my character] Jim Bridger went on to become a famous noteworthy frontiersman so there’s more information about Jim than most. That made my research process easier. Beyond that, I found that Alejandro‘s process makes you feel really prepared for the shooting of what’s on the page.

You touched on the weather. A lot has already been written on the harsh conditions you faced during production, but could you discuss it a bit from your perspective?
I was expecting it to be tough. Alejandro from day one equipped us with this mentality that we shouldn’t fight the weather. We should stand up to it. We should collaborate with it and to an extent, work with it. Because if we try to fight it, then we were going to lose. Accept it for what it is, this total crazy thing that it is. That meant that regardless if it was sunny, snow, sleet, hail, even if it was going to be a sandstorm, we were going to shoot that day. That, I think, was a very useful and sensible thing to tell us right from the bat. He didn’t mince his words about how difficult it was going to be and told us this was probably going to be the toughest thing we ever did. We all had a lot of faith in his vision so that fueled us through the thick and thin of the shoot.

What would you say initially attracted you to this role?
For me it was very interesting to play someone who was bridging, pun intended there, the gap between boy and man through such difficult circumstances. It was interesting to me to think about how that natural period of maturity, how you’d experience that in this environment with such difficult moral decisions that conflict with survival instinct and the duty to do your job. It felt like Bridger was being pulled in many different directions and all of those things constitute this emotional breakdown. He’s trying his best to become a man and the best tracker he can be at the beginning of the film, but by the end he’s just trying to not eat himself up. It was a very interesting arch.

I read somewhere that you didn’t read the film’s source material prior to entering production. What was the motivation behind that decision?
Alejandro used the book to form a rough skeleton for the script, but then he went through and added so much unique emotional details that it conflicts a bit with what is in the book. For me, the symbolism behind my character taking the knife off Glass in the book could not be more different than how I give him my canteen in the context of the film. There is a big difference between taking your last means of protection for my own gain versus giving you something I might need, the symbol of life, in order to help you survive. That’s why I think sometimes having two sources, like the script and the book that inspired it, can cause insecurities within your performance. Having read the book since, I’m glad I chose that path.

This role is one of the more physically demanding turns you’ve had on screen. Is that kind of role something you seek out in your on-screen work?
I haven’t thought about it. I don’t know, not consciously. I can enjoy the physical elements. I like that feeling of coming home at the end of the day knowing that you worked your ass off. The more physical ones give you that feeling. I felt like that every day on this. It’s not something necessarily that I seek out although I enjoy anything that makes the challenge greater.

The films Alejandro makes have a tendency to be filled with long tracking shots, which is a lot different from the quick-cut world of comedy and teen action that your work has been largely made up of before now. Can you talk a bit about what it’s like to shoot in long takes versus short bursts with lots of time to reset and rethink your performance?
It’s kind of like starting from scratch. You throw away the rulebook. Alejandro’s process is that you have to go through an entirely different and unexplored avenue to get to where you need to be. The long, sweeping takes, the continuous shots, the wide, all-seeing eye that is [cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki]’s lens, means the margin of error is small. Often you can’t have marks set down, but you need to hit very specific points. You need to be totally coordinated and choreographed. Even as something as little as the timing of a head turn, there will be several of those in each scene that you have to hit. Your interaction with props and every physical decision you make has to be measured and has to be timed out perfectly. Literally you are operating with seconds. It requires a lot of rehearsal. You spend 90 percent of the day rehearsing and then you’re actually shooting in a window of 45 minutes to an hour-and-a-half, two hours. That’s when the sun is in a specific spot in the sky. What it did for me was it created a really interesting challenge where I had to welcome the camera into my world in a way I never had to before. Often I’ve gotten on-set and found my marks and done the basic choreography that comes with it. You try to ignore the cameras and engage the characters you’re in the scene with. On this you had to literally make the camera an extension of your body and choreograph absolutely everything. Then try not to be conscious of the camera and that’s really tough to do. Remember all those elements you’ve rehearsed all day long, execute them in the scene, and still feel as though the situation is still believable. S