Not for the first (or last) time today, Will Poulter has just tried to hug me. We are two of 60,247 fans inside London’s Emirates Stadium on Mother’s Day Sunday, and Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka has just scored his second goal of the game to make it 3-1 against Crystal Palace. In the heat of the moment, Poulter—a lifelong Arsenal fan—turns to me and commits to an embrace. But at the crucial juncture, his arms somehow freeze and instead we share some kind of bro-charged chest bump. Returning to our seats, we nod as if to say, “that was awks.”
This interaction is typical of Poulter, an actor who for more than a decade has been charming audiences with a certain full-hearted commitment laced with more than a hint of cringe—whether in comedies like We’re The Millers or this month’s Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3. “Anxious? Socially awkward?” Poulter says. “I’m your man.”
In truth, a cringe moment had been brewing. A polite fist pump at 1-0 quickly escalated into a double high five at 2-0. After spectacularly missing the mark with the hug for the third goal, a reversion to muted back slaps seems the acceptable thing to do when number four goes in.
Full time, 4-1 and another three points in the bag, we walk through Highbury Fields to find our driver on what has turned into a sunny spring afternoon. With it still being March, Poulter can’t help but believe the title race is on. He’s busy pinging off messages to his various Arsenal WhatsApp groups, “buzzing for [Arsenal center-back] Rob Holdinho,” as he affectionately calls him. Poulter has supported Arsenal all his life, although at times pondered giving up due to the “inexplicable amount of emotional baggage” that comes with it. The last time Arsenal men’s team won the Premier League, Poulter was 10, and while he can remember it, this season is without doubt the most exhilarating he’s experienced firsthand.
Poulter turned 30 years old a few months ago, and he’s trying to treat it like a new chapter. For the last decade-plus, the young actor has been steadily building up an impressive CV, from A24’s cult hit Midsommar to awards fodder like Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit and Amazon’s The Underground Railroad. More recently, his performance as Billy the OxyContin salesman in 2021’s Dopesick saw him take a beating from Michael Keaton and land an Emmy nomination. Now he’s fresh from landing the superhero part of a lifetime as Marvel fan favorite Adam Warlock in Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 3. As a kid, Poulter loved Wolverine—initially from the comics and cartoons, then Hugh Jackman’s films—but he cites James Gunn’s comedic touch in the first two Guardians for rejuvenating his interest in the Marvel universe.
After bagging the role of a supposedly perfect human being, you could forgive another young actor for stunting on social—gym brags, red carpet flexes, on-set pranks, Comic Con selfies—but that’s not Poulter’s style. Instead his feeds are a regular stream of activism: standing up against bullying, sounding out economic insecurity and championing racial equality. Although conscious of sounding “worthy”, he likes to be something of a human billboard for good causes, naming individuals like Alex Holmes, of the charity Anti-Bullying Pro, or Lavinya Stennett, of The Black Curriculum, as people “who are actually doing the real work and affecting change in society.” Over a handful of conversations, at the game and afterwards, Poulter opened up about his next chapter.
GQ: How do you feel about turning 30?
Will Poulter: For the longest time, there was so much haziness around life beyond 30. It was scary because I thought, Oh, am I lacking in maturity? Am I literally not going to experience my 30s for some reason? And then when it came about, it was kind of nice. Someone pitched it to me as the start of a new chapter. I think my mental health struggles have been, if I’m entirely honest, the thing that’s maybe contributed to some of that haziness. And I’m really keen to try and manage my mental health in a way where I’m able to just enjoy life a little bit more.
You work with a lot of mental health charities. What has helped you come through some of your own struggles?
Watching Dopesick back gave me a greater empathy for people who struggle with addiction, because I see it as being intrinsically linked with mental health struggles and people who are in pain and seeking relief. It made me reflect on my own relationship to virtually everything. When I’m in a mentally unhealthy state, how do I manage my relationship with those things? Physical exercise has been the thing that has really sustained me more than anything else. I have been physically active for years thanks to my long-term agent Christian [Hodell], whom I’ve been with since I was 16 years old. I was going through a tough time mentally and he said, “Get in the gym.” And I was like, “I don’t think putting on muscle is going to help me feel mentally more well.” And he was like, “No, it will feel great.” He said this the best part of 10 years ago now and it really did change my life.
What kind of fitness routine did you have to stick to in the lead-up to shooting Guardians?
By the point I auditioned for Guardians, I was more than halfway there, as far as where I ended up. I had established some foundations for any kind of body transformation. I’d also been training consistently with Dr Ben Carraway, the guy who designed my whole programme. Between him, Aaron Deere, who was my nutritionist, and another trainer, Darrell Richards, I was fortunate to have three guys to help me maximise my natural potential. And do it in a way that was safe and that didn’t damage my physical or mental health. I was never encouraged by anyone to go about it any other way and Marvel certainly never put any pressure on me.
Was it difficult to get into that kind of shape?
All I know is I worked as hard as I could, safely and naturally, to conceivably pass as a superhero. If that isn’t enough for people, fair enough, but I’m not prepared to compromise on the way that I went about it. I can’t be an advocate for mental health and simultaneously be promoting anything other than responsible and natural bodybuilding. I wouldn’t want anyone to feel like I’m suggesting there is a body type that is better than anybody else’s body type.
Let’s take it back to the start. Son of Rambow put you on the map at 14; then you had School of Comedy and The Chronicles of Narnia. Was there a pivotal moment early doors where you felt your acting career could have gone either way?
I once flew out on my own dime for a screen test for The Internship. They were like, “If you want to come to the final stage, you’ve got to fly yourself out.” And I was like, “Fuck.” I was doing the cost-benefit analysis and was like, “I can just about get together a ticket to go out to LA.” So I went out and bombed in the audition. I was three scenes into a four-scene audition, and after the third scene I went, “Thanks for having me” and they went, “Oh, Will, there’s one more scene.” And I said, “There’s what?” They gave me 20 minutes to sit outside and learn it. Meanwhile, I heard the guy who got the role go in and absolutely crush it, then I went back in and majorly under-delivered.
What a blow.
I had grand ideas of working on a film in my gap year before I started uni and it felt like I had blown the last opportunity I had, so I was basically licking my wounds in a hotel room when I got a call saying, “Do you remember that film that you taped for three months ago? They’re holding auditions tomorrow. Would you go in?” So to cut a long story short, I went and ended up getting We’re The Millers, so that was a turning point.
Like one of your idols, Robin Williams, you have dyspraxia. Some people would say that’s a hindrance, but how has it affected your career?
People talk about people who are neurodiverse as if it’s some sort of limitation or a disorder framed negatively, but actually, it makes them special; it makes them more advanced. There are definitely things that I use as an actor to make me better at my job.
Ever since Midsommar, you’ve been the subject of a lot more gossip about your personal life.
For the last few years, virtually every day, someone takes a photo without asking, which is uncomfortable. To a large degree, male privilege has protected me from that kind of objectification and the idea that up until now really I’ve been able to go about my job and not have my physical appearance be something of a subject matter—that privilege hasn’t been afforded to my female counterparts in the industry.
That’s ramped up since you were announced as Adam Warlock.
It was weird when people started to debate my physical appearance online as to whether it was deemed attractive or unattractive. I am very comfortable and secure in the knowledge that I’m not conventionally attractive as I’ve always had remarks about looking unusual—whether it’s my eyebrows or whatever else, people have made a thing of that. I think it just speaks to a wider issue, of: Why are we discussing or spending so much time discussing people’s physical appearance? Especially in the case of women. But whether you’re male or female, why is that the focus so much? Unfortunately, social media has created this problematic idea that everyone’s opinion on everything matters equally.
What about in person? Do you get people coming up to you?
A guy at a urinal in LA last week turned to me and said, “You’re in Toy Story, right?” And I was like, “Well, that was animated.” I don’t want to be rude. I also appreciate there’s a meme going round of me—I dressed up as Sid from Toy Story for anti-bullying week. So arguably I haven’t helped my case. But [Toy Story came out in] 1995. I was two. And they weren’t doing it through live action.
It’s funny—when things trend like that on the Internet, all context is lost and a big one is talking about overnight transformations. The one that went viral in relation to me was a picture of me in We’re The Millers next to a picture of me in Guardians. There’s literally 10 years between those two pictures but people don’t even realize it. Someone in the pub two days ago said, “Oh, you’ve had a glow up. Congrats.” It’s a little bit hard to not accept that as, “You were ugly for the best part of your life, and now things are looking up a bit!” I don’t know if that’s just me being cynical, but it’s hard to not take it as a backhanded compliment. People say it like it’s positive, but it could also contribute to a complex.
What has your acting career taught you about yourself over the years?
One thing I was caught up in a lot when I was younger was looking at what other people were doing and being competitive. I cringe at my attitude of “I’ve got to beat so and so to get this role”. The industry does pit actors against one another a lot, but none of us are really in competition with each other and the realization around that was freeing.
It must be odd to think that younger actors now look up to you.
I remember watching Heartstopper and thinking, “That person is really good at acting.” Then I saw an interview where Kit [Connor] was saying, “Growing up I watched Will Poulter.” Genuinely, that meant a lot to hear a younger actor say that about me. I never take it for granted if someone says they like my work.
[Warning: Spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 to follow.]
The week before Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is released, Poulter and I catch up again, this time over Zoom. One small hitch: he hasn’t seen the film yet. He has something else playing on his mind: Arsenal’s game against bottom-of-the-league Southampton tonight. He’s at home in East London, making himself a black coffee, and nonetheless is eager to face the music—about both how his portrayal of Adam Warlock has been received and the Gunners’ Premier League fate.
It’s been almost a year since talk of his body transformation and so-called “Guardians glow up” first made headlines, and since then the gold-painted stills of Poulter looking ripped have only served to amp up the noise around his arrival in the MCU. Since his casting, there was a widespread assumption among fans that his Warlock would be some genetically perfect villain destined to destroy the guardians.
Instead, in typical James Gunn style, the director—for his Marvel swan song—serves up a Warlock who is no more than a beautiful numbskull. Poulter’s adept ability to oscillate between gormless comedy and high action makes him the perfect casting; Gunn uses Poulter’s seemingly awkward persona to execute one of the film’s best plot twists.
Joking that I’ll be careful not to drop any spoilers for him—when we spoke, Poulter was genuinely unaware of whether some scenes had made the cut— we get into the nitty gritty of Warlock and, going forward, what trajectory the last installment of Guardians puts him on.
“I am very comfortable in the knowledge I’m not conventionally attractive. I’ve always had remarks about looking unusual.”
Turns out Adam Warlock isn’t what many expected.
It’s clear that James was putting a certain twist on Warlock. In this movie, he’s in his infancy. He’s come out of the oven early and isn’t fully baked. He’s trying to orient himself in a world where there’s a lot of pressure to work out the difference between right and wrong. That was a really fun place to explore because there was the opportunity for drama and comedy in that. Warlock’s character typifies what I love personally about Guardians, which is that these characters are funny, but they all feel psychologically genuine.
It was quite an entrance to the Marvel Universe for you.
I thought it was really funny that Warlock flies in with this mission to accomplish with a certain level of expectation on his shoulders and then just gets his ass handed to him. It’s typical of James not doing the obvious one-dimensional thing, and instead subverting expectations and finding the funnier, more obtuse angle. I really appreciated that and it was cool that within the fight sequences I end up interacting with nearly all of the Guardians and it ending in a relatively humorous fashion.
Were you given advice about how best to work with James [Gunn]?
I remember Chris Pratt said to me, “Sometimes James is going to throw things at you and you’re going to be like, ‘What are you talking about? You’ve lost your mind.’ Just trust him.” I did that, and by the end I felt really confident in just doing whatever James said. Sometimes words like visionary get overused. But James is a visionary, there is no question. The way he’s able to visualize things and then bring them to life is second to none.
So how did he get you into his Warlock?
He said, “Really, your goal each day should be to fuck up.” That’s really scary, because I actively spend all my time trying to avoid fucking up as much as possible and I fail enough as it is when the memo is “don’t fuck up.” So when the memo is, like, “embrace the idea of fucking up,” that’s a wild one, but it was quite freeing by the end of it.
You spend a fair amount of time flying around—that’s got to be tough on the core?
I was talking to Sasha Calle recently about her work as Supergirl and she was having to hold those poses for long periods of time—we were saying what a massive core workout that was. I had to practice poses, which sounds horribly vain and superficial, but we wanted to give Warlock his own way of flying so he had a unique quality and didn’t feel like it was copycatting anyone.
One of the best scenes in the film is you interacting with Chukwudi Iwuji and Elizabeth Debicki, who play your mother Ayesha and the High Evolutionary.
Doing scenes with Chuk and Elizabeth was so fun. Chuk, with all his theatrical experience, has the most unbelievable presence and brought something so magnetic to the High Evolutionary. Elizabeth, for someone who I’ve seen be so brilliant dramatically, can throw down in the comedy space so well and be so funny and so silly. We had a real laugh about people commenting on our height our entire lives too.
At one point in the film, you inherit the Ravagers’ pet, and you become quite attached to it. Did it provide something of a home comfort for Warlock?
Blurp, my stuffed toy, was vocally played by none other than James Gunn, so he was there on the mic making little Blurp sounds and drawing my eyeline towards him and explaining what Blurp was doing at any given moment. Managing that CGI relationship was a challenge—sometimes holding nothing, sometimes holding a stuffed gray thing.
Without giving too much away, what did you make of Warlock as the story progresses?
Throughout the movie, I think he’s as angry as he is confused, and he’s on a path to self-discovery. I figure he’s always going to have this pretty intense, emotionally-driven rage to him and that’s going to be somewhere under the surface always.
As Gunn is moving over to DC, are you going to miss him?
Do I wish James was directing whatever the next installment of Adam Warlock is? Sure. If I had my pick I wouldn’t want anyone else—but I do genuinely trust that he’s done his best to set up the character in a way that feels like it best serves him.
Photography by Will Arcand
Styling by Angelo Mitakos
Grooming by Josh Knight at Caren using Sam McKnight for hair and Typology for skin
Tailoring by Faye Oakenfull
With thanks to Spring Studios