'Midsommar' Star Will Poulter On His "Problematic" Character And The Notion Of Playing The Comedic Relief [Interview]

Hereditary writer/director Ari Aster is back with his second feature film, Midsommar, a hypnotic descent into an unfamiliar world. The plot centers on a group of Americans who visit a commune in rural Sweden and quickly learn that things aren't quite what they appear. 26-year-old actor Will Poulter (The Revenant, We're The Millers) plays Mark, an American who's quick with a joke and who views the trip primarily as an opportunity to do drugs and get laid. Sadly for Mark, this isolated community isn't the sex utopia he envisioned, and the visitors' situation becomes increasingly fraught the more time they spend there.

I sat down with Poulter at the Midsommar press junket last week to talk about his "problematic" character, if he bristles at the idea of being referred to as the "comedic relief" in the film, why the movie's messages resonated with him, and more.

Will Poulter Interview

I heard that Ari was terrified of bugs and basically wore a beekeeper's suit on the set to protect himself. There's a moment early in the movie where your character is really worried about bugs as he's walking through the grass – was that an improv shout-out to Ari, or was that in the script?

I wish it was improv'ed, I wish I could take that credit. But actually, the real and truthful answer is that Ari does such an amazing job of infusing all of his characters with real life experiences. That was one of the only things about Mark, aside from a dark sense of humor, that is true of Ari himself. Ari told me that some of his neuroses were going to be embodied by Mark, and the bug thing, yeah, I was definitely channelling Ari Aster – but under his direction.

This is an intense movie, but your character is a little less intense than some of the ones you've played recently. Was that part of the appeal for you, the idea of not having to go to quite such dark places as an actor?

I think the reason that I gravitated towards Mark – although he's the sort of individual that I actively try not to resemble in my everyday life, because he's very problematic and regressive in lots of ways – he appealed to me because he still felt authentic. He felt like a character that I'd interacted with, that I knew – that I think unfortunately everyone knows maybe too many of, or have come into contact with too many of them. So it was just an authenticity to him that I responded to. I kind of wanted to embody him in an effort to hold him up as what you laugh at but you don't laugh with. That was kind of the interesting challenge presented to me by playing Mark, and like everything in Ari Aster's movies, they're all rich with detail and with a lot of research and hard work behind them. To have a part in pushing that over the line was great. Mark was 90% complete on the page, and Ari had a very intimate understanding of his psychology. So I really was just kind of the mouthpiece for what Ari had written.

Once everyone arrives at the commune, Mark seems like the most oblivious one of the bunch. There's a scene where he unintentionally but literally pisses on the traditions of his hosts. What kinds of conversations did you and Ari have about that scene?

I think we both agreed that, in all the instances where Mark appears insensitive or he's actively detracting from what's around him, we had agreed upon this idea that he lacked a certain amount of emotional intelligence and a certain amount of observation, or ability to observe things on an intellectual level. His capacity for cultural variation and things that were different was very, very narrow. But he was smart enough to be able to make jokes that would make people laugh, if that makes sense. That's kind of where it ended: beyond making a joke out of it, he didn't have any thoughtful insights on any of those things. I think, without being an apologist for Mark at any time, when he takes a piss on that tree, that I think is an honest mistake. But the reaction afterward speaks to how insensitive and problematic Mark is as a human being. Because anyone else who was made aware that they'd made that error would be mortified, apologizing endlessly, and he's like, "I don't fucking get it. It's a tree. What?" He doesn't possess that sort of level of compassion or sensitivity. Again, it's something that causes you to laugh at him as opposed to with him. People I think are shocked or laughing at him being a bit of an idiot.

Will Poulter Midsommar 2

That's an interesting thing, the idea of laughing at him but not with him. It seems like there's been a little bit of pushback in terms of categorizing Mark as the comedic relief in this movie, but he does do things that people laugh at. So where do you draw that line? I guess "comedic relief" is too simplistic?

Yeah, I don't reject that. I think in some ways he is comedic relief. I just think that for me personally, I wouldn't push back against that, but I think it's important to obviously not overlook where he's problematic and regressive and how that contributes to an instinct to laugh at him as opposed to with him all the while. On occasion, Mark is pointing things out where maybe he's sort of being the voice for the audience in some respects, but then often he's making fun of things in a way where it's really insensitive and disrespectful. I think on those occasions you're encouraged to laugh at him. So it's probably a mixture of both, but more of the latter than the former.

I know you've mentioned in the past couple of years that you're being more conscious about the social applications of your work and what sort of messages you're contributing to putting out into the world. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about Midsommar in that context – why did its messages resonate with you, and what are you hoping people take away from this movie?

For me, from a creative standpoint, just artistically, to be part of a film that was so ambitious and daring meant that it's social application was going to be characterized by offering people an experience that differed from a lot of the other things that were available to them. When you make an effort to think carefully about the social application of your work, you don't necessarily gravitate toward things that are going to disturb people or upset them. I think this was a very, very clever film as far as how it encourages people to think carefully about how they treat other human beings that they're in a relationship with, be it a platonic relationship or a romantic relationship. It encourages introspection and very interesting discussions about human psychology and empathy for other human beings. I think empathy is often at the root of a lot of problems that humanity faces, so a film that explores empathy really appealed to me. And also playing a character that, for me, is sort of a poster child for the out of touch, regressive male. I felt like by playing Mark, I was given the opportunity to make an example of someone who we shouldn't really allow to continue to exist and have a voice in society. Mark is the male that feels well past their sell-by date.

This is not a typical horror story. I'm curious about your reaction when you read the script for the first time.

Yeah, I was excited by the fact that it was so different, and I couldn't easily box it. There were things in the script that, sure, kind of rang bells that belonged to the horror house, but then other things that felt like a really detailed and emotionally dense family drama, and then almost like a painful romantic comedy at times. It was so layered, and it branched off in so many directions, but unique – there was nothing like it. I'd never read a script that made me feel that way, and I'd never watched a film that has made me feel this way. So just to be part of something that was so fresh and different was exciting. The only hesitancy that I had about being involved was the fear that there wasn't anyone who could execute this story. I read it before knowing who Ari was. Then I watched his short films, and I was like, 'Oh, this might be the guy to do it.' Then I watched Hereditary and I was like yeah, 'Oh yeah, this one hundred percent is the guy to pull this off.' And he did. So I'm really grateful to Ari that he allowed me to be a part of this film.


Midsommar arrives in theaters today.