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2021 has been a rollercoaster year for Will Poulter. In fewer than 12 months, the actor has morphed from a, in his words, “morally pretty reprehensible” Oxycontin salesman in “Dopesick” to a quintessential 1930s English gent in Agatha Christie thriller “Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?” to a synthetic apex of human evolution, superhero Adam Warlock, in the upcoming “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” which begins shooting this month.
For British-born Poulter, traversing two continents and multiple characters in less than a year is par for the course – as long as it’s for the right project. “[The] quality of material and the people involved is what’s always sort of driven my decision[-making],” he tells Variety. “And you know, more and more so I think the social application of the work, too.”
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That social conscience is what first drew him to “Dopesick.” Somewhat surprisingly, Poulter reveals he was “actively looking” for a project about the U.S. opioid epidemic, and the series (which is on Hulu in the U.S. and Disney Plus in the U.K.) — in which he stars opposite Michael Keaton — proved just the ticket. “We’re under no illusions about the fact that that the TV show alone isn’t going to reverse the opioid crisis,” he says earnestly over Zoom. “But we really hope that it will contribute to the conversation that is being had around how we make people accountable for what happened.”
In the limited series, which is based on a true story, Poulter plays Billy, a pharma salesman for Oxycontin manufacturer Purdue. Initially, Billy appears blissfully unaware that he is manipulating doctors into prescribing an addictive and potentially deadly drug, but he is quickly seduced by the job. It was precisely the murkiness of Billy’s moral character that drew Poulter to the role. “I think he probably starts off with relatively good intentions, but undeniably at a certain point he knowingly crosses a line into a territory characterized by lies and deceit,” he says.
While Billy is based on a composite of former Purdue employees, Poulter was painfully aware during filming earlier this year in Richmond, Va. — where Oxycontin was so prevalent that in 2018 the state filed suit against Purdue — these were some of people’s bleakest moments that were being recreated on screen. “Lots of the cast and crew had personal experiences with this as an issue or had lost loved ones,” he explains. “And so it was very emotionally charged. And I think you felt that on set quite regularly.”
Poulter clearly immersed himself in the subject matter. Despite having gone on to work on two other projects — one of which is his MCU debut — since recording “Dopesick” in spring of this year, the actor effortlessly reels off statistics and facts about the opioid crisis. “While we were all for good reason consumed by the challenges of this global pandemic, in the shadow of COVID was this epidemic that was claiming a lot of lives,” he says.
©Hulu/Courtesy Everett Collection
One highlight of the show was, inevitably, working with Keaton, who plays a small-town doctor entreated by Billy to over-prescribe Oxycontin to his patients. “Oh my gosh,” Poulter replies when asked about the experience. “When you admire someone that much, and they are that talented, I guess your biggest hope is that they’re also nice and they’re good to be around. And Michael was just wonderful to be around. And that was such a relief, because I would have been heartbroken if he was anything less, I think.”
Poulter continues: “When I reflect on how difficult his role was, and the sort of headspace that he had to be in playing Dr. Finnix, the fact that he also found space to be as good as he was to me, and so nurturing and supportive and encouraging — it’s sort of mind blowing, and I’m very, very, very grateful. Like, I don’t know if he knows what kind of impact he’s had on me, but I really love the guy.”
No doubt Keaton, who famously played Batman, also had some words of wisdom about donning a superhero cape. However, conscientious Poulter won’t be drawn into discussing, even in the most general terms, the character of Warlock and what it might be like to go from playing a morally bankrupt being to playing a perfect one. “I’m not really allowed to speak about the part,” he demurs politely. “Just given that it’s Marvel I’m sworn to secrecy. But [I’m] very, very grateful to, you know, be talking about something like ‘Dopesick’ on one hand and talking about something — or, not talking about something — like ‘Guardians’ on the other. But very, very grateful to be doing both.”
What he will say is that he feels “very honored to have been welcomed into the Marvel family. Everyone I’ve interacted with there is great and you know, [I’m] very excited to be part of a franchise like ‘Guardians,’ which I regard to be like, one of the most creative and unique.”
Before embarking on “Guardians,” Poulter also found time to film another limited series, Britbox’s “Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?” opposite Hugh Laurie (“House”) and Lucy Boynton (“Bohemian Rhapsody”), in which he plays Bobby, a vicar’s son who finds himself embroiled in a very British murder mystery.
The variety of roles Poulter has taken, especially in such a short space of time, is all the more intriguing given that following his reappearance in dystopian young adult trilogy “Maze Runner: The Death Cure” in 2018, Poulter briefly fell of the map, his on-screen appearances limited to a handful of hand-picked television and indie film roles.
“I guess my MO hasn’t changed that much,” Poulter says of his approach to his career. “I’m really lucky that I have a really tight knit and very qualified team, who I’m very reliant on for guidance and we talk through things a lot, probably even more than they would they would like. I’m quite thorough in that respect. Or maybe that’s a polite way of saying I’m just quite neurotic about my decision-making process.”
He continues: “But you know, I’ve just been very lucky as well to have had a lot of great opportunities to work with very talented people and that’s really been something that’s kind of guided me. I think quality of material [and] its social application probably being kind of like number one [in deciding on a project], and then the creatives around it to deliver it from concept to its creation.”
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