Will Poulter on mental health, bullying, and therapy: “Drama saved my life”

As he takes his place in the Marvel universe, the actor opens up to HUNGER about embodying his new character, Adam Warlock, prioritising his mental health and turning 30.

On a deceptively warm Wednesday afternoon in March, I’m sitting waiting for the actor Will Poulter in London’s Soho. I’ve been instructed to meet him at Darjeeling Express, an Indian restaurant helmed by the brilliant chef Asma Khan, who is circulating among her diners, sharing stories of her dishes and making them feel like guests of her renowned supper clubs, as profiled in the Emmy-nominated Netflix series Chef’s Table.

Poulter has been desperate to dine at the restaurant for a few years, inspired by the all-female kitchen staff and the impressive menu of authentic Indian dishes. When he eventually joins me, we opt for a string of sharing plates to start: tangra prawns, keema toasties and Khan’s popular puchkas. Poulter has been very generous with his time for this HUNGER feature – just a day earlier, he was circulating the grounds of Kensington Palace during his shoot with Rankin, a frequent collaborator. “He’s been incredibly supportive of me and I’m really grateful for that,” Poulter says. “I’ve always loved watching him work. I’m so blown away by his talent. His eye is so incredible, so trained, and his perspective is so clear. He really knows what he wants from the offset and it makes shooting a real joy. It is always so fun and relaxed.”

Will wears coat, blazer and trousers by GIVENCHY.

When we meet, Poulter is gearing up for the release of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3, the latest film both in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a series that’s a distinctive fan favourite. He joins the cast as Adam Warlock, an artificial being created to destroy the Guardians. While he admits to enjoying the Black Panther and Iron Man movies, he says that the Guardians franchise has always been his favourite. “It is the one that has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek, and it has a great ability to laugh at itself,” he says. “I really admired it for its quirkiness and the fact that it was this unapologetic outlier in the Marvel universe while still delivering all the things we associate with Marvel, being high octane and well balanced in terms of action, comedy and drama. A really entertaining franchise, but I never thought I would be involved in it.”

After Poulter completed a rigorous process of self- tapes and auditions, filming took place over the course of six months in Atlanta, with him entirely transforming his physique in order to embody the character of Adam. Despite the core cast functioning as a tight-knit family, he says that they welcomed him with open arms, and he can only hope that fans will do the same. “It was a real privilege to be trusted with a character like this. I don’t take that lightly and I know that people form quite strong emotional attachments to characters and have ideas around who is cast. I’m not going to satisfy everyone and I have to let go of the idea that I can. I also had to place a lot of trust in the director, James [Gunn], which is easy to do once you watch him work. I remember him saying to me, ‘I want you to come into work every day and I want you to fuck up.’ I was like, ‘OK, that sounds terrifying,’ but by the end of it I came to trust that process and really enjoy the freedom and not being afraid to fail. I do feel some pressure, though. I have moments where I’m like, ‘What if I’m singled out as the worst thing about the third Guardians of the Galaxy?’ That is scary.”

Will wears jacket by EMPORIO ARMANI, top by ACNE STUDIOS at MR PORTER, trousers by RUBINACCI at MR PORTER and bracelet by CARTIER.

While the role is arguably his most prolific to date, he also has a string of impressive genre-crossing credits, where he’s had the opportunity to showcase his acting chops. These include roles in Ari Aster’s horror masterpiece Midsommar, Kathryn Bigelow’s period crime drama Detroit and Danny Strong’s miniseries Dopesick, about America’s opioid crisis, for which Poulter gained an Emmy nomination for supporting actor in a limited series. But aside from acting, his philanthropic activities are also gaining attention.

As we tuck into our main course – which for Poulter is the restaurant’s signature goat curry – the conversation shifts to his life off-screen. He tells me that, over the past few years, he’s been working on prioritising his mental health and striking a better balance between life and work. Thanks to his friend Alex Holmes, deputy CEO of The Diana Award, a charity that works with young people to implement positive change for future generations, he has also become involved in anti-bullying campaigning.

Will wears blazer and top by VALENTINO, trousers by MILES LEON at MR PORTER and brooch by CARTIER.

His interest in this comes from his own experiences at school. “I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety and OCD, which I still battle with, and I think I was dealing with a lot of those things undiagnosed at school,” he says. “My ability to act, if I can say that of myself, and humour, immunised me from a certain amount of teasing and bullying. Therapy has helped me realise that I was never really being myself at school. I was chameleoning – simultaneously civil with everyone but friends with no one. I actually felt incredibly lonely, having suicidal thoughts and dealing with depression and anxiety while battling OCD, which was totally terrifying. It only enhanced my empathy for people who were experiencing bullying, because in my mind, there is nothing more detrimental to the mental-health development of young people.” His candidness catches me off-guard and together we share stories of therapy, coping mechanisms and self-care, delving into the depths of our inner psyches. It’s rare to meet an actor, especially one as prolific as Poulter, who is so forthcoming about opening up while simultaneously giving you the space to do the same. As we tear apart our parathas, there’s a sense that we’re breaking bread both literally and metaphorically. He continues by saying that the impact of his experiences at school are coming to the surface today and he’s still on a journey of self-acceptance.

“It wasn’t until adulthood that I traced how a lot of the things I struggle with now were formed while I was really young,” he tells me. “Then I found a profession that rewarded me for that [chameleon nature], so I delayed confronting living with myself between roles and getting to know myself, making friends with my inner child and not hating myself. I was so full of self-loathing as a kid. I just couldn’t stand to look at myself. I’ve been trying to practise self-love, which initially struck me as a cheesy concept and felt self-indulgent, but it’s a necessary practice so that you can extend love to other people.”

Will wears blazer, top and trousers by DIOR.

Having turned 30 in January, Poulter is recognising the action he needs to take to ensure that he protects his mental health while still succeeding in his career. He tells me that he’s never fully satisfied with his performances, but that he has worked to ensure that his level of happiness and mental wellbeing isn’t fully hinged on what he’s doing professionally. “It’s been about striking the balance between fulfilling my responsibilities with regard to my profession, but also enjoying life the right amount and not allowing work to detract too much from time with my family and friends – the things that help me maintain my mental health. I want to make sure that I’m servicing those relationships in the right way, that I’m not neglecting them. I think sometimes I used to drop everything and be like, ‘Sorry, duty calls!’ But it’s like, ‘What is my duty? Is it to be an actor or is it to be the best version of myself that I can be, as a son and as a friend?’ I’m still working that out.”

Looking ahead, Poulter has a string of projects coming up. He’s just wrapped On Swift Horses, a drama also starring Daisy Edgar-Jones and Jacob Elordi, and is working on a project he can’t discuss yet. His end goal, though, is to create something of his own, something that makes an impact socially. “I’d love to be in a position to set up my own organisation. I’ve been so inspired
by so many people that I’m lucky to collaborate with. I don’t know what area that would be in, but certainly it will include performance-based workshops offering people relief from mental-health-based struggles and/ or bullying. I think drama offers such an escape and performing arts are such an amazing antidote to so many things. Drama saved my life.”

Once our bellies are full and the bill is paid, Poulter takes the opportunity to thank Khan before offering a quiet compliment to the team in the kitchen. We head out onto the busy Soho street, share a hug and head our separate ways. I feel a sense of lightness. There are few people in life who can express such warmth that they become the embodiment of a safe space. Whether having known them for ten years or ten minutes, you feel you could share anything with them. They often possess no signs of egotism and are hyper-aware of others, intent on creating a better world for everyone in it. They’re infinitely good. They’re a rare breed, but I can tell you that Will Poulter is one of them.

WriterRyan Cahill
StylistEllie Witt
GroomerNadia Altinbas at The Wall Group using 111skin
HairBy Sam McKnight and Tom Ford Beauty
Photography AssistantsAlex Heron, Marcus Lister, Chelsea Nawanga
Fashion AssistantSandra Blazinskaite
ProducerSarah Stanbury
Production AssistantEmy Dentler
LocationKensington Palace, with the kind permission of Historic Royal Palaces