Bandersnatch star talks alternate paths, quitting social media and the most Black Mirror thing that’s ever happened to him…
Just a little after Christmas last year, amidst all the dwindling mince pies and thinning boxes of Quality Street, Netflix dropped Bandersnatch on a semi-unsuspecting public, arguably the darkest iteration of Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones’ bleak ongoing sci-fi series Black Mirror yet. Festive? Not quite.
Prior to this – in fact, months before – the internet had been awash with rumours and speculation of what kind of embodiment of terrifying, gory, paranoid tech-fear we’d be met with next. Eventually vague confirmation from Netflix meant we were certain that soon we would be met with the first interactive TV show ever – akin to old-school choose-your-destiny adventure books, but obviously with all the grisly Black Mirror trimmings.
So we sat down, trembling mug of tea in hand, across our “black mirror”/screen of choice, and found ourselves catapulted into an 80s-style universe, following a young programmer Stefan (played by Dunkirk’s Fionn Whitehead), who tasks himself with adapting a nightmarish fantasy novel into a video game. On thing though – the control was completely in our hands, and all our twisted, warped choices (just us?) resulted in multiple mind-bending endings.
Will Poulter (The Revenant, Maze Runner, Detroit) plays prodigy game developer, Colin Ritman, who works at gaming company Tuckersoft with Stefan – and, depending on your choices, helps him ‘expand his mind’ or meets, erm, various other ends…
We chatted to the star about alternate paths, quitting social media and the most Black Mirror thing that’s ever happened to him…
How did you get involved in the show?
Kind of unnervingly, I was watching an episode of Black Mirror the night before. Arkangel, the VR one. Really dark. And then I got a call from my agent saying there’d been an availability check on me. And I was a bit scared because I thought, “are they watching me through the TV?” I got the opportunity to read the script, and thereafter I met on Skype with Annabel, Charlie and David Slade, the director. I think what easily could have been quite a sort of gimmicky product became, in their hands, a really impressive, groundbreaking experience. And I’m so grateful that I got to be a part of it.
What’s your favourite episode of Black Mirror? Hang the DJ. I love that one. I really like San Junipero too. Also USS Callister.
You’re choosing all the lighthearted ones…
Yeah, maybe the slightly less dark ones. Bandersnatch was arguably the darkest of them all. I just think David Slade’s phenomenal, it was so nice to work with him.
How long did it take to film?
I think Fionn was saying he did about 7 weeks, so I probably did 4 weeks in total across that 7-week period.
How challenging was the process?
You know what, it sounds like a far-reaching game analogy, but it was kind of like you were making a film, but on one of the harder levels. It just felt like we were on the boss level, as far as trying to make a film. You shot out of sequence. That wasn’t anything unusual. You didn’t have a lot of time and there were budgetary constraints – so that was all kind of relatively familiar. But to have to do multiple narrative strands…
Was there any confusion at where you were at, at times?
Oh my god, massively. To accommodate different narrative strands, alternative outcomes, different sets of emotional and physical continuity – in that way it felt a lot harder than usual. In the hardest moments, one of the most useful things David would say to us was “hey, none of us have done this before, be a bit compassionate with yourself, don’t be so hard on yourself.” Like just know that this is the first time this has ever been done before, so it should feel hard. If it’s feeling easy we’ve overlooked something and we’ve missed a step.
I’m guessing you’ve had a go and played it?
I’ve watched about 70% of it. And I think for anyone who thinks they’ve seen it all, go back again, because there’s over 4 and a half hours of content, I believe.
Can I ask if there are any secret paths you can divulge?
I don’t know of any golden easter eggs as such. But there are lots of different choices and right down to the smallest of decisions, whether it’s Sugar Puffs or Frosties – go back and make different choices. If you followed Colin before, go see the therapist next time, or while you’re at the therapist, what did you talk about, what didn’t you talk about? Question everything, basically.
Do you think this is the future of television?
We’re all very proud of it. I would love to think there will be more, for the sole fact that I think it’s a very exciting way of engaging audiences and telling a story in a different way, utilising the growing technology that we can all experience. And I hope that what it’ll do is force attention and make us focus a little bit more. Because I notice that and I’m ashamed of it.
You can’t just be on your phone the whole time…
You can’t. You can’t get up and go and get a cup of coffee and come back. You’ve got to have your snacks and your beverages ready, you’ve got to have gone to the toilet, you’ve got to have the remote in your hand and you’ve got to be fully focused. And I think we’ve lost sight of that a little bit, I think we’re so overly stimulated that sometimes just watching a film isn’t enough to satiate us, whereas this, because it actively engages us, potentially it is the new kind of satisfying way to ingest media.
Bandersnatch has a lot to say about social media and technology. But also free will and control. What do you think the main themes are?
Free will and control. And I think what it does, is it encourages you to think very carefully about the decisions you make in life, and about being active, engaged and mindful in order to have control over your life. I think if you allow it to pass you by, have other people make decisions for you, then you’re at risk of potentially not experiencing the best outcomes. So it makes a very astute comment on that. And it kind of fits in with all the other Black Mirror pieces in that rather than just being bleak and depressing for the sake of it, it actually heeds a warning as far as the pitfalls, if you don’t change your relationship with technology. And some of the just everyday practices you engage in.
I saw that you signed off Twitter recently, and you mentioned your relationship with social media…
In the Twitter statement I was trying to make it clear that this was nothing to do with a reaction to Bandersnatch from a creative perspective. And actually I was so lucky to receive such positive comments, I’ve never had such a positive reaction to anything I’ve ever done, so I’m so grateful for that. But I recognise that I’m not in control of what other people put out on social media, however, I am in lots of ways subjected to it against my free will. I just thought it was more beneficial for me to step away. I didn’t want it to be at the detriment of the organisations that I support, so I’m still hoping to go back on when it feels appropriate. But everyone has a balance and a relationship to manage with social media, just as they do with food or exercise or alcohol, or whatever it may be. I just felt like the most positive choice for me personally was to just take a little bit of a step back, and reduce the personal engagement I have with social media.
Absolutely. One thing you realise from watching Black Mirror is you start to realise aspects about social media and technology that are really terrifying. What terrifies you?
I think this idea that social media is sold to us on the basis that it increases social mobility. I’m not sure I entirely agree with that. I think while it can unite friends who haven’t seen each other for years and it can seemingly lessen the distance between people who live on opposite sides of the planet, I think it also confines people to spaces in a very physical sense. Like I think kids get out less to play outdoors because of social media, I think a lot of the ways in which social media is designed it to try and group you, based on likeness, that’s not increasing social mobility, that’s just boxing us. So I’ve personally felt a real sense of liberation since coming off it. And again, this is just a personal choice and some people can manage it better, just as some people have more healthy relationships with some things than others. It’s all about your personal balance and just being mindful of what’s good for you and what’s bad for you, and that, you ultimately have control over.
What’s your favourite Black Mirror narrative? How did you play it first time around?
The first time I played it, I actually wasn’t in control. I watched it with some of my team members, my agents and other people that I work with, and they chose. They knew nothing. I think in order to try and keep me alive for longer they chose Fionn to jump. They felt a pressure I think because I was sat right next to them. But then we went back, and I think ultimately my agents killed me.
Would you do another Black Mirror episode if there was a chance?
Definitely. I would love to. Literally anything that Charlie and Annabel create I’d sign on for, same goes for David.