Dexter Fletcher has been involved in movies since he was seven, when he played Diana Dors’ son in the 1973 TV spin-off Steptoe And Son Ride Again. Child stardom didn’t quite follow, but Fletcher always looked young for his age and, after a series of roles with names like Baby Face (Bugsy Malone, 1976) and Cheeky Little Blighter (BBC series Grandad, 1979), the Islington-born actor had a brief spell as an in-demand teen star with a lead role in the TV series Press Gang, playing opposite Al Pacino in Revolution and working for the likes of Ken Russell, David Lynch and Derek Jarman in the mid-80s. But in the 90s, those kinds of role stopped coming, and Fletcher acknowledges now that he had difficulty accepting the fact, “having had too much too soon and never having had any real adult responsibility”.
That kink in Fletcher’s life is sorted now, thanks to Guy Ritchie’s 1998 gangster romp Lock, Stock and Steven Spielberg’s 2001 WW2 mini-series Band Of Brothers, which brought a second act of eclectic character roles. But it’s worth mentioning all this because Wild Bill, his first film as director, deals with that very crisis of growing up, from both the perspective of a child and that of an adult too. Starring Charlie Creed-Miles, it tells the story of Bill Hayward, who is discharged from prison after eight years inside and returns to his East End home, only to find that his girlfriend has left him and that their two young boys, Dean (Will Poulter) and Jimmy (Sammy Williams), are living alone.
There are some familiar echoes of British gangster movies past, especially in a subplot involving crack dealer T (Leo Gregory), who attempts to bring Bill back into the criminal fold. But Wild Bill has more to offer, focusing on the fraught relationship between Bill and Dean, a furious but down-to-earth teen who moonlights on a building site to bring up his tearaway brother. It is this that gives the film its heart, and, though Creed-Miles is away filming on the continent, Fletcher, 47, and Poulter, now 19, met with INDUSTRIA to explain how this perfectly formed passion project came together…
Will, when did you first meet Dexter?
Will Poulter: I was still at school. I read the script and absolutely loved it. A lot of us – actors and crew – were drawn to this film because the script was so great and the story was so lovely. I immediately wanted to audition, but I didn’t think I had a hope in hell. I met Dex and, very luckily, got the part, because it was the worst audition I’ve ever done. I wanted to do it so badly, but I was so nervous about it, I felt like I really fluffed it up. But for some reason he gave me the part, and now I’m just very glad that…
Dexter Fletcher: (Laughs) Yeah, I felt sorry for him! He came in and he was so bad that I thought, Oh my god, this guy is never gonna ever get any work. If I don’t give him a job now it’s going to be the end of his career. So I gave him the job out of pity and nothing else!
Will: (Laughs) I believe that!
Dexter: I know you do. (Shakes his head) You’re a twit.
Dexter, how did you feel about his audition?
Dexter: He was great. I know he goes on about it, but if that was his worst audition, I don’t know what his best one is. The room must burst into flames or something. (Laughs) But Will was a serious contender already, because I’d seen him in Son Of Rambow and E4’s School of Comedy, and he was the first name on everybody’s lips. He was the right age, and I knew he’d done a Narnia film, so just in terms of fame alone he was a good candidate – he was an interesting young actor that people were talking about. And that’s really good for a little film like Wild Bill, a film that wants not just to get made but to get noticed. And someone like Will, who’s a hot, up-and-coming young actor, is a really good asset. So the audition was about whether he had the acting chops, and he did. He half had the job before he even got there. But obviously we didn’t let him know that.
Did working with Will remind you of being a child actor yourself?
Dexter: I felt a lot when I was young that I was just left to get on with it. But that’s why you cast kids, in a way, because they’re always playing themselves. There’s no requirement. But what Will’s dealing with is that he’s not a kid anymore and now he’s playing characters – he’s doing proper, real, grown-up acting. At Will’s age I was in the theatre, but people didn’t seem to know how to talk to me, so they just let me get on with it. And that was really difficult. I felt cast adrift, I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing, and no one was telling me. So if I’m working with a young actor, I’ll say, ‘If you need me, let’s talk about it, and if you don’t, great!’ As a young actor, growing up, I felt that the older actors or crew didn’t make much of effort to do that for me. They were like, ‘Yeah, yeah, get on with it.’ Even when I was at the Royal Shakespeare Company, when I was 16, trying to do Shakespeare, and I’d never read a play in my life.
Have either of you ever had The Actor’s Dream?
Dexter: What’s that?
It’s the dream where you go onstage and…
Will: …You don’t know your lines!
Dexter: I’ve had that in reality! Fuck the dream. I’ve had that on stage – you get up there and you’re talking and you suddenly go, ‘What do I say next?’ You just look at the other person with complete fear and panic in your eyes. And, if you’re lucky, they bail you out.
Will: I’ve had a dream where there was a hundred takes on the slate, and it was my fault, and it was all about one line. I was catapulted into the middle of the dream, when it was the 150th take.
Dexter: I’ve had that in reality too! It’s not a dream! (Laughs) You can reach out and touch that.
Did Charlie and Will rehearse much beforehand?
Dexter: No. Because the dynamic of their relationship is very specific. Bill just propels himself into his kids’ life, so the most important relationship to find in rehearsals was the one between the two brothers. Now, Will’s a grown man and can act anything I ask of him, and the same goes for Charlie. So he and Charlie can act as father and son. But Sammy’s still a kid, and he’s reacting purely on instinct and heart. I mean, I can say to Will and Charlie, ‘All right, you two hate each other, off you go,’ and they can work out how to do it. But Will’s relationship with Sammy had to be a different thing. If they didn’t have any connection, there’d be no story to tell.
What was Charlie like to work with?
Dexter: Charlie’s super-intense and he was on Will like a nutcase at the beginning. But it worked really well for the film.
Will: It was great for me. It was really interesting, as a young actor, to see that approach. You watch a load of films and you hear stuff like, ‘Oh yeah, he slept in a shed for three months beforehand,’ or, ‘He only ate nails for a week before filming…’ (Laughs) Charlie didn’t do that exactly…
So what did he do?
Dexter: Well he was certainly working out like a lunatic, wasn’t he? Because he wanted to be all ripped, like he’d been in prison.
Will: Charlie was wicked, and our relationship was… funny. Because his character hadn’t been in my character’s life since I was eight years old, roughly. So it was a very strange dynamic – love and hate – and it was that weird thing of: how do we behave on set? Because of the nature of our relationship onscreen, we naturally kept our distance. It felt wrong to hang out and have a laugh with Charlie.
Dexter: And I didn’t encourage that.
Will: Sammy and I hung out a lot, because we’re meant to be living on top of each other in the smallest house in London. But it was natural for me and Charlie to keep our distance.
Dexter: But he didn’t hang with anybody, Charlie. He found his own space there, didn’t he? In one of the flats. He made a little enclave for himself. It was called The Green Room, but it was really just Charlie’s fuckin’ room.
Will: It was kind of his little prison cell.
Dexter: It was his little prison cell. But this is part of the intensity of how he works. Because Bill was the outsider in the world we were creating.
How was it being the director this time, and seeing that kind of behaviour?
Dexter: It was interesting, because, as an actor, normally you’re the other side of it, and you’re kind of in it. So when you’re in it, you don’t see it. But when you’re outside of it, you have to be mindful of it and the relationships that are building between
Did you actually research working on a building site?
Will: I tried to, but I was at school, so I didn’t much chance. A friend’s dad works on a building site, so I said, ‘Can I come along, do a bit of graft?’ (Laughs) He was like, ‘No, mate, you can’t.’
Dexter: Because you’re 15.
Will: Yeah. ‘You’re 15 years old, You’re not coming anywhere near.’
Dexter: The only day he did some angle grinding was the day we put the machine in his hand.
Will: But one of the best bits of preparation was just being around that area. Dex always said he was keen not to make “a gritty film about the manor”, but the characters are so defined by the area, and their actions are kind of limited by their surroundings. So it was important to be there, soaking it up, experiencing it. Me and Dex just used to go for walks. I like being in costume too. I had a weird day where I got into costume and walked round in it, having a chat.
Dexter: Didn’t we go down to the little shopping centre? The cafe, the tube station… I really enjoyed all that, working that out with Will, because, as I said earlier, when I was a kid, people just left me to get on with it. One of the biggest learning experiences I ever had was when I worked with Mike Leigh, on Topsy Turvy. Because he’s the complete antithesis of that: he’s with you the whole way, you go very deep into your character, and there’s lots of research involved. And I really enjoyed that. That’s one of the exciting and great things about acting. (To Will) You’d love working with him.
Will: I love all that stuff.
Dexter: So it’s great to go and do all that on-the-ground research. Especially as a director; I get a real sense of place and world, and who these characters are.
So it was definitely necessary to do that extra work, Will?
Will: Definitely, it was vital for me. I’m lucky in that I don’t come from a broken home. I have a great relationship with my parents and I live in a totally different world, so it was important to do all that. I would have felt very uncomfortable without that prep. It was nice to test the water.
Dexter: I knew he could swim. It was just about developing different strokes, if you like.
How did you feel about being among Dexter’s cavalcade of co-stars?
Will: (Laughs) Well, I didn’t actually work with Andy Serkis, and I barely worked with Leo Gregory, although I did have a bit of time with Jason Flemyng… But I had to pinch myself, being one of the most inexperienced people on set, sitting in that Green Room – or The Prison Cell, whatever you want to call it – and seeing Jaime Winstone and all those kinds of people.
Dexter: You weren’t there when Olivia Williams was there either, were you? That was only Charlie.
Will: I just feel honoured, so…
Dexter: Will! This is what I was trying to say at the beginning. Look, I appreciate what you’re saying, but when you agreed to do the film, it really helped the film get made – because we had Will Poulter.
Will: (Laughs) I’m just being a film geek and saying that being in a film with all those people was great. Whether I did a scene with them or not. I’m still going to say I’ve worked with Andy Serkis.
Dexter: By that reckoning, I’ve worked with Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud.
Dexter: (Proudly) The Bounty: Olivier. Elephant Man: Gielgud.
But you didn’t see them on set?
Dexter: Look, I’m going by the Will Poulter School Of Reckoning. I’ve worked with fucking amazing people. I’ve worked with Orlando Bloom, loves!
Was Wild Bill a good set for gossip?
Will: There was a lot of banter, wasn’t there? Jason Flemyng’s got the best stories in the world.
Dexter: He is the raconteur.
Will: He’s worked with everyone.
Dexter: Seven degrees of Jason Flemyng. He’s never been in the same film as Olivier, though.
Are there any plans for a sequel?
Dexter: Yeah, it’s gonna be called Dangerous Dean.
Will: (laughs) I’ll be joining the criminal mob, saying, ‘God, I was foolish, Dad.’ I’ll be like, ‘I want to get into selling crack. Let’s get this show on the road.’
So you’re keen to make another one?
Dexter: Yeah. I will. When I find the right thing. I want to do something completely different. It would be easy to retread the same path. And I’d like to work with Will again, very much.