As the floppy-armed kid at the center of the fanciful and inventive Son of Rambow, young Bill Milner made a solid impression, conveying the electric charge of a surging imagination. In his latest film, Is Anybody There?, Milner stars opposite Michael Caine‘s curmudgeonly retired magician as Edward, a kid obsessed with what happens to the patrons of his parents’ nursing home when they pass on. I recently spoke by phone with Milner; the conversation is excerpted below:
Brent Simon: You hadn’t acted before Son of Rambow — how did that come to be?
I never said, “I want to be an actor, that’s what I want to do with my
life.” I’d always planned on going to college and living normally, I
guess, but when the opportunity came up it was mad. I didn’t really
know what to expect, but now I’ve definitely been introduced to the
film industry, and I really like it.
BS: Like Son of Rambow, your new film is a period piece, but it’s very different in how it intersects and interacts with its period. Was that interesting to you?
BM: Yeah, David (Morrissey) had the bad haircuit. I think one of the reasons you don’t really notice that the movie is a period piece is because instead of it being about growing up in the 1980s, it’s more about remembering everyone’s life, in the past. So for most of it, it’s a lot about how the residents of the old people’s home lived. Unlike Son of Rambow, it’s more about death and having to learn to let go rather than living and growing up and having fun.
BS: There are actually some intriguing parallels to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, particularly as it relates to the notion of growing up in a nursing home, and the wisdom and knowledge that can be gleaned from older people. In real life, have you had the opportunity and blessing to spend a lot of time with your grandparents, or other older folks?
BM: I never met either of my grandfathers, but during the filming I did understand the idea of Alzheimer’s and going senile. But now, after seeing the movie, I realize it even more, because I have a grandmother that’s going a bit senile, and I think it’s a really important message to get across, what that does. So the movie is approaching a kid’s view on an issue in life in a really different way, which I like.
BS: What sort of hobbies do you have?
BM: Basketball is my favorite sport, and I also like animating a bit. I just recently started that, like stop-motion animation, and I’m really enjoying it. Now that I’ve been introduced to it, I always want to be involved in the film industry.
BS: How did that introduction come to be?
BM: My uncle writes for television. Other than that I really didn’t know much about the film industry. But from straightaway I was interested in not just acting, but other areas too — that’s what’s so great about it, there are so many different parts of the film industry, and all of them are so interesting and fun to explore.
BS: A lot of times, with films that have kids as central characters directors will talk about finding someone who’s just believeable for the role. For you, is there a lot of process, or work on character details, or is it more just about learning about the whole story and how your character fits into it?
BM: I think especially with this script that it was so good that you could really learn a lot from it — there was a lot about the character and what he’d been through, just by reading it. With help from the director, it was very easy to understand how the character was feeling, and the emotions he was going through.
BS: Why do you think Edward is so interested in ghosts, and the paranormal?
BM: Just because that’s what he’s grown up with. Instead of normal kids, playing sports or drawing pictures, he’s used to the morbid side of life. Say if you’re dad was a footballer, you’d be more interested in football; I think he’s interested in it because of the way his parents have brought him up. Most kids only encounter death when they’re 10 or so, or maybe later than that — they still don’t have much knowledge about what happens. But from a young age Edward has been pushed into this lifestyle, and so it’s his curiosity.
BS: Is Anybody There? also features a good bit of magic — did you pick up any fun tricks?
BM: I thought it was great, because loads of kids buy the magic sets and read the books, and get then two pages in and get bored, or they don’t seem to work, or they break. But I think learning these tricks was brilliant. I learned a lot. The disappearing card trick was my favorite; I like it because it’s so simple, and yet effective. Surprisingly, it didn’t take much practice. They said because I was young and still have nimble fingers that I handled it quite easily.
BS: He plays quite a gruff character in the film, but what was Michael Caine like on set, just talking to and hanging out with?
BM: It was quite nerve-racking finding out that you might be working with such a great actor, but when you actually meet him he’s so normal that you get on with him really well. He’s such a natural actor that I always felt really comfortable in his presence.
BS: Did you notice any major differences between [directors] Garth Jennings and John Crowley?
BM: They’re both brilliant directors. I think from Garth’s point-of-view, Son of Rambow was about kids being introduced to new experiences and growing up, and I am a kid growing up, and that was what we were going through at those very moments, so I think he taught us to go wild, and he made us feel really natural. I think John… instead of telling you what to do, he guides you without you really knowing. If there’s an emotional scene to do he’ll talk with you in the corner for just a moment. He understands the script really well and talks you through it. I think going over emotional scenes more than once is tough, and going over them more than four times is just hell. So I do like to know that when we’re about to shoot, you’re really into it, and know exactly what we’re going to do, because if you’re not too sure and you get something wrong it can be hard to go again. But being sad isn’t necessarily the hardest thing to do in acting. It might seem easier to look happy or excited, but it might not be easier to show that on screen, and actually feel that feeling.
BS: Is acting something you’d like to stick with as a career?
BM: In general the film industry is very fun, and I think being involved in any way with that would be great, really.