AT THE age of just 24, actor Bill Milner has a long list of roles to his name. Yet his latest project is certainly unlike anything he’s tackled before. The Antipodes, at the National Theatre, tells the story of… well, that’s where things get a bit tricky.
‘I’ve really struggled telling friends and family what this play is about,’ Bill admits. What he can say is that it involves eight people who have been assembled around a table and asked to share stories with each other. A group of people telling a tale about a group of people telling tales?
In that respect, rehearsing it has been ‘the most meta experience ever’, Bill says — and a real mind-scramble. ‘By Friday, you’re like, “Where I am? When am I?”’
The play is written by 38-year-old Annie Baker — a Pulitzer Prize-winner and quietly revolutionary voice in modern theatre — who has had two previous works, The Flick and John, also staged at the National. For this production, Baker is directing her own script, and Bill is effusive both about her distinctive, hyper-naturalistic dialogue, which is full of authentically awkward overlaps and silences, and her generosity when it comes to people interpreting her words. ‘She’ll say, “There’s a line break here or a pause here. Why do you think that is?” She genuinely wants to know your opinion and that’s the most heartwarming thing as an actor.’ Bill has been a recognisable face since the age of 12, when he got a big break with his very first film, taking the lead in quirky British coming-of-age comedy Son Of Rambow.
It was an experience he remembers with fondness. In fact, when he recently bumped into one of the film’s producers, he found himself ‘almost shaking’ with emotion. ‘Because here’s someone, other than my parents, who really changed my life as a child,’ he says.
That calling card led to further main roles on screen opposite the likes of Michael Caine in the comedy-drama Is Anybody There? and Andy Serkis in the Ian Dury biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. But for all such success, his teenage years weren’t always easy, because of the pressure he put himself under.
‘I would go to auditions and not get the part. Then I would find out who did, and think, “Why didn’t I get it?” That’s not a healthy way of looking at it. I was quite a sad person for a few years.’
It was only when Bill did his first professional play, aged 18, that he really learned to enjoy his career, he says. ‘Before that, I was being competitive, because I wanted to do well or be in that film, with that guy. Not really thinking, “do I actually like acting?”’
As well as Caine and Serkis, he has been lucky enough to work with a who’s who of British and Irish acting talent, from Olivia Colman and Rory Kinnear to Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan. Perhaps his most inspiring co-star thus far was the redoubtable Sheila Hancock, when he played her much younger lover in a 2018 theatrical adaptation of the cult 1970s film Harold And Maude. ‘She was doing a play about someone who turned 80 and felt that their life had run its course, yet there she was on stage, at 85, blowing me out of the water. That’s a lovely tale of longevity,’ says Bill.
When it comes to his own generation, meanwhile, he has an intimate circle of actor friends — not least Maisie Williams, aka Game Of Thrones’ Arya Stark. They got to know each other while filming the 2017 Netflix sci-fi thriller iBoy, in which Bill played the eponymous hero, and now they flat-share in east London.
Despite being a big Game Of Thrones fan, he never sought spoilers from Maisie, he says, though she did enjoy winding him up by pretending she had been killed off. ‘She dyed her hair blue and she said, “Well I can do that because I’m not in the show anymore,”’ he recalls, laughing.
He recently dipped his toes into producing with a short film for Channel 4, while he’ll be seen alongside Johnny Depp and Mark Rylance in the JM Coetzee adaptation Waiting For The Barbarians, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September. Among his ambitions, he’d love to follow in the footsteps of his famous flatmate and land a long-running TV series, but he also has a level-headedness about the business that he partly credits to his experience working in a café this summer, during some downtime. ‘I met the nicest people and it took the pressure off. I’m sure that’s why I got this job — because I went in without any anxiety or thinking, “I need this.”’
■ The Antipodes is at the National Theatre until November 23, nationaltheatre.org.uk